The public libraries in the knowledge society

New Danish report on the strategic development of the new public library is introducedby the chairman of the committeebehind the report, director general Jens Thorhauge, Danish Agency for Librariesand Media

The public library is being discussed and developed throughout the world. The basic fact that more and more information is literally ‘at your fingertips’ forces everybody to reconsider the role of the public library. At the same time needs emerge in the knowledge society, where the public libraries – perhaps – are the obvious institutions to look to for solutions: the need for media literacy and a general need to facilitate the use of knowledge. Also the need for bridge builders at the digital divide is widely recognised. Despite the fact that intensive work has been going on worldwide in relation to these problem issues and with projects intended to develop new concepts and services, there is no unambiguous consensus as to what exactly the public library of the knowledge society is or should be. Now Denmark presents a fresh model. In March 2010 the Committee on the public libraries in the knowledge society submitted its report to the minister of culture, who had commissioned it a year previously.

Why yet another report?

The Danish report was commissioned on the basis of a political discussion in the cultural committee of the Folketing, prompted by a large number of closures of public library branches. In 2007 a Danish reform of the municipal structure took effect. The number of municipalities was reduced from 275 to 98. This was i.a. done in order to consolidate institutions, which when put under pressure to constantly develop, may easily fall behind if they are too small to accommodate changes. ‘Viable institutions’ was a keyword in the reform. The closure of smaller public lib clearly part of the foreseeable consequences of the municipal merger. Even so, it surprised most people that in the first year alone 131 out of 681 were closed down.

In the Folketing the minister of culture was put under pressure to take action but the running of a public library is a local task, and the minister cannot interfere. However, a committee was set up for the purpose of assessing the public library’s role in the knowledge society and the need for lifelong learning. The committee was asked to consider whether new concepts are required, whether traditional tasks such as literature dissemination can be developed, and whether the need exists for development of the digital infrastructure. They were specifically asked to consider how the libraries can support the Danish globalisation strategy that aims to create continued welfare and progress in society, i.a. via a massive innovation initiative, through lifelong learning, better educational programmes and research, and greater cohesive force in society. At the same time the minister emphasized that no amendments of the law were desired, no changes in the basic division of labour between state and municipalities and no proposals that would require extra funding. The mandate is not retrospective – it is not about the branch closures, but about how we should organise the libraries in the future.

State of the art in Danish knowledge society libraries

This task arrives in a situation where Danish public libraries have witnessed considerable changes in usage. The fall in the loan of books and other physical materials is 22% over the past ten years; there is an increase in the use of web-based services, but there are still only half as many digital visits as there are loans of materials. The number of visitors to the library, on the other hand, is stable. 35 mil. Danes walk through the doors to the library each year, more and more people use the library for purposes other than borrowing, but rather to participate in activities there or use materials, Internet and other services. There is an increase in the number of arrangements, including especially IT-learning offers, in the form of mini courses in the libraries and also initial steps in elearning.

Danish public libraries are right at the front, too, in offering the public access to digital materials. You can download music, films, audio-books and e-books via the library’s web site and many libraries offer access to a lot of databases and online services. How much material is accessible varies a great deal, partly from municipality to municipality, partly in terms of different types of material. There are for example not many Danish e-books, but the area of music is well covered with over 2 mil. tracks. At the moment there are only 700 film titles available for downloading, but the number will be growing by about 300 a year from now on. All these services are free of charge and are handled as license agreements. The public libraries have also in with the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media built up web services like Ask a librarian and a new children’s site, which is a narrative universe with all services integrated, a king of prototype of the digital library of the future.

The commission’s strategy

Based on the mandate the committee chose to aim for a contribution to a more distinct development focus based on society’s and the public’s needs in the knowledge society, the obvious development in the use of the media and best practice in more targeted and inclusive library offers, developed over the past few years and which are outlined above. The committee’s analysis of the knowledge society focuses both on new media habits and on a number of the challenges facing the western world, including the new illiteracy which 15% of all young people are hit by, the need to create social innovation, e.g. in relation to a health system under pressure, which finds it hard to tackle the tremendous increase in new lifestyles and prevalent diseases, the need for lifelong learning, including the continuous development of media literacy. All these major challenges call for a new public enlightenment initiative – one which we do not quite know yet how to organise. But if we can organise the work in the public libraries in a new way, they might well become an essential part of the solution. The break-through in informal ECT learning in the public libraries gives one reason to believe that such a development is possible.

Another circumstance of vital importance for the committee is that Danish libraries have been successful in working out offers more directly targeted at different groups. This applies to kindergarten libraries, book start programmes for children in disadvantaged areas, homework cafés, reading clubs, civic initiatives in relation to minorities, library service in companies, etc. But the bulk of the work is still centred on the management of the collection to which there is free and equal access for all. But the need that is obvious to us concerns the organisation of more targeted offers. In public service broadcasting systematic work is going on with programmes for different segments and we speak about user-driven innovation. It is a challenge for the library to organise the work so that it is based on the needs of different user groups and to define the targets for reaching other than the known target groups.

The committee’s recommendations

The committee has formulated 22 recommendations grouped under five headings: Open Libraries, Learning and Inspiration Activities, Denmark’s Digital Library, Partnerships, Professional Development.

Behind these recommendations there are basically three visions: The vision of open and vibrant libraries, the vision of Denmark’s Digital Library and the vision of partnerships as constituent for the method of work in the library that must both support the individual’s personal and pleasurable use of the media and society’s need for supporting citizens’ lifelong learning.

