The hybrid dilemma

The future role and concept of the public library is still being debated. However, there seems to be a growing consensus on the hybrid library concept with its constantly improving access to web based services and digital content as well as on the physical place that changes according to new patterns of use – obviously with a stronger focus on the library as a spot for learning as one of the issues. This was at least a ‘leitmotif’ at the conference for national authorities on public libraries in Europe (NAPLE) held last October in Helsinki.

If I am right in this assumption yet more libraries are facing what I call ‘the hybrid dilemma’. The dilemma is that on the one hand professional librarians realise the potential in an ongoing development of web based services – and subsequently changing the physical library space to cover what you do not get via the web. On the other hand when it comes to public library users (the situation is completely different in university- and academic libraries) they prefer – by numbers – the traditional services. The single most used service in Danish public libraries is still without any competition the loan of printed material. Even so the number of loans of this kind of material is decreasing. One of the reasons may be found in the hybrid dilemma: Libraries buy fewer books as they need more resources to develop and offer new services. If those new services are not appreciated sufficiently by our users we have a problem, no matter how much we believe in a digital future for public libraries.

In Denmark we are facing the dilemma in a very direct way these days. As a consequence of a major reform of the administrative structure in Denmark the municipalities are merging and the number decreasing from 271 to 98 from January 2007. That means that a lot of public libraries are merging too, and nearly one hundred branches are closing down – and more may follow suit.

Now some of these branches are small with weak collections and access maybe once a week. Others may be full- and well-working libraries, but situated at a distance of 2-3 kilometres from the main library. The intention of the administrative reform is to give citizens better public service by improving the public institutions.We must hope that this will be the result of the process that we are now witnessing, but it has to be proved.

But the more the idea of maintaining a library in all major neighbourhoods becomes rather unrealistic, the more the professional responsibility to develop new services increases.

The web based services is one way to go, that is obvious. For years we have been exploring that way, and have had some good results and some less convincing ones. But there are also other paths to venture along in terms of personal service, which I believe we should recognise is still one of the most valuable assets of the public library.

The mantra is simply: Leave the library and offer your service where people actually are.We have a number of good models: the Kindergarten-library service, the class-room service at any level, service to the elderly in their homes, cooperation with clubs and places where people work.Most of these models have been used before and then forgotten, but they can be revitalised on a new basis. A good recent example that I discovered was an offer to ‘book a book-mobile’ for clubs and other groups with common interests. This appears to have been a huge success in an area where traditional use of the bookmobile was stagnating.

There are many other roads to take – we should explore them all.

Jens Thorhauge Thorhauge Consulting, independent advisor