Sunday, 26 June 2011

Technology, puffins and the endless sun

I would like, if I may, to take your mind away from the technology theme of this month’s blog. I’d like to invite you to join me up north, where I’m writing this submission from a land where the sun doesn’t set. I’m in northern Iceland, and have been travelling around the region for the last month. I’ll be honest: libraries have not been the first thing on my mind, but I was intrigued by (and found time to visit) the Faroese National Library, so I’d like to tell you a little about it.

The Faroe Islands are a collection of 18 islands that lie halfway between Norway and Iceland. Just under 50 000 people live there, almost 20 000 of which live in or around the capital of Tόrshavn (pronounced “tor-shorn”). The Faroes are a self-governing region of Denmark, and it’s an area that holds its independence tightly – they have their own parliament and flag, and have not joined Denmark as a member of the European Union. The Islands are stunningly beautiful, remote, and absolutely covered in sea birds and a few very determined sheep.

The Faroese National Library is in Tόrshavn, and the Executive Director, Erhard Jacobsen, was kind enough to spend some time talking to me about his world.
The National Library also serves as the university library to the University of the Faroe Islands, the only university in the region. There are 15 public libraries spread throughout the Faroes, but some of these are so small they are only open a few hours a week. So in reality, the National Library is the only widely accessible library for many of the Faroese people.

Residents have access to a book delivery network, as well as interlibrary loan which tends to be sourced from Denmark. Erhard told me that while pretty much everyone in the Faroe Islands has internet access, the Library’s online resources are limited to a few databases purchased for the use of the university.
The Faroese are rightly protective of their culture and language, but the National Library has struggled to acquire or develop Faroese online resources. The small population limits the commercial viability of such resources. Erhard tells me that his biggest priority for the coming year is to champion the role of the Library in creating, describing, storing and distributing digital resources. Librarians in the Faroes really struggle to get this issue on the government’s funding agenda.

And what is it like to be a librarian in the Faroes? There are about 30 people working in libraries, not all at a professional level. (When I asked Erhard if they all knew each other, he replied “Of course!”) But one cannot study to be a Faroese librarian – the nearest library school is in Denmark. Individuals will usually do their degree either in Denmark or by distance study through a Danish university, then return to the Faroes to build their understanding of Faroese cultural, literary and administrative history. Anyone working in a Faroese library would have to be fluent in Faroese, Danish and English – but then, almost every Faroese person has that as a minimum.

I was struck by the extent to which the Library has to balance the big picture priorities that are taken care of by national and state libraries that we’re familiar with – things like ensuring equity of access, struggling to make government publications available – with the more immediate concerns of almost every library. Erhard is full of ideas – he’d like to change the layout of the library to allow for flexible study spaces for students; they are exploring the concept of “lending a librarian” to researchers to review their work; they would like to expand information literacy training for the whole population. But the fact is that they are a small library, and they have to make difficult decisions about priorities. Erhard was honest when he told me that libraries in the Faroes, including the National Library, were not heavily used by clients, but tended to direct most of their resources to preservation, collection, and technical services. In a time when customer service is king in many Australian libraries, I found it interesting to see an environment where preservation was considered more important. After all, if they don’t preserve the cultural history of this tiny region, who will?

Like me, I’m sure you’ve read this and found a lot familiarity in the circumstances of the Faroese National Library. And you’re right – this is a first world country that, while still struggling with issues like resource allocation and cultural preservation, doesn’t have to worry about other basic things denied in some libraries around the world: a safe place to work, basic human rights, etc. But we don’t have to compare ourselves to the far extreme to place our work in context, and I found it comforting seeing the sense of responsibility Erhard felt for the collection and promotion of Faroese cultural resources. I hope that they are able to undertake the digitisation projects that they are dreaming of, as I’d love to see these resources more widely available.

If you’d like me to tempt you to visit this part of the world, just have a look at the stunning scenery here. Erhard and the other staff at the National Library were very gracious with their time and allowing me to take the attached photos – Erhard asked me to send him a link to this blog, and I’m sure he’ll be eager to read any comments you’d like to post.

Alyson Dalby is  the NSW State Manager for ALIA. 

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