Although Jon Birger Østby himself comes from the museum sector, where he was director of Norwegian museum development, the library world is by no means foreign to him. He was at one time head of the documentation department at the Norwegian Folk Museum and therefore also responsible for the museum library. For several years he has also been a member of the board of BIBSYS, a centre providing computer services and other assistance to libraries in higher education and research and also to many libraries run by national and private institutions.
“Naturally I also bring to the job knowledge gained from long experience as a library user, which is very important”, claims Østby.
He refers to his time spent at the Norwegian Folk Museum as illustrative of the differences between librarians and museum curators.
“The museum library contained many old works of reference and I was naturally concerned to look after them to the best of my ability. The librarian, however, was more interested in use than conservation and wanted to make this material available to as many people as possible”, Østby explains. The question of accessibility is a key consideration for this new joint organisation.
“We do not exist for our own sake but to serve the community. We shall focus on the end-users, since they are the people who matter. All three sectors administer, both individually and collectively, a vast store of knowledge and a cultural heritage which we must try to make available to the public in the best possible way. The work of archives, libraries and museums overlaps in many areas. Many museums, for example, maintain local archives and the same is true of libraries. The challenge is to create a system making this material easily accessible to users across the three sectors.
Emphasis on development The main structure for the Development Centre has been agreed upon. This new national organisation will consist of three departments; one for administration, one for information and one for development. The latter department will be by far the largest with more than half of the total staff of 60 to 70 persons. Priority will be given to development initiatives rather than to supervisory and control functions.
It recently became clear that the Centre will also be given the responsibility of running Kulturnett Norge with its four sector networks for archives, libraries, museums and art. This was previously the work of the Norwegian National Library. Responsibility for Kulturnett Norge will be assigned to the information department and Østby feels that being entrusted with this task will prove a productive initiative for the new institution. Østby emphasises that the Centre will be organised on the basis of functions rather than of sectors. “It has been a precondition from the start that organisation of the new institution should not be rooted in the three different sectors, otherwise the whole point of amalgamating would be lost. As a result we shall now have a much wider professional environment. Although everybody has their own particular field of expertise, much of the knowledge possessed by members of staff is relevant to all sectors”. Østby is nevertheless aware that there will always be tasks specific to one particular sector.
“I should like to st ress that there will still be sector tasks. We must not fall into the trap of placing so great an emphasis on the collective aspect as to forget what is specific to each sector. Both aspects must receive equal attention”
State involvement In Jon Birger Østby’s opinion central government involvement will be stronger after the establishment of the Development Centre. “By gathering our resources together, we strengthen state participation. The aim of this merger was not to save money for the government. A new institution will in fact release more funds at national level and it is to be hoped that this in turn will lead to greater generosity from county and municipal authorities. Improved financing is nevertheless only a means on the path towards developing sound institutions that utilise their resources in the best possible way. Our attitude should not be that something new can only be achieved by means of increased funding. It is also a question of making the best use of the resources available. Even if the Ministry does provide increased funding, we must still bear in mind the expectations that exist of the merger in itself having a positive synergy effect.”
“Very important to our future work are the signals we have received of increased funding for projects. Instead of basing our activities solely on the applications submitted to us, we shall also initiate our own projects. There will probably be fewer projects but they will be larger and will last for longer periods. Some of these projects will call for the joint efforts of all three sectors.”
Østby has no difficulty in pointing out further advantages in amalgamating the three institutions into one. “In the Development Centre we shall aim to improve expertise across sector boundaries. The development of reliable statistics, for example, is an area suitable for the close co-operation of all sectors. Another field presenting many joint challenges to all sectors is that of information and communication technology. This will undoubtedly become a central area for shared initiatives. Last but not least; as a joint organisation we have greater power and will be better able to tackle the tasks already existing. We shall endeavour to raise the profile of the three sectors and to strengthen their position in the political environment.”
Positive reactions For Jon Birger Østby the working day is never dull and sometimes hectic. Together with the interim board he is aiming to have all the pieces in place before the end of the year. During the autumn priority was given to setting out the main objectives and deciding how best to tackle them. At the same time efforts were being made to find new premises. Although at present the three institutions are in fact housed in the same building in the centre of Oslo, they are located on different floors and contact has been somewhat limited.
