In the Nordic countries during the last few years the public library system has received greater political attention than for some time. In Norway the report Library Reform 2014, published in 2006, was later followed by two Government Reports: Report No.23 to the Storting: The Library – centre of knowledge, meeting place and cultural arena in the digital age and Report No.24 to the Storting: A National Strategy for the digital preservation and promotion of our cultural heritage. Both were approved by the Norwegian Parliament in the spring of 2009. They deal with all libraries, both public and special, regarding them as one complete unit, and they also contain an archive/library/museum perspective.
These documents form the basis of national library policy until 2014 and represent the public library code of values attuned to the requirements of the modern age. They advocate an offensive library policy towards the development of new services, particularly in the digital area.
In Report to the Storting No. 23 the central aim is to develop robust and flexible libraries which can offer improved services to all members of the public, not least by strengthening and developing the library as a public meeting place promoting culture and knowledge. The report emphasises the need for clearer aims and requirements, improved division of responsibility and a specific programme of initiatives to achieve the development necessary. In Norway the responsibility for running public libraries lies with the municipalities. The Library Act, together with government strategies and initiatives, ensures on a national level that all municipalities have libraries offering the designated minimum level of services, that a nationwide infrastructure exists for the public library system as a whole and that funds are set aside to stimulate the development of public and county libraries.
The main challenge for library development will lie in the transition from a traditional, collection-oriented library with its focus on internal systems to a library with a genuine focus on the user, a stronger library network and joint digital services.
The digital perspective
The digital perspective is prevalent and dominant at many levels. It affects all types of libraries and will be intrinsic to all future development of library services. Report to the Storting No. 24, which deals with the digitalisation of our cultural heritage, outlines an overall national strategy to preserve, make accessible and promote collections in the cultural sphere by the use of digital information and communication technology. The report praises the National Library of Norway’s programme to make all published content, without exception, accessible in digital form. This undertaking is also viewed in relation to digital initiatives internationally. Many of the initiatives proposed in this government report are already about to become reality, as detailed in the article on digital preservation by Vigdis Moe Skarstein.
Literature and reading
Report to the Storting No 23 also examines the role of the public library as an arena for learning, reading and literacy. Emphasis is laid on the natural place of libraries as arenas for the dissemination of culture and literature within the municipalities. The current Library Act makes no mention of this as a function of libraries but the report foresees the introduction of revised legislation to emphasise this aspect of their role in society”
A national campaign to raise the standard of reading and literacy is heralded for the period 2010-2014 with public libraries playing a central role in the promotion of literature and improved reading skills. The ultimate aim is a compre- hensive, nationwide reading policy to improve literacy throughout the country. This in its turn can help to strengthen democracy by giving the population greater possibilities to participate in community affairs and activities. Reading skills and digital competence are to be seen as closely connected. The campaign has already started this year, the main target group being adults who read very little.
In Norway there are many small libraries with limited resources and short opening hours. Both public and county libraries face particular challenges related to expectations of improved library services, while yet at the same time many public libraries struggle to maintain a sufficiently high level of professionalism and staff competence.
Many local authorities these days experience difficulty in appointing a qualified head librarian, while 244 out of 430 municipalities devote less than one man-labour year to running their libraries. This situation provides a poor basis for the development of modern library services, regardless of the abilities of any one librarian. The smaller municipalities have library users whose interests and needs for knowledge and culture are just as varied and just as great as among those living in larger communities. The challenge is to offer the public an equally satisfactory standard of service regardless of which library they may choose to use. Society has changed. New methods of communication, developments in the workplace and wider leisure activities all contribute to a situation where the conditions for a public library system to fulfil its tasks in the community have altered so radically that completely new solutions must be found, if the library is to play a strong and significant role in the knowledge society of the future. There is a need to foster greater expertise in a number of areas in the library sector, particularly in managerial skills and digital competence.
In the future these challenges will demand closer cooperation between libraries across municipal borders. The Government Report considers various means of developing a more flexible organisation of library services in order to offer users the benefits of a cohesive library sector. This vision, however, requires closer cooperation also between central government and county authorities. At government level steps have already been taken to ensure greater coordination of the tasks assigned to the National Library of Norway.
The model library
In the coming years all types of library will be obliged to steer a course in a landscape characterised by a strong element of traditional library services combined with an increasing use of digital technology. In a mixed environment of this nature it will be important to encourage experimentation and new ways of creating good library services. The Government Report considers initiatives designed to strengthen local libraries as a place for new experiences, learning and the acquisition of knowledge. The starting point is that the public library to a much greater extent than today must assume a central role in the local culture. “In order to further develop the library as a community meeting place and to create an awareness in the public mind of the library as a functioning institution and a useful local partner, the Ministry of Culture will take the initiative of establishing a model libraries scheme.”
The aim of the model library project in the long term is to create “the new library”, the library of the future which will meet the public’s need to remain well-informed and knowledgeable in step with developments in society. The library of the future shall be a place to be, to learn and to act. In order to achieve a transition from the traditional library to “the new library”, a process must be initiated to change the structure and organisation of the library sector in a way which can be of benefit to the greater majority of libraries and their users.Model libraries will also help to influence the process and to encourage the structural effort necessary in the library sector to ensure a higher standard of library services for all. The model library project contains the possibility of finding different solutions for good, untraditional ways of running a library which are particularly suited to local, regional or national needs. Development of the public library, both as a supplier of digital services and as a physical meeting place, will come to underline the need for municipalities to think more closely about cooperation and the sharing of premises for the activities they carry out across the whole cultural field.
Change and fresh thinking are keywords for library development. Instead of continuing along the same path, using funds just to maintain the situation, it is vital that the model library project should provide the incentive for a genuine renewal of the library system.
A process of change can often be more significant than the result itself, since it can serve to create awareness and to encourage new ways of thinking during the actual planning and organising necessary to reach the intended goal. Not all libraries can become model libraries, but all those who work in the library sector will be able to learn something from the process involved and the improvement achieved. We trust that these two government reports dealing with libraries and digitalisation will entail the public library system taking an active role in the processes aimed at creating the library of the future.
Leikny Haga Indergaard
Director Department of Libraries
The Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority
Leikny.Haga.Indergaard AT abm-utvikling.no
Translated by Eric Deverill