The vision of open and vibrant libraries

The vision focuses on the physical library space. Firstly, most libraries should have longer opening hours than today.We have had experiences with library branches that have been manned for some hours every day, but apart from that are open via magnet cards and pin code, and where a web camera is access to guidance from a librarian. Openness should also be seen in relation to interior design where one should think more systematically in terms of accommodating different needs and target groups. The increasing use of the library for something other than borrowing materials is also taken into account.

A model prepared by researchers at the Royal School of Library and Information Science operates with four spaces in the library: the learning space, the experience space, the meeting space and the performance space. The general tendency is to operate more with programmed activities than we do  today. The learning space offers informal learning activities in the areas where the library has competences, in the experience space there might be films, musical performances or readings and meetings with writers or other artists. In the meeting space the emphasis is on citizen inclusion. It might be a debate with local politicians or other ‘topical’ people. In the performance space the emphasis is on the participants’ own activities and development.

The physical library space has got tremendous potential that can be developed into being a true civic centre with cultural, social and educational activities in a very broad spectrum. But the open library concept also includes the idea of the library being seamless, i.e. moves its offers right to where people are, for example with flexible mobile libraries, with library service in work places, with kindergartenlibraries etc.

Denmark’s digital library

is the second vision. There is in fact in Denmark a fully developed digital library offer in all major research libraries, and there are, as already mentioned, many digital services available to the patrons of the public libraries.

The offers are, however, not simple enough to be exploited fully by the public, they exist asynchronously on various platforms, the licenses vary from municipality to municipality and as often as not the digital offers have to be looked for via other channels than the physical materials. Some of the genuine web 2.0 services developed in the libraries must be reached via own portal, a case in point being the popular Today its homepage is the business of the individual library, but there is an obvious perspective in establishing shared development within a three-tier architecture, where the data and application tiers are shared, i.e. organised nationally, while the presentation tier is a local task.

As a consequence, the recommendation is that an organisation be established across state and municipalities, which will be responsible for developing a national digital library with one access to text, sound, images, games, inquiry services, communities and e-learning. The content must be accessible from all relevant platforms, computers, mobile phones, iPods etc. The library must at national, and possibly also international, level handle licenses for Internet resources that are deemed essential in a public service concept. Finally, access to digitised cultural heritage must be integrated.

The recommendation concerning this organisation form is based of a number of observations. First of all we had to make sure that costly parallel development ceases, and instead ensure development of really sustainable joint solutions. Secondly, the existing digital material in the libraries is not conspicuous enough, a national common marketing initiative is necessary.

Thirdly, coordination within a number of areas – not only the common infrastructure, but no doubt also acquisition of materials will be essential in order to exploit the resources to the full. Coordination and common development are already being looked into, for example the endeavours to establish ‘data silos’ or ‘data wells’, which are aggregated library catalogues and metadata e.g. from e-journals or the net music. The earlier mentioned project with a new children’s site (see mention in SPLQ no. 1, 2010) can be seen as a prototype of the new digital library.

But we lack an organisation and an overall plan for the implementation of the vision.We hope that the recommendations in the report can be instrumental in developing that.

The third vision: partnerships

should be the central axis in the organisation of the modern library offer. The basis for this recommendation is the confrontation with the collectionor product-oriented organisation form in the libraries. The slogan ‘from collection to connection’ has caught on, but practice is often quite another matter.

By partnerships we understand mutually binding agreements on collaboration which will benefit all parties. One should think in terms of partnerships within the obvious sector: cultural, educational and knowledge institutions, but also more broadly in the public sector, e.g. the social and health area.We see a perspective in supporting partnerships with civic society and the market. Examples of the first are the voluntary instructors in the homework cafés and the latter has to do with providing library service in the factory during working hours that is an ongoing project in Denmark.

A completely new partnership with promising perspectives is developing between the libraries and DR, the Danish public service broadcast company. Here the basic vision is not only to get programmes and homepages to interact, but also to follow up on broadcasts with activities in the physical space – for example the libraries. Right now this concept is getting off the ground i.a. in a collaboration on a daily live broadcast from the children’s library in Aalborg, where the idea is that the TV-channel and the libraries agree on a number of themes, which are then dealt with on TV, on homepages and in activities in children’s libraries nationwide.

The libraries face a special challenge in pursuing the classic idea of being where people are – on the Internet. The citizens are to a greater extent on Danish Radio’s homepages than in the libraries, but they are to an even greater extent on Facebook, Youtube and other channels with social technologies. The libraries’ Ask a librarian has just been embedded on DR’s homepage, but this kind of thinking is not being pursued diligently enough.

These three visions can be summed up in one fairly simple concept: In the knowledge society the library must have several strings to its bow: the inviting, inclusive and inspiring library space with a broad spectrum of inspiration and learning activities, the highquality comprehensive digital library and being on the spot right where people are with an attractive offer: do you need help, do you want to know more, do you want to join a debate? Click here – and you are right there in the seamless library of the knowledge society.

A realisation of the vision requires professional development and the addition of new competences in the libraries. It also demands a very dedicated leadership and a political backing for the transformation of an institution type, which is quite popular as it is, but which has to change considerably if it is to play the same social role as in previous societies.

Jens Thorhauge
Director General
Danish Agency for Libraries and Media

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Jens Thorhauge Thorhauge Consulting, independent advisor