Joint operating strategy

A new tool for cooperation between Åboland libraries

After a decade of successful cooperation, called ‘Blanka’, libraries in Åboland – or Tu- runmaa in Finnish, a sub-region of South- west Finland – wanted to document and analyze ten years of development and give in-depth thought to their continued coope- ration. Designing an operational strategy felt like the right way to take advantage of experience and to formulate together a joint operating idea with long-term and well-pondered goals.

What is Blanka?

Blanka is a library network, which has been established by eight municipalities in Finland’s southwest archipelago, Åboland, to allow the municipalities to raise their service level together. Blanka is also the name of the joint database, which they are constructing and developing. The database provides a considerably larger and more diverse selection of material and quicker borrowing services to residents in the region than what the individual municipal libraries can offer. The municipalities are bilingual, with Swedish as the language of the majority. In total, the Blanka network consists of 12 libraries, including their branches, and an institutional library, a book boat, eight borrowing locations and book-return locations in schools, service centres, health centres and on ferries.

Cooperation began back in 1994. The first shared goal was to find a library system, which would meet the needs of the archipelago. It was especially important that it be completely bilingual, and, naturally, computer-based. We worked intensively for several years drafting standard manuals, rules for standardization and cataloguing and registering the masses of material. We also cooperated to obtain hardware and software for the libraries. Since then, the Blanka network has developed considerably and the cooperation between libraries has solidified. Previously, the libraries were connected via modems to the collective database in Pargas (Parainen), the largest municipality and the only town in the region, and the database was updated once a week. The Blanka libraries have recently combined their patron registers and catalogues to one collective database – an online system which enables everyone to work in real time and which will soon enable patrons to renew and reserve material via the Internet.

Cooperation with many dimensions

Cooperation within Blanka is constantly developing. New ideas are always being tested and incorporated into the work when they are found to fulfil a need. Every year, there is a Blanka seminar centred on a specific theme and different types of supplemental education are regularly arranged for all of the staff. Classes are often arranged during the day and free get-togethers in the evening. The free get-together has always been an important part of the Blanka work!

At the very first seminar in 1995, the idea of specializing in acquisitions came up: Each library should have one or more areas of responsibility, which they monitor very closely and, as resources permit, prioritise in acquisitions. Naturally, this means savings in material costs, but the primary and original idea is that residents of Åboland will get the material they are looking for through their own local library. The material that is not on the shelves of the local library is primarily provided via interlibrary loan from another Blanka library.

In 2004, Blanka introduced a joint logistics project, which has been very successful. Once every week, a private entrepreneur drives around with the interlibrary loans that the Blanka libraries have ordered from one another. The libraries would like to see the cooperation in logistics expanded to include other libraries located along the route. In a purely geographical sense, the Blanka area is special – we are talking about an archipelago where many of the libraries or borrowing locations are only accessible by car ferries and boats and where there are often great distances between libraries. The result is that it becomes like a puzzle to organize logistics and the Blanka libraries have been very successful in this.

Five of the Blanka libraries are ‘oneman’ libraries and for them, in particular, the networking has more dimensions than what might initially come to mind. Cooperation means, of course, that one can more effectively take advantage of the meagre personnel resources and divide the work, for example, into registration, media selection and specialization. Resources can be saved at the same time, as the media collection is used more effectively.

Apart from this ‘measurable’ value of cooperation, there is another aspect – access to colleagues! All meetings, courses and gatherings are met with appreciation, enthusiasm and warmth – this provides an opportunity to meet and discuss new ideas and goals. Practical problems get solved and colleagues receive support – and criticism – from one another. The Blanka network is much more than net-based services.

Joint operating strategy

In 2004, the Blanka libraries decided to draft a library strategy to allow them to better meet the challenges created by the information society. Cooperation between the libraries is, as such, nothing new, but we wanted to have a tool to be able to analyze, utilize and develop the existing library resources and prepare for future needs. The bases of the strategy are the Finnish Library Act, the Ministry of Education’s Library Strategy 2010 and Library Policy 2001-2004.

