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Libraries, communities and partnership
Distribution of knowledge instead of competition

By Barnabás Virág

Fellow participants of the Emerging International Voices programme have written about their national library services and the digital capabilities of their institutions. These papers reflect upon the social and economic features of particular countries, and the diverse possibilities for development. The countries face diverging problems and so their goals are very different. As well as the digital use of space, local preferences and individual features of the local communities are determining factors.    
 
These writings reflect on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has accelerated libraries’ involvement in the digital world, bringing potential benefits for the profession in the future. Each library has endeavoured to maintain contact with its users, and according to their capabilities, they have helped users on various online platforms, and have organised online events such as lectures, writer-reader meetings, and exhibitions.  
 
For all the theoretical writing on the subject, I prefer to read empirical accounts which have been tested in practice. Ilya Rogovenko from Moscow mentioned five library services introduced during the pandemic: 1. Stories over the phone; 2. Online slam poetry; 3. Online festivals; 4. Digital magazine (with the co-operation of more libraries); 5. Audio books & clean hands (handwashing while listening to a literary recording). Zane Siliņa from Riga showcased the ‘The Family Bible’ project in which users were asked to search for old Bibles on their bookshelves and share their findings with special hashtags on social media. Sometimes the users found valuable records of family events in these Bibles. The most exciting finds were presented in an exhibition at the Latvian National Library.     
 
One of the questions arising from the webinars was the extent to which the library can be seen as a democratic institution. Katona József Library creates equal opportunities both on- and offline. The building is entirely barrier-free, equipped with ramps, elevators, and lanes for visually impaired people. The distances between the shelves and the heights of the tables have been designed to be easily accessible from wheelchairs. We regularly organise programmes with our partners that support people with special needs. For instance, the Association of Blind and Visually Impaired People of Bács-Kiskun County and our library have offered a special course for those blind and visually impaired users interested in working with smart devices. As part of the Programme of Digital Well-being we provide free computer use for visitors with library membership.         
 
We provide access to the database built by our colleagues (Building on the Natural Curiosity of People) and to electronic database subscriptions. Most of them are available through our website, but some of them can only be read in situ. Our readers can use the EBSCO database that includes international articles and the Hungarian Arcanum Digital Science Library. The motto of Arcanum is: ‘Where Google ends, Arcanum starts.’ Journals, newspapers, lexicons, and books can be found in the continuously expanding database and browsing is also possible. Our library subscribes to the National Audio-visual Archive (NAVA) through which programmes produced by the Hungarian public service television and radio channels can be accessed. The Association of Professional Publishers (SZAKTÁRS) makes the works of sixteen publishers available on the same platform. Although the uploaded material is freely searchable, the content can be viewed with institutional access.       
 
User-centred thinking is essential in the process of planning digital services. It is not only the librarians’ task to make decisions about the content of their platforms, but there should be opportunity for people to express their needs. In Hungary, the planning of digital library services is influenced by central management through the strict rules that apply to tender resources. State- or EU-supported developments are the ones that tend to be realised. Katona József Library is at the forefront of quality management at national level. Reader feedback is important to us and we regularly conduct assessments of the offline use of our services and programmes. We have less information about our online services, however, although website statistics are constantly monitored and analysed.           
 
Incorporating seniors into our digital services is a priority that we try to address through training. Katona József Library has been offering internet user courses since 2000, and the participants are mainly from the elderly generation. Over the years, the training has become multi-level: beginner, advanced, and even super-advanced groups have started. Its aim is making the students familiar with electronic media and giving them an opportunity to acquire digital literacy skills. Topics include email use, searching databases, electronic administration using e-government, and social media registration.       
 
The Emerging International Voices discussions have revealed that there are countries – such as the US, or Denmark – where e-book lending is popular among the users. This service is not yet widespread in Hungary, and is only offered by a few libraries. We provide opportunities for people to try out e-book readers. We also offer other online content to our readers. One of these is the National System, database and Document Repository of the Electronic Document Transmission (ELDORADO) which enables the downloading and online reading of works that are in the public domain. The Hungarian Electronic Library (MEK) which has been operating since the 1990s, currently provides access to more than 20,000 copyrighted works. The Digital Academy of Literature (DIA) contains works by contemporary authors and is run by the Petőfi Literary Museum; it pays authors a monthly stipend as a usage fee.      

How democratic can digital libraries be, considering that many people do not have internet access at all?

Barnabás Virág

The webinars offered some inspiring ideas and raised topics for further research, e.g. digital community. Some recurring questions have remained unanswered. One of these focuses on how democratic digital libraries can be considering that many people do not have internet access at all. Each country is in a significantly different situation in this regard. In Hungary, the public library service has 100% internet access in its premises, and is available without restrictions. The question of how to ensure data protection and openness online is also a thought-provoking one. A more sensitive question concerns the extent to which emotional relationships can be (re)formed in the digital world, and the consequences of the loss of non-digitizable, perceptible things such as touch, taste, or smell? Can a community be formed from digital library users, by people looking for the same topics, or similar e-books? Finally, there are copyright issues that remain unresolved: questions that would perhaps deserve a separate webinar series.
 
I trust that the participants of the webinars will remain in contact with each other even after the end of the project, which will not only provide an additional opportunity for the exchange of experiences, but also give opportunities for short- and long-term collaborations.

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