What of the reactions to this me rger among members of staff?
“Personally I have received a warm welcome from employees. Basic attitudes have been positive and expectations high, which makes the process easier. Naturally a measure of uncertainty has also been evident. People are different. Some like change while others feel more comfortable if things stay the way they always have been. Some see the possibilities of new thinking, while others are afraid of losing their security.”
“Processes of change will always be difficult and demanding, but we are in the happy situation that there has been no talk of staff reductions. All those who want to stay will be able to do so. A certain amount of impatience has been evident among staff, but this is mainly due to our having been obliged to work in parallel on several matters. Some people would doubtless have preferred a step-by-step approach.”
Jon Birger Østby has also given priority to ensuring good contact with external environments.
“It is important to maintain a direct dialogue with the sectors, in order to stimulate development. We have held brain-storming seminars and have set aside time to meet external institutions and seek their contribution. It has been very useful for us to hear what the expectations are out in the different sectors and equally important to note any criticism. If we are to get our priorities right and achieve satisfactory results, the first condition is a positive and open dialogue with the individual sectors enabling us all to think along the same lines. I have met a g reat number of people and a high level of interest. The majority of those who work in the archives, library and museum sectors are socially-aware, committed people.”
Østby is also concerned with co-operation across national borders.
“We are also interested in an international dialogue, not simply because we can learn a great deal from what has been achieved in other countries but also because I believe that Norway has a contribution to make on the international scene.”
But surely there must have been some advantage in the past for each sector to have its own institution to further its interests.
“Obviously it is less of a problem to retain a clear picture within a single working environment and it is easier for one sector to keep itself updated than for three.
I readily admit that there was a certain amount of scepticism in the museum sector when the Norwegian Centre for Museum Development was closed down. This institution was newly established only a few years ago and had been provided with the financial resources necessary to carry out a number of initiatives and projects. Some people have been afraid that the amalgamation of the three sectors would lead to less focus on museums, but it is up to us to demonstrate that working in an interdisciplinary environment can be just as interesting and rewarding.”
The challengesWhat in your opinion will be the foremost tasks facing libraries in the years ahead?
“As an advisory body for the library sector the Development Centre will contribute to ensuring that libraries are highly competent sources of knowledge, capable of meeting the wishes and needs of all user groups from children to research workers. This is a vital foundation for the further development of a democratic society. We must also ensure that we reach out to people who today make little use of libraries. In other words we must make libraries an attractive place for those who up to now have had limited contact with the library system.We must make people aware of what the libraries have to offer and herein lies an enormous task of information. How many people, for example, know about distance-lending services? Very few are aware of the fact that their local library can obtain any book, even one not in its own stock.”
“In addition we shall continue the good work already being done to attract children and young people into using the library. Efforts to reach out to minority groups will also be increased,” asserts Østby and refers to a recent survey revealing that the greatest influence on a child’s learning is neither place of residence nor parental income. The decisive factor is whether or not the child has access to cultural capital, such as books. Østby continues, “We must ensure that those who lack cultural stimuli at home can find possibilities elsewhere and it is here that libraries have an important role to play.”
What are your ambitions as director of the Development Centre? “My main aim is to encourage and improve skills and competence. If we are to succeed in this respect, responsibility must be delegated in order for staff members to feel that they have scope and latitude in their work. If I were to produce a declaration of intent, I would wish for an institution where mistakes can be made and accepted. That is not to say that we should be indifferent to quality requirements but if we are afraid of making mistakes, nothing exciting is likely to happen.We must be ready to put any failures behind us and dare to push on.”
Østby continues,“I realise that there is a balance to be achieved between creating an image for the institution, which can be marketed externally, while at the same time retaining trust and confidence internally. I may have difficulty in managing equally well in both roles, but that is the challenge.”
Translated by Eric Deverill
Jon Birger Østby
A qualified civil engineer, Østby has previously worked at the TrØndelag Museum and then at the Norwegian Folk Museum, where he was employed for 15 years before becoming director of Norwegian museum development. In January 2002 he was appointed to be the first director of the Norwegian Development Centre for Archives, Libraries and Museums.
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