The potential of Nordic Public Libraries: An outside perspective Nordic Libraries and the PLIN Network

In countries with efficient public libraries many institutions are working on forward-looking solutions to individual questions of modern library management. Intensive exchange between professionals at an international level and, in particular, the utilisation of a wide range of practical experience may provide a valuable impetus to all partners. For this reason, the Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany ( in 1996 founded the “International Network of Public Libraries”. This project involved a small, highly motivated and flexible group of experts from international public libraries, who aimed to develop innovative solutions with a high degree of practical orientation and to disseminate them effectively. Forward-looking model solutions for areas such as management, customer retention, technology, or cooperation strategies were developed by hands-on experts for practitioners in the field. The objectives of the Network were to bring together international know-how, improve the exchange of experiences among specialists in public libraries and develop successful concepts. and, above all, promote the transfer of practical applications of this knowledge. The results of the project are available Although the Foundation terminated its sponsorship of this successful project after several years in 2004, the group decided to continue with the project independently, under the name PLIN (Public Libraries International Network). Some of the high of these concerted efforts have been the international conferences; the next one, entitled “The smart city and its libraries” will be held from October 6 to 8, 2008 in Copenhagen. Partners of the project include the Københavns Biblioteker and the Urban Libraries Council from the USA and. Current PLIN members from the Nordic countries are some successful Nordic library directors Maija Berndtson (Helsingin Kaupunginkirjasto, Finland), Rolf Hapel (Arhus Kommunes Biblioteker, denmark), Jens Ingemann (Københavns Biblioteker, Denmark) and Inga Lundén (Stockholms Stadsbibliotek, Sweden). Collectively, it can be said of all members of the Network that they operate as extremely successful library directors and have with an extensive international experience. Their statements on international developments in libraries and on library science therefore deserve particular attention.

Why was this article written?

In the run-up to the Finnish library conference “Nordic Library Cooperation in a European and Global Perspective – Management Strategies for New Structures” in in September 2007 Maija Berndtson enquired of the Bertelsmann Foundation whether it would be willing to offer a sort of “external perspective” to the development of the Nordic public libraries as its contribution to the conference. The focus would be on questions such as “Why did the Foundation invite representatives from Nordic Libraries to join the Network?” or “What particular features characterise Nordic libraries?”, so the answers could serve as starting points for future strategic considerations by the Nordic libraries. At the time the author was responsible in the Bertelsmann Foundation for the transfer of knowledge on library projects and he was happy to oblige. But ultimately, ultimately, the original reasons of the Foundation for including Nordic libraries were not taken as the basis of the lecture. Instead, the idea evolved to use a tried and tested economic method for the planned “strategic process” at the conference: a SWOT analysis (Strengths,Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).

After some reflection the idea was born to use this economic instrument for the conference presentation and to request the PLIN-members to give their own assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of Nordic libraries to broaden the perspective. A questionnaire was sent out by e-mail and the members of the Network all over the world were asked to answer a few key questions, which have been listed below. The analysis of the replies formed the basis for the lecture “The Potential of Nordic Public Libraries – An Outside Perspective”, which was subsequently held again in a similar form at the Annual Conference of Danish Public Library Managers in Vejle in February 2008 under the title “About Endless Choices, Strengths and Weaknesses: Strategic Options for Danish Public Libraries”.

The SWOT Analysis

The Network members were requested to provide answers to the following five questions:

• Which three keywords come to your mind when you think of public libraries in Nordic countries?
• Which strengths do you see in Nordic public libraries?
• Which weaknesses do you see in Nordic public libraries?
• Which opportunities do you see for Nordic public libraries?
• Which threats do you see for Nordic public libraries?

A total of 13 library directors out of the approximately 30 active members of the Network replied, of which 6 were from Europe, 4 were from New Zealand and Australia and another 4 were from North America.Would a library director who was not a member of the Bertelsmann Network give similar replies or would the answers be different? To answer this question a Swedish library director, who was not a member, was asked the same questions. And, to make it short: the answers did not differ substantially and tended in the same direction.

The answers

Listed below are the most frequently mentioned statements given in reply to the first question as well as particularly significant replies to the subsequent questions.

Which keywords come to your mind when you think of public libraries in Nordic countries?

1. Innovation (10)
2. Architecture, furniture and buildings (6)
3. Modern, cutting edge, progressive (3)
4. High tech and new technologies (3)
5. Well resourced (2)

Replies which used different terms to describe the same or similar aspects were summarised or grouped together into a shared category such as “Architecture, furniture and buildings”. All other terms mentioned were only used once, e.g., “leadership”, “imagination”, “high engagement in a multicultural society” or “service philosophy”. The comment “too self satisfied” was cited as the only negative term by one director of a Nordic library. It is particularly interesting that “innovation” was by far the most frequently mentioned term, with ten mentions. It became obvious that all over the world Nordic libraries stand for innovation in libraries; thus, the terms listed in 2nd, 3rd and 4th place may even be understood as exemplifying the term “innovation”. Nordic libraries are clearly well known and respected for their forward-looking buildings and equipment and their openness to new technologies. In the past few years this has particularly applied to self-service facilities and the automated return of media by robots. The digital marketing of library services through webblogs, virtual book clubs, multicultural internet libraries or a range of different services in connection with audiovisual media such as download possibilities for music are particularly significant. And the planned new buildings in Århus and Helsinki or the innovative extension to the Stockholm Municipal Library are sure to confirm this estimation, not the least to mention the Buskerud Fylkesbibliotek in Norway.

