New tasks for librarians – the small library perspective

Working as librarian in a small library is an all-round job for small libraries networking – and saíling on the ocean of information – is essential

Long before the word networking came into popular use, inter-library co-operation began around Oulu in northern Finland. The municipalities surrounding the city of Oulu were role models for small libraries in the south of the county when they started working together about 15 years ago.

Working as librarian in a small library is an all-round job, and one needs to know both the clientele and the collections. Often the librarian is the only local member of his or her profession. In the past 15 years lib rarianship has changed immensely. When I took temporary leave in 1994 to raise a family the Internet was almost unheard of, but today librarians are experts on IT and local producers of contents for the web. Small libraries are lacking in staff, time and further training. Restrictive municipal budgets squander the potential that librarianship has to offer.

Small libraries working together The job description of a librarian working in a small library has changed profoundly in recent years. A decade ago loans and searches were made manually in our library, and we knew almost nothing about global networks. In our county Oulu city library, also acting as regional library, was the IT motor; leading the way in the Nordic countries it embraced neighbouring municipalities in a co-operative effort called OUTI.

In 1986, during a regional library meeting held in Nivala, the idea was launched to start working together in the southern parts of the county too.

On 15 February 1991 the libraries of Kalajoki, Nivala, Ylivieska and Sievi signed a contract, aiming to achieve a joint lending and information service system and a library card common to all of them. Cataloguing would become easier and financial savings would ensue. The joint venture was named Tiekkö, and Kalajoki was the first library to start computerised lending on 15 March 1993.

Networking has proved wise. Tiekkö now comprises six public and three polytechnic libraries in Oulu County, offering their population of 50,000 open collections, a library system and ITconnections, facilities and services of a professional staff. The strength of the Tiekkö libraries lies in the joint library card,shared costs according to population, inter-library lending, special collections of the polytechnics and expertise. About half the area’s inhabitants have a library card valid in all the Tiekkö libraries. The libraries networking has increased the local information reserve and its self-sufficiency. Available material extends the collections of one’s own library, and what is needed can be acquired through inter-library loans. About two years ago internal transportation of inter-library loans was contracted out, and since the start of 2002 the Tiekkö group extended to include Haapavesi library.

Resources through projects Working with projects has become part of the way Tiekkö libraries operate,as well as through meetings and e-mails. Within Tiekkö there are regular meetings, and those in charge also get together from time to time. Furthermore, teams of experts and projects are nominated for particular tasks. Tiekkö holds six meetings annually, in each library in turn. Our projects have received financial support from the Ministry of Education and elsewhere. Those responsible for projects are appointed according to interest. So far, interested librarians have been found each time, even though the Tiekkö libraries employ only 47 persons. In some projects external experts have been used.

Networking skills During 1994-98 Tiekkö’s Intro group designed a programme referred to as “Begin at the bottom” for staff training in IT and improvement of networking skills, also to get Tiekkö’s collections on the Internet and to publish a joint homepage. A grant from the Ministry’s Action Plan for the Information Society enabled this. Library use from a distance, regardless of time and place, became a reality when the Internet took off. A joint homepage and collection database was published in September 1998. From Tiekkö’s homepage (http://tiekko-info.origonet.net/) each participating library’s homepage can be accessed, its material browsed and reserved, and loans renewed. For three years the homepage included adverts for local businesses, which raised income that was used for training.

Another project, started during the autumn of 2000 and supported by the Ministry of Education, has resulted in a portal called Seniorinet, launched in 2002 and aimed at senior citizens. These pages on www.seniorinet.net are part of the educational programme for the national communication event for seniors held on 8 October 2002. The project worker has visited clubs for pensioners to introduce these web pages with their potential for exchanging thoughts or digging for family roots.

Books bear, stories support For the fifth year we are running a project for children’s libraries, called Books bear, stories support. The goals are to support reading as a hobby for children, to improve children’s knowledge of literature and to guide them towards tolerance and multiculturalism. This project has included dozens of events; for instance every primary school in the eight municipalities has been visited by a book-tipster who talks about books. The project worker went round the entire area sharing tips about interesting books to read with 3,434 pupils in 179 schools. The book-tipster’s skills have also been passed on to teachers and library staff. Three extensive seminars for experts have been held about children’s reading habits.

The Books bear, stories support project received a national award in 2000. The Finnish Institute for Children’s Literature gave the project its Onnimanni prize. In its statement of reasons for the award it says: “The Books bear, stories support project is a clear indication of its participants’ own enthusiasm and willingness to influence how books are valued in today’s world. They have bravely started networking and created a functional way of providing book-talks even in sparsely populated areas. For other small municipalities wanting to work together, the project is an excellent example of how to incorporate several target groups and thus ensure the continuity of literature education from a child’s perspective.” At the end of 2002 a book will be published, named after the project. It includes library-user training and library games for pre and primary schools, and examples of how to inspire children to read. The book is aimed mainly at staff in small libraries and at teachers within ear ly education.

