From academic to public

Catharina Isberg. Photo Annika HjerpeThe fundamental core value of the citizen’s right to information distinguishes libraries from other types of operations. The democratic spirit is especially prevalent in public libraries but is noted in the personnel manning other types of libraries as well. Library director Catharina Isberg believes in a more generous approach to values sharing between different types of libraries, since they can learn so much from each other.

In September 2013, Catharina Isberg left her decade-long posting as Deputy Library Director at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences to become Library Director at Helsingborg Public Library. SLQ has asked her a few questions about library leadership.

What is different in being the director of an academic library and a public library?

“The biggest difference is the target group; in a public library you must address everyone. The assignment itself is also very different. In a public library you must think broader, so that what you do will suit a lot of people. Meanwhile you must also focus, pinpoint certain target groups to concentrate on, to avoid the risk of having no certain focus at all without focus on anyone.”

“Another big difference is the economic conditions. I have gone from heading a company library to an academic library, and now onward to a public library. The economic conditions have deflated more and more with each step. But, you have the ideas and they always surpass the resources, and therefore, you must prioritize.”

What similarities have you found?

“One consistency is the big wave of change that takes place in the shift to more digital libraries. The change is massive, and also involves changing common user perceptions of what a library is. I think that, by now, the perception has already changed amongst library staff. This new perception is a lot about the digital library and the idea that, although there is an internet, everything on it is not available for free and so the need for libraries remains constant.“

What do you miss?

“I miss my colleagues the most, but it sort of feels good that everything in the public library does not need to be research related, there is a much greater sense of practice-makes-perfect within the public libraries.”

What is new?

“Political governance and how you relate to it, where the limits are between decisions you could execute and the course you will implement. Within academic libraries there is also political governance, but not as rigorous.”

Do you bring something from the academic world that you are able to use in the public library?

“Academic libraries have got much further with digital media; they have been used much more by researchers, largely because they make use of a lot of scientific journals. In public libraries there is a greater focus on books, but there are now more and more e-books.”

“It is important to clarify what media is, and transmedia. In the future, a book will not merely be a book, it will be completely different, although books, as we know them now, will also remain as they are for a long time. In the future, media will be much more mixed, there will be more participation. Even if you and I read the same book, it may be different because we choose different paths. It can be a web page where, when you have read a passage, you get different options and can continue on different tracks.”

“The roles we play will change, anyone can be an author. This week in Helsingborg public library, we have workshops with children who create iPad stories using both text and images to create short films that we post on YouTube. This touches on something that is important for librarians to know; how to post things on the internet and copyright issues. The children’s parents must sign an agreement, saying that it is OK that their children’s films are posted on YouTube.”

“A very important challenge for the future digital library is exerting independence from the filter bubble. When you for example google something, say Egypt, you might get hits on seaside resorts and vacation, while my first hit might be the Arabic spring. The search results depend on what you have searched for before. In the library this becomes problematic when librarians search for information for someone else; the ideal is to get validated results when you know what you have searched for. Not only Google does this, and it makes it easy to believe that everyone is thinking like yourself, it does not expand your world.”

Is there any difference in the challenges or problems that the academic libraries and the public libraries are facing?

“I think both must justify their own existence, but this need is stronger for public libraries. They must ably demonstrate their own benefit. It is extremely important that libraries house the expertise with enough staff to arrange activities and continue an ongoing dialogue about challenges and possibilities in the digital world. To me, the staff is essential, it is not enough to have an open library building; it must also be filled with the content that the staff brings to it.”

Which is the biggest issue for academic libraries right now? 

“The pedagogic role as well as Open Access (OA). There are big differences and the pedagogic role and the OA-movement did put the academic libraries on a different track. Public libraries do not have an equally significant mission of pedagogics, but there is a need for it and there is also reason to think about how public libraries can work with OA.”

Which is the biggest issue for public libraries right now?

“I would say it is about the broad sell of the use of fiction, the reading of literary works, that it allows you to enter new worlds. If we in the Western World only continue to read Western literature, we will continue to see the world from a Western point of view, but if we read literature from other parts of the world, we will broaden our perspective. This is also important from an equal terms perspective; I think that, for example, business leaders need to read fiction to widen their perspective on inequality. I mean inequality between classes, the sexes, religion and also LGBTQissues: To see people without seeing skin color, gender or religion.”

Editor-in-chief National Library of Sweden