Offering good library activities within a reasonable distance of all citizens in a thinly populated part of the country is a challenge. Swedish library statistics show that public libraries in the country’s sparsely populated municipalities often find a passable way to offer satisfactory services despite the population not having access to unlimited resources.
According to the law, every municipality in Sweden must have at least one public library. Municipalities that don’t have very many inhabitants generally have higher costs per capita for their public library operations than libraries in populous municipalities. The reason is that even they must be able to maintain a given basic level of library services; just because they have few inhabitants doesn’t mean they can only purchase volumes A to M of an encyclopaedia.
The basis for a high-quality media collection costs just as much whether there are 1,000 or 10,000 inhabitants. August Strindberg, Stieg Larsson and Astrid Lindgren should be made available regardless of whether the municipality has so few inhabitants that they can’t fill the library’s rooms.
This is clearly indicated in the 2012 Official Library Statistics of Sweden, where public libraries in municipalities with less than 5,000 inhabitants report that they pay SEK 79 per inhabitant per year for their media, and public libraries in municipalities where there are more than 100,000 inhabitants can maintain a good collection for SEK 43 per inhabitant per year.
In addition, public libraries in municipalities with less than 5,000 inhabitants have 0.48 new acquisitions per inhabitant per year, and public libraries in municipalities with more than 100,000 inhabitants have 0.22 new acquisitions.
Public libraries in sparsely populated municipalities often function as the municipality’s cultural center in other ways as well, and moreover often have a hand in school library operations – either through being integrated with the school libraries or through otherwise supporting the supply of media to the schools.
Public libraries in small municipalities therefore must also have a higher amount of person-years of work per 1,000 inhabitants than larger municipalities. Apart from shops, sports fields, and the church, the library is the only public arena in many small municipalities where the inhabitants can meet.
Nor is it unusual for libraries to take on the role of tourist agency, or become the municipality’s center for civic information and loan out its rooms for meetings. Librarians must be “Jacks of all trades” who not only have traditional library work in their job descriptions but also function as information clerks, coordinators, and project managers.
This is also visible in library statistics: public libraries in municipalities with less than 5,000 inhabitants have 0.75 personyears of work per 1,000 inhabitants, while public libraries in municipalities with more than 100,000 inhabitants have 0.48. In Sweden in general, there is one workyear per 2,000 inhabitants at public libraries.
Public libraries in municipalities with up to 5,000 inhabitants have 9.2 printed books per inhabitant; public libraries in municipalities with more than 100,000 inhabitants have 3.1 books per inhabitant. The average for the entire country is 4.1. But public libraries in municipalities with the lowest number of inhabitants have a higher rate of borrowing: 8.9 loans per inhabitant compared to 7.4 in municipalities with more than 100,000 inhabitants.
It is noteworthy that municipalities in the northernmost parts of Sweden, where there can be as few as two inhabitants per square kilometre, are better at reaching out with their operations in various ways as counted per capita than heavily populated municipalities in counties with large cities.
Despite the logistical difficulties, they reach out to the inhabitants through more book-mobiles, unmanned loan desks and a higher number of staffed libraries per inhabitant than other parts of the country. One way to succeed at this work despite limited resources has been to establish interlibrary collaboration between the libraries in the county’s municipalities.
They have a joint library system and coordinated transports. The inhabitants can borrow and return books at any library they choose. They can search all the media at the county web site, where – through collaboration – they can also reach other types of library besides public libraries. They often get more virtual visitors through the joint web system than public libraries in the rest of the country.
Sweden’s northernmost county, Norrbotten, can be mentioned as an example of what it’s like in a sparsely populated area. All together, Norbotten’s libraries serve close to 250,000 inhabitants who live spread out across an area that corresponds nearly to one-fourth the total area of Sweden; in reality it’s more than twice as large as the country of Holland, which has approximately 16.7 million inhabitants.
In Norrbotten there are staffed library operations at 39 addresses, as well as seven book-mobiles that make the rounds of 658 book-mobile stops. Additionally, there are 140 other unmanned loan desks that provide parts of the public libraries’ collections at retirement homes, shops, and preschools. Half of the public libraries are integrated and func - tion as school libraries at the same time.
Many adult inhabitants study distance courses and turn to the public library for their study literature. A higher proportion of citizens also have their media delivered to their homes than the rest of the country. There are also a university library, three specialised libraries, and four hospital libraries in Norrbotten.
Offering good library activities within a reasonable distance of all citizens in a thinly populated part of the country is a challenge. Certain municipalities only have just over 3,000 inhabitants but must still be able to provide satisfactory public library operations.
This situation can also clearly be seen in the statistics, where a small municipality like Arjeplog with 3,000 inhabitants purchases media for the public library for SEK 82 per inhabitant per year while a heavily populated municipality, for example Kiruna with 23,000 inhabitants, spends SEK 42 per inhabitant per year.
Public libraries in the northern counties even have a higher rate of borrowing than the rest of the country. The municipalities that have the lowest number of inhabitants top the list for borrowing.
Success through collaboration
What do all these figures tell us? Firstly, it is dangerous if the politicians who decide on resources for public libraries focus exclusively on performance indicators without taking the population, and the geographic area of the municipality, into consideration. Performance indicators can only be compared between municipalities that have similar conditions.
Secondly, the statistics show that public libraries in sparsely populated municipalities often found a passable way to offer satisfactory services despite the population not having access to unlimited resources. This could be a good inspiration for any library.
The path to success goes through collaboration between different library organisations, flexible distribution solutions, and the personal contact that the librarian and the visitor can have in this small-scale environment. The inhabitants, perhaps, may not have the opportunity to visit the library often as they must travel several kilometres, but when they do come by they take the opportunity.