Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Public libraries in knowledge societies: the Norwegian experience

The Norwegian knowledge manifesto

The full manifesto is about three pages in print. The ten points below is a brief summary.

  1. Norway is moving from a welfare state to a knowledge based society
  2. Broad access to education is necessay for a knowledge based economy
  3. Values are created by people that are competent, knowledgable and culturally aware
  4. The knowledge society must be realized locally
  5. Public libraries need new ideas and new tasks
  6. Local communities need a place that can provide learning, knowledge and culture in a free and open setting
  7. Public libraries support the ties that link people and places
  8. Culture gives meaning to wealth
  9. An investment in public libraries is an investment in future productivity and welfare
  10. Library development is a knowledge policy for local communities.
The campaign

Our national campaign The public library in the knowledge society was launched with a press conference at the Norwegian Parliament on January 19, 2005. Several distinguished members of parliament with a commitment to cultural affairs participated and gave their strong support to the campaign manifesto.

The campaign is associated with the multi-year ALA and IFLA campaign "@t your library".


During the last few years Norwegian public libraries have experienced many new challenges. Regular lending of books is stagnant - even though more and more people have higher education. Competition in the mass market for books is increasing. Books that sell well are now relatively cheap. Bookstores on the web - inside and outside Norway (Amazon!) - provide a wide range of books at decent prices.

Why should we use taxes to pay for books that people can afford to buy?

Digital developments make our users much more self-sufficient with respect to information. Most children use Google as a matter of course.

Why should we finance reference services when people manage reasonably well by themselves?

Our national Law on Public Libraries, which regulates the public library system. is under pressure. The law does oblige every municipality to provide a public library. But it does not specify any minimum level of service. Market thinking is influencing the public sector. The municipalities, which finance public libraries through local taxes, are gradually given more leeway - and some want to reduce services to a minimum. Some politicians are already asking whether we will need public libraries in the future.

At the national level, libraries, museums and archives have been asked to work more closely together. The two government organizations that used to coordinate library activities - for public and professional libraries respectively, have been merged with the corresponding bodies for museums and archives into a "cultural memory" authority.

Many librarians are soft-spoken, careful and somewhat inhibited. Do we have to get involved in politics? These days people from the museum sector are often more outspoken and more innovative. The whole concept of what a museum is and what an exhibition should do is visibly changing.

Public librarians need to learn visibility from museum people. Good exhibitions are created by exhibitionists!

In the National Library Association, public libraries, on the one hand, and academic libraries, on the other, used to work closely together. In the last couple of years, however, all libraries in higher education have been caught up in the Bologna process.

The great reform in European higher education has been very good for libraries involved in teaching. They are becoming active, student oriented teaching institutions ("learning centres") rather than research libraries with (at best) reading rooms for students. But their strategic focus is now Higher Education rather than Cultural Memory.

The "library sector" is dividing into a dynamic learning sector, on the one hand, and a more traditional public library sector, on the other. School libraries can go either way. If they get solid support, they become learning centers. If they are treated as static book collections, students will invade the public libraries instead.

Reinventing public libraries

The general public, by the way, is seldom interested in the difference between library sectors. Many Norwegian students are not aware of the distinction between a university library and a public library. If the "book place" can help them with their reading list, that is all they ask. And the students are right. Libraries are service institutions first of all. Libraries are what libraries do.

You may ask if the Norwegian experiences are relevant for Rumania. The economic and material conditions are, of course, different. In Norway, we envy Denmark and - especially - Finland. In Rumania, you may well envy all the Nordic countries.

Within Europe, there are major inequalities between East and West, and between South and North. It is frustrating to see the possibilities - and not being able to realize them.

But at a deeper level our library systems - and our lives - are caught up in the same massive historical processes:

  • the change from industrial to knowledge based economies;
  • a massive investment in higher education;
  • the move from paper to digital media;
  • the rapid unification of Europe - and the beginning unification of the world.
The world is also becoming a single society - but it will hardly turn into a proper state before 2100 ....

