Integrating Learning, Research, and Practice: Findings from a MLS Community Engagement Project on Public Library Services for Older Adults



Intent: To generate new knowledge about library services for older adults as a class exercise in community engagement as part of a new course, “Older Adults’ Information Needs, Behavior, and Resources,” as part of the “Lifelong Access Concentration” in the MLS program of the University of Maryland first taught in the spring of 2007.



Scope: Past, current, and future library services and barriers to library services for older adults from the point of view of both library administrators/staff and older adult patrons.



Research Questions: 1) To what extent are public library administrators and staff aware of – and willing or able to accommodate – the special needs of older adults? 2) What types of services do libraries provide to older adults? 3) What are the major barriers to library services for older adults? 4) What are the information needs, behaviors, and sources of older adults? 5) How and why do older adults use – or not-use – computers for – what type(s) of – information? and 6) What are older adults’ experiences with, perceptions of, and expectations for information sources available at libraries?



Methods: Semi-structured interviews with thirteen library administrators and staff members, survey of twenty-six older adult library patrons (age 65-85), and approximately eight hours of observation at three public libraries in Maryland conducted by students in the course and structured and supervised by the instructor.



Research Findings: 1) none of the libraries had much understanding of or concern about the needs of community-dwelling, healthy, active older adults, or any solid plans to improve their services to older adults; 2) the most common types of library services for older adults were those that targeted primarily handicapped, frail patrons (e.g., talking books and home delivery services); and 3) negative stereotypes about older age, a lack of awareness of the needs of healthy, active older adults, and inadequate financial resources were major barriers to library services for older adults; 4) older adult participants at all three libraries favored entertainment and leisure information, and this seemed to be the case regardless of the participant’s gender; 5) most of the older adult participants from all three libraries used computers and the Internet regularly, despite the stereotype that older adults are “afraid” of technology; and 6) older adult participants were generally satisfied with the information services the libraries provided, although some of them mentioned various barriers to their information-seeking behavior, including access issues, and in the case of one library, the presence of unruly teenagers.



Significance & Relationship with the Conference Theme: The findings can advance understanding of the needs of older adults and improve public library services for the rapidly aging population. By combining the expertise of faculty, students, librarians, and users, this project reveals ways for students to connect classroom learning with community engagement, and for faculty members to combine research with teaching and to engage with communities by framing studies around local knowledge.