The 7th International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII) provided a great opportunity to talk about the essential role of libraries in making a reality of the right of all to education and lifelong learning, and to encourage governments and other stakeholders alike to place libraries at the heart of partnerships.

Taking place under the theme ‘Adult learning and education for sustainable development: a transformative agenda’, this conference takes place only once every twelve years, providing an opportunity to take stock, set priorities, and establish modalities for tracking progress.

As the only edition to take place during the course of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)), it was also an opportunity to make the connection between adult learning and education (ALE), and broader global efforts to promote economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability.

Given the essential role of libraries in providing and supporting ALE – indeed, in many countries the historical development of public and community libraries and the promotion of lifelong learning are one and the same thing –  IFLA was present in order to help ensure that the potential of our institutions is recognised and realised.

Lifelong learning in libraries delivering on SDG priorities

The highlight of IFLA’s participation was a side-event, organised in partnership with the library at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.

Under the title ‘In Substance and in Spirit: Delivering on the SDGs through lifelong learning in libraries’, it brought together practitioners from four continents to draw conclusions and learn lessons about how libraries can contribute to ALE.

Lara Pugh, Learning City Coordinator at Wollongong City Libraries, Australia, talked about her work to convene different relevant players in order to develop a more structured approach, promote planning and evaluation, and bid for official Learning City status. Libraries’ existing role in this space, including in reaching out to more vulnerable groups such as refugees, made them a natural federator.

Zulkifli Amin, Adult and Senior Services Coordinator at the National Library Board, Singapore, set out the exciting and innovative range of activities going on in Singapore. Drawing on a dense network, the library had identified priorities closely linked to wider government goals, and developed programming that delivered on these, ranging from health promotion to information literacy.

Miguel Angel Rivera Donosa and Bernardita Simian Marin, from the Biblioredes Network, Ministry of Culture, Arts and National Heritage, explained how prison libraries, through supporting learning in one of the toughest environments around, were making a difference to lives. They highlighted the potential of libraries not just as providers of content for consumption, but also as places of creativity and wider realisation of potential.

Lisa Krolak, Chief Librarian at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, summarised experience, underlining the unique role that libraries can play in partnerships, representing a pre-existing network that is known and understood by communities, and given that they can also plan for the longer term, building relations with and an understanding of their communities.

Towards a stronger recognition of libraries in ALE planning

Beyond the side-event, participation at the Conference provided opportunities to engage with national delegates and other stakeholders, as well as UNESCO officials.

As highlighted in research published by IFLA in advance of the Conference, while a number of countries have formally recognised the contribution that libraries can make in national strategies for ALE, there is plenty of room for improvement.

It was nonetheless clear in many interventions that libraries are highly valued – as resource centres, as learning spaces, as providers, and as participants in policy planning. Indeed, the closing summary of the conference highlighted the key points made in the IFLA side-event, while other participants were keen to work more with our institutions.

Similarly, the Marrakesh Framework for Action – the official outcome document of the Conference – references libraries. See our overview of these references in our separate news piece.

In the coming months, IFLA will therefore be working to help its members make the most both of the materials published around CONFINTEA VII, as well as to explain how to get involved in the follow-up process, and ensure that the potential of our institutions to contribute to ALE goals is not lost.

We are very grateful in particular to the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning’s Library for their support in enabling effective participation at the Conference.