Net Librarian A joint project

As a Net Librarian it is important to see oneself as part of a national service
The Danish library service has a very long tradition of joining forces in trying to provide the best possible service for the citizens of the country.

Over the years co-operation between the public and the research libraries has been operating on several levels, the best known and most successful up till now being interlibrary loan functions and the national bibliography/ DanBib.

In keeping with technological development in recent years this co-operation has been further extended with bibliotek. dk (library.dk) a service which makes it possible to order books from any library in the country from your own home.

One of the reasons for this co-operation being able to work at all is that contrary to most other countries, all our larger research libraries and many of the smaller ones as well are open to the public, and everybody is entitled to apply for a borrower’s card and access the libraries’ resources.

So far the co-operation between the two sectors has concentrated on the mediation of materials, but another important task for the libraries is to provide the citizens with information.

Net Librarian.dk is an example of traditional information mediation – with the help of information technology – having found a new form and is being offered via the Internet.

The service was established with financial support from the Danish National Library Authority, and from a tentative start in October 1999 with three participating libraries and ten librarians covering the service, Net Librarian today is a co-operation between 34 Danish public libraries and just over 150 librarians are involved in manning the service.

The service has been a great success in the public libraries, but the research libraries have not been able to offer a similar service. It therefore seemed a good idea to find out whether it would be possible to work together on this task across the two sectors. Consequently in August 2002 a joint project between the public and the research libraries was launched with a view to developing a model which would facilitate an integration of the research libraries into Net Librarian.

The public libraries’ interest in establishing a co-operation with the research libraries is based on the desire to give Net Librarian greater professional impact by providing easier access to the research libraries’ knowledge and resources for the general public and the amateur researcher.

By establishing this inquiry service in co-operation with the public libraries, the research libraries also gain the added advantage of extending their opening hours for the benefit of researchers, students and citizens in general. At the same time it becomes possible better to exploit all the electronic common resources which the research libraries via licence co-operation have obtained access to over the past five years. So the advantages in establishing a cooperation are obvious for both parties and in the following we shall describe what has been happening over the past four months. How have we been tackling it? Which barriers have we encountered, wherein lie our differences, what is possible and what is not, and where will we be at the end of the project period?

How did it start?
During the summer of 2002 Denmark’s Electronic Research Library (DEF) provided funding for a pilot project where four large research libraries, The Danish Veterinary and Agricultural Library, Aalborg University Library, Roskilde University Library and Aarhus Business School Library were to work together with Net Librarian.dk. According to the project description a model for future co-operation had to be developed during the project period, and by 31. December the service had to be up and running.

It was perfectly clear from the very beginning that in order to establish a common service in such a brief space of time, it was essential to create a sound collaboration between the libraries involved, both at management level and among the ‘practising’ librarians. The organisational aspect has therefore been much in focus.

A steering group was set up with one management representative from each of the participating research libraries, one representative from DEF, two representatives from Net Librarian and two project co-ordinators (one from each sector). The steering group appointed a project group consisting of a member from each of the research libraries, as well as the two project coordinators to deal with the practical work in the libraries. Finally, a software group was appointed to examine the market and try to find a new common software for future cooperation.

How have we been co-operating?
When setting out on a co-operative effort such as this, which involves several libraries, with different ‘cultures’ and at the same time having to make our cooperation work across the two library sectors, it is important to allow time for discussing the problems and possible solutions thoroughly.

It is no good having too many preconceived ideas, and it is important to listen to each other’s points of view in order to find solutions which everyone will be able to live up to. Quality rather than quantity is the operative word. Time was also of the essence, so we made a kick start with a working seminar running over two days, during which the members of the group got to know each other and were able to concentrate on the various problems which had to be faced.

Both the project group and the software group have subsequently held meetings where ideas have been discussed, and later the final solutions have often been formulated via mail.

The work of the two groups resulted in a paper outlining a model for co-operation and a recommendation as to the purchase of new software.

The co-operation model
A prerequisite for being able to establish this common service in such a short time was that we did not have to start from scratch, but have been able to build on the public libraries’ experiences with an already well-functioning and thoroughly tested service, with rota, manual and fixed routines. However, it has not been possible just blindly to copy the system, we have had to pay due regard to the professional differences which exist between the research libraries. The result is, in the first instance, an inquiry service consisting of two parallel systems with a common password which enables you to monitor each other’s questions. The model can be described as follows:

  • The four research libraries ‘duty’ for each other, i.e. answer questions from each other’s borrowers, but only when this is professionally justifiable. The rota is worked out so that all libraries are on duty every day which makes it possible to exploit the individual library’s specialist knowledge and not cause too much waiting time for the user.
  • At the end of a normal working day, the public libraries keep an eye on the research libraries’ service and answer any general questions or else promise the user that ‘the specialist’ will answer the question in more detail the following day.
  • The idea is for the public libraries to pass on questions to the research libraries when the question goes beyond the public libraries’ competency/ collection etc. Likewise the research libraries can pass on questions from for example school pupils to the public libraries.

Software
One of the tasks in connection with the project was to examine the possibilities of acquiring new common software for Net Librarian.

