Is co-operation the future?

One of the reasons for the success of the Hallingdal Library Project is that it was based on voluntary co-operation between libraries of equal standing.

In Norway, as in many other parts of Europe, there is a move towards closer municipal co-operation on a regional basis. Over limited periods various models for co-operation in the library sector have been tried out. The trend towards the establishment of large networks and a better use of resources was a path the Hallingdal region decided to follow.

Hallingdal, in the eastern part of Norway, consists of six small municipalities with a total population of 21,000 and a distance of 100 kilometres between its outermost borders. These valley municipalities are very similar with regard to geography, economic activities, living conditions and culture and they enjoy a tradition of close contact. 1952 saw the establishment of the Hallingdal Cooperation Committee, a forerunner of the present-day Hallingdal Regional Council. Co-operation in education, culture and business has existed for many years and a plan is underway to organise certain public services on a regional basis. Another important project, the Hallingdal Magnet, is aimed at achieving efficient data communication and improved co-operation in the field of data services.

More comprehensive library services – starting point for a project
The libraries also have a long tradition of co-operation. The library structure is such that two main libraries and two branch libraries combine the functions of public libraries with that of school libraries. There are professionally qualified chief librarians in four of the municipalities. Prior to the start of the Hallingdal Library Project (1999) several of the main libraries were considering replacement or upgrading of their library systems. An evaluation of the systems available was therefore set in motion with a view to agreeing on the best choice. Since four of the municipalities were about to invest in a new system, the chief librarians decided to examine the routines and services of the libraries in the region. The libraries have many borrowers who study or work in another municipality than the one where they reside. The aim of the project was to develop regional co-operation, improve the quality of library services, offer users equal facilities and at the same time to act as one library with regard to service, regulations and access to literature.Five of the municipalities participated. Early in the debate the question arose as to how far each individual municipality was prepared to make changes in order to achieve greater similarity between the libraries. In this connection it was decided that the libraries should not put their own borrowers first with regard to waiting lists, etc. Other proposals revealed an element of conflict in attitudes towards one’s own users and loyalty to the common cause.

Common computer system as activator
A common computer system, Aleph, has proved to be the key to a closer and more formalised method of co-operation. Since the introduction of the system in 1999 and up to the completion of the project (December 2001), all library departments within the five municipalities, with the exception of two branch libraries, have taken Aleph into use. Both secondary schools in Hallingdal also use the same system. The ‘Aleph-libraries’ have converted their previous catalogues to common,shared databases, although retaining their own original content base. The starting point and the central elements in this co-operation are the bibliographical and the borrower databases. Experience gained so far from using this common library system shows an increase in efficiency and improved service to users. The advantage is that registration in the shared database has only to be made once by whichever library is the first to purchase the material.When or if another library obtains the same item,they need only add their own signature.

Common databases demand great accuracy when registering or making alterations. As far as registration, additional entries and removals are concerned, it is essential for these procedures to be carried out in an identical manner by all libraries.Workshops have been organised to deal with cataloguing and search methods in order to ensure quality control of services,making best use of the system and improving expertise among members of staff. System updating and the arrival of new employees make this very important.

In order for the libraries to be perceived as one, a standard borrower’s card has been introduced and a central database of all users.A complete catalogue of all media is available to all borrowers, including the Internet. The system also keeps a record of direct borrowing, returns, renewals and reservations. At any library it is possible to search in the library’s own database, another library’s database or in the common, central database. Thanks to the standard borrower’s card,users can quickly be informed where the material they require can be found, whether it is out on loan and if there are any restrictions on borrowing. If the item is out on loan, availability among the co-operating libraries can be checked before going any further. As for the amount of work involved, it makes no difference if the item can be obtained by distance lending or within Hallingdal. Experience shows, however, that the user is more likely to borrow or reserve, if the item can be obtained from within the local region.Material can be returned to any library, regardless of where it was initially borrowed. The receiving library must return such items as quickly as possible to the owner library in order that the return can be registered.

Since many people use more than one library, a further aim of the project was to co-ordinate and agree upon a common lending procedure. Common rules were also drawn up concerning the use of the Internet in the libraries.

Division of purchasing responsibility
In order to increase the region’s collective resources of non-fiction, the libraries have agreed on a division of responsibility for the purchase of media within particular subjects. Distribution corresponds largely with the subjects covered by the Hallingdal Museum Plan and is based on the particular characteristics of the municipalities and their libraries. At the same time the aim has been to achieve a natural and equal distribution. The material required by everybody is purchased as before. The distribution plan is linked of useful co-operation in a region such as Hallingdal. One concrete outcome of this co-operation was an application in 2001 to the Norwegian Directorate for Public Libraries for funding towards the development of broadband services in the public library system. This resulted in a grant for a new project, Library Band Hallingdal, now part of the Hallingdal Magnet. In this particular case the sixth municipality in Hallingdal is also participating.

Taking into account municipal co-operation in general, the common library system, further ICT-development and the reasonable travelling distance between the various municipalities, it may well be that co-operation can be extended in the future. Perhaps a division of responsibility could focus not only on services to the public but on efficiency.Where only two or three members of staff are gathered, one would hardly expect to find equal expertise in all the areas of demand made on a library. Perhaps one could arrange for some kind of interlibrary purchase of expertise with regard to registration and preparation of media, design of web pages, advertising, contact with the press, publicity campaigns and outreach activities. Other suggestions include a mutual database for local history (literature / audio / video) and a specialist librarian to assist the business community.

One library in the future?
Following on from the national debate on the future role of county libraries, there may be other models worthy of consideration. In regions where the difference between individual libraries is greater than in Hallingdal with r egard to size, number of staff, opening hours, etc.a possible scenario could be to strengthen one particular library, giving it overall responsibility for advanced functions. If such changes are not made in the communication structure and upper organisation, then each library will continue its internal procedures as before.

Mutual understanding – an essential starting point
The project would hardly have got off the ground without an understanding of the challenges common to all, the similarity of the work situation and a positive attitude towards the idea. Contact and co-operation, given a formal framework through the project, have become closer than ever before. Everybody knows each other well and the meetings of the project group are both socially and professionally useful. The threshold for making contact across municipal borders has been lowered and better use can be made of regional expertise. Co-operation has given library staff a feeling of togetherness in the face of the challenges met with in their daily work. One of the reasons for the success of the Hallingdal Library Project is that it was based on voluntary co-operation between libraries of equal standing. The project has received publicity beyond Hallingdal and libraries in other regions have shown an interest in this model.

Translated by Eric Deverill

librarian and project manager
Links: Bibliotekprosjekt Hallingdal (only in Norwegian) Bibliotekband Hallingdal(only in Norwegian) MIN, Midt i Norden (only in Norwegian) Troms County Library(mainly in Norwegian)