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

Mobile Libraries: a study in cooperation.
Scottish mobile library experiences, with comparison to Swedish and Finnish examples.

Elizabet Thorin
The Line,
Scotland, UK


Faced with problems like cuts in budgets, like few proper evaluations, like special requirements for technical support, the mobile service is very much a "dark horse" a still untried resource, which I believe, could be developed far. The problem of usage of mobile libraries often seems to get stuck in conventional organisation and adapted more to needs of the providers than the receivers. If the mobile library capitalises on its strengths it can make improvement to the customer in small or isolated areas by providing them with a high level of service and with a constantly renewed stock, also to remote branch libraries by implementing these in collaboration to achieve optimal usage of resource and quality service.

I want to address these problems by showing different solutions to a similar scenario in three countries Scotland, Finland and my native Sweden

This report analyses different mobile library service solutions, different approaches to providing service to remote non-urban areas.

I draw comparisons with present mobile library practice in Sweden and Finland. I want to embroider on the importance of integral communications between services, the ability to achieve quality service targeted at areas with special demands while working within realistic financial remits.

The examples;

Sweden; Kalmar, Kronoberg and Hälsingland regions

My question about mobile libraries and their ability to serve, regardless of where people live and the area size, was raised in Kalmar and Kronoberg Regions, in Sweden. Due to the ownership of mobile units, and the organisation of their work, the capacity to serve in rural areas is often limited. Where it for resources alone Kalmar and Kronoberg Regions could provide a quality service similar to that in the Highlands, where the mobiles cover every area small or distant.

I was further exasperated when a councillor in a local authority in the regions turn against a well established mobile service and suggested chopping it totally.

A project in the Hälsingland region on mobile service co operation across boundaries showed that even simple solutions gave scope for better service with existing resources. More than that, the project allowed for reflections on present usage of mobiles. The traditional mobile allows little scope for flexibility and affectivity Routines apart, there is scope to develop the mobile service if we permit the users to express demand and showed more initiative in marketing.

Scotland, spotlights on the Highlands

When I talk to the Highlands Library Management and staff about the excellence of performance by the Highland mobile libraries, which by cooperation cover vast areas of sparsely populated country, meeting demands with a quality service in spite of no excesses, they mostly smile and carefully remind me of forth coming budget cuts and investment that has been put on hold. Recreating local library systems on the model of the Highlands Library Service is a challenge for any collaboration between local authorities. I would like to emphasis that no system is perfect, the Highlands are underfunded but I still wish to highlight the Highlands Mobile system and stock management model as examples of excellence developed for the users.

Finland, Kuusamo role model of integral service

Cooperative models like Kuusamo mobile service working according to the needs of the local society. A more targeted, less traditional way of operating, identifying a model that would enable the libraries to reorganise and integrate their resources to target areas, providing the customers with an overall quality service and attracting more users. This shows that mobile libraries can play a vital part providing IT- service.


Mobile library service in Sweden.

Mobile libraries in Sweden are owned by local authorities but most were bought on grants from the Swedish Arts Council. The local authority is responsible for the running of the mobile, staff and stock inclusive. Which means that in times of crises, when all public costs are scrutinised, mobile services are questioned, particularly if their capacity is not fully employed.Before the recession Sweden had about 130 mobiles units today it is close to 100.

The grant from the Swedish Arts Council was a high profile recognition of the quality of service provided through mobile libraries. Maybe I should add that the Swedish system with mobile libraries provided by government money was much envied cross Europe, for example in areas like the Highlands where the library management could accommodate the cost of maintenance but not raise the capital to purchase the mobile unit. When the system was first devised it was suited to budgets and staffing, and offered a service which was able to meet the customers needs and demands at the time.

Kalmar and Kronoberg Regions;little or no cooperation

The mobile libraries in Kalmar and Kronoberg regions, with one exception, work only in the local authority they belong to. This is a rather common model in Sweden; communities work traditionally with little or no cooperation.The system was created when the economy was booming with inflexible big individual units, individually stocked, which offered appropriate service. The Kalmar and Kronoberg regions are indeed small by European standards, but still together two thirds the size of Belgium. Sparely populated with about 21 inhabitants per square kilometer, the main sources of income are farming, forestry and a number of technical industries. Today 75% of the population live in the urban areas, and the trend towards urbanisation is on going, which leaves the countryside even quieter. It is possible to find rich farming land but overall it has always been a poor area. There are several similarities to the Highlands in Scotland and emigration to America was high here also in the late nineteenth century, with starving peasants trying to find better prospects as the land was too poor to feed them.

Kalmar and Kronoberg Region, with vast sparsely populated areas, are divided in to 20 local authorities of which 11 have no mobile service. A closer investigation makes clear that several of the mobiles are not used fully because of cost, and a further one or two are under threat. This means poor coverage by library services, and that several local authorities choose to keep branch libraries or service stations open even when they are of poor standard. Big individual units, individually stocked offered appropriate service when the economy was booming but a similar service to that in the Highlands, where the mobiles cover every area small or distant has a lot to offer.