Which strengths do you see in Nordic public libraries?

The answers given to the previous question already indicate that Nordic libraries enjoy a predominantly positive image all over the world. In the comments on the libraries’ strengths this is underlined by the range of different answers. To give a better overview of the key answers the author has grouped them into four categories; individual answers are then reproduced in detail below.

Attitude and mission

- Strong political support, library legislation and therefore financial stability
- Long tradition of strong libraries
- Strong community support for libraries and models for community use
- Strong support of their unique language and literature
- Willingness to experiment
- Willingness to learn and to share learnings
- Nimbleness
- Innovation within budget constraints

Cooperation and communication

- Cooperation is a habit

Resources and costs

- High calibre of directors and staff, solid professional base
- Beautiful buildings which serve as public spaces: everyone is welcome
- Good funding
- Technical innovation
- Technologically savvy
- Architecture
- Facilities that portend the future
- High literacy

Usage and services

- Heavy use
- Conscientious work on standards that other nations need to pay attention to.

The answers clearly demonstrate that, in the general perception, there is a clear correlation between the political integration of Nordic libraries and their acceptance in communities and by the state and the endowment of the libraries. And this also provides the answer to the question regarding the possible role model offered by Nordic libraries: only those library systems which are systematically included by state politics and local governments and whose work as well as importance are properly recognised will be able to act over the longer term. Indicators for this are the national legislation and strategic plans regarding libraries in the Nordic Countries, Great Britain, New Zealand or Singapore.

Which weaknesses do you see in Nordic public libraries?

Attitude & Mission

- Too much self satisfaction
- threats are not realised until it is too late
- Sometimes a rather conservative attitude towards the development of services
- Not open to new ideas from abroad
- Do they focus sufficiently strongly on the value of reading in itself?
- Tendency in some Nordic countries to provide what is good for people rather than responding to what people want?
- Not a great deal of diversity (except in some places in Denmark)

Resources & Costs

- Possibly their buildings are older in many cases?
- Very expensive in comparison with German libraries
- A certain coldness in the use of fabrics, timber and finishes
- Limited publication program which might lead to a smaller breadth of stock?
- Printed collections should reflect immigrant populations

Communication & Cooperation

- They have not told their story loudly enough to the outside world!
- Limited cooperation with other professionals (web designers, journalists, marketing managers) and researchers
- Competition for funding, public and philanthropic

Usage & Services

- Are they prepared for a downturn in use and budget reductions?
- Is there complacency that the usual user base will survive and that libraries can grow with them?
- Relatively low use in some Nordic countries
- Limited opening hours in evenings / on weekends
- Bureaucracy
- The structure of the MARC-Format.

When considering the weaknesses, a possible “communication problem” of libraries in Nordic countries became evident. It appears that many services in multicultural areas are little known to a wider audience of experts in other countries (“They have not told their story loudly enough to the outside world!”). Statements such as “Not a great deal of diversity (except in some places in Denmark)” or “Printed collections should reflect immigrant populations” emphasise this, because such services as the “International Library” in Stockholm or the multicultural internet libraries in Denmark and Finland are exemplary compared to other libraries in Europe. The statements regarding cooperations with other professional groups and the importance of printed stocks, which also appear again in the chapter “Opportunities”, are particularly interesting in this context as surely they also apply similarly to the situation of public libraries in other countries. At this point it is important to emphasise again that these are individual assessments by internationally experienced library directors who are successful in their own countries but who, nevertheless, are not representative and who are thus offering individual opinions – even if they are influential.

Which opportunities do you see for Nordic public libraries?

Attitude & Mission

- To keep doing what they are doing, and to be world leaders
- To be world leaders in building and technical innovation
- Expand their role for citizens through new offers
- To (continue to) be seen as local IT centres of excellence
- A public service which acts as a bulwark for democracy and freedom by enabling access to ALL knowledge without fear or favour

Resources & Costs

- Willingness to look at the “new” library from a facilities’ viewpoint (Århus, Stockholm)
- Funding by European sources?
- Positive attitude of politicians provides a good supportive background

Usage & Services

- Adapt and develop the libraries’ activities and services from the point of view of community members
- Develop more integrated services with other public sector (and private) service providers
- Develop libraries to be more self-instructional while still providing an advanced and specialised service where needed

Communication & Cooperation (extract from feedback)

- Tradition of competition and learning from best practice [...] [Five more feedbacks on cooperation]
- Further extend shared digital library initiatives
- Working together with other libraries in other countries
- Inform librarians in other countries about services for immigrants and technological innovations, encourage immigrants to visit
- More information about what is happening (IFLA conference in Helsinki, Copenhagen or Stockholm)
- The chance to become increasingly involved as a partner in lifelong learning
- Collaboration on print publications to reflect immigrant populations.

