Community centres as laboratory for management

Nethood Vollsmose bibliotek. Photo Nils LundExperiments with transforming a number of Danish libraries into acting as community centres show that community centres make special demands on both staff and management, as they are based on user involvement, partnerships and help from volunteers with a large number of activities that are Ann Poulsen sought after by the users.

This article is based on interviews with managers from three community centres – Hanne Ahrenkiel, manager of the community centre in Nivå, Jytte Bræmer, library director in Fre dericia and Kathrine Winther Adelsparre, manager at the community centre Hedemarken – who have shared their thoughts on how to tackle the management task.

The relevant skills as planner, co-ordinator, facilitator, fundraiser, ‘jack of all trades’, fireball, as well as the ability to orchestrate relations, be personal without getting too close, to solve conflicts, create and maintain networks, possess intercultural and communicative competences, be project-oriented and possess performative skills, are not the most obvious charac teris tics of the traditional librarian. And the fact is that the staff in the libraries’ community centres often have a non-librarian educational background.

A lightning rod

It is the responsibility of the leader to ensure that the staff represent a diversity that guarantees the presence of the skills mentioned. The leader must therefore focus on what different gender, professional capabilities and ethnic background may mean. At the same time, it is the leader’s task to make it visible to the staff that a community centre is about being where the users are, and to make sure that all members of staff are involved.

As it is sometimes conflict-ridden for the staff to enter into many relations on a daily basis with users, volunteers and partners, it is the presence of the leader and his/her knowledge of the work that is the decisive factor.

During the day-to-day work, it is necessary for the leader to act as lightning rod and sparring partner for the members of staff. It is therefore also important that the leader has a network to the partners’ managements, so that any disagreement about the collaboration can be dealt with  at top level, and the staff can concentrate on the daily work without any frictions.

Finally, the leader must be able to delegate to the staff. Hanne Ahrenkiel from the community centre in Nivå, a fairly small town in Northern Zealand, tells for example of a club for fathers in the community centre, which could not function without an employee with an ethnic background other than Danish. This employee, not the leader, possesses the competencies and the freedom to manage the club.

User involvement

Involving users and volunteers means that management must let go of the control and replace it by trust. In the words of Hanne Ahrenkiel: “We think we know, but we do not always know”. When you succeed in involving the users, the benefit is that to a great extent they assume responsibility and contribute with ideas for arrangements and activities.

But involving the users may also mean that their wishes and requests, for various reasons, cannot be fulfilled. This might present a challenge to management in terms of explaining the chosen prioritizations.

There is general agreement that collaboration with volunteers is rewarding for both volunteers and members of staff. Often the volunteers act as ambassadors for the library. But at the same time, it is beginning to be recognized that management of volunteers is an independent task, which might not necessarily belong at toplevel management.

The task can be equally well handled by one or several members of staff. At Hedemarken they call it “Hosting voluntariness”. As regards management of volunteers, it is very much a question of setting out a framework within which the volunteers can plan their work. One must balance expectations at a level where these can be met, and here the operative word is – dialogue.

A challenge to resources

One prerequisite for a well-functioning community centre is local collaborations and partnerships. Kathrine Winther Adelsparre, from the community centre Hedemarken, says that the forming of partnerships requires decision-making authority at management level, as the choice of partners is based on a number of strategic considerations.

Jytte Bræmer, library director in Fredericia, in addition points out that collaboration with other parties can contribute to making some of the existing, and valuable, competences among the library’s staff, more visible – not least the ability to organize and implement projects and activities.

Increase in visitors

Generally speaking, the libraries that have been transformed into community centres, experience an increase in visiting figures, and sometimes also in loans. The increased visiting figure in the community centre Hedemarken has necessitated a managerial prioritization of the resources, which i.a. has been solved by letting nonlibrary educated staff do duties at the circulation desk. At Hedemarken the loan figure has risen from 27,000 in 2007 to 60,000 in October 2013.

As developments in the other public libraries are often also challenged by integration with others partners and broad collaboration, such as has happened in the community centres, it is obvious to see community centres as laboratories where in many ways you gain experiences in developing forms of collaboration in the library – also as regards library management.

Senior Advisor Agency for Culture and Palaces
  • From 2008-2012, 16 community centres were established in Denmark in libraries located in marginalized residential areas. These areas are i.a. characterized by unemployment, poor educational level and many residents with ethnic background other than Danish.
  • What the community centres aim to achieve with i.a. housing associations, organisations and municipal partners, is to create informal services for the residents. This could for example be language cafés or health information. The centres’ offers are often a response to the users’ wishes and include volunteers help to carry them out. In 2013 PhD. Kristian Delica from Roskilde University has evaluated the results of the work in the community centres and describes it as a success: paperC14.html