This week, I caught up with Martin Kristoffer Bråthen. Martin’s head of innovation at Biblioteksentralen, the cooperative business which supplies libraries across Norway with collection materials, equipment, and services.
Martin was a participant in the recent scenarios for the future of Norwegian schools project, and previously talked about ‘the Future Sound of Libraries’ on this site in 2018.
This time, we got together to talk about physical versus digital library services; curation, content, and filter bubbles in the age of Netflix; and, inevitably, the pandemic.
In fact, that’s where we started. I asked him how things were over in Oslo.
The virus is all that appears in the media right now. Of course we need information, but could there be overload? There are so many predictions of what is going to happen; so many experts and so-called experts. I have a young daughter and I want her to understand what is going on, but I don’t want her only to imagine the worst possible outcomes. The future of this event is not yet written.
Either way, this is having a huge impact at all levels of society. Structurally, it has the potential to shift things globally in a dramatic way – the fundamentals of how we live, govern ourselves, and trade between nations.
It’s also creating anxiety at an individual and local level. I just took a walk in the street and a young guy stopped me to shout in my face: “Why are you outside when you’re sick?” Even though I showed no symptoms, he was very agitated, and when he stopped shouting, he ran away.So we’re feeling this tension, inevitably.
Thankfully nobody’s shouted at me in London yet! Just awkward routes taken through the park, everyone trying to keep their distance. Our friends and neighbours have done a pretty good job at connecting and looking out for one another. And like you, it’s so easy every time you open your phone or switch on the laptop, to be bombarded with information from countless sources of varying reliability.
Information overload, of course, sounds like just the kind of thing librarians are well placed to deal with.
It’s true – in fact the coronavirus has in a sense flipped the script, or at least forced a different focus on the libraries – now as one of many actors in the digital arena, without its biggest advantage; inspiring and welcoming spaces for all. Here – the expertise in sorting information, and finding relevance, and connecting it to its patrons, is still very much relevant.
So that unique expertise, which library professionals already have, should be put to use in the digital domain?
Definitely! The mindset and expertise of library staff can easily translate to trends in digital development: for example, open access and open source, well documented APIs for software to grow, and sharing code and other content.
And of course there is a deep understanding of the importance of metadata in both the field of librarianship and the field of digital development. This should point to library staff being a huge asset when developing great software and digital services.
I’m pretty sure that teaming up with other partners to create user-centric services and experiences, would result in something that adds lots of value for those users now roaming around in digital space, trying to find their way.
Right now, Biblioteksentralen is looking to employ a service designer to enhance our capacity and expertise for combining staff insights, library content and user needs.
So in a way the pandemic will create the conditions for Biblioteksentralen to refocus its strategy?
On some levels, yes. And for me personally, very much so. For ten years now, I’ve been advocating strategically for the public library to focus on its physical space and the need for a place for true diversity and the exchange of content and meaning. Back in 2012-2013, the role of a meeting place and a platform for debate and conversation was formalized as an ambition for all public libraries in Norway.
Just at the moment when the traditional library model seemed obsolete to many, replaced by seemingly “free” corporate digital content offers, people were coming through library doors in greater numbers than ever before, this was especially true for new and refurbished libraries. Digital has its limitations; we need a space where we can meet face-to-face to further connect. I believe the need and longing for more physical connections is true more than ever, in a time where social distance is the norm, but the current crisis means that we need to look for alternatives.
I can’t help but think of Justin Hoenke’s recent post about “Your Facebook page being your new public library branch”: what services can be offered through social media?
The examples he gives, offered by his library service in New Zealand, are focussed on performance-type services like storytimes, music, and so on. Is this one avenue of exploration?
To me the tips given in this post are at the same time both good inspiration for libraries and a slippery slope.
As ways for (smaller) libraries to stay in touch with some of their users, these measures will be just fine, but by no means do they create the type of value that demands for a library to exist in the first place.
Perhaps it’s in part a question of timescale. What Justin is proposing – swiftly rolling out an online offer via existing social media channels – provides a prompt response through known and widely-used points of access. There is still a warmth and sincerity to what Justin’s colleagues are doing, and the focus on the relationship is there.
But it sounds like you’re also thinking longer term, about what it means for libraries to have their own distinctive and independent digital relationship to the communities they serve.
