Librarians – the unsung heroes of digitalisation

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I am not sure if it has occurred to anyone, but Estonians are not, in fact, born with a unique digital gene. You know, the one that would somehow justify the development of our very advanced digital society. A digital nation, if you will, where 99% of the public services are online. And where people obtain and use government-issued electronic IDs, sign contracts digitally, and i-vote as a norm. 

It’s not an ability transferred to us with breast milk. We have had to work for it. Yes, it was definitely complicated and time-consuming, but we didn’t toss the mission aside just because it was difficult to achieve.

Innovation and digitalisation are only partly technological and primarily human, meaning it is less of an art of coding and more a vision-based leadership and change management.

Digitalisation involves a change in habits, just like any transformation, and this process requires leadership and guidance to give people the tools and motivation to make the change happen.

From weird to doable

People’s mindset shift from the proposed change to forming new behaviour requires getting across three simple understandings – that a) this weird change could turn out to be a very normal process, it will b) deliver benefits and be rewarding for me, and c) it’s not so complicated and I, too, can do it!

This is where all the public and private stakeholders come in to help make the shift happen. When Estonia started the digitalisation route, it also claimed responsibility to launch technological solutions and digital services and help people obtain essential ICT skills and raise awareness on the topic.

Learning happens in public squares and private companies

Raising awareness and teaching people to use digital tools was and continue to be a common goal. Private companies joined the initiative to train their employees in primary computer and information literacy skills, and universities included ICT in all their professional studies; similarly, as a foreign language requirement, knowledge in ICT became unavoidable to graduate.

Also, the Tiger Leap program was launched by the government in 1996 to modernise the education system by providing all schools with computers and internet connections and delivering basic teacher training and native-language electronic courseware.

Different public institutions endlessly introduced new digital services and how to use them by providing courses or simply setting up tents on city squares and parks to answer all the doubts and questions people might have.

Many of the courses and assisting activities continue to this day. In 2018, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication launched a training project that was carried out by the Estonian National Library and BCS Koolitus firm with a budget of over half a million Euros to enhance digital literacy for 6000 participants.

According to the most recent statistics, approximately 2000 librarians across Estonia daily consult and train their patrons. Libraries are one of the key stakeholders in bringing these digital literacy skills to regular people through these training projects funded by the state.

Librarians to the rescue

But not only that. The COVID pandemic created more needs than only digital signing or support of how to declare taxes. Librarians came to help to teach people how to use the warning application HOIA, how to order from e-pharmacies or grocery stores, and how to find relevant crisis information from the Health Board’s web page. 

“In collaboration with Information Systems Authority (RIA), the Estonian Librarians Association raised awareness about cyber threats and phone scams with courses provided in both Estonian and Russian,” said Reet Olevsoo, the Manager of the Estonian Librarians Association Bureau.

Lifelong learning of digital skills

The role of librarians has been tremendous in providing practical, daily assistance in public libraries across the country to help people get accustomed to using e-services. From my personal experience as a former library consultant, I can assure you – these programs are helpful and reach the intended population. I had patrons needing full 1:1 attention the first year; they started to declare the taxes online, the second year, returned to me for assistance just in case they made a mistake, then in the third year not book an appointment anymore because they had learned the process and could manage on their own. Getting accustomed and gaining the skills might be a lengthy road, but it is gratifying.

Technological changes happen faster than the public sector can keep up, which is why constant training is required. For libraries to become an extensive support network for the information society, the state needs to continue the actions so far – provide budget and collaboration so librarians in every corner of Estonia can provide quality and up-to-date courses on digital literacy.

However, not only librarians but civil servants in all state authorities need upkeep in digital skills and cyber hygiene. That’s why the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications partnered up with Tallinn Technical University (TalTech) and launched Digital State Academy – virtual free courses available (highly suggested, even) to civil servants on various critical topics concerning digital state and e-governance. The courses include Digital State, Data, AI, Design of e-Services, and Integrity of e-Services. Digital State Academy was the first training course I signed for after I started working as a Digital Transformation Adviser.

The key messages when I talk about inclusiveness in digital state and e-services:

  • Functional technological solutions are needed, but that’s the beginning and not the end of the digital transformation process;
  • Raising people’s awareness that e-services are something they, too, can use is essential to emphasise;
  • The state needs to provide means (budget and collaboration) to key stakeholders (and that includes librarians!)  to teach people important ICT and information literacy skills. The public sector cannot step back and wait for the people to figure the process out on their own;
  • Give it time to be implemented. No change will happen overnight!

Speakers’ Corner is an article series where the e-Estonia Digital Transformation advisers talk about the digital society and their personal experiences related to using public e-services. 

Written by
Erika Piirmets

digital transformation adviser at the e-estonia briefing centre


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