The public library after the change of paradigm

Organisation development in Århus municipal libraries
Interview with Rolf Hapel, Århus municipal libraries
It is obvious that the change of paradigm from the traditional library of books to the modern digital library has changed and especially extended the services now available to the citizen in the library. That this process of change subsequently also had to affect the library’s organisation has been on the cards for quite a while in most libraries.
With the launching of The Digital Library in April, Århus Public Libraries (in Danish ÅKB) has made the move and carried out comprehensive changes in the organisation. SPLQ therefore approached ÅKB’s city librarian,Rolf Hapel,to put a few questions to him.

Why have you established The Digital Library as an independent department here in Århus? – The process goes back a long way. Right from the start when we began developing Internet services, we arranged for all the librarians to take a course in HTML. The IT-development can therefore be said to have started as a decentralised process. And quite of lot of products emerged as a result. Some were useful – others were characterised more by trial and error. But nevertheless, a process had been initiated which meant that over the years, the development of new services was operating at full steam. Gradually the need has arisen to gather together the different initiatives in the organisation. ÅKB’s homepage reflected the organisation. There were loads of pages under the same domain name, but with completely different designs. We also realised that we have to concentrate even harder on the services which are offered the citizens via the Internet. Today we receive about 550,000 requests a year via the net and more than 13 mil. hits on the library’s homepages, so we can only conclude that it is being used.

Organisation development must of course support a desired development of the library’s services and facilities for the – citizens. Were there other reasons for looking more closely at the organisation? – The many processes of change have had an impact and meant that the staff had to work with common values and organisation structure. An extensive study of the mental working environment from 1998 showed that the staff was rather divided in their attitude to the importance of carrying out the processes of change and development.

How have you been working with the organisation process? – A free scope is absolutely necessary in order to get things moving. We did get this in 1995 with the decentralisation of the municipality. We have exploited this opportunity and put the target management to good use – and by the way received quite of lot of political credit for it.

The process, which has resulted in the organisational change as well as in a common vision for ÅKB and a common set of values for all employees, started back in 2000. All members of staff have taken part in the discussion of a written visionary paper, combined with a number of talks by external experts. The process from to some degree “letting 1000 flowers bloom” to putting the emphasis more on quality which is what we are doing now, has been difficult – no doubt about it. It is always difficult to ‘kill your darlings’. At the same time, the process has also been extremely important both internally and in the co-operation with others. Networking has been given high priority.

Can you give me some examples of your experiences with networking co-operation? – ÅKB is – despite the decentralisation – still part o f Århus municipality and some members of staff do networking in a municipal context. Those who have something useful to offer. The ability to network varies a g reat deal. Some people literally bring gold into the organisation, but they are not brilliant at co-operating. It is quite an art to get the best out of them. Is it possible to curb them? How do we make sure that there is room for the nerds, too? In fact our library culture is not particularly accommodating.

We also work in a number of networks with other libraries. We are, for example, very happy about the process in connection with Litteratursiden (literary page). It is an example of the development of different Internet services in different libraries which have subsequently been co-ordinated. The process has illustrated just how difficult it is to kill one’s darlings and as such it has been very educational.

You have also done a great deal to develop Finfo, the site for refugees and immigrants, by defining a structure which the whole country has been able to use. You have gone to the individual libraries to teach and instruct etc., and now when the site is running smoothly, you have handed over the child to the State and University Library. Why is that? – Well, the development phase is the really interesting part. It is fine by us that others are willing to take over the operational phase. ÅKB does not want to play the proverbial big brother role, but would like to support the development in those libraries towards which we will be given a superstructure obligation.

How is The Digital Library placed in the overall organisation and which tasks have been delegated to it? – The Digital Library (DDB) is an organisational unit on a par with the other two units: The main library (HB) and the local libraries. The department has three main functions: IT & web, a webmaster function which is meant to secure quality development and consistency in the IT services produced in ÅKB and which also is responsible for the running of IT systems for the libraries, Purchase and accession and PR and Development.

The Digital Library has moved out of the main library. What is the reason for this? Isn’t it problematic to separate development from management? – The real reason for The Digital Library having moved away from the main library is simply lack of space at Mølleparken. But our intention with the functions placed in The Digital Library has also been to open up for new cooperations across borders. True, the library’s resources come to a certain extent from the former administrative department, The Development Department, but also Technical Department has moved away, a department which until now has had a rather low status. From now on, it will be given a development perspective, as apart from the traditional acquisition and catalogue function, it will also be expected to be in charge of purchasing licensed media. Purchasing licenses and e-trade are seen as an attractive perspective – in fact DDB is seen as an attractive place. An advertisement for IT-staff produced 180 applications.

I don’t see any great schism between DDB and the main library. DDB is supposed to act as support when innovative ideas emerge from the main library. The schism between the main library and the local libraries is greater. It is difficult to make the small libraries feel that they are part of the development.

I can understand the attraction of DDB. The digitisation process is very prevalent in the development perspective right now, but what does the staff at the main library say? Don’t they feel a certain sense of loss? – Indeed, there is a feeling of loss, because the colleagues have moved out.

What about prestige? Isn’t there a sense of loss here, too? – I would think so, yes. However, HB has Centre for Payable Services which suggests innovation, even though it has rather a low status in professional circles. HB has been through a team building process in relation to working with new perspectives. HB’s future focus will be on the new physical library. Although we are still waiting for the Multimedia Centre, which hopefully will become a reality on the Waterfront, we are working on the development in relation to our borrowers. A sorting machine is on the way and the transformation of HB towards an instant learning centre is on the cards. This is a development with wide perspectives. But the majority of the staff here are bound by their everyday duties. The disadvantage of a very project- orientated culture is that people are under constant pressure and that puts a restraint on initiating new projects.

What about the working environment – has it improved? Most certainly. Our very intensive and thorough work with the organisation has paid off. The new structure has a lot of possibilities. The price for moving DDB into other premises has had to be paid by a reduction in staff, but we have had the backing for it. And the development is still surging ahead. Just take a look at our new homepage! -

What will be the next step in your organisation development process? You mentioned a problem about making the small libraries feel part of the development. – Yes, the school and cultural affairs committee has scheduled a structural debate on the number and content of the local libraries in the future. The next organisational change will probably ensure that the small libraries are attached to a larger one, so exchange of staff becomes possible. The decentralisation has released resources in the departments. The element of competition has created development. But the effect has been exploited to the full now. They feel alone in the very small units.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Chief Consultant Danish Agency for Culture, libraries