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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Use of the Internet in small Norwegian libraries

Aase-Liv Birkenes
Senior Lirary Adviser
Norwegian Directorate for Public Libraries


The first Norwegian public library to present its own home page on the Internet was a small library in Northern Norway. This achievement showed that obtaining access to the Internet did not require considerable funds and a large staff. More important were creativity, motivation, interest and an understanding of the new technology. This particular library connected to the Internet in 1995. At that time as many as 75% of all public libraries in Norway had computerised their internal routines, but only 4-5% were Internet subscribers. During 1996 the number of Internet connections greatly increased and in 1997 we anticipate a dramatic rise, thanks to a government grant aimed at promoting the use of the Internet by public libraries. I shall revert to this matter later.

First I should like to go back to January 1996 and to a government committee which published a report entitled "The Norwegian Way to the Information Society. Bit by bit". The intention of the report was to form the basis of a coordinated Norwegian IT-policy.

This report gave public libraries a central position, placing them in earnest for the first time on the political agenda. The report emphasized the fact that public libraries will be able to play an important part in increasing the availability of information and the use of information technology. Since then this principle has been reiterated in a number of official documents.

A more concrete sign that this question would now become part of government policy was provided by the national budget proposals for 1997.

NOK 5 million was granted for this purpose.

In its justification for making these funds available, the government emphasizes the following points.

Enough said about the views of the Norwegian government.

We received NOK 5 million and the Norwegian Directorate for Public Libraries was charged with its administration. Although far from sufficient to achieve the aims laid down by the government, this sum is still a very good start. It is, however, by no means certain that the State will provide all the funds necessary to ensure fulfilment of these aims.

Like many other countries Norway has 3 levels of public administration; the State, the counties and the municipalities. The public library system is primarily a municipal responsibility, but the counties are obliged to maintain a county library as a kind of service function in relation to the municipal libraries. In Norway there are 435 municipalities and 18 counties, all varying considerably in size with regard to both area and population. As many as 338 of the 435 municipalities have less than 10,000 inhabitants.

The Directorate for Public Libraries has drawn up a plan for the use of information technology in Norwegian public libraries. Entitled "Public Libraries on the IT-road", this plan proposes concrete measures at both national and local levels. A greater part of the responsibility for achieving the aims proposed falls on the owners of the libraries, which are of course the municipalities and the counties.

The purpose of the extraordinary government grant was to start a process which would lead to all public libraries being joined together in a network. We chose to use these funds to support measures proposed in the Directorate's IT-plan, not only those at national level but also local measures. We saw this grant as an opportunity to make the IT-road a little shorter for the public library system.

We divided the funds into three parts.

The investment subsidy for libraries wishing to connect to the Internet is now distributed. It was possible for each and every municipality to apply for funds and 380 did so.
275 of these had no previous connection with the Internet. At the end of 1996 there were already 140 municipalities with libraries connected to the Internet, so that out of the country's 435 municipalities, no less than 415 in all are interested in developing the use of the Internet in their public libraries. We find these figures most encouraging. The distribution of funds has been administered by the county libraries. The intention was that priority should be given to libraries without any Internet experience, but the counties have chosen somewhat differing criteria for the allotment of funds, showing a tendency to favour the smallest and "poorest" libraries. In some cases the level of enthusiasm shown by library staff during the application procedure has also played a part. In some cases opening hours and library capacity have been taken into consideration in order to make the best possible use of the money available.

The subsidy was distributed among 135 libraries. The overall demand was therefore by no means satisfied but we are hoping for government goodwill to be manifested in further financing for 1998.

With regard to that part of the grant devoted to assisting libraries in presenting their own catalogues on the Internet, we have given priority to co-operative arrangements where several libraries get together in joint use of a web-server. Co-operation reduces both investment expense and running costs for the individual library, each individual small library is spared the responsibility of running its own server, while the expertise developed becomes of benefit to a greater number of people.

So far we have not carried out any systematic review of Internet experience and the areas of use in public libraries, but such measures will be necessary in order to evaluate the best use of the extraordinary grant. If we are to have any hope of further government funding, we must be able to show that use of the Internet in public libraries does in fact have a cultural-political effect and therefore deserves continued government support in the future.

I should like to devote the rest of my time to the plan known as "Public Libraries on the IT-Road".

As I mentioned previously, most of what happens with regard to the use of information technology in the public library system lies outside the field of central government. In choosing nevertheless to present an IT-plan for a sector consisting mainly of municipal and county institutions, the State wishes to give a signal indicating the importance it attaches to the development of information technology in the public library system. A further aim is to indicate the path to be followed in deciding how this technology can best be utilized by libraries to achieve national aims. Many libraries have already come a long way and offer advanced IT-services to the public. The majority, however, do not. This means that the level of library services varies greatly from place to place. If this imbalance is allowed to develop further, it will directly affect the ability of the public library system to maintain equality of services throughout the country.

The plan contains 12 initiatives at national level, which give some indication of the areas where we plan to concentrate national efforts in the years to come. A similar number of initiatives are given at municipal or county level, which are recommendations concerning further development at local level.

The central aim of the plan is one of equality. The use of information technology in public libraries opens new possibilities of achieving the principle that all Norwegian citizens shall have equal access to knowledge, culture and information, regardless of where they live, work or study. Libraries can also play a central role in making information technology generally known and accepted, thus helping to prevent the population from becoming even further divided between those with considerable expertise in the field and those who are IT-illiterate.

The plan focuses on five areas.

