A need for mixed skills

Is it time for public libraries to employ people with other skills than those of librarians? This question is now being asked in Sweden, although the discussion is not yet widespread. But many have voiced similar views; that a broadening of skills is necessary if libraries are to develop and remain attractive community institutions.

Inga Lundén, Chief Librarian at Stockholm Public Library, is an advocate for change. She herself possesses double qualifications as a librarian and a journalist, and she feels that the journalistic profession has been of great benefit to her in her current position. “I am used to thinking not only in terms of “what is happening?”, but also “why is it happening and how does it affect us”. As a manager who has to justify, explain, see contexts and be proactive, I find this extremely useful.”

So why does Inga Lundén feel that it is important to employ individuals with a professional background outside the library? This is her reply: “Ours is a complex operation – we want to retain our current visitors but also attract new ones.We must focus on our core activities, such as public education and a love of reading, but also surprise and renew. Offering people things they are not aware that they want. The library should not only be accessible but also relevant. Achieving this aim requires broader skills. “The subject of library and information science spans a broad area, but the multifaceted nature of today’s society means that we also need other experiences and skills. It is also about interaction between librarians and other professional groups, something which benefits the operation as a whole.”

The libraries in Stockholm already employ marketing experts, journalists and information providers. Inga Lundén would also like to see producers, educationalists and IT experts, preferably with degree-level education. “It’s a bonus. I feel that a universitylevel education always stands you in good stead. It promotes an attitude, makes you curious and gives you the ability to critically evaluate the world around you.” Inga Lundén emphasises the importance of librarians undergoing in-service training. “Some of our librarians and assistants have, for example, undergone training in monitoring trends, as a way of ensuring that they are up-to-date on what is happening today. They have, among other things, set up focus groups among teenagers, senior citizens and primary school teachers, and use a blog to report what they have found.

Eva Anzelius Jonson has been working as marketing manager at Stockholm Public Library for six years. Her qualifications are in marketing and advertising, and she has a background in business, most recently as an employee of Nyman & Schultz/American Express. “It is not as big a step as it appears to go from generating an interest in travel destinations and travel to doing the same for literature and cultural experiences”, says Eva Anzelius Jonson. As a marketing manager, she sees the need for the libraries to market themselves professionally. “The activities the libraries are involved in must be regarded as important to people. But there is now a great deal of competition for people’s time, so the libraries must ensure that people are aware of what they have to offer.”

A few months ago, Elsebeth Tank took over as Chief Librarian in Malmo. She is a trained librarian from Denmark, and has experience of working with different professional groups, including scientists and ethno geographers. “When working on complex issues, as we do in the world of libraries, it is essential to be innovative and find new routes and perspectives. It is not solely a question of professional skill, but also of ethnicity, gender and age”, Elsebeth Tank points out.

At present, the libraries in Malmo do not employ people with other skills, but she is working on this. “We will be employing people from different backgrounds within five years.” She is particularly interested in people working in the areas of communication and marketing, producers and scenographers. “We have many creative and skilled librarians, but it is quite clear that it would be of great benefit to involve others as well”, Elsebeth Tank concludes.

Peter Åström, who was appointed Chief Librarian in Linköping six months ago, has similar ideas. He used to run a business, and was a manager in the IT industry, and he feels that this allows him to take a fresh look at the world of librarianship. “The staff has to have different areas of expertise and come from different backgrounds, with more people joining us who are not specifically experts in the area of librarianship. At the same time, I’ve noticed that many of our employees possess knowledge which they are not allowed to develop as part of their work. Many are, for example, linguists, while others have qualifications in the liberal arts. Some are experts on music or films. The question is how we are to make the most of this knowledge, and I am spending a lot of time discussing this with the trade unions.” Peter Åström would also like to see contacts established with writers, journalists and scientists, as well as more expertise in the areas of educational methods and IT. “The citizens span such a wide area. For example, a fifth of the citizens of Linköping were born abroad. How do we satisfy their needs? The part of the operation aimed at teenagers should also be expanded, and this will require a massive commitment.”

