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On the importance of forging alliances
If you want to go far, go together

There is an African proverb that says: ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ Emerging International Voices proved this.

By Catharina Boss

I joined Emerging International Voices for two reasons: on the one hand, I was convinced that the digital services of my library and their use by our patrons had not yet realised their full potential. There is openness towards digital services, but there are also obstacles. Being responsible for one of our online platforms, I was keen to gain insights from experts on how we could improve.

In addition, having experienced the benefits of international exchange before, I knew first-hand that talking to library staff from all over the world can have a major impact on a person’s mind-set and work. I had no doubt that becoming part of Emerging International Voices would be a great opportunity to meet people who are passionate and who strive to make libraries in their countries even better places than they are already.

I was not disappointed.

With each online session, my horizons broadened and my views were (re)shaped. Three key findings especially resonated with me.

Digitalise your corporate culture

During the discussions, it became evident that many of us are worrying about how to reach digitally illiterate people. At the same time, we are facing obstacles within our institutions: not all library staff members share the same level of competence when it comes to digital devices and services. Kathrin Schuster of Munich Public Library pointed out that incorporating a digital culture is the foundation of a successful digital strategy. In my opinion, this was a crucial moment, because evidently our digital literacy is the basis upon which we build our online services.

We cannot create good content and manage accounts efficiently if we do not know how social media operates. We cannot run successful workshops or support patrons seeking advice if we do not know how to navigate our digital library. In addition, we are service providers and most of our work is intangible, so our communication skills are the cornerstone of our customer relationship. Patrons experiencing insecurity or indifference will stop asking for support. Many people also simply do not know about the digital services available. It is necessary to promote them.

If all staff members, especially those who either operate platforms or have customer contact, are digitally literate, they will feel confident speaking about it. Confidence and competence in return will lead to customer satisfaction. To achieve this it is not enough to leave everything digital to staff members with a high affinity for these matters. We should build competence among as many library workers as possible. The best way to do so – apart from training – is by setting a good example in our company culture and systematically incorporating digitalism.

Live your values by forging alliances

Luke Swarthout of New York Public Library taught us about three types of decision-making when it comes to digital services: build, buy or join. Only if we build our own platforms are we fully in control and able to create digital spaces which reflect our values as democratic, non-commercial institutions. Unfortunately, we often find ourselves in a position where financial considerations force us to pursue the other two options.

Joining forces is a key to success. It allows us to bundle resources and makes us strong negotiation partners when it comes to digital licenses.

Therefore, I was deeply impressed when Marie Ostergaard from Aarhus Public Library spoke about the project Det Digitale Folkebibliotek, which has brought libraries from all over Denmark together. In my opinion, it proves that joining forces is a key to success. It enables us to share ideas, experiences and competencies. It allows us to bundle resources and use them to create competitive yet non-commercial spaces. It also makes us strong negotiation partners when it comes to digital licenses (anyone dealing with digital licenses knows how unreasonably expensive they can be!).

As librarians, we are in the very lucky position that we do not have to compete with each other. We all focus on our own local communities. Of course, this also means that we are very individual. A community project might be a success in one place, but a failure in another. A small rural library might not be able to invest as much time or money as a big metropolitan library. However, I am convinced that building alliances such as in Denmark, be it on a national or even global level, offers a chance to secure our future as non-commercial spaces.

Listen to your community, their wants and needs

It is a bitter truth, but yes, we tend to get into our own heads. We like to construct buildings and design services based on what we think is best for our patrons. We make assumptions about their abilities and preferences. I do, too. I work in a public library and our community is very diverse. As a millennial, I often find myself (mentally!) frowning at patrons who have never used a computer, let alone have an email address. How is that even possible in a western industrialised country in the year of 2020? Well, it just is. We all have different backgrounds, resources, strengths and weaknesses. In our undeniably digital world, though – and especially during a pandemic, when online services become the only alternative to both the physical visit and the physical collection of the library – people without digital skills or access to hardware struggle and depend on our support.

Instead of turning our backs on those who do not want to or cannot be online, we should rather include them in our decision-making.

Listening to our experts, I realised, however, that it should not be about changing the people (unless they want to). We should not desperately try to turn offline users into online users – some of them simply prefer analogue media, others do not have the infrastructure at home and visit libraries for this very reason. Instead of turning our backs on those who do not want to or cannot be online, we should rather include them in our decision-making and pursue strategies based on the wants and needs of as many people as possible. We serve the community and this has to be the core of all our actions. Because the people are our raison d’être.