The current situation
These are revolutionary times. What many forecasters have long predicted would happen is happening now. This is rooted in digital advances, but is about much more than just technology. All industries and all businesses are affected by these changes. Old power structures are collapsing, business models are being turned on their heads, and it is increasingly difficult to find one’s way in this new world.
Given the current situation, drawing up a national library strategy – a strategy that is tangible while also being visionary and forward-looking – is no easy task. We should learn from our Nordic neighbours, who have much to teach Sweden.
We should listen to libraries and think for ourselves. We still have a few years, but we should not wait before coming up with important proposals. We have therefore already submitted our initial proposals to the Government. We have proposed a digital skills boost via public libraries and regional library operations.
Sweden’s public librarians should be given further training so that they can help the people of Sweden in this digital skills boost. It is proposed that the Government should invest SEK 25 million each year over a three-year period in a broad focus on digital skills enhancement for the entire population.
A democratic duty
The pace of digital development is increasing, and a long-term action plan is therefore required in order to continuously develop the digital skills of the Swedish people. Demographics, current events such as the arrival of large numbers of refugees, or poor broadband infrastructure mean that these efforts must be based on local conditions.
Libraries have a democratic duty. Free knowledge for everyone. This is particularly evident in times of crisis and challenge. Few social institutions have been as successful as libraries in adapting to and meeting new demands such as those resulting from the latest wave of refugees. Libraries are there for everyone, as a matter of course. And libraries are affected by all social changes.
Unlimited access to information and communication brings many benefits, but it also presents a number of challenges for social cohesion and trust in society. The democratic role and the conditions for doing a good job come up against problems such as media filter bubbles, news avoiders, great divides in digital skills and a lack of technological equipment, online hate and threats, privacy and social media.
The nation also faces antidemocratic movements, propaganda wars and attempts to restrict freedom of speech. We do not currently have equal access to media and information, and we are seeing falling levels of literacy. Libraries and the skill of librarians are part of the answer to these challenges.
We have started our work by asking Sweden’s librarians a number of questions. We have used an open Facebook group to ask libraries questions, and we have received a number of dispatches and communications from experts within the field.
We have sought answers to the following questions:
What is the current situation?
What are the problems?
What is the ideal situation?
Based on the material submitted by the industry itself, we have identified ten trends that deserve further discussion.
1: Participation and place
Over the course of the last decade, libraries have become increasingly significant in terms of visitors’ own activities. As more and more media have become available digitally, library visitors’ needs for participation and physical meetings have changed. Library spaces have therefore undergone a change, from largely being premises for media to increasingly becoming places for meetings between people.
The transition towards physical spaces for people rather than storage spaces for media is a general trend, but differs depending on the type of library being studied. For example, high quality study places are being created at universities, while municipal libraries are offering activities and meeting rooms, enhancing citizens’ opportunities for joint participation through more open public spaces with low thresholds.
All types of library have experienced greater demand for meeting spaces for various purposes, such as advanced study places, artists’ studios, film studios, recording facilities, chat rooms, artistic expression and poetry readings.
2: Media and digital incarceration
It is tempting to draw the conclusion that digital developments can act as a levelling factor for equal access to media. In theory, it should be possible to use technological developments to improve equality, as we are able to download information and media
via the internet wherever we live or study. However, the reality is different.
The transition to digital media is taking place at different rates. In many cases, analogue and digital have been used as dichotomies, with one pointing to the past and the other to the future. We often still think of the one as a replacement for the other, or – as some libraries think – in terms of physical collections versus digital collections. However, the technological shift and its consequences for library operations require a deeper analysis.
Representatives from all types of libraries describe consequences and outcomes of digital media that counteract both the aim of the library’s role and the opportunities offered by technology.
3: Structures and collaboration
Shared responsibility between several state authorities creates duplicated work that prevents synergy gains. A lack of clarity in connection with the distribution of responsibility within library operations makes collaboration and operational development more difficult. What should be the role of the national library? The authorities’ instructions are the result of decades of patches and repairs, and do not complement each other.
The cultural collaboration model has resulted in regional library operations becoming unclear and the structure of support from the regions to public libraries being impeded. The regional level will also be affected by the current review of regional divisions, and here the needs and roles of libraries must be taken into consideration.
