Co-operation is always worthwhile – but can we affordit?

Schools, day-care centres, farming advisers, associations for the unemployed, consumer organisations, pensioners’ societies, immigrants, small business entrepreneurs, societies of artists, amateur writer groups – what do all of these, and many more, have in common? The answer is of course libraries. Besides being municipal residents and target groups for library services, all of the above are also library cooperation partners.

According to a report carried out at the turn of the year by the Ministry of Education, about 80% of Finland’s public libraries co-operate with one another; sharing a library system, joint database and in some cases patrons’ register; materials are being transferred across municipal borders by joint agreements. The switch over to a shared database brings clear benefits to participating libraries: more effective flow of materials, improved customer service and savings in developing a system. The initial investment and running costs work out cheaper together than separately. There are also savings in terms of personnel training and sharing professional skills and expertise within the partnership network offers great benefits. On the other hand, if the use of the library stock in the region is to be made more effective, much is required of the logistical systems and this is not free. The harmonising of many different wills, procedures and methods also requires time – ten or fifteen libraries will have to agree on practical guidelines or a strategy. However, of Southwest Finland’s 56 municipalities, for example, only four have remained outside of the regional networks.

According to the library act, the objective of library services is to promote equal opportunities among citizens for education, literary and cultural pursuits, for continuous development of knowledge, personal skills and civic skills, for internationalisation, and for lifelong learning. Furthermore, the library act states that public libraries should operate in co-operation with other public libraries, with research libraries and with libraries in educational establishments. Co-operation between libraries is thus even advised in a legal text.

The main goals of public library cooperation are improved customer service and making the execution of basic tasks more efficient. Co-operation with other partners often has to do with auxiliary functions, supplementary services and services directed towards target groups. These too, in fact, generally promote the interest in literature and art and lifelong learning mentioned in the act. In the tight economic situation, however, it is necessary to consider the benefits and costs of this kind of cooperation. One argument to be made for co-operation, for example, with a local society of artists, might be that show rooms in the libraries could improve the position of cultural entrepreneurs in small communities and thus also serve to support business policy. The same is true for information retrieval courses for farming advisers. In addition to serving the common good of municipal residents, co-operation can also function as a means of marketing the library to both decision-makers and patrons; co-operation often brings visibility, extended networks possibly bring new patrons. This could help libraries to improve their negotiating position when discussing resources. On the other hand, it is this kind of co-operation that also requires strategic balance. If all goes well, the extension of services to new target groups, increase in patronage and the necessity for an established service which has been proven to be good and irreplaceable, can all be provided as bases for the need of additional resources. However, if the balance sways in the wrong direction, decision-makers will claim that the library seems to manage well enough with the existing resources. Finding the right balance is a skill, and a difficult one at that.

The concepts of co-operation, the necessity of it and even its definition differ, depending on local principles and resources – and on previous experiences of co-operation.When the Ministry of Education informed libraries (together with day-care centres, the school system and civil organisations) of the possibility to obtain state grants for organising morning and afternoon children’s activities, one person considered it a ruthless exploitation of libraries and an infliction of even more new tasks on libraries, while another library director saw it as an interesting opportunity to extend services, cultivate new, enthusiastic library patrons and obtain resources for things which fit into the library’s tasks. Some libraries have people skilled in organising workshops in creative writing for children, while other libraries have personnel who are excellent ‘book advisers’. Once teachers discover the skills and enthusiasm in the library, schools will gladly accept the service. However, libraries cannot bear the main responsibility for such functions; the distribution of work and resourcing must be agreed upon between the partners. This has been done in small Southwest Finland municipalities such as Aura, where the salary of the municipal book adviser is paid for by the library and the schools in Aura, but also by schools in neighbouring municipalities which are visited by the book adviser according to an agreed schedule.When the costs are divided according to the number of students, between several municipalities, schools and libraries, nobody’s share is too big, but everyone still gets their part of the service.

Working together requires flexibility, close contact and making compromises, but the benefits exceed the potential difficulties. At my work in provincial 11 SPLQ:2 2004 Païvi Jokitalo government, collaborating partners in organising further education have guaranteed a broader network, through which new skilled speakers and educators have been found. Responsibility for practical arrangements has been distributed, the number of participants may possibly have been bigger, information extended farther and costs divided among the organisers. The result is often greater effectiveness, savings for each organisation, and an extended personal expert network – and often also much new information. Last, but not least, is the euphoria which follows when arrangements run smoothly.

From my own experience, and having observed partnerships between libraries, I would maintain that there is always and unquestionably power in co-operation provided that the rules, roles and responsibilities, including operational resourcing, are agreed upon from the very beginning. The question in the title should thus read: “There is power in partnership – can we afford to be without it?”

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös OY Viewp int

Freelance Library Specialist