– a way to survive for public libraries?

A public library is no library – if there is no connection to other libraries. The tradition of cooperation is well established in the library sector, but developments within the ICT sector and the application of new technology have brought a greater interdependency between the libraries. No small library can survive without being part of a larger context, regardless of whether it is a question of lending books or applying new technology. The technology also demands new national strategies for libraries.
The basis of the Swedish Library Act from 1997 is cooperation between publicly financed libraries aiming to offer borrowers good library services. The Library Act has been questioned – especially by public librarians – who feel that a firmer national approach is needed. Debates concerning the Act have lead the Government to suggest certain ways of complementing the Act when requesting local authorities to draw up library strategies and to cooperate with other libraries and library bodies. This year a new section was added to the Act: Libraries and library bodies within library services provided through public agencies should cooperate. Municipalities and counties must adopt plans for library services.

There are lots of reasons for cooperating. One is the increased mobility of the library user, who cares less about which library he or she is using, and more about the level of service provided. This is particularly relevant in the case of distant learners. Today, more than half the number of visitors to the public libraries are students at all levels.Whatever boundaries have existed between public libraries and research libraries are now becoming less relevant to the users.

Two public libraries and university libraries are integrated in the same building – Almedalsbiblioteket at Gotland and Sambiblioteket in Härnösand. Other libraries run development projects on a regional basis with a view to coordinate and improve the services to students and adult learners. One common experience from those projects is that the new and small university and research libraries are more open to cooperation than the bigger ones. It takes time to break down old walls!

A major initiative has been launched, coordinated by the state and aimed at adult education in Sweden. The background for the undertaking started with the EU publication Memorandum on lifelong learning during autumn/ winter 2000. Discussions in Sweden, as can be seen from this memorandum, emphasised libraries’ educational function. From 2002 the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs has taken several initiatives to improve library services to adult learners.

New forms of collaboration are needed to support the development of adult education. Dialogue and cooperation on a national level across public authorities and organisations is needed. At present there are three major library projects going on concerned with media, information and communication flow, including all regions in Sweden. The projects share the same goal – to organise the media communication flow for its inhabitants.Without the strong traditions of cooperation between libraries, those projects would never have got off the ground.

Living in the information age means having constant access to considerable amounts of information. However, access to information is not the same as knowledge. To evaluate information requires competence. To offer everyone the same possibilities of knowledge and learning and thereby reducing ‘the second digital gap’ is a democratic issue.

‘Ask the Library’ is the Swedish digital reference service. It accepts all kinds of questions between heaven and earth. A growing network of librarians among the public libraries answer queries via chat sites and e-mail. Last year Ask the Library started a collaborative project with the Swedish university libraries’ reference service, ‘Librarian On Call’. Its purpose is to bridge services, and in the long run create a national digital reference service.

The main goals of public library cooperation are improved customer service and making the library service more efficient. Cooperation with other partners often has to do with supplementary services and services directed towards target groups. In a tight economic situation it is necessary to consider the benefits and costs of this kind of cooperation. In addition to serving the common good of municipal residents, cooperation can also function as a means of marketing the library to both decision-makers and patrons. Cooperation could be the first step to networking on a wider scale. Libraries need strong partners outside the library world in order to be considered as important resources for information and culture.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Head of department. The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs.