Whilst the library of the past was defined by transactional services – lending and returning of books – nowadays the dynamics of the library has changed by adding a relational side to all its processes. This way, modern libraries are shifting from focusing on transactional services, and have become relational which creates more value for the users.
To learn more about the ways this transition is made, we have had a brief discussion with Mogens Vestergaard, Manager of Library and Citizen Service at Roskilde Libraries in Denmark.
Traditional library: a transactional library
Like most countries, all citizens in Denmark need to have free and equal access to knowledge because, as Mogens Vestergaard points out, “the first Danish public library act established in 1964 (and updated in 2000) stipulated that each municipality had the obligation to run a public library either run by itself or in cooperation with other institutions”.
Traditionally, libraries were defined by transactional procedures such as lending and returning of books and other materials, or helping users with their questions about the collection. As this was the case, the main purpose was to fulfill the need for knowledge and education. Mogens Vestergaard highlights that “in the old days you just came in as a user with a certain need, books or a specific question. Librarians didn’t have to create a relationship in that case, they just had to create a transaction to make sure that the users got what they needed”.
Accordingly, in the beginning, the means to fulfill the libraries purpose was books, which extended to music, periodicals and now, to multimedia and electronical materials. When asked which one is more important, the purpose or the means, Mogens adds that “it is the purpose that is the most fundamental thing and the means becomes the secondary choice that can be adapted. Libraries are inclined to use any means they can think of in order to promote the purpose. There are of course limitations, but it really gives a lot of freedom to run a public library.”
While the number of book loans has gone down, the library usage has increased over the last few years (usage – measured in the number of visitors to the physical libraries). The library’s physical location has gained more purposes, than just ensuring the place for a transaction and people are using it for a lot more activities: “they are using in huge numbers the physical location (the computers, the makerspaces, the areas), they use it for gatherings, study groups, small courses on different subject, especially technology and a lot of other things. So, the purpose of the library is not fulfilled only by the medium but also by the spaces, by having these libraries locations around.”
The shift to a relational library
The library is no longer defined by the number of books it has on its shelves, but rather it is now about being a living space for the users. When asked why there has been this shift, Mogens adds that “the libraries have always been good at being aligned with what people want. That is a very important thing. Regarding the technology, libraries were the first movers around ’96 – they were the first ones to get computers to the library and to try to educate people on how to use computers. It is the library’s obligation to be at the edge of different uses of culture and uses of technologies.“
Today, people are more focused on learning activities and they want social interaction together with the possibility to share their knowledge with others. Therefore, the “relational library” is a new development where libraries become a meeting and interaction place for people. Mogens adds that “the transactional library is where people are getting in the library, they ask for a book and the librarian gives it to them. As opposed to the relational library, where people enter the library and they are working together with the librarian. For this to happen, you have to establish a relation with the patron. The library transforms into a meeting place, and you have to facilitate that meeting. This is another way to establish relations. That means you are in need of new competencies.
Therefore, the library’s physical spaces and the needs of the different target groups of the library must be highly considered when defining the library’s structure.
What is next?
When thinking about what other developments might appear at the library, Mogens explains that:
1. One thing that we started using now in libraries is design thinking. It is a common thing and what it implies is that we are going out and talking with the users. We are actively interacting with them, not just thinking about what new services we could add at the library. We had to create a whole new strategy because of the new dynamics at the library.
To rethink our activity, we went and talked with the citizens in their own homes, in their environment, we listened to their needs and wishes. We wanted to know how their interest in a specific topic would manifest. By doing that, we learned a lot of things about the users. It was also interesting to find out more about the library user groups. There are many different groups that come to the library constantly; students, families with children, etc. But another thing that we noticed is that there are some traditional groups that are not using the library constantly. They are using it in a transitional way, that means when people hit a transition to a new stage of their lives (ex: retiring from work), the library is coming up into their mind.
2. One future that might be plausible for the libraries is the library as the Fifth Branch Of Power. The media are defining themselves as the fourth power of state because they see themselves as controlling the three main powers in the state. What I think is that they have that problem, they are not looked upon as credible, and they are sometimes very close to the political system.
What the libraries are representing is people, ordinary people in huge numbers. In that way, the library can establish a new way of control. Libraries offer what people need; a wide range of information, and we are helping people have access to that information. So, in that perspective, we are the fifth power in the state.