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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Public Libraries and Economic Development: Is it wishful thinking or will the public library survive anyhow?

Dick Scheepstra


1. Introduction

Public libraries and economic development' seems to be an impossible theme. Because then the question arises whether public libraries have an important role to play in economic development. Or to be more specific: whether they have a role at all to play in the economic development of many countries, including my own country, the Netherlands.One should even consider the question whether public libraries will survive in the present form in our rapidly changing society with its changing demands and technological developments that offer new opportunities and so on. Is Internet just a toy or can it be an instrument under the terms of the informative function of the public library? Do we seriously consider the question whether the public library changes as a result of development in the new media, telematics, or what we might call the new industrial revolution? What are the consequences of a society that is growing more and more commercial? What are the principal functions of library work? What functions of the public library should remain unaltered? In the course of the years I have become acquainted with library work in many countries in different continents. In the beginning of this year I made a study-trip through South-Africa. Especially the visits to the townships made me think about the function of libraries.Are local libraries really a basic facility that is totally integrated in society? They are in Cleveland, Ohio, in Buckinghamshire in the UK, in Amsterdam and in many other places. But are they in some other parts of America or the UK? Are they in Soweto, or elsewhere in Africa or Asia?Let us be fair: do we really co-operate intensely with educa tional institutions like schools? Does a person immediately run to the public library if he wants information? Is the public library really the centre of cultural life?We are proud of our activities, and rightly so, but are they really that important, if you compare them to real problems like illiteracy rates of sometimes thirty or forty per cent, to name an example?

There are of course excellent libraries which organize a whole range of additional activities. But who really impressed me in South-Africa was the female librarian of a resource centre in Alexandra, an overcrowded and dangerous township near Johannesburg. Or her colleague in Oceanview, working in a nearby township on the basis of society: involved, supportive and teaching. Inside as well as outside South-Africa however I have also come across many friendly librarians who were in the first place proud of their advanced system of classification and catalogueing, their experiments on Internet, the literary activities they organized for a limited group of intellectuals and so on.Do those libraries really contribute to the economic development of their countries? Do they help to solve the real problems in society?I do not want to give a black-and-white picture of the situation. But what I want to show is that librarians should be in the centre of society. I have my doubts as to whether that is the case. And of course it makes a difference whether you are part of a first or a third world society. An unemployed man in Soweto, Zambia or Bangladesh is not helped by a choice from 10,000 database files when he lacks the bare necessities of life. What those countries need most is education, so that the literacy rate can go up. That is where public libraries can contribute to the economic development.For the future of public libraries it is essential that there should be a more flexible reaction to new developments. Also we should try to reconsider the task, function and the place of the public library, which is an essential institution in society.

2. What is the public library?

Let me first state -in all modesty - what I think the public library should be. It can be distilled from the manifesto of UNESCO.In the Netherlands we usually distinguish four functions in library work that partly overlap and complement each other. It is a basic facility for educational support, it should stimulate cultural participation, information and recreation.It is also an instrument for the government to make information - in the broadest sense of the word - accessible to the public. A public library is part of a network. This network should be organized in a manner that leaves no room for separate 'islands'. I therefore am a supporter of the idea of powerful local public libraries that are supported by regional and national organizations. I will eleborate on this later.

The entrance to a local library, as well as a number of basic services, should remain free for everybody. In a changing world the public library will become a business of its own. 'Free of charge' should therefore not become a dogma. All goods must be paid for, but the question is by whom. Collectively, by the authorities, or individually by the person that uses the facility. I do not think this discussion should be too dogmatic, but we should focus on the functions of the public library in specific situations for specific target groups.The state of development of a country and other circumstances can lead to different choices. It makes a difference if the public library support services to an unemployed illiterate in a poor country or a commercial firm that can enhance its profits thanks to a public library.

3. A network of libraries: the ideal structure

In the Netherlands, the ideal structure for libraries is also widely discussed. A complete new set-up like in Singapore is not considered here. New ideas are based upon existing organizations and institutions. Several levels are to be distinguished: A to F. Each level has its own service to offer. Level A indicates the basic library in small regional centres. F. the `top' of a library province, is an extensive library meeting all requirements up to academic levels. By selecting a certain level, every person can obtain the service answering his wishes. He can visit the public library of his special choice or he can make use of the lending traffic among the libraries. Also modern means of communication like Internet are available.Next summer experiments will be started in a number of selected regions. The aim is to achieve logical and coherent library networks by mutual co-operation. Unlike in Singapore, only local public libraries are involved.

