New challenges for small libraries

Now it-s time to ponder a new survival strategy
We live in an information or network society, says sociologist Manuel Castells, but this is not wholly positive in its effects on our social and cultural environment. Our mega-cities and vigorously developing growth centres bring increased inequality; the countryside and less developed regions are becoming marginalised and people are moving away from remoter areas. This can be remedied through local information societies (institutions and grassroot projects) and through policies to eliminate regional differences and the problems caused by marginalisation. (Castells,2000; Castells & Himanen, 2001.)
As in the other Nordic countries, regional policy in Finland today shows a clear trend towards growth centres and urban areas; that’s where the jobs are, and people have to move in search of work.Meanwhile, many small municipalities struggle to retain their population and some in rural areas become depopulated and weaker.

How can libraries manage under such societal pressures? Decision-makers have bigger things to ponder than library resources. However, in a small community the library may be the only cultural centre, the only place where persons contending with unemployment can come without charge, just as themselves and with no need of the identity that work confers. The library is a lifeline for these patrons; its existence must never be threatened.

Small libraries still have to grapple with many issues characteristic of the economic recession in the early 1990s: there still is a sho rtage of resources. The new problem is the ageing library personnel.Within the next decade many permanent, skilled staff members will retire. How, particularly in small shrinking communities, are they to be replaced? Municipal libraries face not only the challenges brought by the information society, but also the local and regional problems that may lead to marginalisation. The future library user can equally well be a career person with an academic degree, an unemployed youngster on the verge of exclusion, or a senior citizen riding a bike up the village road. Even a small library has to keep up with users of various kinds.

Libraries working together
Finland has a strong tradition of libraries co-operating regionally. Hierarchic library co-operation is represented by the system of provincial libraries, created as a kind of support structure for municipal libraries. The first provincial library was established in Finland as early as 1962. Under this model, smaller units make use of materials and services produced by the centre; information and materials flow one way only, so the aims of an ideal network are not fulfilled (Evans 1995, 429- 430).

During the 1990s, regional library networks were founded, based on voluntaryism and shared data processing systems. In northern Finland ten municipalities around the city of Oulu got together and formed the OUTI network (www.outikirjastot.fi), and started lending via a joint computerised system as early as 1989. This network was the first integrated system of several small municipal libraries, and its positive experiences inspired many more to follow. Today, 230 public libraries (51%) belong to some sort of library network.

New models for co-operation
Regions, comprising a few municipalities, are the new basis for co-operation among various branches of administration. The Ministry of the Interior has defined them as basic areas for regional support, and today there are 79 such regions in Finland (Statistics of Finnish Municipalities and Regions, 2000). They are defined on the basis of municipal interaction and the extent to which their populations commute to work over municipal borders. In the present Government manifesto, important goals for regional development and municipal policy are increased regional co-operation and prevention of marginalisation, as well as support for regional projects (Programme of Prime Minister Lipponen’s 2nd term of government).

Regional solutions offer a chance to develop library services as a networked service ring alongside the provincial library networks.A regional library would function as a network, as each unit would be a node both giving and receiving services. Such a network would be based on reciprocity, and operated honouring equality and trust. Regional co-operation in the library field can prove fruitful in the future, as the principle of long-term regional cooperation calls for sharing a vision and goals. In some places, regional strategies for libraries are already being prepared. In the Oulu region, within the socalled Parkki project (see SPLQ 4/2001 p. 27-30), a regional collection strategy is already operating.

In the future, a regional library may offer services that perhaps no small municipal library alone could p rovide. Examples of these might be specialised services of librarians and other skilled professionals.A regional children’s librarian could circulate between various libraries and, for instance, help them get started with book-talks, give guidance about collections or train staff. This professionalism serving the entire network could be financed so that a strong municipality puts the emphasis, for instance, on children’s library work, and then the weaker nodes of the network would buy this service.

Another joint investment by a regional library could be in special collections, which would circulate between the libraries like other ambulating collections. Talking books would be suitable for this purpose. They are too expensive for one library to acquire alone, but a joint acquisition would benefit all libraries in the network.

Everyone need not do everything Some small municipalities face severe cutbacks.A regional library would offer the services that a small library on its own could not provide,serving local populations and preventing marginalisation. The weaker nodes of such a network could serve the population of their own area as a basic library, with the stronger nodes as its more extensive libraries.

For the customers of the future,the basic library will offer a space where anyone can seek information and interesting experiences. Its collection will be maintained at a level that a small municipality can afford, while the regional library will supplement its material and services.More extensive libraries, in contrast, are nodes that are able to invest more in their services and to create bigger collections. Such a network would serve library users both locally and more widely. However, even a small municipality could maintain the physical space; that will always be important, and particularly so for municipalities under the threat of being marginalised.

Bookmobiles will also play an important role for future library users, particularly for those in more remote areas. Within the regional library framework, a shared book mobile could bring to a small locality not only its own collections, but also special collections, loans from elsewhere and the services of a regional librarian. There are already supramunicipal mobile library services operating in Finland, and they work well. Units of the regional library could contribute to the costs of a bookmobile either according to their population figures or on the basis of services purchased.

Shared vision – key to the future
Small libraries are again facing new challenges, despite having just muddled through both the economic recession and all the changes brought on by IT. Now it’s time to ponder a new survival strategy to prevent being marginalised and to overcome regional inequality.

Like any team sport, regional library co-operation needs agreed rules: commitment, mutual openness, common goals, equality and respect. Visions and strategies should also be shared. The new information society will throw up changes and challenges that can only be overcome through co-operation.

Translated by Britt and Philip Gaut

Library Director Oulu City and Provincial Library