The virtual web Virma – regional information The Tiekkö group has taken part actively in the first EU project ever carried out among libraries in the county of Oulu. Under the Library Act, it is part of the public libraries’ job to develop virtual and interactive library services and to give them educational contents. In 1999 regional information started to be gathered in Oulu for a web site with interesting and varied facts about culture, tourism and local history. The project is affectionately called Virma, and 38 libraries within Oulu County are participating. Further funding for Virma has been sought, and its pages can be found on www.kirjastovirma.net/.

Tiekkö strategy 2000-2006 In 1999 Tiekkö’s Intro team devised a plan for a training seminar to create a regional library and information service strategy. The two-day seminar was held in November 1999 in Kalajoki. It was financed from the Action Plan for the Information Society, and all staff members participated. Parallel with this, work was under way to create a national policy programme for public libraries in Finland. The Finnish Library Policy Programme 2001-2004 includes a recommendation that “in municipalities and regions a clear strategy should be created about how to arrange for library and information services in the area… Those providing the service should draw up the strategy together, thus including other local library and information services, like those of polytechnics, schools and other educational establishments, municipal points of information… Combining various kinds of library and information services creates economic and functional synergy.”

The Tiekkö strategy document states: “The aim of the strategy project has been to create a Tiekkö programme for the years 2000-2006. Through their strategic work the Tiekkö libraries intend to become more conscious players within society with regard to developing the region. Creating the development programme for public libraries, which take care of the tasks of general educational and information service, and for polytechnic libraries with their more specialised services, has been the start of a dialogue and process in the interest of both parties, with synergy benefits for staff, users and the locality.”

The Tiekkö strategy training, provided by Lighthouse Consulting, was the first of its kind in Finland, and the regional strategy born out of it was also a first. The staffs of all libraries, about 50 people in all, were invited to the strategy seminar. Based on ideas that the employees proposed and then ranked, a list of areas of emphasis was compiled. The most important development targets for the period 2000-2004 within the Tiekkö strategy are:

  1. Continuous development of staff know-how (looking into training needs, core skills and specialisation, increasing co-operation, maintaining working capacity, salaries)
  2. Promoting reading as a hobby
  3. Producing contents for regional web services
  4. Co-operation around collections
  5. Developing the quality aspect
  6. Educating various user groups in how to use library and information services.

Setting these targets is a safeguard for inclusion of staff, users and collections in the development efforts. A joint mission statement emerged as: Sailing on the sea of information and life. Vital values among Tiekkö libraries are equality, trust and quality. In the first three years of the strategy period various objectives on the list have been developed, except the one at the top – training. This shortcoming will be addressed this year.

The programme also deals with the shortage of staff and inadequate facilities. This is our vision: As centres of information and culture, the Tiekkö libraries will, by 2006, have developed various other ways of co-operating. Decision-makers in the region will appreciate their library and information services. The Tiekkö libraries will have expanded their diverse collaboration to cover the entire southern part of Oulu County.

Organisational problems Shortage of staff affects participation in the projects. There are only 42 library professionals in the public lib raries comprising the Tiekkö team. The Ministry of Education’s recommended norm is one library professional per 1,000 population, so Tiekkö should really have 50. Often it is impossible for truly small libraries to take part; one person cannot take care of the library and attend meetings at the same time. Projects can overburden the entire staff, not only the one engaged in the project. Another problem is that it will be impossible to maintain the web pages unless the project is granted further funds. Out-of-date pages are worse than useless, giving incorrect information and doing no favours for the library’s image of trustworthiness.

Finally For small libraries networking – and sailing on the ocean of information – is essential. It is specifically librarians in small libraries who derive the greatest advantage from co-operation, because they are often the only representatives of their profession in the community. The Tiekkö strategy states that “Developing library and information services demand of their staff extensive expertise in culture and general knowledge, from the local to the global level. A new kind of professionalism is also needed when guiding citizens in acquiring information and producing material for the web. Library staff should have a strong basic know-how, but specific expertise could be centralised regionally.” Would regional librarians specialising in particular subjects be a solution?

Translated by Britt and Philip Gaut

Eila Ainali

chief librarian, Kalajoki City Library, Finlandeila.ainali AT kalajoki.fi

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Chief librarian, Kalajoki City Library, Finland,