A changing library scene

Anyone looking at a survey of Norwegian municipalities cannot fail to notice the high number of small units. In fact the small municipalities (less than 5,000 inhabitants) considerably outnumber those of any significant size, and this sparse distribution of the population has affected the development of public services. As elsewhere in Scandinavia, many public services are the responsibility of the local authorities and this includes the public library sector. The Norwegian Library Act requires all municipalities to have a public library and although the Act allows for two or more municipalities to share this responsibility, little use has been made of this concession. In many municipalities with a small population there can be a large number of schools, several branch libraries and many community centres. For example, the 244 municipalities with less than 5,000 inhabitants have altogether a total of 490 main libraries and branch libraries, an average of two public libraries per municipality. A natural consequence is that the vast majority of these libraries are small units and even where the municipal authorities are willing to expend a significant amount per head of the population,the library budget remains at a very modest level.

Changes and challenges
Norwegian municipalities are,however, undergoing a change. There is a significant population migration from the more remote municipalities to the larger towns and their surrounding regions. Even within the individual municipalities there is a growing trend towards living nearer the municipal centres. Communications are also under constant development with bridges and tunnels connecting islands to the main traffic network.Where previously there were mountains to be crossed and the danger of possible landslides, tunnels are being built and the overall road standard continually improved. Consequently a greater concentration within each individual municipality is taking place. School districts combine and pupils are transported by bus. Small neighbourhood shops disappear as the stores in more central areas expand.

A similar trend is evident in the public library sector. During the period 1991 – 2000 the number of public libraries fell from 1218 to 1005, and this development has accelerated during the past 4-5 years. This is to be regarded as a necessary and natural development. If libraries are to be more than just for the lending of popular books, efforts must be concentrated on fewer units.

This concentration of services within each individual municipality must be considered a step in the right direction, but if Norway is to offer modern library services to all parts of the country, there must also be a readiness to consider solutions across municipal borders. It is true that some municipalities have merged in recent years, but by and large there has been little change in the overall structure. One of the challenges of today is to achieve more inter-municipal co-operation. In many places an improvement in communications in recent years and the changes in population distribution have opened up the possibility of several municipalities solving their problem by sharing their library services.Elsewhere it might be advantageous for a large municipality to sell its library services to one or more smaller, neighbouring municipalities, thus enabling the latter to retain their own libraries in the form of branch libraries. These ideas are not new to Norwegian library policy but previously there was only limited interest. Nowadays there is much greater pressure from users, who expect a comprehensive and well-developed library service. In other words the public today demands that libraries should be much more than a mere collection of books. Such libraries, however, require an adequate population basis and they need considerable resources.

Two choices
Municipalities have in fact only two choices. The first is to maintain today’s decentralised library structure with many small libraries offering only limited services with regard to their collections, opening hours, qualified staff and access to new media and the latest technology. The second alternative is to co-operate with other municipalities in the development of large regional libraries, centrally situated and providing all the services one expects nowadays from a well-equipped library. Both alternatives will have their supporters and their critics among the general population. Provided, however, it is made quite clear that these are the only two choices available, I believe that the majority will prefer a wellequipped library with a wide range of services, even though many inhabitants may have to travel quite a long way. Nowadays the question of greater intermunicipal co-operation is high on the political agenda, both within local and central government. I therefore believe that we are entering a period of considerable change in the lib rary sector.

director, Nordbok.