BiMIN – Library co-operation in Northern Scandinavia

The county of Troms in the north of Norway has a population of about 150,000 distributed throughout 25 municipalities. Three of these – Tromsø, Harstad and Lenvik – are urban municipalities with more than 10,000 inhabitants. The remainder have an average population of about 2,500. The municipal library units are small with few staff resources and there has been a great need for closer co-operation. The county has various kinds of inter-municipal library co-operation; for example, four municipalities in North Troms which share a children’s librarian and the libraries in Outer Troms which co-operate on a regional basis.

District development and the network solution
The co-operation which is the subject of this article has just started and has its origin in brutal reality – the population migration from the outlying districts of Norway. These municipalities are the losers in today’s information society. If the regions are to develop trade and industry and strong public initiatives, it is essential that they main – tain the same level of expertise as the towns.One way to achieve this aim is for regional municipalities to join together and create their own networks for adult and further education in cooperation with training colleges and universities. This is precisely what certain regional towns and municipalities in the north of Norway and Sweden have done by establishing the information network MIN (“Midt i Norden”). Today there are 13 towns and municipalities participating in MIN. Seven of these are situated in the county of Troms, four in the other northerly Norwegian counties, Finnmark and Nordland, and the remaining two in Northern Sweden. More municipalities are expected to join.

MIN is a formalised agreement on cooperation intended to provide the towns and municipalities concerned with the following advantages:

  • Improved access to specialist programmes (courses and education)
  • An innovative learning system better suited to small towns and municipalities
  • Cost-effective solutions to improving levels of competence
  • Closer contacts within the education system, research, technology and telecommunications.

Network learning
MIN is based on two fundamental principles. All towns shall have a local learning resource centre and these shall be organised in a network. Building on this foundation the complete MIN network aims to develop partnerships with educational suppliers, technological and telecommunication companies, research centres, etc. Today this co-operation provides access to about 70 courses of education at training college level.

Each learning resource centre must have a good local environment, learning support and the necessary infrastructure. The main aim is to create centres providing a stimulus to learning and development. A learning centre shall be a source of inspiration and a meeting place for those who seek to widen their knowledge.

Each centre shall have PC-equipment and facilities for video conferences. These learning resource centres are connected to a 2 Mbit/s network offering access to the Internet and also to lectures and shared dialogue with teachers in real time, together with other educational services. Plans are in the making to upgrade the system to a minimum 4 Mbit/s. At present there is a mixture of IP-based and ISDN-based video communication. Given a broader bandwidth the whole concept will gradually become IP-based. This type of facility requires ‘genuine broadband’, if the service is to be of high quality and wide coverage. Great attention is paid to the networking system between the local learning centres. Since each individual local environment is small, the planning and carrying out of initiatives must disregard municipal borders, thus reducing the pain threshold for the number of participants at each centre. The result is courses and training with few participants at each user centre in a groupbased learning model. MIN has entered into binding agreements with a number of different institutions in the educational field (training colleges,universities, etc.) which are prepared to invest in the development of skills in outlying, regional areas. All participants contribute their resources to each course of training, thereby guaranteeing each learning resource centre equal access to professional teaching and qualified pedagogues.

The role of the library
Troms county library’s project, BiMiN, will initially embrace selected municipal libraries in the form of a pilot project under the auspices of MIN. Towns and municipalities are geographically spread across the county and their libraries are typically small and thinlybased with from 0,4 to 1,5 man-years per unit. Brensholmen is situated in the local school, where the MIN project has established a digital classroom and an adjoining study area. The municipalities of Gratangen, Lavangen and Salangen have also set up digital classrooms with equipment for video conferences. These learning arenas are not situated in the library, but both Salangen and Lavangen have good library premises with access to study rooms and PC-equipment for adults taking further education courses. In Skjervøy the learning resource centre shares the same premises as the library. The two last municipalities, Bjarkøy and Ibestad, are still at the planning stage. In Bjarkøy the learning resource centre will become part of the library, where already today there are good facilities for study, while Ibestad will place its centre in premises right next to the library.

An important principle is for each MIN-centre to have a responsible person in charge – the local advisory resource. The process is now underway to appoint local people who can be offered a work and development platform for the exchange of ideas, resources and methods. In Skjervøy, Brensholmen and Bjarkøy the local librarian has been given this responsibility, a solution which may well be repeated elsewhere.

This arrangement has considerable environmental and operating benefits and is one of the reasons for wishing in the long term to house the local learning centres and the libraries together on the same premises, as far as this is possible. The BiMiN project will provide experience as to how librarians succeed as local resource persons and will mean that both the libraries and the librarians will acquire a more prominent role in raising the level of regional competence.

Library services – a precondition for good learning resource centres
As I have attempted to show, MIN has identified three cornerstones for any system aimed at improving levels of competence. These are the learning environment, the learning programmes on offer and the availability of support. Good library resources and varied library services are comparable preconditions for the establishment of stimulating learning arenas locally. On its own each library is too small to develop new services or to create a profile for itself on the network. By working together, however, they will be able to play a significant role in MIN. Interlibrary co-operation will both widen and improve the services available. The aim is to provide adults who take advantage of the courses and educational programmes offered by the MIN project with the best possible library services in their home municipality. In the longer term this will benefit all further education students in regional areas of Norway.

