New perspectives for the merging of public and school library

How can 1+1 remain 1+1 in a communal room

For almost 30 years I and many other people in Denmark have talked about and gained some experiences with the phenomenon common/joint libraries and along the way we have adjusted the designation slightly to indicate that the public and the school library may have more in common that just shared premises. Since the 1990s the word most often used has been ‘combi library’.
In the librarian’s perception of the combi library two different institutional cultures have moved in together in the school. And the professional view has to a certain extent been that these cultures are not immediately compatible and that it therefore would be preferable for them to live and develop in their separate ways. If the combi library was unavoidable – for example in connection with the closing down of a small library branch – then one had to work out definite agreements and a division of labour in order to maintain the different library profiles and function in peaceful coexistence in a communal room.

Generally speaking the two professional groups have seen the combi library as a professional emergency solution, and they have attempted in different ways to resist the pressure from politicians. The idea was to preserve school library and public library as two cultures in the same room. However, over the past few years things have changed somewhat as new examples of combi libraries have emerged, where staff and materials to a greater extent have been integrated in new perceptions of ‘local library’ in rural as well as urban areas.

When 1+1+1 make more than 3
Over the past year four library associations in Demark (Union of Danish Librarians, Danish Library Association, Danish School Librarians and the Municipal School Library Association) collaborated on shaping a common and new perspective for the cooperation between public and school libraries – in answer to present societal tendencies and taking into account the experiences gained in the youngest combi libraries in Denmark. It is quite characteristic that several of these libraries have obtained national support in the shape of funding for development and legal dispensations, and therefore they also have an obligation to be visionary and methodical in the development of their concrete ideas for a combi library that will survive in the future.

The four associations’ perception of the combi library is based on the citizens and the societal challenges which school and public library can contribute to find the answers to – whether it manifests itself in a combi library or not. The library is the leaver for something that in principle has to do with the individual’s as well as society’s development. Premises, materials and staff should to a much greater extent form part of different ‘combinatorics’ for the purpose of enhancing the level of knowledge and the cohesive force, not only in the local community but also in a national and global perspective. The local library has an obligation to function as a central component in the work with democracy, learning and culture.

The basic idea is a new type of institution where common visions, targets and strategies are the prerequisite for broad interfaces in the local community. Focus is on added value, extended services and in this connection the different professional expertises (teacher, librarian) are a prerequisite for the informed meeting with all sections of society. By 2005 the four associations had introduced the designation: ‘the integrated library’.

The integrated library does not necessarily confine itself to collaboration between public and school library – many more institutions can be involved in an actual activity and culture centre, for example via smaller, targeted library satellites in shops, sport centres, railway stations etc.

Politicians, administrators and the professional public and school librarians probably don’t see the integrated library as the answer to all the challenges, but perhaps they do realise that it might be a qualified option at a time when it is necessary to redefine and concretize the roles of the school and the public library. In Denmark a new municipal structure, characterized by fewer and larger municipalities, affects the situation. In this connection it is important to determine a new library and school structure, and when dealing with some of the new tasks of the larger municipalities, it might be an advantage to use the library as a lever.

An open dialogue is essential, and the input of the four associations in 2005 will hopefully mean a ‘legalisation’ of this dialogue not being confined to the professionals, but involving all potential stakeholders: citizens, politicians, administrators, professionals from a broad spectrum.

The mosaic – a concrete image
One Sunday in the autumn of 2005 800 people turned up for the opening of the new main library and activity centre in Kjellerup – a small, Danish rural municipality in Jutland with a long tradition of sport, association activities, schools and public library.

“Standing in the square in front one is looking at a 2,800 m2 building on two floors, with a glass frontage facing the square. You can peer into the two floors of the house, just like in a doll’s house. At the rear the whole building is connected with Kjellerup School via two glass corridors – on each floor” (cf. The integrated library, p. 64).

The front door opened and so did everyone’s eyes when they found themselves in the foyer – a bright room with a powerful lime-green wall on two floors. From this vantage point they could observe a great number of red doors and when they opened them, they entered for example association premises, a combined lecture and concert hall/cinema/theatre. Through a hole in this green wall they entered the integrated library that takes up the whole of the left side of the house and stretches up through both floors.

The following week many made a return visit, as the doors were then opened to a cornucopia of activities – people were told, but they also got the feeling themselves that this was indeed their place – a place for cultural experience and development, a place for acquiring knowledge, a place for being together and forming opinions, for example in a dialogue with politicians, artists and those with whom they have an interest in common. Prior to this there had been a competition for naming the place and the choice fell on Mosaic where many different elements combine to create new patterns.Mosaic offers the local community and the citizens the chance at any time to discover elements to further their own development. The centre has got a name that appeals to everyone and not an institutional functional designation (cultural/common, combi or integrated library).

Many years ago the mayor and the chairman of the political special committee had hatched the idea of such a place, and they had worked strategically to create the framework for a development project stretching over a number of years. They communicated their vision and through an open dialogue they had convinced the local partners (including the sceptical citizens). The professionals had got space, professional inspiration and advice to develop new concepts of their role and contribution to the totality. In this way the professional quality was safeguarded, and as politicians continually participated in the development, one also made sure that politician vision and professional ambition formed a valuable synthesis.

