“The future changes and challenges for university libraries” was the main topic of discussion for the leaders of four Nordic capital university libraries at a two-day workshop taking place in April.
For thousands of years, libraries have been used as a way to gather and preserve knowledge in printed books. With the new age of digitalisation, internet and open access, the playing fields have changed, quickly and radically. Change in the library is necessary, but also a challenge for organisations that are set in their ways. Therefore, Wilhelm Widmark, library director at Stockholm University, initiated a dialogue about the challenges of changes, with the leaders of the university libraries of Oslo, Copenhagen and Helsinki.
The dialogue was facilitated by Erik Spangenberg, expert in organisational psychology. As a warm-up, the participants got to interview each other about the upcoming challenges that their university libraries are facing. Apart from some specific challenges, as Copenhagen’s upcoming recruitment of a new head librarian, Stockholm creating a new publishing house, or Oslo’s new library system Alma, the leaders agreed that the biggest challenge lies in the area of staff and management: how to develop relevant competences for the future, as well as getting staff motivated for change, while listening to their expertise and letting them develop their skills? And how to find time to develop your leadership skills, while still leading the library?
The Stockholm University Library explained to the group that they have come up with a plan to manage these challenges: their plan is to change their leadership structure from a department centred leadership, to a more open model where the leaders would be able to take on different departments depending on the needs of the organisation. This includes the recruitment of two new heads focusing on leadership rather than expertise. It also includes two internally recruited staff members who would focus specifically on the library’s two main processes: publishing support and information supply (both to externals and to members of the management team).
To create a dialog about this, the “water ladder” method was used. The method, named after a water cleaning technique, enables small groups to discuss a topic between each other, with the rest of the groups as silent audiences, and then moving the topic to the next level, and so forth. The idea is that this “cleans” the thoughts in the debate process. The session was started by a group of leaders from the Stockholm university library, who talked among themselves about what their expectations and fears about the change in leadership are. Then, the group of Helsinki leaders gave their thoughts about the topic, then the Oslo leaders, then Copenhagen leaders and then it was the turn of the Stockholm leaders again.
The Stockholm university library leaders started the discussion by explaning that they expect the new model to bring them a more flexible leadership structure, and a better focus on user service instead of the internal organisation. Their fears are that the new model will make for unclear mandates and that the management group might get too big. The Stockholm management group received valuable comments from their Nordic counterparts who reflected from the viewpoint of their particular situation. It was emphasised that it is important to clarify how the proposed change actually will help the customers and how to get the staff on board. The Stockholm context was also compared to the faculty based organisations in Oslo and Copenhagen whereas Helsinki recently had made a change towards a more united university library. The question was also raised on why Stockholm did not believe in a more traditional leadership group. Copenhagen thought that the idea was interesting but that it would be dangerous to have both a vertical and horizontal leadership. They also stressed the importance of being concrete so that the staff would understand the reason for the change. As one of the participants put it: ”Organisations vanish, but tasks will still consist”. All in all, there were a lot of reflections and comments for the Stockholm leaders to process. All the Nordic university library leaders agreed that there is a need for more staff communication and customer focus.
The second day was devoted to open space seminars, in which the participants could choose between the following subjects:
• Research data policies at universities: the role of the library
• Knowledge management / competence management in changing university libraries
• Data Labs
• Planning of the physical space
• National strategies for research information infrastructure
• University libraries as publishers
And while one might assume that new and upcoming challenges like library publishing and research data would be in the centre of discussions, instead the hot topic seemed to be the physical space of the library, and what to do when printed books are losing ground to e-books. The consensus among the Nordic library readers seemed to be: “Books out, students in”. Both Copenhagen and Stockholm have already taken steps in this direction, and Oslo and Helsinki are on the move to do the same. For example, the Oslo Hum Sam Library plans to move the shelves from the ground floor and lower ground floor to make room for 450 more seats, including a project zone with movable furniture and a reading corner for fiction. The future of e-books and how to present them in the physical library, as well as what constitutes good service were topics with no clear answers, so more discussions on that will surely be upcoming.
At the end of the day, all participants seemed very satisfied about the outcome of the two days. The open and transparent dialogues appeared to be a way forward for the Nordic libraries and have set the ground for more cooperation.