The project is based on mutual interest. The libraries wish to make good use of the MIN-network while at the same time MIN would like to develop the learning resource centres and the study environment closely associated with the libraries. The project will enable us to turn each individual library into a useful local centre of learning and at the same time establish permanent collaboration between the MINlibraries by means of the technology and educational tools at MIN’s disposal.

Another important task is to establish and develop co-operation with the libraries at the educational institutions which are partners in the MIN p roject and which offer their courses and teaching through the MIN-network. For many of our students these libraries represent the most important source of literature and information. It is essential to enter into agreements with these institutions and also with MIN in order to ensure that the needs of students can be met by their local library and the institutional libraries working together.

How to co-operate?
Developing satisfactory, practical cooperation between libraries is no simple task, when they are spread across a wide geographical area.We know that a prerequisite for successful professional co-operation is that each individual person is given a role to play and understands the value of co-operation. Another equally important condition is that people have the opportunity to become acquainted and to meet regularly. The BiMiN project will introduce set times on a specific electronic meeting place with access to a discussion forum, document management, a meetings calendar and similar features. The libraries will make use o f the excellent opportunities offered by the MIN project for the use of video conference equipment. Physical meetings will also be necessary, usually in connection with courses and seminars.

The virtual MIN-library
MIN has its own Internet site with both external and internal pages, although unfortunately only in Norwegian (http://www.midtinorden.no). A separate library portal will be created on the site with a view to eventually developing a virtual MIN-library. This portal will enable the libraries collectively to offer a wider range of services to all users. Students will be able to search in the catalogues, order material through distance lending and take advantage of electronic access to curriculum literature and other sources of information. Lectures, compendiums and other literature available in electronic form will also be accessible. All library bases are to be laid out on the Internet and made open to search.

The general public will be able to place orders for distance lending or seek other help directly from the county library. For some students this will be easier than dealing with their local library or an institutional library. It will also provide a picture of borrowing needs and enhance the ability of the county library to purchase according to demand. Co-operation with libraries in educational institutions – the seamless library – will also be marketed on the library portal.

The portal will have its own library watch in the form of a chat-site restricted to the MIN-area. This type of communication will offer the general public the opportunity of ‘talking’ to a library employee who knows what the MIN-project has to offer. It will also make the libraries themselves more familiar with the new electronic tools and promote library co-operation. A duty roster will be compiled to ensure that there is always somebody on watch, although the need for ‘back-up’ must also be kept in mind. Not all library employees will have the confidence to tackle this situation from day one and it will be a comfort for them to know that somebody more experienced can, if necessary, join in the conversation. The county library’s distance lending department will also participate in this library watch.

The need to raise the level of competence
Co-operation with MIN implies a closer connection between traditional library services and the use of libraries for educational purposes. In order to develop the libraries into genuine learning resource centres, it is essential to improve the expertise and knowledge of library staff with regard to guidance for adults. In some places the librarian will also be MIN’s local representative, which means that he or she must assume new and wider responsibilities with regard to the presentation of study courses, following up students and introducing new initiatives. The BiMiN library project will therefore offer library staff a special MIN-course in guidance pedagogy for adults. In this way the librarians will gain a concrete advantage from their municipality’s participation in MIN.

If the MIN-libraries are to succeed as learning resource centres, I believe it is vital for the librarians involved to be aware of their role in the project and to acquire a feeling of fellowship, a sort of MIN-identity. In addition they must also come to terms with working in the project, since such work is demanding and can be seen as a threat to one’s daily duties. The project will therefore commence with an opening seminar to discuss these problems.

Satisfaction and access for the students
The aim is for the libraries to become good arenas of learning. In order that adult students should feel at ease and able to use the library as a place of study, both as groups and as individuals, the library will have to be tailored to their particular needs.

In addition to the necessary technical equipment, which the students can be taught to use,there must also be suitable reference books, a wide range of supporting literature, a decent selection of newspapers and journals, coffee and now and again somebody to talk to, i.e. a pleasant and helpful lib rarian with both a professional and a social role to fulfil. Access to suitable premises at any time of the day, preferably with one’s own key, will be the most important factor for some. Creating study conditions of this nature is a challenging task for the BiMiN project.

BiMiN – a new challenge for the libraries
BiMiN – library co-operation in Northern Scandinavia is organised as a Research and Education project and for 2002 has obtained a grant of NOK 265,000 from the Norwegian Directorate for Public Libraries.A project manager is to be appointed in a 50% parttime position allocated to the Troms county library, which is responsible for the project. The project group will also consist of librarians from the MINlibraries and a representative from the MIN-project itself.

The BiMiN-project has already resulted in the libraries making their mark as service providers in an educational network for the district municipalities. As a result these local authorities are willing to invest in a project to improve skills and competences, where libraries play a leading role. In regional municipalities where the library system had previously been marginalised, a fresh wind is blowing.

Translated by Eric Deverill

Chief county librarian, Troms County Library.