After this question, the answers became additionally relevant for other libraries in other countries. The work of the Bertelsmann Foundation in the “International Network of Public Libraries” had repeatedly shown that the challenges facing libraries in most of the so-called “developed” countries tended to be very similar. This was also borne out by the assessment of the individual persons participating in the abovementioned symposium in Helsinki. Answers such as “Adapt and develop the libraries’ activities and services from the point of view of community members” or “Develop libraries to be more self-instructional while still providing an advanced and specialised service where needed” apply to libraries all over the world. In this respect, the chapter “Opportunities” could also serve as a “To-Do list” for every library. Particularly noteworthy is the high number of mentions on the subject of “cooperation”. All developments appear to indicate that, particularly in highly developed countries with few raw materials, the rules governing knowledge societies are increasingly taking hold: all efforts need to be directed towards “educating” everyone, every brain and every heart – whereby “education”must be understood in its classic sense – and in today’s world efforts by individual institutions of learning are no longer sufficient. Only when they work together will kindergartens, schools, libraries and other municipal and regional educational providers be strong enough to hold out against the emerging global competition – such at least is one working hypothesis in this field.

Which threats do you see for Nordic public libraries?

Attitude & Mission

- To stay relevant and to keep public libraries as a valued public institution
- Remain / return to “book only” libraries because of copyright problems with digital content
- Failure of the professional market place if it is confined to “in house” librarians
- Social and political pressure that libraries are not important and will not be used
- When you are classed among the world’s best it‘s always hard to maintain the momentum for good ideas
- Closed system within Europe
- We devote so much energy to exciting new roles that we forget the primary role: libraries by definition are always going to be about books. Lower financial provisions for books are beginning to cause public dissatisfaction.

Resources & Costs

- Some libraries still serve very small municipalities and therefore struggle to get sufficient resources to be innovative
- Loss of funding is always an issue for every library
- The financing of increased capital costs for more self-service

Cooperation & Communication

- Lack of cooperation

Statements similar to those on the weaknesses of libraries could also be made regarding potential threats. Not only the libraries in the Nordic countries but also those in other countries have their work cut out for them to ensure that they are recognised as “institutions offering added value” for communities. In this context it is especially important to examine the very interesting comments on the “classical role” of libraries.With answers such as “We devote so much energy to exciting new roles that we are forgetting our primary role. Libraries by definition are always going to be about books. Lower financial provisions for books are beginning to cause public dissatisfaction.” or “Are they sufficiently strongly focused on the value of reading in itself?” in the chapter on “Weaknesses” by several participants in the survey identified an important question which is also internationally relevant: in view of their limited funds what should libraries focus their priorities on? Are libraries forgetting their “core business” – that of promoting reading – in the face of the new technologies? The libraries need to weigh their strategic options and can only make their decisions after due consideration of their individual environment and a local analysis of strengths, weaknesses and political determinants. In this respect: this “large-scale” SWOT analysis can also be applied on a “smaller” scale – a SWOT analysis makes sense for every individual library and can help in the decisionmaking process.

Summary and suggestions

Finally, at this point, it is possible to summarise the central insights of the survey. Nordic public libraries are perceived from the outside in the main as innovative, technologically savvy, progressive and well funded. Their excellent buildings are acknowledged worldwide.

Strengths are apparent with regard to their political support and financial stability as well as their professional and well educated staff and forwardthinking directors.

Weaknesses: A stronger focus on diversity and immigrants may be needed, but this is also true for many other European countries. Additionally, there still is a lot of potential for an increased cooperation with partners. Check for readiness to import ideas from abroad and the capacity to spread the successes of Nordic libraries to other countries.

Opportunities: Many! Maintain standards and build on them, integrating politicians and citizens.Make services easier to use and develop new services together with public and private partners. Educational and cultural cooperation remains a mega-trend.

Threats: Keep your eyes on copyright developments and on the expectations of customers. Books may be not become outdated as fast “as we may think”. Ignorance regarding cooperation and shared services may result in serious threats.

Of course, the answers and assessments given by the Network members also included contradictory statements – nevertheless it was felt that it would be both inspiring and interesting to utilise the results of the survey for the continued development and strategic alignment of Nordic libraries (but not only for them). The author wishes to offer his thanks in particular to the members of PLIN for their willingness to participate in the survey and to the Bertelsmann Foundation and the ekz.bibliotheksservice in Reutlingen, who made the presentations in Helsinki and Vejle possible.

Andreas Mittrowann

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