Hälsingland Region cooperation.

Cooperation has been tried across communities, and before I embark on the Highland example I would like to describe a project carried out in over 5 of the 6 Local Authorities in Hälsingland Region over 1992/1993 with funding from the Swedish Art Council.

Two different forms of mobile service ownership were involved; two local authorities had one bus each and simply let their overcapacity to a third community , and another local authority set up its mobile service calculating on selling spare service to a neighbor authority. This second example implies taking an economic risk for one authority depended on another community to purchase part of the service, in the first case the risk was minimal since the local authority did not calculated on external business in the first place. These deals meant that almost the entire region was offered library service - almost, since the sixth local authority choose not to take the opportunity to serve their area. There is a recognition in this example of how impractical borders between local authorities are, and by planning mobile routes according to needs and demands, the service becomes both more flexible and rational, and more cost effective.

This is once again reflected in the summary of the project given by the Head of Library services in Ljusdal, one of the participating local authorities. Kerstin Hassner underlines that a lot of the problems I myself found in the present organisation of mobile libraries in Sweden and Finland; she wants smaller units, used with more imagination and greater response to demands from the users. She also points out the need for mobile services in the vast Swedish countryside, and states that, even if the mobile libraries could be used better, they still offer the only cost effective alternative. The mobile services must also raise their profile, to stop reduction in mobile units.


Mobile libraries in the Highlands; a study in cooperation

The Highlands and Islands are largely a devastated terrain (Frank Fraser Darling, naturalist 1944) Waste country can be more then just a fascinating wilderness; it can indeed be just waste (Ivor Brown, writer on driving through tile Highlands in 1951)

The Highlands, Scotland

Scotland is one third of the main British island but has only little over 5 million inhabitants. The population density is 66 per 100 hectares, but you get a better picture if you remember that 3/4 of the population cling together in the centre of the country in and around Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. 89% of Scots choose to live in cities, towns and villages (villages with a population greater than 1,000). This is in contrast to the Highlands with only 11 residents per square kilometer. Over the last 20-30 years something important has happened in the Highlands, slowly and steadily the economic graphs beginning to turn upwards.The Highlands is an area about the size of Belgium, an area covering half of Scotland.

There has been a remarkable increase in population from a low point of 322, 000 in 1960 to a peak of 373,000 today. The "new" Highlanders are the fastest-growing population in Europe.The population of Scotland is slowly declining, and has been doing so since the mid- 1970s, but in the Highlands it is up by 2.6 per cent.

The increasing attraction of the Highlands means that the incomers are not just old or retired people but the majority are "economically active". Several of the new Highlanders are people who were born there and are now returning, or Scots moving to a new attractive area. Also many come from England to live and work in their holiday resort. The Highlands is also home of the Gaelic speaking minority, an active population, no more than 80000 who subscribe to schools, books and Gaelic television, which has a following amongst English speaking Scots too.

The persuasive factor in the decision to move to or return to the Highlands it is the quality of life - fresh air and a resort in a violent society; in the Highlands you need not look your door. The unemployment figures for the Highlands are still pretty depressing even if they are below a Scottish average, but yet things are happening, and not in a conventional way. In a mix of traditional employment and new, often small scale, industries investment from both private and public funding has found its way in to the Highlands. Taken together it creates a balance of opportunities. Fewer and fewer of the Highlanders live as their parents; farming on small holds - crofting, is now one of many activities, maybe a supplement. Tourism, on the other hand, is a major industry - the Highlands is an area of remarkable beauty, and making it more accessible for visitors engages a large number of locals.

Modern technology obviously means a lot to any remote area and the Highlands is no exception, even if it there is yet a lot of development to be done. Today for example a cartoonist living on Orkney can deliver his product to his customers, magazines in California, via fax and E-mail. A network university is being developed and the University of the Highlands and Islands is to be launched by the millennium. This will give another 700 jobs to the area.There are also a at present 20 Art Centres planned across the Highlands, in some cases these will also house libraries, where the existing libraries need new premises.

In all this the libraries play a vital role, providing material for people in remote settings, and allowing people working or studying to carry on with their task. The Highland Council acknowledges that Library service is specially important in small and remote communities where other facilities are limited.

Library or Leabhar-lann

of the total population of 370000 in the Highlands, Inverness is by far the biggest city with around 70000 inhabitants. The public library system is run by the Highland Council Cultural and Leisure Service and has Head library and Central Service Unit for the branch and mobile services in Inverness. There are 43 branch libraries and several small service points spread over the Highlands. Apart from that there are 12 mobile libraries, constantly running. 90% of the Highlands is agriculturally of poor standard which explains why its sparsely populated. In many areas there are more sheep or deer than people. The fleet of mobiles serves the needs of this large area. The Highland Council is deeply committed to the principal that geographical isolation should not prejudice any citizen's ability to benefit from its services.

