Librarians as Adult Educators

A Brief & Incomplete Canadian History.

Since their inception, public libraries have been more than buildings containing books to be borrowed and read. Often referred to as “the people’s university” (Adams, Krolak, Kupidura, & Pahernik, 2002, p. 32; Irving & Adams, 2012, para. 18; Knowles, 1976, p. 43; Martin, 1955, p. 10), public libraries “perform a more complex function in society by supporting literacy, social action, and lifelong learning” (Adams, 2005, p. 367) acting as essential locations where adult learning takes place. At the forefront of libraries has been the librarian, playing an influential role in adult education and one that is constantly evolving.

Focusing on the role of the librarian — as a professional and an often-contested adult educator — in the fostering of adult learning, I have identified common themes found among the literature reviewed. As a framework against which these themes can be loosely contextualized, recognizing that themes may flow from one period to the next, I draw from the work of Welton (2013) to consider the themes across a period of roughly one hundred years beginning with the year of Canada’s Confederation.

Concerned primarily with the North American setting, literature reviewed includes historic and academic texts published between 1928 and 2012 focusing on libraries, librarians, and adult education. Considering the literature more broadly, I will provide a brief synopsis of gaps which currently exist and where new contributions to the study of public libraries, librarians and adult education could be focused.

The Age of the Great Transformation (1800-1929)

As Canada was gaining its independence and establishing the foundation of a new identity, libraries were already playing a central role in developing a more informed citizenry as their roles evolved in communities across the country. Both historical and academic texts pay attention to the availability of learning sites and access to information for both the elite and the common man. By the end of the century with university extension programs and organizations like the Mechanics’ Institute becoming more accessible, opportunities for adults to engage in learning through library programming slowly became more readily available (Adams, 2005; Welton, 2013). With this shift librarians found themselves supporting study clubs, book mobiles, portable ‘book boxes’, the mailing of books, traveling libraries, and small independent collections (Adams, 2005; Adams et al., 2002; American Library Association, 1934; Bateson, 1944; Horning, 2010; Irving & Adams, 2012; Kelly, 1970; Martin, 1955; McNally, 1986).

Literature concerned with libraries during this period tends to focus on the tools and methods used for early information delivery and portray librarians as purveyors of knowledge. As the availability of books and information shifted, with the opening of institutions for broader public access, libraries started to be more often recognized as sites for the development of the individual and support of social change and as a result, a new role for the librarian emerged (Adams et al., 2002; Irving & Adams, 2012).

With the arrival of the twentieth century “libraries were part of an awakening consciousness” (Adams et al., 2002, p. 31) across the broader Canadian society (Welton, 2013). Becoming beacons for community learning, libraries offered access to knowledge for everyone, especially the adult learner and those in more rural areas (American Library Association, 1934; Bateson, 1944; Kelly, 1970; Martin, 1955; Taylor, Parrish, & Banz, 2010; Tomkins & Bateson, 1936; Wilson, 2008) with librarians often playing the role of “chief liaison officer” (Kelly, 1970, p. 148). As the demand for access to information and services increased so did the activity of librarians. With many focused on the ongoing development of their institutions to provide resources and services where they were most needed, local librarians started to use their voice to be heard, advocating for the more active role of libraries in the learning of the common person (Tompkins & Bateson, 1936; Bateson, 1944). Available literature in the Canadian context often focuses on the roles of Nora Bateson, Helen Gordon Stewart and Sr. Marie Michael MacKinnon — three strong female librarians — with the emphasis on both social change and adult education roles (Adams et al., 2002; Irving & Adams, 2012). Aside from the profiles of these women, information focusing specifically on the role of the librarian in relation to adult education is lacking and often needs to be derived from anecdotal accounts of writings focused primarily on libraries in general.

Adult Learning and the Crisis of Democracy (1929-1960)

As Canada moved with the rest of the world from a period of prosperity to one characterised by depression, war and inflation, the public library system saw rapid growth across the country. Along with the changing demands to core library resources and services, the role of the librarian evolved with the needs of the learner (Martin, 1955; Wilson, 2008).

At the beginning of the depression there was significant investment by the Carnegie Corporation into the creation of “demonstration libraries” across Canada requiring librarians to evolve the role they filled in both their workplace and broader community (Adams et al., 2002; American Library Association, 1934; Bateson, 1944; Irving & Adams, 2012; Tompkins & Bateson, 1936). In addition to being agents of social change librarians became figures in the political spectrum as advocates for funding, facilitators of community partnerships, and were required to provide “recreation, information, and a means towards real education” (Tompkins & Bateson, 1936, para. 10). This temporary influx of funds meant that librarians now had the resources upon which to develop special departments for adult education (Compton, 1928) and provide increased access to the populations most in need (Martin, 1955). Unfortunately, given the temporary nature of this funding librarians’ attention in the years to follow would be divided between serving those seeking out information and knowledge, and advocating for new and sustainable sources of funding.