4. Support institutes

In the Netherlands, too, we have the help of support organizations. Not all of the work has to be done by each single library. It is often far more efficient to contract out certain activities to specialized companies. It is not necessary for every library to catalogue and classify its own books. There is no place for "holy cows" in library work. Unfortunately they are there, more often than not. Many librarians are very much attached to their own shops and think they know best. Rationalization and specialization should lead to further contracting and co-operation in most countries than is reality at the moment. Too much energy is spent in many public libraries on matters that occur also in the near vicinity and are dealt with almost in the same way. A critical look at the internal organization is a must for each library in this time of cuts. Which are the core activities and which activities can be better obtained from specialized organizations?In the Netherlands we have known provincial libraries ever since the 1950s. They originally served the rural libraries. In the meantime they have become professional support organizations that lend their services and sell products to any library, large or small. Each library is considered a client and makes its own choice of what is offered. For instance if they want to use the mobile library or want to hire a collection of new media. If they want assistance in managing and staff supply or want to be connected to the automation system. Thanks to subsidies of the public provincial authorities, products and services can be offered at an attractive rate.It has to be taken into account that the subsidy should be limited. A fully commercial library organization can only offer a limited service, because products have to be sold cost-effectively. Complete subsidy, on the other hand, leads to a certain arrogance, less price-consciousness and a tendency to generate and offer products that nobody is waiting for. As commerce is not involved and libraries have to pay for products and services, they can freely make their own choices.A strong central library on a provincial level guarantees development of new products, innovation and support of library networks. Through both the law of demand and supply and the policy on subsidy a certain balance is created. Development and innovation are subsidized. At the same time, products and services in demand by the libraries have to be obtained at cost prices without subsidies by the provincial authorities.

5. Co-operation and political structure

The political/administrative structure of library work in the United Kingdom can be considered as a good example. But UK-policy has shown over the last ten years that payment by the provincial authorities of all library facilities can also bring some hazards. Expenditure cuts will affect the whole region.

In the Netherlands library work has been completely decentralized. The local authorities finance the local libraries up to 80 per cent; the PBCs are partly financed by the province (up to 50 per cent) and the government is responsible for the organization nationwide. Expenditure cuts in one municipality will affect the local library only. In that case this library may make (even) more use of the provincial and national services.Co-operation is sometimes extended quite a bit further and so it should. In the Netherlands experiments are going on to intensify co-operation in building up collections. Mutual contacts and co-operation will bring about a wide range of titles, because in this way not every library will have to acquire the same items. Automation - again on a provincial basis - gives unexpected opportunities in this field. By means of lending traffic among the libraries connected to the network any title can be obtained. Besides, expertise and specializations can be used to the full.

6. The public library as a basic facility in a changing world

But you might ask yourself: what is the relevance of an advanced system of library facilities in a rich nation when I lack all sorts of things in my own situation. I therefore want to elaborate further on the division of the respective functions in four categories:

a. educational support function

I am convinced that the future of library work - especially in developing countries depends on the willingness and the possibility to intensively co-operate with institutes of education. Knowledge is the bases of every development.The combat against illiteracy should be the main objective. Strong ties, possibly even partly integration with educational institutions are indispendable for a good co-operation. In this respect you can think of educational support with materials, offering study facilities, including rooms and so on. I am a strong supporter of a far- reaching integration of school and public library work.I even want to raise the question whether such a far-reaching co-operation should not be pursued in the so-called developed countries, especially in rural areas. Cannot the rich countries profit from the experiences gained by developing countries in this respect? Modern techniques and means of transport allow for a centralization of library tasks.

Decentralization is no longer the main subject of library development, but accessibility is essential. Should there be a complete tradional library in every small village when advanced automation and telematics will offer wider and wider opportunities? Children and elderly people are vulnerable groups. Combined accomodation of schools and libraries, in co-operation with larger libraries deserves more and further consideration for these target groups. Likewise it will be possible to develop or maintain many more facilities. Co-operation is a way to survive in a changing world in which authorities get less money and have to make choices as to which facilities are to remain. I want to add here that a mobile library can be a very useful instrument of (additional) support.

b. stimulation of cultural participation

The public library should be a meeting point and promote and stimulate culture. The public library is often too isolated. This paper is not the place to elaborate on this, but I support closer co-operation between the local library and other institutions and facilities. Scandinavian countries are familiar with the concept of the 'Kulturhus' (House of Culture), which is a combination of different cultural institutions under one roof. In the Netherlands experiments are going on that carry this concept even further. A number of activities are carried out under one roof and under one management. The experiments include a branch of bookshop and a service desk of a medical insurance company inside a library. Apart from more obvious combinations with municipal information centres and the like - further co- operation projects are planned and under way, including projects with banks, post-offices, community centres and tourist offices. The idea is to bring several activities that are hard to exploit separately in small communities under one roof. The activities can be subsidized or commercial, on the basis of a 'shop in the shop' concept.

c. The informative function

This is and remains an essential task of the public library. Thanks to Internet and other new media, every library that has the financial means can gain access to almost all global information. At this moment this information is already available to the happy few in their own houses. It is not very difficult to predict that people will more and more require on-screen information at home, rather than to obtain it from a library. If developments have reached a stage that we talk to a computer that understands us and answers us back, a new industrial revolution will have taken place.

The primary task of the public library is storage and retrieval of information. But as technology advances, the need to supply all facilities in all places diminishes. The card catalogue will be replaced by computerized catalogues everywhere.There will be a greater need for specialization. My own organization, ProBiblio, has its own Webserver: Hollandnet. We have the ambition to become a major provider of information to the community. Not in competition with commerce, but as a complement. We intend to provide information that is not provided by commercial institutions, but that is still relevant to remain a well functioning democracy. We also intend to provide services to the public libraries by initiating digital cities that will eventually lead to a digital province.In the long run, these developments will have great consequences for the public library as a meeting point. For many things clients will no longer have to go to the library in person. This will undoubtedly lead to changes in this institution.

