Development tendencies in Nordic public libraries

In order to charter elements of the public libraries’ development plans the Nordic public library authorities conducted a survey in the winter of 2010/2011 of development tendencies in the Nordic public libraries. Amongst other things the survey was intended to document the ongoing change of role and shift in the libraries’ service concept.

The main conclusion of the survey is that the Nordic public libraries are still very important cultural institutions capable of enhancing modern library activities with considerable versatility in the supply of materials and numerous visionary activities with a host of cultural players.

Altogether the survey seems to indicate that the modern public library to a very great extent focuses on – and is successful in – providing access to electronic materials and a broad selection of inclusive activities such as cultural, learning and exhibition offers. Often these activities will be initiated and runby the individual library and will to some extent involve external partners.

At this stage the libraries’ challenges are mainly to be found in a hard-pressed economic situation. It is therefore a really positive thing that the libraries are constantly able to achieve new contemporary successes in the publicly targeted part of their activities and maintain a versatile selection of materials.

The change of paradigm in the public libraries’ service concept, which we experience in Denmark at the moment, thus looks to be happening in the other Nordic countries, too, with increased digitisation and broad collaboration on cultural activities as the pivotal points.

Public partnerships the norm

The most common partnership in the Nordic public libraries is the collaboration with other partners in local government or state institutions. Partnerships with private enterprises are not quite as common, but do happen in various forms and with various businesses. In Iceland one of the parti- cipating libraries has for example organised a short story competition, which is being sponsored by a local fishing company and by local ship owners. As might be expected the most common partnerships in the libraries are related to learning and cultural activities with the public sector as the other player. All the participating countries offer literary activities in collaboration with external partners, and here, too, the inventiveness is considerable – from the distri- bution of debut prizes to intercultural meeting places and literary lunches for local government employees.

The running of a citizen service and other traditional tasks for local authorities is an integrated part of many Danish libraries. This tendency is also to be perceived in the other Nordic countries together with the more untraditional, locally oriented tasks, for examples distribution of batteries for hearing aids and ordinary gallery activities.

The libraries’ versatile materials

In the Nordic countries more or less all the participating libraries are lending CDs and DVDs with music and films.

The possibility of borrowing games is slightly smaller – 80% of the questioned libraries offer this choice. When it comes to download of music, films and games the tendency is equally clear. In Denmark all the respondents offer download of films and music, while the total figure for the North is 40% for download of films and 55% for music.

The figures reflect the fact that the participating libraries to a great extent focus on offering the public access to a versatile choice of materials. This tendency is prevalent for physical as well as digital materials, with a number of libraries offering music and films in both formats. In terms of audio books and e-books the picture is the same, with more than 55% offering the possibility for download via digital services.

Participation in networking fora such as Facebook, YouTube, inquiry services, children’s pages, cultural calendars and literature pages is likewise massive with a predominant number of involved libraries. As opposed to this it is surprising that a negligible part of the respondents participate in file-sharing services.

In Denmark, Finland and Sweden the participants offer e-book readers also as loans, while Norway only make ebook readers available in the library.

Activities in the library space

The physical activities in the libraries’ arrangement initiatives are ‘old friends’: study circles, courses, exhibitions as well as cultural arrangements feature at the top of the list. The same is the case with the possibility of using PCs in the library, while the chance to involve oneself in learning activities and study circles with a view to the net are only offered by less than half of the participants.

Competence development of staff

The staff in a modern library will – particularly in Finland and Denmark – have a comparatively large proportion of employees with library professional background compared with other academic or clerical backgrounds. The majority of the participants spend under 5% of their budget on competence development. This might indicate that the library’s staff are so well-educated  that the need for further education is not particularly great, or it might mean that the pressurized budgets, which the majority of the participants state as their greatest challenge in 2010, do not leave any room for manoeuvring in terms of a prioritized effort as regards of competence development.

In 2010 the challenges for most of the participants are thus a question of economic circumstances and the effects of budget cuts, for example a reduction of staff and library closures. The other major challenge for the participants is the establishment of contemporary library systems which can be incorporatedin the libraries’ digital mediation and optimize their web services.

The libraries’ successes in 2010 can therefore overall be divided into four main tendencies: Increased visiting figures and increased number of loans, expansion of new digitisation projects, development of new library services and branch types and development of the libraries’ arrangement activities.

If you want to know more …

… you can find more data from the survey on the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media’s homepage. Here you will also be able to find a list of the participating temaer/nordic-survey-2011

Extent and method of survey

Altogether 65 questionnaires were sent to the most development-oriented public libraries, with 15 participating libraries from each of the following countries: Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark as well as 5 participating libraries from Iceland. The participants were selected by the participating countries’ public library authorities and the questionnaire was answered by the municipal library-responsible persons in the chosen libraries. The participants are seen in relation to FTEs of a comparable size, apart from Iceland, where the participants are mostly small libraries. Of the 47 returned questionnaires, 7 participants did not answer all the questions. Therefore the number of responses to the survey’s individual questions varies. Also the number of responses by the participating countries varies with a difference between Denmark and Sweden as the extremes with 12 and 5 responses, respectively. Considering the slender data basis, the results of the survey must be viewed with certain reservations and solely as an expression of tendencies.

Focus of the survey

The survey focused on three areas:

  • Partnerships and services
  • Activities in the physical and digital library space
  • Competence development.

The questions in the survey dealt i.a. with the libraries’ digital services, learning activities, their target group focus and user inclusion.

Gitte Smed
Project Manager with
the Danish Agency for Libraries and Medi
gsm AT
Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Senior Advisor Agency for Culture and Palaces