The Future Sound of Libraries, Revisited: Interview with Martin Kristoffer Bråthen

martinkbrathenToday I’m joined by Norway’s Martin Kristoffer Bråthen. Martin is head of innovation and product development at Biblioteksentralen, the cooperative business which supplies libraries across Norway with collection materials, equipment and services.

 

Prior to that, Martin worked at Deichman Bibliotek, the Oslo Public Library, in a range of project roles. During that time, he wrote a robust defence of public libraries in the age of the e-book in response to a comment by a senior Norwegian arts editor that “digitisation leaves public libraries on the scrapheap of history.”

 

That’s an old battle, long ago fought and won, but Martin’s response, published in the Aftenposten newspaper, is worth checking out for its thoughtful and imaginative reframing of what public libraries do.

In response to a comment that libraries are like a record store which must close in the age of online streaming, he writes:

The role of libraries is not the same as the record store.

To make the difference clear, let’s turn things around and imagine a new service. Call it “Musikkteket” – the “Musotheque”.

Here, all are welcome – rich and poor, young and old. Music finds a context here. You can discuss it with other enthusiasts. There are many activities which show music from different perspectives.

Why did an artist choose to use a given instrument? What inspired them? The artist may come in to meet you; then you can ask them for yourself.

Do you want to dance to music? Alone or with others? The Musotheque offers both possibilities, and cooperates with local dance groups who are happy to help with choreography. Or maybe you want to practice your moves before your wedding dance?

For children, music theatre is a gateway to musical play and make-believe. Special concerts and dance performances meant for curious little minds can be found here. (Mum and dad are invited too). This is the place where adults also learn from children.

At the back of the Musotheque, there is an old record player that has to be wound up. There you can experience how grandfather listened to music when he was little. Bigger relationships become visible here, too. Content from the Musotheque staff is presented alongside historical material to show the larger connections. Here, the past meets the present.

If you find streaming services are inaccessible and hard-to-use, employees show you how to access them. If you’ve never used a PC before, they take you through the process step-by-step.

They believe that a basic understanding of data tools is vital – participation in society demands it more and more.

They help at your pace. Free.

Martin then points out that Norwegian society wouldn’t need a Musotheque, because the public library already covers these roles – and for other kinds of media too. In fact, the mere digitisation of content is no barrier to the mission of the public librarian: it creates more opportunities and community needs than ever before.

Since the article was published in 2012, Martin began his innovation role with the cooperative supplying Norwegian libraries’ collections, resources, and centralised services. I asked him how things have changed since he wrote his article six years ago.

What has changed in the Norwegian library landscape since 2012? What new opportunities have arisen? Are there any new threats?

New opportunities arise all the time, and I believe that libraries in Norway generally are quick to respond with fresh ideas to new demands – especially on a local level. What I would like to see more of is collaborations and common quests for collective impacts.

I would love to see the public libraries in Norway make a greater joint effort to discuss the bigger questions about libraries’ role; e.g. If not books, then what? Should the library serve as an editor in a time when the truth is up for grabs? What about conversation moving to digital platforms, or the library as the remedy for a time when we unlearn how to talk face to face?

A single library might be in danger of extinction (fairly or otherwise), but as a concept, libraries should now recognize themselves as one of the most important public services, and act accordingly on all levels.

Not long after I wrote this article, the law regulating public libraries in Norway was adjusted. Not fundamentally, but still with important and interesting changes to the mandate. The role of a meeting place and a platform for debate and conversation was formalized as an ambition for all public libraries in Norway.

This is to me the most interesting opportunity for us to embrace on a larger scale than today. The national structure consisting of Norway’s libraries provides a unique and open arena for all, a powerhouse of democracy! There are few other networks of physical meeting places where actual true diversity is encountered and recognised every day; places where we are exposed to the differences which make our communities distinctive, where we are influenced by those differences, and given the opportunity to learn, grow, or change as a result of these encounters. (The education system is of course an important actor here as well, but somewhat lacks flexibility, given its inherent and self-reinforcing set of rules and standards).

The threat is no longer Google or e-books (at least for now), since they obviously cannot compete as the alternative physical space — and we now know this to be on high demand as new and upgraded library buildings have a huge and consistent rise in visitor numbers. So, then the biggest threat might be within in the libraries themselves.

Are they willing to leave something behind to provide enough room to explore what the new core service should be in this fast paced and shifting world? And will they rightfully demand the stage for this new story to be heard?  If the libraries passively wait for politicians to act on their behalf, I am afraid they may fall behind and have trouble staying relevant.

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Above: The current Deichman Library in Oslo, and artists’ impressions of its successor

How does Biblioteksentralen seek to change as collections become less physical and more digital? What other services might you explore?

I see the most important task, at least in the short term, to provide services that enable library staff more time to explore new roles and responsibilities, and at the same time deliver concrete value to their users. We own part of a dynamic design company in Denmark called Redia, where lots of innovative ideas and products emerge as we speak. “Open libraries” give users access before and after regular opening hours, which means new demands for self-service. Our product Libry Butler makes serving yourself an enjoyable task and presents content and functionality in an interface adapted for library needs.

The e-book hasn’t been the paper book killer many expected back in 2012, but the demand for digital content is very much present. We therefore deliver an innovative reading app called BookBites and an e-book shop for libraries. This work is just getting started, but I believe these to be examples that can help introducing services to a wide range of new users moving forward. Consequently it is important to operate with methods based on design principles, so we stay in touch with to the true needs of the staff and user. And there’s a big task ahead: we need to keep developing strategic collaboration with libraries.

We should always strive to be their most important partner – and therefore understand when to take the active part and when to give them room to grow on their own. So, we need to find a balance between being a provider of innovative services, and as a facilitator that hands over inspiration and methods for themselves to figure out the how.

What are the benefits of operating these centralized services as a cooperative? How has your role altered since moving to the new organization?

A big benefit, as I see it, is the network a co-op provides – it enables us to easily tap into a huge collective knowledge through engaged library staff all around the country. It also means that we have an exceptionally big responsibility to offer services that benefit our customers, since they also indirectly own us. We need to deliver times two, and plan to do so.

Personally, the biggest change is the constant exploration mode I am in the middle of right now – to figure out where am I needed the most. It is a challenging position, but at the same time very motivating.

What does “innovation” mean to you – in your sector, and more broadly? What does good innovation look like and what are the obstacles to making good innovations work?

First thing that comes to mind is people. To me the biggest element of innovation is different people exchanging content. And by content I basically mean everything. It is by putting things out there – good, bad, small or big, we create new shapes and meaning.

And so, follows a key word: inclusiveness. A mono mind set is devastating to innovation, as I see it.  That is why I find working close to libraries so rewarding – a library is at its core a unique catalyst for exchange of ideas and content across differences, and therefore the perfect place for innovation to happen. If we isolate environments where change is defined and create too many thresholds for participation I believe the results will miss their targets.

Let’s use the maker movement or maker spaces as examples. What is happening inside these arenas probably touches on important building blocks for tomorrow’s demands: ranging from self-employment and sustainability, to the sharing economy and creative problem solving.

These are not merely fun (well, that too!), but might be the actual mechanics of how we arrange our societies soon. If we exclude a large demographic in the discussion and definition of this, we’re in deep trouble. I’m convinced that the library is a part of the solution to avoid just that.

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