The work itself began in autumn of 2004 with a meeting for planning the work process, in which Blanka’s steering group and project worker Mikaela Johansson participated. Initially, focus was centred on formulating a common operating idea and on which goals should be set. After the first part was carried out, the individual libraries had the task of making up their own local library strategies with the shared strategy as a basis. In the local strategies, the libraries have had the possibility to go into further detail concerning the local needs and goals to set up for the individual library. During the process of working out a strategy, everyone took part in and read through the other libraries’ strategies, statistics and, of course, the reports and strategies set forth by the Ministry of Education. Through email contact and telephone, as well as regular meetings, a common operating idea and common goals were finally agreed upon. The whole strategy was approved and in its final form in November 2005.

The operating idea for the Blanka libraries is as follows: “With its base in the archipelago, its openness to the world and accumulated competence, Blanka wants to support development in the region and work for an attractive and viable Åboland. Through cooperation, we want to promote the development of the individual Blanka libraries and create a Blanka, which is perceived as a collective library institution, with the collections in active use. Within Blanka, the user is the focal point. With kind treatment, flexible service and a diverse selection, Blanka wants to provide service to everyone.”

In order to be able to realize the operating idea, six main goals have been set, with underlying sub-goals:

• The first goal is for “Blanka to be a well-known concept in Åboland.” We want to accomplish this primarily through marketing of the service we offer and through being an active participant within the local culture.
• Goal number two is “a standard service policy and appropriate ser- vice.” During the work on the stra- tegy, the importance of being able to provide the same good service to all groups in the region, regardless of their place of domicile, was repeated- ly pointed out in discussions. The libraries in Blanka also want to be seen as one institution, and we are working hard to achieve this. This is visible, for example, in the fact that a collective borrower register has recently been introduced, that logis- tics are being developed so that a library patron can return material, regardless of which Blanka library he or she borrowed it from, and that book-return locations are being or- ganized between the libraries.

• Goal three is “the continuous de- velopment of electronic services.” Everyone is aware that the informa- tion society is developing at a diz- zying rate and the Blanka libraries want to, and must, keep up with the development in this area. The Inter- net library Blanka now includes all but one of the libraries in the group while at the same time, the website and library program Abilita Bibli- otek/Gemini are continuously being developed. We also have the goal of participating in the national elec- tronic reference service.

• The fourth primary goal is “close contact with other local, regional and national organizations and institutions.” For the Blanka libraries, co- operation with the schools has always been the highest priority and will continue to be so. We also want to be active and cooperate with other bodies within the region, but also to be visible in the library world on a provincial and national level.

• Goal number five is “simple and effective administration.”Since the steering group for Blanka has a representative from each library (+ network coordinator), and the chairmanship rotates every year among the libraries, one could say that democracy rules within the community. During the work on the strategy, several work groups were added to clarify special issues that affect continued cooperation, and other Blanka employees, who are not in the steering group, participate in these groups. There is no doubt that including the entire staff in cooperation is positive for the team spirit within Blanka.

• The sixth and final primary goal is “staff that is responsible for fulfilling Blanka’s shared operating idea and goals.” An individual person cannot and does not know everything and for this reason it is important to engage the full strength of the staff, to use and develop the special knowledge the staff possesses to benefit everyone in Blanka. The plans also include a exchange of personnel between libraries, with the possibility to see what it is like to work at another library in the group – all to strengthen the community and un derstanding for one another. When the work on the strategy was finished, a seminar was organized for everyone in Blanka and everyone was able to make suggestions about the formulation and content. After the seminar,the Blanka participants and some invited guests gathered for a celebration with dinner: A nice conclusion to a long and time-consuming work process! The work on the strategy continues, since not all of the goals have been reached yet and new goals are always being added.

The entire operating strategy for the Blanka libraries in Åboland can be found at www.blanka.fi

Mikaela Johansson

mikaelajohansson13 AT hotmail.com

Translation: Turun Täyskäännös