When I moved to a small country village a few years ago, it seemed that my days as a regular library user were numbered. The nearest sizeable branch was a good ten miles away, and I knew that with my lifestyle I was unlikely to be able to commit to regular trips there to return books I had borrowed or order new ones, while the small branch in the next village and the visiting mobile library had limited choice.
Then I discovered the website: I could browse the catalogue for the entire county online, reserve an item and get it delivered to a branch of my choice, and even request an item that was not in the catalogue.
Making libraries, and the pleasure of reading, accessible to all...
Had I been living in the far more remote area of Västerbotten in northern Sweden, which includes both the town of Umeå and also part of Lapland, I would have been even more fortunate: I could have borrowed from a choice of around a million books and other media, using 1 library card to pick up or return in any 1 of a total of 25 libraries, and, without leaving home, put in a request and even do a review of a book on the library website. That's because northern Sweden is home to a highly innovative project which aims to make libraries, and the pleasure of reading, accessible to all: Bibliotek 2007, and its related website www.minabibliotek.se (my library).
The project, Bibliotek 2007, which started in 2001, involved five municipalities in the Umeå region of Västerbotten: Umeå itself, Robertsfors, Vännäs, Vindeln, Bjurhom, and Nordmalling. The whole area is slightly more than 9,500km2 with a population of 140,000 – roughly a third of the size of Belgium, eight times the size of Buckinghamshire, with only 4 per cent of the latter’s population. Most people live in Umeå, Sweden’s most northerly town, and there is much mobility with many commuting between the regions, mostly into Umeå. There is a history of public funding (in Umeå, half the cultural budget goes to libraries), of cooperation between municipalities, and of respect for the democratic process.
The project looked to even closer cooperation between boundaries in order to enhance the experience for the user, and had a budget of SEK 10.6 million. Despite cooperation between boundaries, the library system was incomprehensible to those who did not work there, and if you lived in the underpopulated area of Bjurholm, you had access to far fewer books than the inhabitants of Umeå did. The intention was to create a system that would make library services equally available to all, regardless of where they lived, and with a particular focus on those with disabilities and immigrants. In other words, a substantial increase in services – but without increasing costs.
The project's history
This project, which started in 2001, aroused some suspicion with the smaller municipalities at first: would they be dominated by Big Brother in Umeå? And funding was initially turned down at county level on the grounds that it was "not sufficiently innovative", but got through on the backing of local politicians – there are unconfirmed reports that the chair of the local executive committee banged his fist to convince county administrators.
The project’s mainstay was a common library system and library card. "The first thing we did", says Lars Eriksson, project manager of Minabibliotek, "was to get all the catalogues together, so we had one catalogue, one user database for all our borrowers, in all municipalities, so the borrower can go in and loan a book from whichever library he or she wants, and put back in another library, whatever part of the region he or she comes from".
The most noticeable advantage for borrowers is access to an exponentially increased stock as Umeå’s 780,000 media items are combined with 175,000 from the other regions. Readers discover new stock via the website, and if someone can’t find what he or she wants in their own public library, then the library can order it from elsewhere. New groups discover new reading possibilities, for example talking books are a boon to lorry drivers and others who spend a long time on the road. Nor is the gain just for those in smaller municipalities, as these libraries often have specialist stock, for example children’s books or education, that can now benefit a wider public.
Democracy, desire for consensus and the establishment of trust is no doubt
a major factor in the project’s success...
Increased accessibility is another bonus – all library services are on the user-friendly website, which means that users can access 24/7 without having to leave their homes. The specific needs of those with functional disabilities are also catered for – each municipality was given about SEK 100,000 to spend on equipment. In addition to special workstations users can benefit from such innovations as AudioIndex, which "reads out" information on titles when pointed at with a special device, and a special guiding path for the visually handicapped. All can benefit from the user-friendly physical layout, with orientation maps and easy-to-read signs.
Picture 1. Minabibliotek library
Picture 2. Minabibliotek library layout
Librarians were naturally delighted that borrowing rates increased or remained static in areas of falling population. They also benefited from administrative streamlining and economies of scale: time saved cataloguing in one as opposed to six catalogues; shared in-service training; reservations from a central catalogue replacing the cumbersome inter-library loan system. Costs of large items such as servers can now be shared between municipalities; increased bargaining power means better deals on infrastructure software and licences. The fact that some municipalities had to change to a new system, LIBRA III, was less painful because they could draw on the expertise of those already using it.