Another issue is the algorithm. Of course Facebook’s algorithms have built-in incentives that makes it far from a balanced social place. Even though Facebook can be a great asset to the libraries as an important channel to reach a broad audience, I think the library should pay special attention to how this platform’s mechanisms differ from, and perhaps conflict with, the core mission of public libraries.
Are you concerned something might be lost in this time of transition?
The virus has transformed libraries into a space which offers no physical service. Right now, in Norway, they are effectively a provider of access to digital content.
That makes sense, but it accelerates our need to address the question: What is the library’s value if they focus on being the middleman between digital content and an online consumer? It isn’t a long term strategy to interpose yourself between the content and the user unless you are adding value, if the physical space has been removed from the chain.
The question becomes whether, in the digital world, communities and users are willing to dispense with curation. Or more precisely – can library professionals abandon one of their biggest assets – curation – in a time of abundance? That’s what the library provides; when a user comes to them in a physical space, the relationship between library staff and users, their interactions, informs the service they receive.
If they are reduced to a gateway through which the public log in to content, it takes away a big part of the value which libraries provide. We have to find new ways to give context to what is on offer digitally and support to people who wish to make use of digital materials and services.
So there’s a tipping point back from the physical to the digital? How do you find the sweet spot, the place of balance?
We need a blended service. I’d love to see library offers which are more progressive when it comes to digital services, having been personally so focussed on the physical space recently. That means that libraries need to summon up both the skills and self-confidence to engage with both providers of digital content and consumers.
We’re trying to develop this new role, bringing librarians’ curatorial and advisory skills into the digital space – and find it fast! When it comes to reading and literature, we are well established as having a strong and proactive role. Libraries wouldn’t dream, for example, of passing on publishers’ work to the public with no curation and context; we build reader’s advisory services around our collections to better serve the community through our expertise.
What does that mean in a highly digital environment? How do we take the initiative and own our role in connecting the public to digitised information and services? We might need to build confidence and advocacy skills; and we will surely need some structures in place to let us achieve these goals.
We have lots of technologically skilled and savvy librarians in Norway, but is this question of the digital relationship baked into our systems and strategies?
Biblioteksentralen needs to find its new role in this landscape, to understand staff and user needs for what digital services should be in a library context, and partner up to create a lot more value in this field. And this calls for a lot of effort, the competition is completely different when the need is for greater digital presence and relevance.
Right. How do you go about innovating in this situation, with this sense of pressure as the virus closes physical services and drives digital demand?
We’re making use of the lockdown to strategise and think of course, but we also look to colleagues overseas. What relationships are other communities in other countries building between libraries and content providers? Where should we partner with commercial or for profit entities, and where should we assert ourselves and our unique value proposition?
Prior to the crisis, we were talking with colleagues at our sister bodies in Germany and the Netherlands about how to advocate for enriched digital services in libraries. A library’s digital service should not strengthen existing filter bubbles, but break through them so that people are exposed to new information, inspiring and useful information, material that will let them learn and grow.
Libraries in Norway are already working on their digital presence and we have a “Karanteket” site – the library of quarantine! – as a landing page for the public, telling people simply what kind of content is available.
So I see examples that our crisis response has been swift, but beyond that, as information professionals, we need to decide what we do next. How do we evaluate the quality of online materials, and ensure that users build relationships to material that they find valuable?
There’s a danger in a time of crisis that we rush around like a supermarket shopper panic-buying, swiping things thoughtlessly from the shelves. And we all know what hasty decisions can lead to.
We do have to respond promptly, but we need to have what Norwegians called “ice in the stomach” – don’t panic buy, take it easy, count to ten, coolly figure out your role.
I totally agree about the need to slow down! I’m counselling a lot of strategy clients to do this right now. I was reminded of Ryszard Kapuściński’s book The Shadow of the Sun, which one of my mentors shared with me.
At one point on a road trip, Kapuściński and his driver find themselves trapped in an enormous traffic jam. The narrow, two-lane road is absolutely blocked, with no room for manoeuvre. An hour passes with no movement; some drivers abandon their vehicles. Kapuściński decides to go ahead on foot, to see the cause of the jam.
He finds this enormous hole in the road which vehicles have to be pulled across one at a time by rope. Everything has stopped to deal with this hole, and a whole community has built up around it. Local sellers are wandering the traffic jam, selling food and drink and cigarettes. Local houses have set up as hotels. Kids are using the hole as a playground and teenagers are helping to unload trucks so they’re light enough to be pulled across the gap. The local mechanic is going out to work on the cars of people trapped in the traffic jam.
