A library in balance

Two structurally different systems having been brought together, and the rules are very different
In the new Almedal Library on Gotland, public library and university library are being brought together on equal terms. Sometimes you are reminded that libraries can be very much a reflection of our society and the times in which we live. With the newly opened integrated Almedal Library, and all the commotion that preceded its opening, you are tempted to produce your crystal ball – for this combined public and university library is probably a library for the future, but it is also a picture of a society in the process of change.

The visitor coming to the library for the first time is met by a new, modern library – with no hint of conflict. The big glass entrance hall with its characteristic Gotland limestone is beautiful, open and light, although it gives perhaps a rather sparse impression – something which will certainly improve when the café opens shortly. In the entrance hall there is also a section with newspapers – and poetry. It is an unexpected and attractive combination, but the explanation for it is more prosaic that might have been expected. – It was partly a question of giving prominence to what might be termed ‘minority literature’, says the head of the library, Sten Anttila. But one reason is probably also that poetry is less desirable to steal.

Half a floor up and you are into the library itself, with the children’s library just on your left. It is a large and lovely library, with stairs you can sit on,intended for acting and reading out loud. Beyond the children’s library are literature and periodicals,and one floor up is the whole of the reference library.

The Almedal Library is an integrated library to the extent that integration has been taken as far as possible without in any way cutting down on services. All the book stocks, except course literature which is kept separately, have been merged. There is no special university department, and all specialist literature is placed together on the first floor.

The computers are arranged in three categories – those for catalogue access (where it is not possible to sit and study), those for study purposes,and those for surfing. In theory all are available to all users, but the idea is that the right person will be steered towards the right kind of computer. But how does the integrated library work organizationally? Is there a limit to how far one can go as far as integration is concerned?

At Almedal Library it is still very much a case of virgin ground. Sten Anttila stresses again and again that they are playing it by ear all the time. It is not possible to apply the same model as the one in Härnösand.

- I had a temporary post at Härnösand when the merger of libraries was being planned there, but you can never copy a model straight off. What I learned was how to handle a model psychologically. For instance, in Härnösand we were terribly tired and a bit depressed immediately after the opening, and it is that phase we find ourselves in just now.

The main difference between Härnösand and the Almedal Library is that in Härnösand there are three library heads, while Sten Anttila in Visby is the single head of both the public library and the research library. He thus has two employers and two responsible authorities – the state and the local authority.When asked what that is like, the answer comes quickly: – It is tough. Extremely difficult. Anyone who has done it will understand that. It is awkward both organizationally and legally. It is not a question of two structurally different systems having been brought together, but that the rules are very different. It takes a great deal of communication between bosses at different levels. The advantage of Gotland is that it is so small that you can get an overview more easily.

The concept of integration is not an ‘either/or’ one, says Sten Anttila.What comes closest to integration is total merger, and the idea that is furthest away from it is just sharing the same premises. – Somewhere in between comes the concept of coordinating – you are in the same building but you respect each other’s work. It is important to remember that integration is not the same thing as a merger. There are clear limits to how far you can integrate,says Sten Anttila. They have to do with the legislation,labour law and economics. For obvious reasons the budgets must be kept quite separate. – But certain budget entries cannot be kept apart and in those cases you have to decide on standard formulae.

Where labour law is concerned, there are still some questions to be resolved. Any member of staff at Almedal comes either under the state or under the local authority (all except Sten Anttila, who is employed by both). The rules vary to a certain extent, for example, when it comes to allowances for unsociable hours and hours of work.

- Adapting contracts is the hardest nut to crack. The conditions are so different, and university staff usually have better conditions of employment than local authority employees. They are difficult to harmonize,and it is this sort of thing that can create schisms. But the will to find solutions is there at all levels – the responsible authorities, the unions and the staff.

Sten Anttila still has an optimistic view of the chances of solving the problems. Both his authorities have shown a good deal of generosity, he says. He also stresses that there have been considerably fewer internal conflicts than he expected. Under Sten Anttila there is a library council with representatives of the two authorities. Moreover, the staff are divided into two teams of librarians and assistants from both the public library and the university library side.