The first concerns networking. If the central aim is to be achieved, all libraries must have network access. They must also possess the skills necessary to make proficient use of the network's capability to improve services to the public. Expertise is therefore the second area of focus. A further condition is that information must be obtained before it can be passed on to the library user. Access to information is therefore the third subject of interest. The fourth area concerns the librarys's role in spreading of information from the public authorities and the fifth relates to the role of libraries with regard to life-long learning.

First area: Network and Infrastructure

As previously mentioned, an important step along the IT-road is for all public libraries to obtain network access and this aim is well on its way to being achieved. Connection to the Internet makes it possible for a small library to function in line with a larger institution and will create nearly equal conditions throughout the country for people to enjoy access to knowledge, culture and information. If information technology is to be of universal benefit, it is essential that the general public has access to it through the libraries. Both adults and children should be able to sit in a library and explore the Internet, become familiar with it, use its enormous wealth of information and enjoy the opportunity to use the Internet as a means of communication. It should also be possible to obtain expert guidance from the library staff.

These services should be completely free to the general public. Norwegian library legislation stipulates that the public library system shall make books and other suitable material available to the whole population and without charge. This condition applies regardless of the expense to the library and regardless of whoever makes use of the library facilities. It therefore follows that when a public library places the Internet at the disposal of the general public, there shall be no charge for the service.

Network access and the development of related services are a local responsibility. At the national level we consider our responsibility that of taking overall initiatives which can benefit the public library sector as a whole and of dealing with general problems common to all. Among these problems is the need to ensure that libraries obtain cost-efficient access to networks and net services.

Approaches to the two State-owned companies which provide net services in Norway have resulted in our obtaining fairly reasonable offers for libraries wishing to connect to the Internet. UNINETT is primarily engaged in providing services to research centres and institutions of higher education but has now also opened the door to libraries. The Norwegian telecommunications company, TELENOR, has for some time had a special offer for schools which is also extended to libraries. Moderately-priced package solutions have been put together, the majority of libraries opting for an alternative based on dial-up ISDN. The majority of libraries today have UNINETT or TELENOR as their Internet access provider, but some commercial providers are also to be found.

A co-operation project between government and municipal authorities is at present working to construct a joint platform for network connection for the whole Norwegian public sector. A considerable amount of money has been allocated to this "Administration Network Project". If the project becomes reality, libraries will be able to choose network services and network providers offering easy communication with other local organizations, while at the same time maintaining contact with institutions in the library's own network. This "Administration Network is not new in a physical sense but is a question of co-operation and co-ordination between existing network solutions and services in the public sector. Second area: Expertise

In addition to network access itself, qualified staff is fundamentally essential if libraries are to have any hope of bridging the information gap. In order to assist the public in the use of the new media, library staff themselves must possess the necessary expertise. Traditionally the dissemination of knowledge has been their special field. In a society where the use of information technology is rapidly becoming a major factor in presenting and imparting knowledge, culture and information, we believe that it is precisely this expertise to be found in libraries which will be in demand.

As previously mentioned, we intend to offer library staff a decentralized training programme in information technology.

Third area: Access to information

In addition to network infrastructure and staff expertise, other factors exist which may hinder access to information for both librarians and library users. These factors concern not only information from providers and database owners but also from the libraries to their users and between the libraries themselves. Access may for example be limited by purely financial considerations. Certain sources of information are so expensive that even well-funded libraries cannot afford to use them. One of our major objectives will be to make certain that public libraries and their users are not denied access to the information they require.

A further aim is to ensure that libraries place their catalogues on the Internet. This will not only benefit regional inter-library lending but will have the equally important effect of providing the local community with network-based library services, thus contributing to the development of the public library as the central, local milieu for knowledge, culture and information. It may well be that contributions to the Internet which are generated locally provide the information which is precisely of greatest use to the local community.

Other important areas to be dealt with in the years to come include questions of copyright, co-ordinated access to national services for cataloguing and inter-library lending, and co-ordination of the various computer systems in use. These are problems which are by no means confined to public libraries but concern the national library system as a whole.

Fourth area: Information from the public authorities

It is clear that one of the primary tasks of libraries is to make official information from the authorities available to the general public. Users of the larger libraries have traditionally had the best access to such information. The introduction of IT-based services will level out these differences by offering users all over the country equal access, regardless of whether or not the information is held by the local library.

Information technology will also open up new possibilities for better and more uniform services in the supply of information from government bodies and institutions in the municipal sector. New and interesting opportunities for co-operation arise and it is vital that the libraries play their role in this co-operation.

Fifth area: Education and life-long learning

The Norwegian educational system is in a decade of change. Several important reforms were introduced at about the same time as information technology was launched as a serious educational tool. It must be a goal for the public library system to offer IT-based library services to users seeking learning and information at different levels and at various phases in life. These services should be based on interplay between the libraries and the various institutions in the school system and in adult education. Library legislation in Norway stipulates co-operation between public libraries and school authorities. Libraries should also consider how to become meeting-places and reference centres for students taking decentralized courses of study and also for adults wishing to improve their knowledge of information technology.

IT plan for culture

In addition to the 5 areas focused on earlier, it will be important to follow up the government's plan for "Culture Network Norway" . This network is intended first and foremost to provide common access to all Norwegian cultural services on the Internet and will represent the sum of several networks for different sectors such as archives, museums and libraries.

Libraries will face many challenges in the years to come. It is important to take advantage of the favourable political winds blowing in our direction and to give our overall national goals a professional content. Strong efforts will be required at all three levels of public administration.