The level of ambition and the presentation of the strategy also convinced the ministry (dispensation of law) and national foundations and local sponsors who saw Mosaic as an investment in the future. Behind one of the red doors one can discern delicate tones from a cherry-red grand piano – a gift from the local banks.

Mosaic dispenses with the general perception of libraries and with the idea of a common/combi library as two libraries that have moved in together in the school, because that was the only chance to maintain a smaller library branch on the outskirts of the municipality or because money had to be saved.

Innovation and communication
Each of the four associations focuses daily on public library and school development and related core areas (culture, learning and democracy/public enlightenment). It has been quite obvious to draw on this expertise and the many common perceptions in relation to the integrated library. It was also obvious to include present scientific and political highlights with a view to making the debate about combi libraries both topical and qualified. The project resulted in a conference with more than 220 participants and a ‘cookery book’ for politicians about the integrated library.

The cookery book concludes that the challenge facing the innovative library (integrated or not) can be summed up as follows:

  • To identify and ‘lift’ societal tasks (e.g. democracy, culture and learning)
  • To develop local platforms that appeal to the citizens/groups of citizens
  • To realise the importance of the proactive member of staff who establishes the meeting/communication with the citizens/groups of citizens (cf. Roy Langer in The integrated library).

The idea of the library as an important component requires a thorough analysis of the present time, realisation of own competences, timing and strategic communication. But it also means some changes in the minds of the architects behind the library conception, not least when it comes to communication and contact with users.

In the cookery book professor Roy Langer describes a communication strategy containing push as well as pull strategies, and particularly the last dimension challenges traditional thinking and is perhaps essential for the library to be seen as appropriate and relevant in its own time.

Push: Here information is disseminated which the library is interested in disseminating and using as management tool
Pull: The point of departure is the needs of existing networks in the sections of the population one wants to reach. The operative words are involvement and voluntary cooperation (cf. Roy Langer).

The Pull strategy presupposes both considerable professional knowledge but also an insight into who exactly demand this knowledge, as well as an awareness of these citizens’ opinions and preconditions for getting a share in this. A recent Danish investigation into the cultural habits of the population (2004) emphasizes the connection between the citizens’ lifestyles, attitudes and their use of the library. The library can only become a real option for everyone, if one is aware of the differences and graduates and targets the library’s services, ia. via a different communication strategy. The librarian must also be interested in the citizens’ paths of communication and social networks, if he/she is to successfully communicate in a targeted and dialogue- based way with a broad range of citizens with widely different expectations, competences and needs. Individual communication will still be needed, but the point is that the librarian also becomes a consultant to groups of citizens in collective learning processes (cf. professor Kirsten Drotner in The integrated library). These could be families with small children and their kindergartens, ethnic minorities, adults with short-term education, pupils at selected stages in their education etc. In Kjellerup a great variety of citizen groups use The Mosaic and this means excellent conditions for working with the pull strategy.

Increased value – and how to achieve it
In the cookery book politicians, administrators and professionals describe what they see as the increased value of an integrated library and the important ingredients for achieving it.

  • Increased value in an integrated library The increased value manifests itself in the integrated library becoming a local knowledge, learning and culture centre instead of a traditional school or public library because it
  • exploits municipal resources to the full in ensuring a reasonable decentralized structure and an improved library service for the entire population – both in relation to their leisure time requirements and their education/ work needs
  • can be the initiator of new activities and encourage cooperation and create a synergy effect with local associations, institutions and the business community
  • can contribute to keeping the democratic involvement on the boil – study circles, meetings with politicians, debate etc.
  • Prerequisites for creating added value The prerequisites for creating added value is that the integrated library
  • contributes to the town council’s vision for the municipality and is part of the long-term strategy of the administrations and institutions
  • is on the political agenda, that the politicians support the idea of an integrated library, that they make the degree of integration perfectly clear and that they contribute to an optimal process where many accept ownership and cooperate in a constructive way to add balance and perspective to the idea, because they understand the intention and can see the advantages of this particular collaboration; but the sceptics will also have to be included as early as possible
  • forms part of a development strategy and not an economy drive – it might be necessary to think in terms of staking some capital on development
  • as an idea is given optimal conditions for finding a relevant local form: a political mandate, time, space, inspiration, competences and external consultants, who contribute to determining values, visions and targets for the new cooperation
  • has a definite management structure and that advantages and disadvantages of two-string and single-string management are estimated.

The four associations have tried to act as a common radar for development and provide some outlines for the integrated library that break with the idea of a joint library being something reserved for small, humble places in the middle of nowhere.

School and library development demands broad political awareness, strategic communication, alliances and optimal conditions for the models to be valid, meaningful for the citizens and inspire others. It is also something that demands commitment at several levels nationally and locally and requires attention to legislation, economic agreements between government and municipalities, funding for development, consultancy and advice in government agencies and in associations.

Locally one might choose to further develop the idea of the integrated library, and the icon for the local variant might be ‘idea shop’, ‘mosaic’ or something completely different. It is hoped that exactly this combination of vision and utility value will be the basis for choice of designation.

Common library/combi-library/the integrated library are primarily inside working designations and they won’t last as designations for innovative institutions that continually have to enter into new contracts with the population.

Portrait: Karen Schack Jensen, Thisted
Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Library advisory officer, Danish National Library Authority