Money is short, and no increase in budget is likely for a foreseeable time. According to figures recommended in the COSLA Library Standard (Convention of Scottish local authorities; Standard for public ibrary service in Scotland, 1995) which is implemented in the Highlands, the Highlands Libraries would equire another 250000, additional to their annual budget to reach required -minimum - standard. Needless to say this is totally unlikely. The unitary library system in the Highlands was born out of poverty, and they have little chance of getting the increase in resources they so badly need. Meanwhile the system is run as close to excellence as possible, on a shoestring budget. The mobile libraries which cover the Highlands on their tour, are also part of the process of switching the books between the central in Inverness and the branch libraries, and service points, though for the bigger libraries a couple of small vans are used to shift books around.

The Highland branch libraries are constantly changing their books according to a schedule system and within months the book stock can be changed totally in one of the smaller libraries. There is a pattern to how books are changed and guidelines to how to pick. Crucially it is the staff at each library who make the hand on choice. This system could, of course, be disrupted if the local library staff become territorial and do not have a view of the development of the libraries but prefer to interpret library as a permanent collection. This is countered by training and seminars where bookstock management and the Highland model is discussed.This constant changing of books, where the stock is one unit, is rather unique and has a lot of assets - libraries always have a renewed stock, and are not stuck with a lot of publications, and smaller libraries can provide a greater variety then their budget would allow where they allocated a budget according to their size and turnover.

At present the Highlands is only in the interim stages of computerising the library system, the catalogue is on line but not the lending system and this is needed in order to be able to instantly locate books in the system. The IT development has been fairly slow due to the budget but also due to the geographical conditions in the Highlands; mountains are beautiful but not connection-friendly.The usage of communication radio is sometimes the only means of reaching a far travelling mobile, and this can only be used when topography permits.

Requests are handled via the Central Service Unit in Inverness - skills in information service and literature held by the staff at the head libraries, makes up for local staffing in part time libraries - the Highlands has relatively few; six, chartered librarians. The budget does not permit more qualified staff, and to provide quality information and reference service to the remotest branch means that the Central Service Unit must be staffed with excellent people.

The Central Service Unit in Inverness deals with bibliographical and administrative functions, coordinates the work of individual libraries, manages the book stock, provides professional support and ensures the quality of service. For example is the stock is constantly checked and improved, filtered through the Central Service Unit in Inverness and thereby media is sorted out when it is of no use. The staff here also have a total view of the media profile and the media budget is effectively used as it is possible to direct the purchases. The staff in branches and mobiles are of course experts on their own users and on principle all requests are served. There is at present a discussion about steering more of the media budget directly through the branches and mobiles to allow a stronger participation. Last year the Inverness Central Service Unit handled at least 70000 request and a quarter of a million books where shifted between the different sites.

The fleet of mobiles is stationed across the Highlands, in a strategic pattern, which gives each mobile a head start every morning in order to be able to complete long and remote tours. The mobiles provides service to small communities and individuals on a fortnightly timetable. There are mobile libraries placed in Wick, Brora, Nairn, Inverness, Fort William, Dingwall, Portree, Lochcarron. (see map, marked with distances from Inverness in miles) The mobile libraries are scheduled for optimal usage, the longest route takes three days where the driver stay away for two nights. The tours are the same all around the year, bar the days when the weather closes down all roads. Most roads in the Highlands are old and narrow, even if they are maintained, they are rather slow.There is a constant audit of the mobile service, and if a stop has not been used for three times its declared dead and the service is moved somewhere where it is used.

The Library service is also undertaking a larger Service Audit at present, on the range and extent of all services and resources. When the budget is tight revisions are imminent and constant.

The Highland Council have adopted four core values or objectives, which are central not only to library service but to all Cultural and Leisure Services, these are

To create access To provide high quality

To encourage and work in partnership To market services.

These are fairly standard objectives for any quality library service, only it takes on another dimension when the area you serve is 31,703 square kilometers. The Highlands unitary library system with one mobile library fleet was born out of poor economy. A low budget solution aiming to provide equal opportunities for everyone regardless of where they live. We must acknowledge that the Highlands Mobile Service still is underfunded, and let us hope that the new boom in economy promised by the relatively new government will allow the Highlands Library Service some of the investment required.