The crisis has slowed everything down, created an opportunity, built community.
This is such a good analogy! Yes — while we want the crisis to pass as swiftly and safely as possible, we also have to make use of this time which we have been given to slow down and reflect on where we go next. The library, to me, has the great advantage of being an institution that can stand the test of time. But if more of the service needs to be moved to digital and virtual arenas they need to earn the position, more than ever.
I can see this in the Norwegian media, too; journalists talking about the benefits of a less hectic pace, the increased time you spend with your family, and the inevitable consequences – whether that is more childbirths in nine months time or more divorces!
The pandemic is an emotional challenge, and a public health crisis, but it is also a strategic opportunity. We can’t just spend the next few months reeling from this, remaining on the back foot.
Instead of responding out of panic, we have to think. What can we choose to do which will in fact make our digital offer better, both now and in the future? We’re not just an unnecessary portal that gets between you and content providers; we enrich that relationship. We need to sprinkle some library on it.
Netflix’s model ultimately boils down to one where the dream is that you open the provider’s app and it immediately starts streaming content which the algorithm knows you like. It builds on your previous choices and tastes, it might make suggestions, but ultimately the goal is not self-development of the user, it’s making a profit from your tastes in media.
Libraries are not in the business of merely introducing you to what you know you like, and trying to shepherd your tastes so you’ll keep buying the same product. They inspire people, provoke them, stimulate their curiosity. People use digital content platforms even when they complain about them, because of the technical convenience, but people love libraries: something about their ethic and mission, their recognition of community, reaches deep in people’s hearts. We offer something for which profit-making corporations have no incentive.
And while Norway´s general income is higher than many other countries, we should never downplay the need and importance of being free and transparent, more now than ever. Libraries’ purpose is to make your life better by helping you to learn and grow on your own terms. This both can and should of course be translated to a digital format, and this crisis should kick start and fast forward this already overdue task for libraries.
We’ve talked about this elsewhere – the idea that a library empowers communities to explore information, knowledge, and culture on their own terms – but I think there’s also an important point about strategy here.
Good strategy is premised on a distinctive and valuable insight, on which practical decisions can then be made. You can’t expect to succeed just by being a copycat – like that era when laptop manufacturers started making crummy knockoffs which superficially looked like the MacBook…or when Lady Gaga first made it big and Christina Aguilera tried to maintain her stardom by stealing Gaga’s look.
We can’t just be a bad photocopy of the commercial services. We need to understand what digital public librarianship looks like in an age where consumption of digital content is accelerated by the pandemic crisis. What kind of digital recommendation and curation service will take the library’s missions and value into account without being an obstacle to access, without seeming too traditional or paternalistic?
You’re still in the book business too, right?
We were founded as a cooperative in the 1950s and we’re owned by a group of library institutions and stakeholders, from municipalities to the Norwegian Library Association itself. We still sell books to libraries, and in fact this has proved a great time for them to get their book orders in, as other physical services have ceased. The other benefit of this is that when they do reopen again, they won’t have lost time to make up with their collections. The other practical benefit is that we have the storage and logistics capacity to look after physical collections which closed libraries can’t deal with right now.
The most exciting aspect of what’s going on relates to metadata, actually. Metadata informs those rich relationships I was talking about, and things like reader’s advisory services which help users decide what to read next. Metadata is like the wooden trellis in your garden, up which you can grow beautiful plants.
We’re the only actor who can currently provide quality cataloguing during the shutdown, so we’re in a position to help other institutions and alternative metadata providers by stepping up during the crisis.
This is about dugnad – the culture of getting people together, voluntarily and pro bono, to take on common challenges. Everyone is going to suffer during this global crisis, but a body like ours has many legs to stand on, so we can and should do something extra for the communities and the library sector which we serve.
How do you think the community is going to fare?
Overall, in the short term, Norway has money in the bank to cope with this. Politicians have taken fairly decisive action to minimise panic and spend on helping people in need. But we are still at levels of unemployment which are, by Norwegian standards, astonishing.
The government has given employers the possibility to suspend or furlough staff without having to take on that cost themselves, so that means public support will be given through welfare rather than funding employers. What are the consequences for public libraries if Norway extracts its workers from the workplace, sends them home full-time, and tends to them there?
