The oracle of Halmstad

Conference in Halmstad foresees the future of libraries
In 1991 a conference in Halmstad set in motion a wide-ranging discussion on the subject of the future of libraries. Discussing the future never seems to go out of fashion, and the conference has with an unfailing keen sense always nailed those issues which have felt to be the most relevant. Technique, by all means, but more specifically to what use that technique can be put. Knud Schultz’s, by now familiar, quote from the conference of 1998: “The future is a constant unassailable factor, but we decide on its development”, still rings true. This year’s conference takes place in Knud’s home-town, Århus, Denmark.

The fact that libraries are part of society’s mainstream and therefore need to keep a discerning eye on where social and technical progress is heading, is today an established fact. In 1991 this fact was not so obvious. The main national instigators, who should have been busy initiating the library sector’s contemporary world view and creative debating, were stuck in a rut of shortterm reasoning.

The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs carried on as if nothing had happened and the then SAB (The Swedish Library Association) was paralysed by never-ending quibbles over organisational issues. In the meantime, Kerstin Wedin reminisces, the county libraries wanted a dialogue about how changes in society affected the library sector and its role. At the time Kerstin was county librarian in the county of Halland and together with her colleague Roland Eliasson initiated the Halmstad Conference. Not even the commercial sector was at the forefront of technical innovations.

– Despite the fact that computerisation had made some headway, there was still a great deal of dissatisfaction with the library systems, says Kerstin Wedin. The first Halmstad Conference in 1991 bore the heading ‘A Future for Libraries’. This became the underlying theme for the following annual conferences. Prior to the first Halmstad Conference a number of county library conferences had focused on the turbulence of certain developmental issues. The opportunities offered by the new information technology had just become apparent and at the same time major cutbacks were affecting the library sector. These conferences were a starting point, but as the Halmstad Conference got off the ground, discussions became more diverse.

An expanded range of thoughts
To achieve an increased span of impulses, lecturers were invited who did not necessarily have any formal connections to the library sector as such.

– I remember we had an architect at the first conference and quite a few raised the question if this was appropriate and what it had to do with libraries, says Kerstin.With hindsight and considering the magnificent library buildings in Malmö and Copenhagen there was quite obviously a connection. Experiences from the other Nordic countries were highlighted, not only out of neighbourly respect, but as a serious exchange of ideas. A number of unknown speakers from the Nordic countries delighted the audiences and after a while even the Swedish audience adapted to the Danish language. Logically enough the 2001 conference was held in Århus in Denmark, though the conference boundaries were stretched and the conference heading read: ‘Scandinavia Meets the World’. This year’s conference will also be held in Århus. From the start the conference made a point of inviting politicians. Not for the purpose of hearing them deliver ‘feel sorry for’ or ‘look how clever we are’ speeches, but for interesting predictions about the future. And the politicians did turn up. A few to start with, but the numbers grew as enthusiastic participants attracted new participants to the next conference. Disposing of any false modesty, Kerstin Wedin states that “politicians choose to come because it is the most interesting conference within the library sector.” Today, every third to fourth visitor is a politician and there is a special ‘Politicians Forum’ on the programme.

Well begun is half done
How does one even dare to start such a venture? Co-operation is the answer. The risk takers were not only the municipality and the county library, but also other libraries who were involved as organisers.

– We reckoned that we needed at least 70 participants just to break even, says Kerstin. If more turned up we could lower the price allowing for more participants from each municipality. It was necessary that the municipalities sent more than one participant each, so as to make reporting back an easier task. That is why we used different kinds of discounts. These discounts could either allow civil servants to bring politicians along at a reduced price or vice versa.

One is easily led to believe that initiatives of this kind evolve from long and carefully planned strategies, where authorities with a national responsibility merely commission such ventures. Truth is that much is found in a sense of general discontent combined with a will to show how much better it can be done. Kerstin Wedin was new to her position as chief librarian and thought it would be fun to place Halmstad on the map, so to speak, combined with solid collaborative relationships and a desire to blast away the old agendas. Much in the vein of the 1998 Halmstad Conference’s urgent incitement to “CTRL ALT DELETE – Reload. Downloading. Connect the world.”

A new centre in Sweden?
Have developments caught up with us? Is the Halmstad Conference yesterday’s news? No doubt, the choice of interesting conferences has increased. National instigators have moved their positions forward reclaiming initiative, but the flag of the Halmstad Conference is still flying high and the present county librarian of Halland, Kerstin Grum intends to keep it that way.

– We need to be able to attend interesting conferences without necessarily having to go all the way to Stockholm. The south of Sweden has a large population and also a number of progressive libraries. Is it mere coincidence that one of the most exciting media projects, SIM, began its existence in the south western counties? (Read more about the SIM-project on page 12). Or is it perhaps the mere thought of a Sweden Centre with the Öresund Bridge accessing the continent? The Bridge will be put to good use when this year’s conference takes place in Århus 13.-15. June. The conference heading reads ‘Transformations – the Library in Progress. A conference on the physical library – architecture, community values and knowledge mediation.’ More about the issues on the programme is presented on Århus municipal library’s website

Serious, but room for laughter
Last year’s conference was called ‘Melting Pot’ and the introduction went as follows: “The media landscape is thickening around us. Messages, ideas and experiences are constantly being channelled through to us at an ever increasing speed. The individual might find this process difficult to assimilate in order to gain an overview where details are discernible. The prerequisites for democracy are changing. How does this affect the libraries?”

Exciting isn’t it? Those of you who could not make it to the conference can read the conference papers at the County Library of Halland’s website

The idea is that the conference should circulate, but for now we take one year at a time. Soon we’ll be planning next year’s conference, says Kerstin Grum. The County Library of Halland assumes a large part in the planning. Region Halland, which the county library is now part of, wants the conference to survive and the municipality of Halmstad does its share by organising a reception for the participants. Local politicians often take part in the conference proceedings.

– As for attracting politicians, the Halmstad Conference is unique and that is an aspect we wish to nurture, says Kerstin Grum. Library staff needs to widen their perspectives. A factor more important today perhaps than when we started the discussions about the role of libraries in society.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Consultant Spiralum Kommunikation.