Finland, in an economic crisis, has developed a different approach to mobile libraries; optimal use and multiple usage. This is, I hasten to add, is not throughout the whole country, there are areas where the combined library /mobile library coverage is poor, near to communities which cover their area well. The mobile libraries in Finland always have one local authority as owner and serve that community, though collaboration happens when communities buy mobile services for "remote" corners . Also co-operation between branch libraries and mobiles in the same community can be rare. Sometimes non-co operation can generate absurd consequences and a misuse of resources; for example within a radius of fifty - sixty kilometers, four mobile libraries operate serving all together 60000 people. The area is divided between 11 local authorities and only four have a mobile service, and a fifth buys some service. Of these mobile libraries, only one can be said to be used to full capacity.

But lets skim off the cream and concentrate on good practice.

Kuusamo; in northern Finland, a vast rural area on the Russian border with about 3 inhabitants per square kilometer, considerably fewer in parts as half the population lives in the centre. Kuusamo community is huge, a difficult area to serve not only for libraries. Two mobile libraries serve the whole area, bar the the centre and two villages which have branch libraries. There are fifteen different routes for the mobiles, the longest takes ten hours, and all in all there are 300 stops. The 2500 users borrow 56 books each per year. Both mobile libraries have Microsystems for circulation and information. The stock is changeable within the system and does not specially belong to any particular library - books are used where they are needed.

With an increasing number of users under fifteen, as well unemployed and senior citizens, Kuusamo library collaborated with other services to increase the support to people living cross this spacious and wide area; In 1990 Kuusamo embarked on a project called MONIKUU - Multiservice Kuusamo. This was in short the creation of a local public information network - PIN - which embodied both public and private bodies local as well as national using new channels to increase service. The goal of the MONIKUU - project was to test and develop new techniques in order to make more services available to more people. The resultant network could be used privately but also on public service points like the mobile libraries, free of charge. Finland has a long standing commitment to basic library services and though MONIKUU the basic services in a library were vastly increased. The services from the mobile libraries, through electronic connection via wireless, offered so called front office services directly on the doorstep. The favourite was the postal service offered by the mobile libraries but others like ordering your groceries, banking, local authority services, like forms and request services, and even a betting shop was offered.

On evaluating the project it was found that betting and banking services had a high profile but were used very little whilst the postal service is still provided by the mobile libraries as it proved very popular. A spin off effect is that people who had not previously but read about the IT-society now got their hands on experience and, even if they where shy to use different techniques, the awareness of the library's possibilities have been raised considerably.

The Kuusamo project was even, if the resources where not used to the extent that was hoped for, successful in providing the participants with information to develop a new computer system for the library. And, together with two other vast communities, Kuusamo have continued working on service and co-operation through IT. This is financed with money from the European Union. Finland has all in all 220 mobile libraries and, even if the service due to ownership and local structure is costly and under used there is still a common agreement of that it is important and will have a cost. And that the money spent on library service relatively is small.

Concluding thoughts

Local mobile system with individual stock offer a service which has been created to be appropriate for the producer, not necessarily the receiver. The service can be offered in an unlimited economy but if resources are cut, or demands change there is scope for surveying different solutions. This paper has given three models which all allow scope for consideration when developing approaches to providing service to remote, non-urban areas.

I have talked about the excellent performance of the Highland mobile service, which by cooperation covers vast areas of sparsely populated country, meeting demands with an excellent service in spite of limited funds.

Think of, for example regions like Kronoberg and Kalmar not as twenty local individual library communities but as one unit. See the existing mobile unit not as serving only within boundaries but across the map as part of the same system. There would be opportunities to offer specified services to every individual or group of individuals living and working in the region. A service similar to that in the Highlands, where the mobile service covers every area, small or distant. This would be a very untraditional proposal for most Scandinavian library systems, but could offer interesting solutions.The Highland service is also run on a low budget.The Highlands model has great potential, and it is also a valuable model of collaboration. Mobile library collaboration with stationary libraries around the area regardless of administrative boundaries would make it possible to exchange small or old fashioned service stations for mobile library service.

The experiences from the project in Hälsingland, suggests that small mobile units, can be used better more flexibly, and in immediate response to demands from the users The service can be varied according to demands but their is a need to market the mobile service better.

That is unless there is a conscious choice by the local authorities to spend relatively more on library service in the community, and invest in mobile service like neighbouring Finland. Recreating local library systems on the model of the Highlands Library Service is a challenging concept for any collaboration between local authorities. Progressive cooperative model like Kuusamo requires a larger budget but shows that mobile libraries can play a vital role in providing IT- service. It should also be underlined that although service like Kuusamo's cots a lot of money it is still, and always will be relatively small budgets, when we talk libraries.


I samma gamla hjulspår? En utredning om bokbuss I glesbygd (In the same old tracks? A survey on mobile libraries in sparsely-populated/ my translation/) by Helene Svenne, introduced and concluded by Kerstin Hassner. Published by Bibliotek Gävleborg 1995

Electronic and mobile "front office" services for inhabitants in non-urban areas by Chief librarian Leena Ollikainen, presented at 17th Urban Data Management Symposium in Helsinki-Espoo, September 1994