onsdag 24 november 2010

Public libraries sctrutinized - how do they respond?

In Sweden we have, during the last few weeks, been exposed to a very interesting public debate on the role of public libraries. The core issue is that some libraries, among them Stockholm Public Library, the largest in the country, have out-sourced a large amount of the collection development to a commercial net book store owned by the largest publishing concern in the country. As such this is unprecedented in Swedish library history and the significance of this step should not be underestimated. However, I will not argue here on the issue as such, but instead focus on an aspect of the debate itself which is interesting and, when the waves of discussions and emotions have come to rest, will lend itself to thorough analysis.

Usually when discussions and debates on public libraries arise, the libraries are the “victims” – of bad economy, of evil politicians or of some other force outside themselves that is trying to impose on their democratically defined mission in society. This time, the roles are reverse – the librarians are the “bad guys”. This gives a certain flavor to the discussion as representatives of the libraries cannot count of the support of the public. This is something that the library sector is very unaccustomed to.

Much discussion has been taking place – as so often today – in great many places, not least in “public” fora that still are private. Facebook has been one arena of debate where several librarians have suffered severely (in terms of arguments) from hard attacks from not only authors, but also from the general public. I will have to return to these comments in another way than this as I do not wish to take discussions outside of these “private rooms” (that so paradoxically are the new favorites of public libraries, all in the name of “user communication”). The conventions of citing such foras are still uncertain to me. However, we can stick to the debate that is increasingly visible in public daily media. What is clear is that the library sector is not ready for the critique that is now directed towards it. A good example is a short comment on the role of public libraries published in Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, today. It is written by Inga Lundén, Head of Stockholm Public Library. The thing is that Lundén is not only that - she is also the chair woman of the board of Swedish Library Association. Her sitting on two chairs may become a problem here not only for her, but for the library sector as a whole.

Lundén´s comment is politically correct and an abstract defense of the widely accepted thought of libraries as important institutions safe-guarding certain democratic values etc. We have heard it all so many times before. In no aspect does she meet the very clear and issue related critique of “her” library. But do the public believe her? I doubt it. And of course it is important to ask – as what is she responding, as head of Stockholm Public Library now under such heavy fire from so many directions, or as the highest representative of Swedish library sector?

Lundén’s comment is interesting in itself, but even more as a representation for what might be seen as a new kind of library discourse in public debate. The defensive way of responding to critique of concrete changes in the policy of public library seems typical for many of the librarians now scrutinized. It is clear that this debate creates massive unease among public libraries. If public libraries of today are to go through with an ideological change of unprecedented significance and size, taking them into a position where sales values become more important than social responsibility, they might do well to study some conflict management.

Without doubt such a change is rapidly taking place now. Actions are taken, but the arguments are not there. Instead we see a sector hiding behind old familiar slogans that it obviously does not believe in any more. Analytically this is interesting. Politically it might, in the end, turn out to be devastating.

fredag 12 november 2010

Change in academic libraries - comments on a new report

Public libraries are often in focus when it comes to discussions on change in the library sector. Today their nervous relationship to social media is a constant matter of concern. The question is, however, if the changes we see in public libraries come anywhere near the complexity and profoundness of those today being seen within the academic libraries. Being an integrated part in higher educational systems in great flux these libraries seldom get the space they deserve in discussions of library development. In a new report published by the Swedish Library Association conclusions are drawn from various sources on the condition of today’s academic libraries, and the expectations of those of the future. It is a good and thought provoking read. Three areas are hightlighted as more interesting than others, in terms of change and development:

- User relations. Traditionally, academic libraries have served researchers, but today students are the prime user group. This makes it necessary to rethink the very mission of the academic library.

- Relations to universities. Development has gone from libraries being a central part of the universities to them being more and more integrated in the core activities of the university – teaching and research.

- Technology. New technology has for long now been the most overwhelming change factor in academic libraries. With it comes not only new forms of documents and document distribution, but a whole new way of scholarly communication, in which libraries traditionally have had a very clear role.

None of these findings are new, nor unexpected. It is, however, when they are brought together that we can clearly see the massive change that is taking place in academic libraries today.

One of the things that is mentioned in the report, but not thoroughly discussed, is the relation between academic libraries and other parts of the national library system. This is something of a core issu, which has bearings into all three areas mentioned above. The dramatic increase of students at under graduate level – most notably perhaps distance students – makes it necessary for public libraries to handle the same users as the academic libraries. In itself, it is an old problem, but there seem to be no real will to discuss it seriously today.

Organisational change has made academic libraries increasingly dependant of the activities of the local university. Not only do libraries develop its traditional roles as support to diciplines, but they also tend to be a more engaged part in research itself, for example as physical hosts for research groups etc. This becomes important as, for instance, issues like inter-library co-operation both locally and nationally, may be complicated – if there will not develop some kind of structure for this in the library sector. It is important that both relations to other libraries and to the local university are cared for. The report claims that the development we saw about a decade ago, where public libraries and academic libraries became closer and closer not least in organisational terms – think joint use libraries – now seems to have more or less stopped. This is interesting as the areas where the different forms of libraries intersect today is more obvious than ever. Academic libraries become increasingly “popular” due to the mass acceptance of students, and public libraries has to serve these students in more and more sophisticated ways. The common denominator we find as library educators is the increasing demand for pedagogical perspectives in formulating the “new” librarianship in our LIS programmes.

Despite all, academic librarians seem to be a happy group of people, as they experience no threat to the existence of the library, although user behaviours tend to decrease the value of libraries as we know them. The fact that today’s academic libraries do not look at all like those from only a few decades back – mostly due to the new user patterns and the new technology - does not seem to bother anyone. Can we expect anything but a similar speed of change in the future to come, and if so can we in just a few years time speak of these libraries in the same terms as we do today – or that we did just a few years back? Is such change necessarily a good thing?
No doubt, we here see a sector that embraces change for the sake of change itself – as do public libraries. The difference is that change in academic libraries aims more to the very core of their activities as in public libraries change is taking place around them. Well - that may be a discussion worth returning to in another entry of this blog…

The issues discussed in the report focus on the Swedish situation, but they are in most cases genuinely international – the same developments can be seen in most parts of the world.

The report, Universitets- och högskolebibliotek – nu och i framtiden [University and university college libraries – now and in the futeture] is in Swedish, and you find it on the website of Swedish Library Association.