Still rolling!

In search of future trends Nordic Mobile Library Festival 2002
Since 1990 the Nordic mobile library people have met every fourth year in different Nordic countries. Now it was Finland’s turn to be host. Driven here from six countries, 33 mobiles nose to tail made a spectacular display stretching nearly 700 metres alongside the river Aura in Turku!

In August the Mobile Library Festival welcomed 300 participants from 12 countries, with the future of mobile services and the potential offered by IT as themes for the gathering. Examples were given both from the Nordic perspective, and from Central Europe.

Gazing into the crystal ball – ten years from now?
Finland is big in mobiles. Even though the recession and structural changes of the 1990s took 36 mobiles out of action, there are still 198 of them rolling up and down the country. Sweden has about 110, Denmark 50 and Norway 34, of which six serve the Sami regions. Representatives of the Nordic library associations gave their views on how they see bookmobiles developing over the next decade. Despite geographical and cultural differences, the neighbourly musings, problems and solutions seemed rather similar. The same development trends unite the Nordic nations; we are all, as it were, in the same mobile.

Denmark: changing gear for mobiles
Jonna Holmgaard Larsen (Danish National Library Authority) described the Danish views. In the 1960-70s mobile libraries were flourishing. Now the vehicles are worn out, and substituting them with the next generation is expensive.

During the 1990s the Danish fleet shrank markedly, and lending figures for mobiles took a downturn. The new possibilities that information technology offers to library services have partly compensated for those service needs that used to be fulfilled by the mobiles driving close to clients. Now people themselves are more mobile than before and go to urban centres in search of services. Denmark has invested heavily in web services. Thanks to the national bibliotek.dk service, Danes have access to all library databases, and can order books and music for collection at any library of their choice.

If one wants to keep the mobile library services, a new gear needs to be found for this work, Holmgaard Larsen emphasised. Innovative solutions are needed, not only for the mobiles themselves, but also for designing their routes and for aiming the services at chosen target groups. Children and the elderly are clear targets for future bookmobiles, as they can’t seek out services in the same way as the rest of the population. Other likely trends in the future include further co-operation between and within municipalities, and the development of specific services.

Norway, made for mobiles – but 10 years from now, will there be any?
Bente Dammen from Osterø library in Tyssebotne municipality was worried that, if the present trend continues, Norway will have no mobile libraries ten years from now! Norway is made for mobiles; it stretches for 1,758 kilometres and much of the population still lives in small communities, far from libraries, yet centralised services and a shrinking fleet of mobiles are the reality. In recent years at least 15 mobiles have been taken out of action in Norway, and Dammen predicts that the rest will soon look old and rusty. The exceptions will be those that serve special groups; they will be invested in, look great from the outside and contain good collections.

So, specialised mobiles are one future trend. Ten years from now, perhaps Norway will have one multicultural mobile, one Sami mobile, one that it shares with neighbouring countries and one that serves ethnic minorities. The mobiles may contain less books, but more of other material. Perhaps borrowers will get their books electronically downloaded on e-books, or transmitted to another terminal. Library users will order books, records or films they want via their computer and then pick them up at the nearest mobile library stop. In Dammen’s vision for the future, mobiles will also offer cultural events, for which they need to be bigger. Other mobiles, however, might be smaller than the present ones.

The Nordic mobile library visionaries didn’t much ponder future staff or users. Bente Dammen thinks that, in the near future, librarians of bookmobiles will be about 55-65 years old and do the driving themselves. Users of their services will be children in daycare or school, students of virtual universities and retired women.

Sweden: mobile work on the up again
Gunilla Folkesson represented not only the mobile library of Norrtälje, but also the Swedish mobile library committee. Sweden has a long tradition of bookmobiles; its first one started rolling in 1948, whereas Finland celebrated its 40th anniversary only last year. Swedes, too, saw their activities decline during the 90s. In 1999 there were 103 mobile libraries in action, which was over 30 mobiles less than in the peak years. However, in the new millennium the trend seems to be turning upwards.

Sweden’s mobile librarians annually choose the Mobile Library of the Year. During previous years the honour has been given to one concentrating on IT (Linköping), one circulating the Sami regions (Närp bussen), one for children (Gotland) and one with an extensive literary collection (Mölndal). Each mobile library has its own profile, appealing to certain users. Together they form a beautiful foundation for mobile library work, and an example of what we believe the future will hold, said Folkesson.