As the depression continued, libraries became a place for individuals to find cheap sources of entertainment, access to education, the means to increase one’s employability (Martin, 1955), and to access government programming which put people “to work on socially useful projects” (American Library Association, 1934, p. 298). The shift in services and support individual librarians offered and their approach to engaging with the public began to develop into a point of contention for many. Historical and academic texts reveal a clear division between those who believe librarians should play a more social change role in society as an educator, and others who believed that the librarian should be a professionalized role focused on providing access to information and separate from the function of an educator (Adams et al., 2002; Kelly, 1970).

This division would remain as new funding for adult education would come-and- go into the 1950’s (Knowles, 1976) and as prominent global ideologies would help to inform, shape and question the role of libraries in a new world (Martin, 1955). Most of the effort and the modest gains made over the proceeding 25 years did not result in a system that appeared to have progressed much in comparison (Martin, 1955) and while still serving the adult learner, the role of the librarian remained unclear.

Adult Learning Under Siege in a Disordered World (1960+)

The 1960’s saw the move from a long period of global war recovery into one characterized by competing ideologies and intolerance for a wide selection ideas and views (Martin, 1955). During this time, libraries remained as a place where people could come together to freely access ideas and knowledge, with The Adult Education Act in the United States of America underscoring “libraries roles in adult education, fostering greater inclusiveness and dedicating resources toward basic adult literacy services and programs” (Taylor et al., 2010, p. 328).

Libraries continued to work with community groups, a common theme since their inception (American Library Association, 1934; Compton, 1928; Horning, 2010; Wilson, 2008), making efforts to extend their services to marginalized groups such as the poor and immigrant populations particularly through literacy programs (Horning, 2010). The role of the library gradually shifted to more of a resources centre or “community intelligence centre” (Martin, 1955, p. 9) focused on community and group structured learning (Adams et al., 2002; Martin, 1955), and with this shift the role of both student and teacher started to be redefined (Knowles, 1976).

Librarians began to play a more instructional centred role evolving from one focused on the function of providing reference services (Taylor et al., 2010). Acting as a facilitator for adult learning (Knowles, 1976) and becoming a resource person (Adams et al., 2002), the librarian served “as both a vital link to community information resources and as an active agent in structuring learning experience” (Adams, 2005, p. 367). Although the role of the librarian shifted during this period it remained unclear their formal place in adult education. Since 1960 adult education has been less central to the purpose of the national library movement (Knowles, 1976) and in many ways the question of the librarian as an identified adult educator is unclear as ever.

As the century neared its end there were renewed connections between adult educators and librarians in their support of adult learning. With libraries “viewing themselves not only as venues for learning but as agents in the process” (Adams, 2005, p. 368) there was in many ways what appeared to be a cycle coming to completion around libraries, librarians, and their role in adult education.

Literature Gaps

As literature searches were conducted and works reviewed, gaps in the existing knowledge based were identified related to both the availability and focus on research pertaining to libraries and their influence on adult learning. First, there appears to be a lack of focus on aboriginals in context to libraries and adult education. Both historical and contemporary literature reviewed failed to refer to aboriginal, indigenous, or native connections to libraries or librarians in North American activities. While a common problem with much of the literature which looks at Canada’s past, more effort should be made to draw attention to this important element of history.

Next, there appears to be a lack of attention given to discussing the role of the librarian as an adult educator in contemporary literature. Scholars have noted that research concerned with educators in non-formal learning settings has not been plentiful (Taylor, 2006; Taylor et al., 2010) and that the role librarians have played in the historical development of adult education has been often overlooked (Adams, 2005). While scholars such as Irving and Adams (2012) are paying attention to specific individual contributions to the profession, by providing a historical perspective, the study of librarians in adult education could benefit from increased attention.

Last of all, given the nature of libraries — as institutions that contain a wealth of knowledge on every conceivable topic — it comes as a surprise that there is little to no research or in-depth accounts published regarding the history of libraries in Canada (McNally, 1986). While there certainly have been some more recent publications to date regarding libraries as an educational institution (Adams, 2005; Buschman & Leckie, 2007; Taylor, 2006; Taylor, Parrish, & Banz, 2010; Wilson, 2008), considering the important role libraries play in the stewarding of information, knowledge, and history, it seems that greater documentation and understanding of the development of libraries over time and their role in adult education should be present.


It is true that “the public library has no rigid definition of education” (Tompkins & Bateson, 1936, para. 4) and as such it needs to be flexible and responsive to the communities it serves. Tasked with meeting the needs of a constantly changing society, librarians and the institutions they operate have shifted their expertise, focus, and approach to serving their communities over the course of a century.

While some attention has been given to the role of the librarian as an adult educator there are still gaps in the available literature. Both historical and academic fields would be served well to direct attention to the aboriginal context as well as provide a more direct account of the role of the librarian as an adult educator.