Local consumer information in the public libraries
The Danish National Library Authority and the National Consumer Agency join forces
In the summer 2000 the Danish National Library Authority (DNLA) and the National Consumer Agency of Denmark (NCAD) launched a joint development project on mediation of consumer information via the public libraries. A working group was appointed with a view to develop a concept for public, decentralised, local consumer information via the libraries which would support public consumer information on the Internet as well as consumer information in general.

The group consisted of representatives from DNLA, the NCAD and the public libraries.

The vision was to provide Danish consumers with sound and effective advice/information that would reach every citizen in the country – also those who traditionally are difficult to reach – via a fine-meshed net of mediation throughout the country with user-friendly opening hours.

The concept were to be based on a voluntary system as the Danish public libraries are municipal institutions and as such cannot usually be required to provide a specific service.

As the information society develops it becomes increasingly important for public authorities to be able to optimise consumer information.

The EU-commission has for example introduced eEurope – a political initiative to ensure that for several generations to come the EU will gain the full benefit of the changes brought about by the information society. One of ten focus areas is Det offentlige på nettet (The public on the net) which is intended to make public information more easily accessible by extending and simplifying access via Internet. The Danish government has made this initiative a priority.

The NCAD sets great store by the Internet as the future source of consumer information. But there is a danger that this form of mediation will not have sufficient impact. For quite some time to come many consumers will not be able fully to exploit net-based information and advice – partly because of not having access to the net, partly due to lack of skills in actually handling information. This is where local assistance and advice prove very valuable, offering personal service and information.

The public need local opportunities for advice on consumer issues. A study prepared by the National Association of Local Authorities in June 1999 shows that the public expect their local authority – due to its close proximity – to be the obvious place to approach in order to get service and information.

The libraries provide a natural network for mediation and the librarians a natural resource, particularly for information- weak citizens who in the libraries can get access to the net as well as help in handling information. Add to this the fact that the libraries are open when people are not at work.

DNLA and the NCAD are therefore concentrating on a common strategy where the NCAD is exposed and promoted locally and the libraries develop a new service where they become frontrunners in terms of value-added, qualified public consumer information.

The public libraries in Denmark have for several years been obliged to mediate municipal and government information about social conditions in general. A formalised co-operation on mediation of public consumer information will therefore make it possible to extend the libraries’ role as mediators of public information. The aim is to facilitate citizens’ access to government information and casework.

Concept for local consumer information via the library-ConsumerINFOpoint
The concept presupposes the establishment of a local ConsumerINFOpoint – in a number of libraries spread over the country. Each library takes the initiative to establish a ConsumerINFOpoint and each library is responsible for the advisory service.

If a library is registered with ConsumerINFOpoint, it is not sufficient to provide the service which is available today in most libraries concerning questions of consumerism, namely to refer to or find the information required. It must also be possible for the consumer to get an expert assessment of this information and advice in concrete cases.

Libraries that register with Consumer- INFOpoint are obliged to put up a stand in the library’s public space, indicated by signposting and carrying the relevant logo which the consumers can then easily identify. A public PC must also be made available.

The concept consists of the following elements:

  • A co-operation contract between the NCAD and the individual library. The contract will guarantee the necessary quality of the local advising by setting out guidelines for further education, support functions, responsibility and feedback.
  • An obligatory basic course lasting two days + 1 day for a follow-up about two months after the library has opened its ConsumerINFOpoint. On the first day of the course the prospective members of staff in ConsumerINFOpoint will be given an introduction to public consumer information in Denmark with the main emphasis on three selected subject areas: Guidance before purchase of goods, elementary consumer law and advice on how to make a complaint. The follow-up session is used primarily for dealing with issues related to consumer law.
  • An annual meeting that provides further education as well as a contact forum.
  • An electronic conference room attached to the NCAD’s homepage. Here the staff are currently being updated and can draw on the Agency’s databases and advice. Via the conference room, the staff in ConsumerINFOpoint can get quick answers to difficult consumer questions and pass on ideas of activities to other libraries that have joined the system. Only the participating libraries and the NCAD have access to the conference room.
  • Electronic statistics, where the individual ConsumerINFOpoints register how many inquiries they have had.
  • Common marketing material, including common logo as quality assurance, are also handed out when the basic course has been completed. The marketing materials consist of 1 signboard (40 x 40 cm) with the logo, to be placed above the Consumer- INFOpoint and stickers with the logo to be placed in relevant places. Furthermore, posters to be put up in the local community, a folder that describes the service which the consumer can expect and bookmarks to be handed out to the library’s patrons.
  • All ConsumerINFOpoints get a subscription to the NCAD’s newsletters and other published material.

Content of the libraries’ consumer advice
Libraries registered with ConsumerINFOpoint must as a minimum offer a service containing the following elements:

        • Access to Internet and help with information search
        • Guidance prior to purchase, i.a. advice on purchase and providing test results by way of official or other reliable sources
        • Advice on and answers to elementary questions concerning consumer law
        • Information on how to make complaints and help in connection with reclamations
        • Help with filling in forms of complaint.

    Apart from this all libraries can extend their services with for example the following elements:

        • Promote sale of non-gratis materials from the NCAD and the Consumer Council
        • Arrange exhibitions on relevant consumer-related subjects
        • Arrange lectures and other activities related to public enlightenment.

    ConsumerINFOpoint – a great success The concept was tested in 11 public libraries in spring 2002. Following a test period of six months, an evaluation was carried out which showed that both consumers who had used ConsumerINFOpoint and the test libraries were happy about the scheme and wished to carry on.

    In spring 2003 Denmark’s new government launched its consumer policy which i.a. contained the wish to strengthen consumer advising, including local consumer advising. In this connection it was decided that the scheme of ConsumerINFOpoints in the country’s public libraries should be made permanent. During 2003 the project took off. The libraries were offered a basic course by the NCAD and applications poured in from libraries wanting to join the project. The participants in the course showed great enthusiasm and interest in the new subject – consumer law – and the job as project manager has been very rewarding in every respect.

    In the course of 2003 the NCAD arranged four basic courses and 73 libraries opened a ConsumerINFOpoint. Including the first eleven pioneers, a total of 84 libraries had opened a ConsumerINFOpoint by the end of 2003.

    During their courses the participants were encouraged to turn the opening of the library’s new ConsumerINFOpoint into a festive, local event, inviting local politicians, trade associations, local radio and tv. Here too, the participants embraced the task with great energy and creativity and we received positive feedback on great activity and lots of press coverage.

    In January 2004 yet another basic course was completed with the participation of 16 new libraries.When they open their ConsumerINFOpoints during the spring, it will mean 100 libraries all over Denmark have now got ConsumerINFOpoints. The success continues, and the NCAD intends to go on arranging their basic courses.

    Translated by Vibeke Cranfield Photo by Nils Lund Pedersen

Departmental adviser, National Consumer Agency.