Birgitta Hellman, library consultant at Östergötland County Library, is based on the same corridor as Peter Åström. Just like Inga Lundén at Stockholm Public Library, she has trained both as a journalist and as a librarian. She, too, sees a clear link between the two professions and the benefit of double skills. “Freedom of expression and the liberty of the press, to guarantee free access to information, are central features of both professions.” She also feels that the expansion of the Internet requires a clear user perspective, a perspective she learned when training as a journalist. “In the 1990s, it was often difficult and complicated to use the Internet.My journalistic skills has allowed me to help make it more understandable to people”, says Birgitta Hellman.

She would like to see a discussion about the need for mixed skills in libraries. “But this is as much about people’s ability to become involved in in-service training.We must give the existing staff the opportunity to develop, and this presents a significant challenge.We should also review the skills at the county libraries, since we work both with the development of libraries and staff training. Here, too, it may be appropriate to bring on board professional categories other than librarians.” This has already been done, for example, at Värmland County Library. Camilla Källgren has been an IT consultant for four years. She is primarily involved in IT issues at the libraries, in training and in holding inspirational days for library staff on the themes of the Internet, databases and IT. “I have noticed that my services are in demand among the staff. People need someone who can clarify the concepts, including the use of e-media, what a handheld computer is and how Internet 2.0 works. In the early days, the librarians were suspicious of me since I did not share their professional background, but this is no longer the case. I really enjoy working in the libraries and find it very interesting. The libraries have really moved on, and it is great to work with the librarians. They are very progressive and really want to achieve something”, says Camilla Källgren.

In Sweden, there are a number of visionary ideas relating to the need for mixed skills in libraries. But Margareta Swanelid at the Dieselverkstaden Library in Nacka, disagrees. She is not impressed by what has been achieved so far in this area at the municipal public libraries. As a result of first-hand experience of the industry’s inability to progress, the Dieselverkstaden Library was hived off two years ago. It is now run as a staff cooperative with six employees and Margareta Swanelid as chair. She once trained as a youth recreation leader, but is otherwise a selftaught librarian.

“Our library is staffed by three trained librarians, a cultural specialist, one non-academic with many years experience of the profession and myself. Four men and two women”, says Margareta Swanelid.

University-level education is not a requirement. “When we recruited staff, we considered what services we wanted to provide. Film, music, fantasy, series, TV and computer games featured heavily.We wanted people with genuine knowledge of these subjects. This knowledge is more important than the skills of a specialist librarian, but if a librarian possesses both, we don’t turn our noses up at them.”

The investment in new media in combination with convenient opening hours has resulted in a huge increase in the number of visitors to and borrowing from the Dieselverkstaden Library. “All libraries do not have to work in the same way. Ours is a small library with expertise in some specialist areas. But our success is not solely due to an expert knowledge of certain subjects, it is also due to our attitude to our visitors. We work on the basis of what they want, without evaluating it, and consider the hours during which they can visit our library. This, too, is a skill”, Margareta Swanelid emphasises.

Library education is firmly holding its own, despite the increase in interest in other skills. A call to three of Sweden’s library training centres confirmed this.

– “We train librarians. But we point out to them that theirs are not the only skills a library needs”, states Birgitta Olander, Prefect at the Institute for Cultural Sciences at Lund University.

The same view is taken in Borås: – “We want to retain the broad library training, since the work of the librarian is usually broad, with a range of diverse duties. The discussion on skills is not new, but it has intensified as society has become increasingly complex,” says Margareta Lundberg Rodin, Prefect at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science at the University College of Borås.

She stresses the opportunities for inservice training for librarians, and emphasises the importance of monitoring trends and research to ensure that the courses are relevant to the needs of tomorrow.

Ingrid Kjellqvist is a Lecturer in Library and Information Science at Växjö University. She welcomes a wider range of skills in the library. – “We have increased the proportion of time spent on marketing in the course, and on teaching methods.We are not in the business of taking over other people’s roles, but some familiarity with their specialist areas makes it easier to work closely with them,” she points out.

Photo: Dieselverkstaden Library

Eva Bergstedt
free-lance journalist,

ebergstedt AT hotmail.com

Translation: Idiom AB

free-lance journalist,