The changes since I last visited Rumania - in the mid-seventies - are overwhelming. And if I come back thirty years from now, Rumania and Norway and Europe will be different places alltogether.

In a thirty year perspective, we will all face the same challenge: how to recreate a traditional 20th century institution for life and growth in a global, digital, mobile, market-oriented knowledge-based society.

Facing change

We do not believe libraries can be reinvented from above. The forceful methods of Peter the Great and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk are not available anymore - I am afraid. Important cultural institutions - schools, universities, churches, newspapers, libraries - depend on the dedicated work of professionals. They will only change deeply if people change deeply.

Most professionals are conservative at work. Professionals are trained to see themselves as inheritors and continuators - and sometimes forget that the traditions they adhere to were created by reformers and innovators.

Library history is full of battles. The very concept of lending - letting books out of the library - was once revolutionary. Dewey was a crank and open shelves a scandal. But that was a long time ago. Public libraries have been technologically stable for a long time.

Today, of course, the quiet river of librarianship is not so quiet anymore. The Nile is approaching a cataract.

All libraries have to take digital technologies seriously. Today, I read, four million Rumanians use the web every month. This means that more or less everybody will be on the web in ten, or even five, years.

Every cultural institution needs to step back and ask itself: what will that mean for us - in a few years?

Cell phones are spreading by themselves. And a cell phone is not really a phone anymore, but a small portable computer. People will basically be on the web all the time. Commercial firms offer a growing range of phone based services.

And every cultural institution needs to step back and ask itself: what will that mean for us?

Digital technology as such develops at a steady pace - as indicated by Moore`s law. We can predict fairly well the basic technological capacities in 2010 and 2015. It is much harder to predict the rates of response in different social sectors.

Some will make a fast and easy transit from paper to screen. Some will struggle and protest. But in the end - thirty years from now - the differences will not matter, I suspect. Every profession - from lawyers to librarians - and every social institution - from museums to municipal governments - will live in a profoundly digital and web-oriented world.

We take electricity, phones and radios - and their social consequences - for granted. Our children will be as digital as we are electrical. Strategic planning means to prepare for the next genneration.

Twelve strategies for change in libraries - and most other places

  1. Involve people from different professions: marketing, design, computers, politics - as well as librarians
  2. Present cases from abroad - using relevant countries: Finland, Portugal, Netherlands, Norway ...
  3. Develop and present cases from your own country
  4. Combine support from above and support from the grassroots (or intermediate level)
  5. Feed the eagles: give the doers with a vision space enough to develop strong wings
  6. Focus on users and their experiences in libraries
  7. Develop and present relevant library statistics
  8. Tell exciting stories about libraries
  9. Combine vision, strategy and tactics
  10. Work inward (towards librararians) and outward (towards users, voters, politicians) at the same time
  11. Walk the talk. That means:: use new media and new models of communications when you discuss new media and new models of communication.
  12. Postpone discussions about money - but not forever ...


In September 2003 a few practising public librarians decided to set up a small working group on public library policy. At the (biannual) national meeting of the Norwegian Library Association in March 2004, the organisation accepted our proposal to create a Special Interest Group on Public Library Policy.

The new SIG is organised as a network and uses the WWW for most of its activities (I am the web editor). We run an active web site and communicate with our members through a mailing list.

In early 2005 the interim board organized a web based election of a regular board with seven members. The candidates presented themselves through web pages. Voting was also carried out on the web. Each member of the group received a PIN code from the NLA, selected candidates from a web form and "signed" with the PIN code.

@your library
The Campaign for the World's Libraries. From IFLA
@your library. Home page for the US campaign.

The Library White Paper

A new Library White Paper is currently being prepared by the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority, acting on behalf of The Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs. The main objective is to create a strategy document that will serve as the basis for a fundamental revision of the library sector as a whole.

Scenario thinking is an important part of the process. The Norwegian Library Association is involved on a consultative basis, but the Authority has the final word - and heated debates on basic principles are likely in the autumn.

External links

Norwegian Library Association. For information in English, choose About us
Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority: English


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