Thus, despite their initial misgivings, their jobs were in some ways made easier, and librarians enjoyed being able to work with colleagues across municipalities. Such good working relationships were fostered by the democratic spirit in the whole project: every member of the steering group had a vote, and although the casting vote was held by Umeå, their chief librarian was skilled in obtaining consensus. Thus there was a feeling of democracy and authority, which resulted in trust and cooperation.
Democracy, desire for consensus and the establishment of trust is no doubt a major factor in the project’s success. Others are the support and buy-in of local politicians, skilled project management which fostered a team approach with a series of skilled working groups going over the routines involved in each process, and above all, a constant focus on the user.
A library’s website is both its shop window and its mirror. Its shop window because many, particularly in isolated areas, will see the website before they enter a library; it is also an opportunity for the library to make recommendations and advertise its wares. Its mirror because it seeks to replicate the physical functions of the library in virtual space.
Minabibliotek contains all the functions of the physical library: users search the online catalogue, and having found what they want, they can reserve, borrow, or renew. Just as the physical layout has been taken into consideration in library design, so has the virtual environment: using the website is a pleasurable experience, with clear navigation, easy-to-use systems, and a pleasant interface.
Picture 3. Minabibliotek website interface
A special sub-project took responsibility for the site’s full accessibility, looking to ensure that the text was easily readable and that the OPAC catalogue could be manoeuvred in different ways for different disabilities.
The real paradigm shift however is in the creation of a Web 2.0 environment, with user-generated content. To the basic functions of searchable catalogue and library services, the site adds content. Users can comment on books they have read, or find information about books they might want to read, echoing the browsing facility of Amazon.
"We wanted to do something new about the catalogue, because the OPAC catalogue was no good for the library," says project manager, Lars Eriksson, "and we wanted to take in content from the borrowers so they could put what they liked into it. So we integrated OPAC into our website, the borrowers can rate and tag books, and they can also write comments about them, whether they were outstanding or average".
The user-generated content however is controlled, with editors vetting and selecting articles before they go online. However, the benefits are obvious – the borrowers get more recommended reads, while the librarians get new ideas for catalogue subject headings, and for reading lists. Sometimes there may be an article on a particular topic or author, but always with the intention of drawing the borrower virtually and eventually physically into the library to borrow more books. It’s all about, as Eriksson says, "presenting our books in a new way so that interested people come to the library". And certainly Minabibliotek, with its thumbnails of covers with mini reviews on the left-hand side, has more of a feel of a smart, online bookstore than a municipal library.
The library as a meeting place
The library, however, is more than a repository for books and other media: it is a meeting place, and the many activities are given high prominence on the site. Minabibliotek, however, also seeks to be a virtual meeting place: "The good thing about it is, we have a lot of groups, reading groups, interest groups are taking place physically in the library. And we think that those groups could also live in the virtual library. The discussion in the physical library could go on between the meetings in the virtual library, and the other way around, you could take a virtual group, and make it a real meeting in the library", says Eriksson.
Picture 4. Virtual groups
The idea of library meetings, virtual or physical, is also a pleasing one for the politicians involved, there are currently 55 groups with 580 members on subjects ranging from history to football, and borrowers can meet other borrowers with similar interests online.
"...in a virtual library the librarian is on the same level as the borrowers..."
Such "borrower power", believes Eriksson, causes a subtle shift in the role of the librarian – "in a virtual library the librarian is on the same level as the borrowers, often the borrowers have far more expertise than the librarian". Just as the power of the Internet and the big search engines such as Google mean that people are less reliant on the information seeking skills of the librarian, so has the latter’s power of recommending been democratized.
However, it’s hard to imagine the librarians of Umeå region looking for a role. They have already found it: being one or two steps ahead of the user and anticipating their needs. Ability to borrow literature and reading material from libraries is one of the EU’s factors for a good living environment, and on that score, this part of northern Sweden certainly excels.