A way to create context E-books at Swedish libraries Interview with Inga Lundén

In connection with the National Library of Sweden’s (Kungliga biblioteket) e-book assessment, the SPLQ chairman of the Swedish Library Association (Svensk biblioteksförening) met Inga Lundén, who is also head of the Stockholm public library, in order to hear what her vision is regarding public libraries and e-books.

What is your reaction to the assessment as a whole?

It is a good foundation that shows where we stand right now in the ebook issue. It provides us with a good overview of existing models and it describes the situation well, but there are further aspects that we can bring up in this interview.

Can you give an example?

The issue of access to e-media in the Swedish language is not sufficiently brought to light. The assessment simply confirms that a critical volume of titles is important – nothing about the consequences. If we do not follow the trend, public libraries will continue to be good for paper media, even if our reading habits change over towards emedia. If there are no e-media in Swedish and neither is there a model for us to make them available, then we will have crippled the free access to information that we take for granted in our ‘developed’ part of the world.

What are the risks as you see them? We see that several international entities, such as Amazon and the Canadian publisher Kobo, are expanding and may enter the Swedish market with ebooks in English. That is, in itself, interesting. But in the current situation, where many Swedish people are so fluent in English that they do not wait for a Swedish translation but immediately buy the English title, reading habits are in danger of changing. Already today, a lot of Swedish literature – particularly detective stories – is quickly translated and released in English at almost the same time as they are in Swedish. The question is, how will that affect the Swedish language and is there a risk that literature in Swedish will become marginalised?

What, then, is needed for libraries to be able to make e-books available in Swedish?

Two things. We need a large entity that can negotiate agreements for e-books and e-media; someone who can test the market. The National Library of Sweden has recently been given a mandate to coordinate the country’s libraries, and the Library has competence and experience with agreements and negotiations from the university library perspective. It would be an enormous waste if each individual municipality and region were to have to negotiate for themselves. The second major issue is that of digitisation. Previously, it has been an issue mainly for researchers and archiving, but the digitisation issue is also about the Swedish language and the cultural heritage that has already been published. Book publishers have indicated that they are not going to be able to afford to digitise older titles. Therefore, I think that the state should establish a fund for digitising older Swedish titles – otherwise, there is a risk that we will lose important parts of the Swedish language and our literature. This is an issue for the revisedLitteraturutredningen. 1*

The e-book assessment indicates that a transition to more e-books will bring about major changes in the organisation of public libraries and their way of working. What are the greatest challenges for public libraries as you see it? When we talk about free access to information, experiences and knowledge, it should apply to everyone. So we need to strengthen outreach activities regarding digital participation. But work has to begin with us improving our own skills. We at the Stockholm public library have conducted a pilot study and a project is now under way, which we call “Mediesprånget” (“Media Leap”) and which is aimed at our employees. They should feel comfortable with the new technology, teaching practices and the new possibilities that e-books provide. They need to become skilled at bringing out new media and new ways of reading and learning. We shall then begin a greater task involving digital participation or digital inclusion. We are working together with senior citizen’s associations, immigrant’s associations and others who have the same goals and interests. We are testing things such as an online help desk that has been started and simple courses in various forms at different libraries, and we also purchase more literature that has to do with computers, how to get the most out of your e-reader and so on. It is about including everything, quite simply.

The e-book assessment indicates that a transition to more e-books could mean that libraries need to re-prioritise their budgets. An obvious risk is that additional library branches might

have to be closed. What is your opinion on that?

You could compare things to what happened twenty or so years ago, when bookshops started disappearing from rural areas and where internet-based bookshops now provide completely new access to a range of titles for people living in sparsely populated areas. It is now just as quick to order a book in Haparanda as it is in Stockholm, and the range available is also greater than it is in physical bookshops. Similarly, the internet can bring about accessibility for library users.

Does this in any way affect the way that libraries work?

The assessment also mentions changing roles for public libraries. This highlights one of the core commitments that libraries have: to introduce literature and put it into context. Some examples from the Stockholm public library are Poesibazaren (“Poetry bazaar”), where readers and potential readers meet debutants and established poets. We also have Den långa svansen (“The Long Tail”) where current authors introduce their soul mates in older literature. Much of this can, of course, be done online, but it is a completely different experience to meet in real life. Media at the libraries becomes a tool for introduction and context.

Can you give an example?

The assessment claims that a Spotifytype solution, where e-books are provided directly to the reader, would mean that libraries will ‘be falling behind’. A couple of years ago, I listened to a conversation between the head of Musikradion (“Music Radio”), P4, and the manager of Spotify. The question was put: is Musikradion really needed when people can get all music through Spotify? The head of Musikradion claimed the same kind of public service commission as libraries: to introduce and put in context. And that is true; I make more use of Musikradion’s programmes since I started using Spotify.

But how do you feel about e-books perhaps meaning that library branches have to close – fewer branches is, after all, a tendency that has been going on in Nordic countries for the last decade? It has a lot to do with the situation in different neighbourhoods. Are there, for example, other activities that the library can cooperate with? In many places, partners can be found in businesses, associations and schools as well as other municipal public services. Then there is always a limit for when libraries are no longer of interest; when the opening hours are too short, when they do not have enough new books and too few personnel, then it can be better to concentrate resources. Being used to travelling a long way or for a long time in order to get access to what we are looking for is something that big cities and sparsely populated areas have in common.

It has been written recently that libraries could threaten the commercial publishing industry if the libraries were able to lend out e-books for free. What is your view of that? I believe that libraries will continue to be a source of empowerment for publishers, since we constantly generate a new customer base for them. When libraries do their job and introduce new literature, it contributes to an interest and an improved market for debutants. It is the same with e-books. In addition to that, libraries have been the large market for e-books in Sweden for the last five or six years. In the past, we managed to convince the publishing industry and bookshops that we are a partner and not a cannibal when it comes to paper books – that libraries always pay for themselves and their users – and I believe that we can do that again. But we need new models to follow.

Is it possible to discern any special Scandinavian approach regarding the issue of e-books and libraries? Yes, there is a collaboration between the Nordic library associations regarding e-books and copyright issues. It is Denmark that is mainly responsible and a report is expected in early 2012. It is of interest because we have the same approach regarding free access and have similar legislation. But things are developing differently in the different countries, so it will be interesting to see what the Nordic library associations can achieve together; partly to see the factors for success, but also to be able to act collectively in relation to politicians and organisations in the Nordic countries and Europe.

Rickard Carlsson
Press- and Communications Officer
Communications Division
National Library of Sweden
Rickard.Carlsson AT kb.se

1* A committee assigned to analyse the standing of literature today and identify trends that are expected to affect the area of literature in the future

Rickard Carlsson Press- and Communications Officer at National Library of Sweden