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Libraries for the past or for the future

We visited several libraries along the way during Cycling for Libraries. At many of these stops, the library staff greeted us and graciously provided some refreshments and often a tour of their library (not to mention use of the bathrooms). There were a few interesting themes that emerged for me during these visits. Some of the libraries that left an impression on me. 

 

Barcode reader and PIN pad for library entry

At Greve Bibliotek in Greve, just outside of Copenhagen, this suburban public library branch had a gaming corner ( See photos) with game consoles and big screen for group gaming. It also had a quiet reading lounge in the back of the quiet stacks where they piped in classical music to dissuade the groups of teens who had been gathering there and disrupting the use of the library by others. It was a curious juxtaposition and the librarian acknowledged that they were struggling to balance between welcoming teens and curbing disruptive behaviour. The balancing act of welcoming all users is certainly something I can recognize in our libraries, too. In general it is a bright, welcoming space with modern furniture and colour coded stacks to help those for whom classification is a bit of a mystery.

 Two days later, in the pleasant town of Præstø we stopped to see their "open" library. It's a very nice looking branch of the Vordingborg Municipal library system and the crazy thing is, patrons let themselves in. You use your barcode and pin to get in (see photo)! There are self serve check-in and check-out , lots of public inet computers, and open doors that lead to a very nice lawn out back. A separate desk for "citizen" services staffed for some hours each week. Oh, and, there are surveillance cameras.   

On June 2nd, after touring Rostock's Marienkirche  and its 500-year-old astronomical clock,  we visited two public libraries in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. At the branch library in Butzow we were met by the Vice-Mayor and library staff and were given a nice (and much-needed) snack. The library is in a nice old building. It housed a largish collection but some of it seemed to be v.old material. There were three public computers. This library shares this heritage building with museum and archives. 

Our second library visit on that day was to Uwe Johnson Bibliothek in Gustrow. A v.nice modern re-fit of an old building. The collection still seemed print-heavy, old, and "archival". A cursory tour of it's racks and bulletin boards seemed to show active programming and many connections to the community. I suspect this is at least partly a testament to the librarian who was likely an integral part of her community; something I've seen many times in smaller towns in B.C. 

 

There are some key themes that emerged for me as I toured these libraries. Greve is a branch library as we would know it in B.C. It's collection, professional staff and specifically-configured programs for key communities (teens, youth, gamers) all reflect library-practices I've seen many times. The other libraries were significant in their differences from this. 

 

Praesto provides the "place" even when the info services are not available. The SSCKI/SSCKO, public computers, and public wifi all provide much of what a patron gets in our libraries, even when there are no staff to guide and/or "police" the usage. 

 

Butzow and Gustrow tell a different story, They are places where, it seems to me, the collection has been allowed to become sacred and the buildings are a temple to the collection. Despite the apparent vitality in Gustrow (which I suspect has much more to do with the library's staff than with the community, it's funders and decision-makers), it still seemed that the primary goal during their lean times was to keep the building and keep it full of books. 

 

For the last three branches: the attention to buildings, collections, an place mirrors an equivalent loss of professionalism, informationalism, and services to lifelong learning and to the information-scape of the community. 

 

Astronomical clock in Rostock

I don't know the detailed histories of these libraries and I never had a chance to have any kind of real conversation with the staff so my observations may be superficial, I admit. Still, some questions form in my mind about the situation in these towns.  Are these libraries a place about the past or a place about making the future? Is asking that question one of the paradigm shifts that we're all coming to (but coming to unevenly) at this point in our cultural shift? We were greeted by the Vice Mayor of Butzow and welcomed to their town. They were certainly keen to make an impression upon us. And there's a long history of institutions in this part of the world going to considerable effort to deliver critical information to citizens. The Astronomical Clock  in Rostock is certainly a testament to that. Here is an elaborate installation packed with information that was clearly placed for anyone to use when they needed it.

 So I have to be careful not to jump to too many conclusions about these towns and their libraries what with all of a 45-minute visit to my credit. If nothing else, however, it's a cautionary tale. As staff are de-professionalized and services are whittled away, who will stand up and say, it's not about the container(s), it's about the information. At what point in the process is it too late to say, you can keep your nice old building and all this stuff, we'd like to use what little library-funding we have left to... to what? Well, that's a question that we have to answer. I have my own ideas but I certainly don't have a definitive solution. 

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