Today we know that the future felt reassuring ten years ago. Us, i.e. the public libraries are still alive and under the circumstances feeling pretty good. The public appreciates our work, as do politicians and decision-makers beyond the grasp of the cultural sector. That is more than I would have expected back then.
The truth is that reality has caught up with the decision-makers. And the fact that the public libraries latched onto the gravy train at the right time. IT and new media, increased customer service and focus on education and lifelong learning, became weapons in the hands of the Swedish public libraries to fight the cold economic war of the 90’s being waged against the public services. Sweden was also blessed with a Library Act, a bit blunt, slightly indistinct, but still…
There are patches of clouds lining the sky of the future, some clear, some dark. The explanation to these lies partly in the fact that funding awarded public libraries has not risen in parity with the growth in popularity of libraries. These clouds originate from the fact that the public libraries have positioned themselves in the very middle of development – that of education.
Knowledge is power, declared Sweden’s Prime Minister Göran Persson as the new government unfolded last autumn. In doing so he confirmed the current state of affairs and educational ventures to be undertaken by Sweden’s government. The resurrection of centres of learning, on local and regional levels is the fashion. Adult education on all local levels will preferably merge with higher education curriculum to create local profiles. The Internet has a decisive function in all higher education distance tuition. The standing of public libraries can at times appear to have been waylaid by these ventures. This is a dark cloud. It tells us that the notion of the public library system as society’s premier vessel of information has yet to be firmly established by all decisionmakers.
In an initiative set forth by the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs, a number of consultants in adult education will be appointed to certain county libraries. The aim of such consultancy is to facilitate a network of public libraries, to initiate collaboration between libraries and other teaching organisations on a local and regional level.Will the public libraries have the strength to meet the challenges set forth by the state, regions and the general public? Who will cater for culture, literature, children’s libraries, exhibitions and people with disabilities?
There are trails to follow, but they have yet to be staked out. For instance, new librarians are needed. On the whole, the public sector in Sweden is fairly advanced in age. This applies in particular to the public library system.We need more new, fresh, competent, imaginative and enthusiastic librarians. Newly qualified librarians in Sweden will have a hard time filling in the blanks that have appeared over the past 10-15 years.We need to offer them better terms and wages. Many of them find more advantageous terms at universities and other nationalised institutions of higher education.We need to focus our funding and resources to the very centre of adult education, the public libraries, in order not to be ousted from the competition. Numerous businesses are already positioned in the starting blocks ready to reap the flowering benefits of information and education. Libraries on contract are becoming a reality in England and there are many that view Sweden as a possible market as well. Not least when considering those public appointments that could be subjected to bidding in a not too distant future. In an interview with the managing director of Bibliotekstjänst in Sweden – The BTJ Group, (Biblioteksbladet 10:2002), it is made evident that public and school libraries are of particular interest. Not only as the traditional customers that they have always been, but also as closely affiliated co-operative partners to which the BTJ Group can offer full-scale solutions, perhaps even on an entrepreneurial basis.
I still believe though, that there are greater opportunities than ever before for the public libraries. Clouds, as we know, create winds, therefore creating perfect conditions for those that know how and want to go sailing. The keyword is co-operation. But not just about adult education or the handling of information and the creation of new appointments for information specialists. Neither in its role as publicist of organised knowledge, such as library catalogues on the Internet, links and gateways.
Co-operation must take place in a broader perspective, equivalent to that of the traditional forms of adult education. The future is not merely about information and learning, but also about experience, adventure, the unexpected, startling insights, debate and discussion. Call it culture. The multiplicity of expression. Democracy, definitely!
In their role as conveyor the public libraries, as publicist and protector of multiplicity, are unique. There are many experts we can collaborate with when performing such a role. In such a role we are not threatened. In such a role we can grow without considering the short term profits. In such a role we are prepared for any surprises the future may have in store for us.
The fact that public libraries are now focusing on adult learning means nothing less than us complementing our already extensive line of services – they all concern the individual’s interest in the multiplicity of society.
And that future is being created now.
Translated by Jonathan Pearman