Technological developments reinforce the ‘downpipe’ structures within public library operations. These structures are outdated and present a barrier to forwardlooking development. There is no clear main responsibility for development within the sector.
4: Town and countryside
Opening hours, media grants, geographical distances and access to skilled, knowledgeable staff are factors that vary within Swedish libraries. The conditions for complying with the Swedish Library Act differ from town to town, and between urban and rural areas. Everyone’s access to libraries must be provided based on local and regional circumstances.
Someone who lives in Ritsem in the far north of Sweden has to travel 180 kilometres to visit the nearest library. The City of Stockholm has decided that it should take no longer than 30 minutes to visit a library by public transport.
This is one of the study’s more problematic areas. The feedback from library operations reflects a great deal of frustration at different and incompatible cataloguing systems, a lack of clarity in connection with which level is responsible for what, and the difficulty of making open access research accessible in practice. Many initiatives and projects are begun locally, but then grind to a halt due to a lack of financing and operational support.
6: The role of the librarian and professional conditions
The role of the librarian is becoming increasingly multifaceted. Specialist knowledge is required, and librarians also need ongoing skills development in line with the rapid pace of media change.
Large public libraries require additional skills beyond those provided by librarians, and research libraries require systems scientists, communication specialists and publishing knowledge. School librarians’ skills need to be understood by education specialists and head teachers, and specialist and authority librarians need to know a bit about everything. Everyone needs multilingual librarians. The entire industry has expressed difficulties recruiting librarians with the right skills.
7: Higher education and research
University and college libraries have experienced rapid development in recent years. The autonomy reform has tied libraries more closely to individual universities/
colleges, making them part of the institution’s branding and marketing.
Libraries have evolved into producers of knowledge and publishing houses with responsibility for ranking systems, while at the same time offering students access to advanced search services and literature. However, libraries are also encountering great challenges in line with globalisation and the power wielded by international publishers and knowledge providers in a somewhat dependent market.
8: Building up collections
Thanks to the legal deposit requirements, Sweden has a rich printed cultural heritage that has been preserved for research and the future at the National Library of Sweden and Lund University Library. However, media developments have resulted in changed production opportunities and a change in the responsibility for what must be delivered to the cultural heritage collection.
The legal deposit legislation is now partly obsolete, and the preservation of our published cultural heritage should be reviewed. In addition to the two legal deposit libraries (the National Library of Sweden and Lund University Library), five other university libraries also receive copies of all printed materials, but without the same obligation to preserve these.
The volumes have become unmanageable and to a certain extent unwanted, and the legal deposit recipients are thinning out newly received literature on receipt to a growing extent, in a manner that is neither desirable nor sustainable in the long term from a public perspective. At the same time, there are no regulations governing what or how social media activity should be preserved for the future.
9: School libraries
Following the passing of a law to ensure that all schools have access to a school library, there has been lively debate about the wording “access to a school library”. Can this be interpreted as meaning that the law has been complied with if the school has a room containing books that is open for a few hours a week?
In the absence of a definition and in order to produce statistically assured measurements, the National Library of Sweden introduced a statistical definition in 2014. These statistics measure school libraries that are staffed for at least 20 hours a week. According to the National Library of Sweden’s definition, more than half of Sweden’s pupils lack access to a staffed school library.
It is clear from the letters we have received and the discussions we have held with school librarians, head teachers, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, the National Library of Sweden, the Swedish National Agency for Education, the Swedish Agency for Accessible Media, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate, the National Agency for Special Needs Education and School and other bodies that there is a lack of role distribution, monitoring tools and distribution of responsibilities.
It is obvious that there are serious shortcomings when it comes to equal access to school libraries for Sweden’s school pupils. The development of school libraries is one of this investigation’s prioritised issues.
One of the changes between the Swedish Library Act of 1996 and the 2014 version is the wording ‘accessible for everyone’. The concept of everyone is linked to free opinion-forming, and requires active outreach operations.
It also requires a flexible approach when faced with social changes. The role of reaching out and being there for everyone is fundamental to library operations, and is borne primarily by public libraries.
A forward-looking combined national library strategy must clarify what the objective paragraph about ‘everyone’ means in practice.