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Libraries facing new challenges
The most frequented cultural institutions in Germany

Digitisation poses challenges for all libraries - and even more so for those in small towns and rural areas. But there are ways to meet these challenges.
 

By Nicole Klug

The majority of the population comes to the library to read, browse, study, work, meet, surf the internet or borrow books and media. But since March 2020, COVID-19 has had a fundamental impact on libraries worldwide. Crises are often necessary moments in order to produce innovation and resilience. Libraries around the world are gearing up for new tasks and functions in the digital age. The current situation has catalysed their responses. This was the driver for the Goethe-Institut to bring together a group of young people from all over the world to discuss the topic of digitisation in libraries with the help of renowned speakers. Thanks to three online seminars with six different experts from various countries, there were opportunities for mutual learning and exchange.
 

Serving communities is the top priority for digitisation.

The library’s mission has not changed, regardless of the country: only the method of administration. And libraries must actively go along with this change and exploit the possibilities offered by digitisation. Closures and lockdowns have led to a revision of existing offers and services. Existing offers have been expanded and new ones have been devised and added. The principle is not to digitise each physical offering, but to use the format to offer needs-based options. Various methods have been proposed to provide the service most needed by the user. Design thinking, known from the business world, can also be applied to library services and is an ideal way for even small libraries to work with limited resources (for example a simple sheet of paper with colourful post-its will work). Active user participation is a must.
 
Serving communities is the top priority for digitisation. Katie Moffat renamed the famous Method Design thinking ‘Human Centred Design’, because ‘Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.’ Professor Das from India also focused on the process of creating digital offers for users: Surge for Use is the credo an institution has to follow! Move fast when there is an obvious way to contribute but move slowly when you need creativity to reach a better result.
 
In the course of the digital change, new technical requirements have arisen for staff and in some cases external specialists need to be recruited. Marie Oestergaard from Aarhus put it aptly: ‘we are not an island – we have to work with partners and co-create with users.’ Most importantly, libraries must work together, because every library has its own specific quality that others will be able to profit from. It is a network that relies on one another to survive and to support the community’s needs. Digitisation also offers new opportunities for cooperation. Sharing knowledge and resources alongside learning and teaching should be the main thinking behind libraries’ ongoing journey into the digital world.
 

The lack of resources in rural Germany is similar to situations in India or Russia or Mexico.

There is a clear gap between cities and rural areas in terms of equipment and development issues in southern Germany. The change in rural and small-town environments is different and slower than in metropolitan areas. There are big differences in modernisation, and rural areas in particular need more political support. Digital offers of cultural education in libraries should be specifically promoted and established within the future remits of the libraries. For this reason, especially since COVID-19, there have been many funding programs from the federal government in Germany to promote digitisation in the cultural sector and to expand resources accordingly. For example, the ‘WissensWandel’ (knowledge change) programme grants funds to further expand digital offerings, further digitise media stocks and develop new formats for digital use and knowledge transfer.

We have all been confronted with the same problems in order to move libraries into the digital world. Countries all over the globe have been affected. The lack of resources in rural Germany is similar to situations in India or Russia or Mexico. The online seminars and discussions among participants from all over the world have shown how important an intercultural dialogue is. Even if no solutions were found that could be implemented universally in other libraries, it was clear to all participants that libraries and people internationally have to face the problem of digitisation. As one international voice!

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