A group of experienced IT people from public as well as research libraries have explored the market under the chairmanship of the project manager and have settled on the American firm LSSI which has developed an integrated chat/formula/database system that is now being examined in order to find out whether it can be adapted to Danish conditions.

We need a new system which can accommodate the differences that exist and which we have described here. Part of the present service is based on agreements and the more of these that can be replaced by routines the better. We would also like to allow for new members in the co-operation. In a cooperation between the research libraries it is particularly necessary that one takes into consideration the differences in professional capacity.

There is some very exciting functionality in the new software which enables the librarian to guide the user through a search by pushing images onto the user’s screen. These functions are made for the virtual environment and contribute to an increased interactivity in the service.

Net Librarian – new place of work? New librarian role?
The service provided via Net Librarian does not really differ from the service which Danish libraries have provided for generations. The ‘new’ aspect is that the answers are delivered via the net, and that the individual partners enter into a binding co-operation across municipal boundaries and library sectors. Net Librarian as such is placed in virtual space, but it is a place of work, with an independent organisation, its own corporate culture, colleagues, rotas, agreements on co-operation etc.

As a Net Librarian it is important to see oneself as part of a national service. We should not consider ourselves as an employee of Herning County Library or the Aarhus Business School when we are manning the service, but as soon as the duty period is finished we must be prepared to change identity and realise that we are back again as a member of staff in our local library. The co-operation is founded on openness as work is done via the Internet where all the participants may look over any one else’s shoulder. This kind of openness means that every participant must do his/her very best and apart from that it presents a unique opportunity for learning from each other and in this way increase one’s competencies.

Every place of work needs a manager to keep the organisation in check and in this Net Librarian is no different from the physical library. From the very beginning Net Librarian has had a project co-ordinator who was responsible for rota, work manual, news and information dissemination to the participants as well as ensuring the level of quality. This model has been passed on to the research libraries and an overall management is necessary when more than 170 librarians are to work together in an inquiry service where the end user must be guaranteed an answer of high quality, whoever is on duty at any given moment.

Problems and gains
This co-operative project is ‘barrierbreaking’ in the sense that the two library sectors in Denmark are working together on manning an inquiry service which to the end user appears as one common service. At the same time the truth is that there are quite marked differences between the two sectors such as for example:

  • In principle the public libraries are universal as far as subject is concerned, while most Danish research libraries cover specific subject areas (commerce, agriculture, technology etc.)
  • The public libraries do, to a greater extent, guide the borrowers towards the answer, whereas the research libraries tend to advocate assistance supplementary to one’s own efforts – at any rate in relation to students.

Both differences become relevant when discussing for instance rota and the depth of the answer given, but the differences have not been allowed to hinder the establishment of the abovementioned co-operative model, and we feel that we have found a usable solution by creating two parallel – yet coherent – systems, supplemented by agreements on passing questions on to each other.

One thing we have had to consider is how best to include a new co-operation partner in an existing service.

We know that it has been a definite advantage that a well-functioning inquiry service was already in existence in the public libraries, but a project like Net Librarian has been designed by great enthusiasts who have devoted their heart and soul to this work, and it might therefore become a potential area of conflict when a prospective partner arrives on the scene who has to be accommodated in some ways. But it has to be said that in the process we have observed great tact and understanding of each other’s differences. The co-operation has at all levels functioned according to the book, and up till now we have been able to talk our way through to solutions which both parties can accept.

We have had to take into consideration the research libraries’ professional differences when working out the rota, and it has been necessary to add some mutual agreements to the system. The final solution has not been achieved yet and it will need some adjustment when we – hopefully before long – can invite more research libraries into the ‘community’. A new common software will hopefully solve some of the problems.

Despite some difficulties arising in this co-operation process, they are greatly outweighed by the advantages. Both parties had some preconceived ideas about each other and each other’s institutions. But these myths have slowly, but surely been demolished over the past four months, and through our common project we have gained insight into each other’s universe, built up a well-functioning network and learned to greatly respect each other’s qualities and competencies.

We are in no doubt whatsoever that through this common inquiry service we are able to exploit the resources far better, both in terms of materials and competencies – to the benefit and joy of the Danish citizens.

Another obvious gain – not to be overlooked – has to do with resources. Net Librarian is open 82 hours a week (to be extended as per 1. April to 84 hours), and no single library could possibly provide this service. The long opening hours are only possible because we are many who pull together and in this way provide the users with the opportunity of ‘visiting the library’ when otherwise it would be closed.

The future
The co-operative inquiry service has now been tested in practice from the involved research libraries’ homepages and from deff.dk, and at the moment we can ascertain that the users are beginning to find their way to the service, and that our ideas about the sharing of duties can work in practice.

In the immediate future we must concentrate on marketing the service in order to increase usage, and the project period has shown that co-operation between the two sectors is a sound idea – and that it has been possible to carry it out in practice.

The next step is hopefully to extend the co-operation with many more research libraries – large as well as small – in order to obtain an ever greater professional depth and thereby improve the quality of the service.

We have noticed a great interest in the project, and we hope that during 2003 we shall be able to create a real NATIONAL inquiry service across the two library sectors.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Reference librarian Herning County Library.
Departmental librarian, The Aarhus School of Business Library.
Homepage To read more about the co-operation project, please visit the project homepage at www.hba.dk/bibvagt (In Danish)