Gunilla Folkesson sees a bright future. There is potential for constructive change. As Europe unites, the vehicle can be chosen from anywhere across the Continent, its size and furnishing can be altered according to target group, staff know-how is used when designing the mobile, and developing IT creates new directions and opportunities for the mobile library to be of service. Future mobile libraries will be co-operating over both municipal and national borders. Even very small municipalities will be able to maintain their mobile service through sharing costs. Modern technology and online services aided by satellites will make search services flexible and real-time.

Finland in 2012: limitless opportunities
Antero Kyöstiö, who chairs the Finnish Library Association’s Mobile Library committee and is in charge of the mobile department of Tampere City Library, also believes in the future of mobile libraries and their specialisation. In Finland, three cities (Helsinki, Espoo and Lahti) have a mobile specially aimed at serving children. Oulu is trying out a smaller vehicle than standard, serving either children or the elderly according to need. In the coming years, municipalities will acquire vehicles jointly, thus expanding their area of operation. Rural mobiles may become shorter than before, while urban ones may grow, perhaps up to 18 metres in length, and be articulated, Kyöstiö suggests. The city of Tampere already runs Netti-nysse, a long articulated bus specialising in teaching the use of the Internet, web services and information searches. In 2012 the opportunities will be limitless, says Kyöstiö. Particularly in rural areas, the mobile library can become a moving information service unit as well as a multi-service one. Perhaps banking, post office matters and dealings with various authorities can be carried out in the mobile libraries.

Which technology will win?
Developments in information technology are changing the way mobile libraries operate and the services they provide. Today wireless connections seem to be preferable, and they are being developed in several parts of Finland. Library systems differ, and so, partly, do the technological solutions. In Kurikka, a widespread rural town of about 10,500 people situated in the open countryside of southern Ostrobothnia, online lending in mobile libraries was introduced as early as 1994. There were problems at first; for instance, at some stops the vehicle had to be positioned precisely to the centimetre for connections to work. At the turn of the millennium Kurikka started using GSM phones for online lending. There are now sufficient masts, and cooperation with the regional phone company works well, so lending can be carried out impeccably at every stop. Plans are under way to change to GPRS connections (General Packed Radio Service). The city libraries of Tampere and Helsinki are also in the process of replacing GSM with GPRS.

Hannu Aronsson, the technology expert developing solutions for Helsinki did state that Europe believes in GSM (Finns naturally in Nokia!). Elsewhere in the world other alternatives are preferred; wireless satellite connections (WLAN), and USA, Korea and Japan have networks and systems different from those used in Europe. GSM has its advantages, but one need not be captive to it. Questions for the future are, for instance, will consumers prefer the phone, the mobile phone or eversmaller computers; how will services be priced, how fast will they be and what kinds of services will operators provide? Text messaging and paying bills over mobile phones seem to be increasingly popular. Aronsson’s advice to libraries is “Do some things today, learn and do more tomorrow.”

Mobile libraries – a tool for the future?
Keijo Perälä looked at national library policy from a mobile library perspective. Recently appointed Cultural Director of Turku, he was previously Director of Turku City Library and before that handled library issues within the Ministry of Education. Finland’s Library Act of 1961 ensured increased state aid for library operations and inspired municipalities to develop their libraries and services, including getting a mobile library. The national policy was to substitute the smallest libraries with services provided by mobiles. That policy seemed wise at the time and Perälä thinks that, in hindsight, it still seems so. The state generally paid municipalities two thirds of the costs of acquisition, although some poorer municipalities could get up to 90%. Usage was lively and lending high. Mobile libraries were the big successes of Finnish library policy during the 1960s and 70s, Perälä said. The Finnish countryside is full of closed village schools, but most of the mobile libraries are still operating despite the recession of the 90s and migration from country to town. The state currently subsidises mobile library acquisitions in Finland by about 25-50%.

Thanks to libraries on wheels, said Perälä, it has been possible to react flexibly to population changes. The big question now among those working with mobile libraries is this: is the bookmobile still a tool that can play a significant role in developing the service network and offerings of future libraries? Has the mobile library got enough of the same qualities as the mobile phone to be a success into the future?

As in Finland, central governments in the other Nordic countries have a vital role to play in creating library and mobile library policies. Under new policies in Norway, mobile libraries no longer enjoy state aid as before; only those serving Sami regions will get 100% support for initial outlay, and 85% for operating costs. However, the Nordic Mobile Library Festival seemed to find many kinds of future images and solutions, from which a positive reply to Keijo Perälä’s questions might be construed. The mobile library really is a flexible tool, but we do need to think for a moment: in which direction should the wheels be turned next, and whom should we be visiting?

Translated by Britt and Philip Gaut

Information officer, Finnish Library Association.