In the private sector, we’ve seen an clear increase in book sales – people are buying books to fill the void. Norwegians are pretty well off and so they are spending on literature as the libraries are closed. Norwegian publishers are also trying to protect an ecosystem which is not currently dominated by the likes of Amazon, using methods such as book price controls.
This makes me think of the scenarios we worked on together for the recent “Schools and/or screens” project imagining the future of Norwegian education.
That was about schools, but in one scenario life was very much about the content provider determining and even deciding your preferences – “Norway Prime”. One of them was about coping with the aftermath of shocks like a massive rise in unemployment – “Make Norway Great Again”. And one had a more hopeful world, where teens were self-educating in a mixed physical and digital space.
“Norway Prime” showed us the limits of a future in which we are merely provided to, we don’t make things for ourselves or take the initiative to learn and grow on our own terms. There’s no true fulfilment in that, at best you can be sated for a while.
In that scenario, people’s discontent was manifesting in strange ways, like bizarre health panics and even an outbreak of Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy.
We have no choice but to solve this issue – the virus means it’s not a theoretical issue, it’s something we can see and feel in the here and now. It means the library needs to step up even in terms of understanding what it is and why it matters in a highly digitalised world.
All three of the scenarios we looked at had some form of enhanced globalisation baked into them; whether that was dominance by Amazon-like entities, some kind of new world order focused on the climate crisis, or even a world where a collapsed Norway was left out of the market. But what will globalisation look like after the pandemic? Which elements will be strengthened, which weakened? Will nationalism rise and how will we deal with that?
I saw some of this in Sweden as the political turmoil around the Sweden Democrats’ electoral success was taking place. How does a librarian serve a community which has voted in large numbers for a party with such troubling beliefs? How do library values operate in such an environment?
What did you come up with?
We were trying to find ways to support local librarians by using the framework of county-wide and national values, missions, strategies and frameworks – so there was always a document you could use to justify and support your choices, if you had to sail against the prevailing winds of your local electorate.
I also think that one can prepare somewhat for these political issues by looking at how they have arisen in the past, and maybe some of the mistakes made by predecessors – I’m thinking of Margaret Steig’s work on 1930s Germany and work by Wayne and Shirley Wiegand on libraries in the American South.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I’m also thinking about the platforming / no-platforming debate. Who should libraries permit to speak, and who should they exclude? If “neutrality” isn’t viable, and maybe never was, how do we define our values in a way that works for the communities we serve, the people who fund us?
It’s interesting, again, to look overseas as part of your work anticipating what’s coming. In Toronto, the public library has managed to get themselves into a position where they are being criticised by their own mayor.
We’ve had a similar situation with Lars Vilks, the controversial Danish cartoonist, visiting Norway to give a talk in the library. I think there’ll only be more of this in the future, and the sector really needs to think strategically about how it meets this challenge.
So where to next?
I like the “four spaces” model out of Denmark. As part of a lengthy project to define the library of the future, they came up with the idea of four rooms: Acknowledgement, Empowerment, Involvement, and Innovation. The library sits as a space at the heart of those four – touching each one, a part of each trend, without presuming to encompass everything.
This is a good identity to explore because if you stick to a single core service rooted in the past – we’re the book dealers – then that single identity can be threatened or made to seem obsolete. It can even feel obsolete even if it isn’t really: library workers can be damaged by the emotion, the sentiment of feeling left behind. This is something we need to avoid as we emerge from the pandemic into a possibly changed world.
This need to change, to really understand our identity and our relevance, is going to apply in the digital space as well as the physical, and it’s going to apply in whatever future emerges through and as a result of the pandemic.
If content providers have no financial interest in developing as libraries would seek to develop the community’s relationship to digital products and services, we need to act. There’s a lot of work to be done under a great pressure of time, and it’s obligatory.
It’s not just commercial content either, it’s material like the National Library of Norway’s collection, where they are seeking to digitise pretty much everything Norwegians have ever created. How do we open that up beyond specialists and educational institutions for everyone, and really get engagement.
You don’t just want people dipping their toes in this huge pool of digital content, but really diving in, splashing around, and creating something new.
Indeed. Splashing around is always a good idea!
This probably can’t be solved with a checklist approach alone: “Make it digital, check. Create website, check; post on Facebook, check….now what?”
A true connection and dialogue between content and user, one of the most important values of the library, is in higher and higher demand.
That’s where the challenge is, but also the opportunity.