Open libraries?

A study of change, adaptation and legitimation in national and university libraries

The world of libraries is changing, but in what ways? Do social development and digitisation render the library as we know it old-fashioned and irrelevant? The goal of the research project Open libraries? has been to critically examine the processes of change and to ascertain how Norwegian national and university libraries today are legitimized, used and perceived.

Humanities and Social Sciences Library, University of Oslo. Photo: Francesco SaggioFour researchers with different professional backgrounds participated in the project: social anthropologist and senior research librarian at the University of Oslo Library Astrid Anderson, who has conducted prior research on place, belonging and mediation of knowledge in Papua New Guinea; philosopher of education and senior research librarian Ingerid Straume, who is currently founding a writing centre at the same institution and has been concerned with education and democracy; social anthropologist Cicilie Fagerlid, who has done field research in multicultural environments in London, Paris and at Furuset Library; and cultural sociologist Håkon Larsen, who has conducted research on cultural policy and the cultural sector with a special focus on the issue of legitimation.

All four researchers have a shared focus on what we might call library culture. The goal in each of the subprojects was to examine the library from academic perspectives other than those normally taken by the established library research environments. The project is funded by the National Library and the University of Oslo Library.

Why openness?

In the process of formulating the overall project, we found that various ideas about ‘openness’ linked the subprojects together. It can be said that openness is a keyword in modern library development, but both openness and accessibility have traditionally been highly valued attributes of Norwegian libraries as well.

In an ideal sense, digitisation of texts makes collections open and accessible and provides new opportunities for dissemination and sharing. Although increasingly more literature is digitally accessible, the need for workplaces and meeting places has not diminished, and the physical libraries are changing in line with this.

Public libraries are placing more and more emphasis on their role as social meeting places and arenas for discussion, and the National Library of Norway devotes a lot of time to dissemination and to inviting the public to the library. We are witnessing similar developments in the university libraries, while at the same time openness is also being emphasized in other areas of the research world: open forms of teaching, open data, open researcher networks and more open disciplinary borders.

The duality of openness

The project primarily shows that openness in these contexts does not refer to a single, unambiguous value. Openness is a vague notion with a positive ring that is readily used in legitimizing processes of change. However, whereas access to digital sources appears to be essential to the advancement of informed democracy, we also run the risk that our outward view is restricted by the very amount of information available.

When library spaces are opened up to sound and activities, we simultaneously run the risk of shutting out the free, silent community of people and literature that produce new knowledge. Openness to interdisciplinarity takes time away from indepth submersion in specifics.

Digitised texts become accessible to more readers, but screen-reading yields poorer learning for many people. Open spaces containing books that one can touch and sense in a number of ways are locked inside machines and made less accessible for bodily experience. Many aspects of openness are imbued with this dual nature.

Legitimation and openness

The four subprojects have individually addressed various aspects of these developments. Through observation and analyses of policy documents, newspaper articles and interviews, Håkon Larsen has investigated how the National Library of Norway legitimizes its activities.

He shows how dissemination of the collections to as large a public as possible is becoming an increasingly more important aspect of the National Library’s activities, and he demonstrates how the director general of the National Library of Norway plays a key role in this effort through his public promotion of the National Library’s legitimacy as an open and inclusive organization and arena.

New library functions

Ingerid Straume has set focus on the University of Oslo Library’s implementation of a new function – a centre for academic writing. Writing centres of this kind are relatively new in Norway, and Straume speaks to the theoretical basis for writing centres and the consequences of their location in libraries.

In this light, they can be seen as the very embodiment of ideals pertaining to openness, with a low threshold for usage and with the needs of the writer as the focal point.

Atmosphere and sense of community

Cicilie Fagerlid and Astrid Anderson have applied methods such as participant observation, group interviews, photo diaries and drawing tasks in their research on what the distinctive fellowship in the physical library means to students who use the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at the University of Oslo.

Much research has been done on public libraries as places, but not as much attention has been devoted to research libraries. As a meeting place and social arena, the university library is different from a public library since the former is primarily a workplace for those who use it.

Accordingly, openness as a quality of the university library must necessarily be different from that of the public library: it must be openness in a sense that supports and strengthens the research work. This entails making literature and other sources available to the researchers and students in the ways that yield best research and learning.

Moreover, the library as a physical place must be open for allowing students and researchers to acquire this shared knowledge – and to produce new knowledge – in the best ways possible. The University of Oslo is fortunate in this respect because the library comprises many buildings in which different atmospheres and environments can be created: something for all tastes and all work routines.

The students who were interviewed for the project emphasize the atmosphere and sense of community in the library – not only through the company of one another in a quiet, disciplined, shared work environment, but also with the physical books that embody a fellowship of knowledge that stretches beyond the library in both time and space.

In a way, one becomes part of a noble project, as one student put it.

For corporeal, sensing individuals, the surroundings in which we learn and the media by which we learn are not irrelevant. In other words, it appears important that a focus on openness should not also entail restricting the freedom to choose from among a diversity of learning methods and means of mediating knowledge.

Future plans

One outcome of the project will be an anthology published (open access) in the spring of 2017 through the Cappelen Damm publishing house. Several researchers from different disciplines with various perspectives on openness and the library have been invited to make contributions; beyond this, we hope to publish research findings in various additional forums.

Social anthropologist and senior lecturer University of Oslo
Social anthropologist and senior research librarian University of Oslo Library