Each team has a group leader and their main jobs, among others, are to develop the library environment, “Creating a library environment is a kind of science” as is working out the rotas. The idea is for people in the two groups to teach each other about the areas of work and methods in the respective types of library. For the time being, however, the specialist functions of the public library and the university library respectively, will be maintained. Where acquisitions are concerned, the routines are still not quite decided.

- It is a matter of two different cultures. On the public library side there is the aspiration to know the contents of the books, to be able to talk about them with the users. For the research library side the content is less interesting, to put it rather bluntly. You rely more on the lecturers and requests. An interlibrary loan turns into a suggestion for purchase. The staff have joint authority to sign – there are two signatories on every purchase, one from the public library side and one from the university library side. They discuss who will buy what and how the cost is to be divided, and in this way they avoid duplicates being bought. The user sees no difference since the books are all kept together.

- But the fact that the borderlines have been rubbed out between the public library and the university library does not mean that either type of library has exhausted its role. When recently recruiting two people Almedal Library stressed the importance of experience of a university library or universityinfluenced library. Sten Anttila thinks it is easier for a new person who is well acquainted with libraries’ role in education to feel secure in the work of integration. Besides,among the staff there are still fewer people and they have less work experience on the university library side than on the public library side.

- For integration to work it is important to understand who is your boss. Then the borderlines are easier to distinguish, and you are more secure in the work of integration.When the plans to bring together the university library and the public library were agreed upon,a furious debate broke out on Gotland – a debate which went on for a long time and involved several different levels. It was town against country – old public library tradition of popular enlightenment against a utilitarian ‘education society’. Differences in class and social st ructures came to light.

The row produced a book and a master’s thesis. But why did the merger provoke such strong feelings?

- There were several factors. One is to do with social st ructure and the gulf between town and country on Gotland, which became a catalyst for political aggravation. But perhaps the most im – portant factor was the site. From the point of view of cultural milieu the library is well placed today, but from the business point of view it is rather a long way from the centre of town. That is a fact.We have tried buses, but the journey takes time. My hope is that when people do make the journey they will be staying longer. For an outsider the problem is a little difficult to understand – after all no distances are that long in Visby, and the library is so beautifully situated, with the often very deep blue sea right outside. However, many people, not least older people, find the road to the library a bit too steep, and many visitors and staff say that the bus service is still far from being frequent enough.

However, some of the criticisms have been about the integration itself. Many feared that the university side would ‘eat up’ the public library side and stifle the local authority objectives. – But how far the local authority succeeds in its objectives is a matter of finance.Matters would have been worse if one side had been better off financially than the other, but in this case the financial situation o f both is fairly bad. Both sides have to have a ‘crisis awareness’. Today the conflict has subsided considerably, and Sten Anttila says that he has learned a lot from it. – I learned what is important here. If this debate had not taken place I would not, for instance, put so much energy into the bus service. And I am more conscious of the risk of one of my bosses steamrollering the other. Now we have to look for-ward and bring together two ways of working which are still quite different.

- Many routines are still new to all of us, but all the new questions that come up are interesting and exciting, says Kerstin Danielsson, a librarian from the public library side who is ‘very happy’ there. Change takes time, but the prognosis looks good.

Translation Eve Johansson

Both sides have to have a ‘crisis awareness’

Postscript
The Almedal Library was opened on 1 September 2001,and is an integrated public and university library. It comes under two authorities – the state and the local authority. In this interview the head of the library, Sten Anttila,says that he is optimistic about getting them to work together. He did,however, choose to leave his post on 31.January 2002. Today the library operates with a temporary solution, with two heads, but the hope is that in due course there will be one head of the library and one responsible authority.

The Härnösand Library which is mentioned in the article was opened in February 2000 and is three libraries in one – public,county and university library have been brought together under one roof,but keep their three respective heads.

The article was first published in Biblioteksbladet 2001:10.

Journalist.