But an extra task lies ahead for the public libraries, even in the short term. It can contribute to the integretation of new media in society. Because of its broad organization the public library is especially suited to help to prevent that new generations of `digital illiterates' will grow up. As the facilities should be available to everyone, even the less educated and the underprivileged can b ecome acquainted with the possibilities offered by Internet and other advanced automation devices. Here lies a great opportunity for the public library to prove its usefulness in society, also on an economic (!) level. Advanced automation and telematics not only offer new opportunities for information retrieval, but also for new tasks in the field of public information (thus linking the informative with the educational function). But these developments also carry a great risk. If the library world does not take its place within the sector of public information, others will. There is a lot of competition from commerce and from other social organizations. Note in this respect that even the authorities often hesitate to make full use of the possibilities of their public library.

d. recreational function

The last is the recreational function. It is the most used, developed and appreciated function. It is also essential, as it enhances the overall accessibility. Recreational use of books and other media cannot be seen separately from their educational, cultural and informative function.

I think that the recreational function in its subsidized form will come more and more under pressure. In an economy where every good has its value, it will be considered more and more irrational why lending of e.g. regional novels should be free. It is therefore very important that the public library should offer its services in a coherent package. It should not be too one-sided in promoting the lending of recreational media, but it should stimulate its cultural and - in particular - its educational function.The boundaries in the booktrade are soon fading away. The development of new media diminishes the differences between publishing, selling and lending books. It is relatively cheap for a public library to make their own CD-ROM and other forms of electronic publishing will become available soon.Why is there such a division between lending and selling? The concept of Kulturhus as described in the above offers opportunities and should be seriously considered.

7. Business information

Up to now I have only discussed the public library in its publical function. But the subject of this paper requires also some remarks about direct services to the world of trade. Firms and institutions have a great need for information. Larger companies therefore mostly have their own libraries. Most of the smaller businesses have not. They usually fall back on their own branch organizations or their own networks. Public libraries are very rarely used for these purposes. (An exception forms a country like the United States.) Larger libraries and specialized library institutions should take their chances here.

My organization has been working for the past three years in a project called BBI, which aim is to deliver customer-oriented library services to firms and institutions. Modern marketing techniques are used to sell traditional library products. Examples of our services range from a tailor-made automated system, with or without personnel to implement it, reorganization of collections, acquisition of media, supplying tailor-made information, library search projects, to supplying temporary specialized employees through our own employment agency (which, by the way, is a joint venture organization with one of the largest agencies for temporary employees).

In our experience no one in the world of trade is very enthusiastic about the public library, at least not at first sight. If they realize, however, that we give value for money, can react to and anticipate on existent needs, then there appears to be a growing market for our products.With a business- like and systematic approach it proves to be possible to set up a professional service.In this way library work can directly contribute to economic development.

Thus looking for gaps in the market we have established a position in the Netherlands in the advertising world and in broadcasting. We check questions asked in quiz-programmes and we regularly supply the national tv-news-programme with background information.

8. The library of the future or the future of the public library

What should be the conclusion of all this? It may be clear that in my opinion the public library does have a future. But changes have to be made. We should not remain complacent and self-oriented, or we will affect the roots of library work.Or, to use the modern economic jargon: the public library should change from a product-oriented to a market-oriented organization. We should react more to mod ern developments, which does not imply brushing up existing methods or looking for new toys.

No, there should be an in-depth reflection on the possibilities and the impact of new developments, in order to create new perspectives for our branch.Then, the library of the future might remain a meeting place after all, with a broad offer of social, cultural, recreational and commercial products and services. An institution that is closely linked to or at least co-operates with educational fac ilities in rural areas. And in larger communities, an institution that has developed into a 'Kulturhus' modern style. And in the large cities takes the form of fully equiped libraries that offer all kinds of services. With public 'Internet-telephones' in every library branch. A public library that can be reached day and night by cable, where everyone can look in the catalogue, order books and the like, and gather information. Modern developments such as pay-per-view, publishing on demandand so on will influence the recreational function of public libraries in particular. The extend to which depends on the way in which libraries at large present themselves and wish to develop.

The public library has an important role to play in defending society from too much commercial pressure.The public library has a future, especially if seen in the context of economic development! As a basic facility a good public library is indispensible in a society that wants to offer equal chances to all its members. I started this paper by asking how important the public library is. I would l ike to end with the same question. Are we really as important as we think? My answer is that we are, potentially. But we have to work hard for it. Things will not come our way automatically. At present we run the risk of being overtaken.

It is of major importance that these questions should be considered in depth. This may be a task for the IFLA, e.g. for the Standing Committee Public Libraries Serving the general public. Or do we want to maintain our present course and perish?Or, to conclude in economical terms: modern management should be concerned with creating one's own future.

Alkmaar, 4 April 1996