The future of Dutch Public Libraries

Via the report – The future of Dutch Public Libraries by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research | scp
The Hague, June 2008

The study outlines the prospects for public libraries in the Netherlands in ten years’ time. The starting point for the study was the observation that, after ten years of library renewal, opinions are still widely divided on what libraries should be concentrating on in shaping or preparing for the future. In order to give the discussion more focus, we formulate two future projections for libraries ten years from now, based on analyses of the use of libraries and wider media use against the background of social trends and of developments in the media and information landscape. Based on the normative task of the public libraries, we conclude with a number of recommendations for redefining their social relevance in a rapidly changing environment.

The ‘Basic libraries directive’ (Richtlijn voor basisbibliotheken) (2005) lists the five core functions that the library sector sees for itself. Those functions are ‘knowledge and information’; ‘development and education’; ‘arts and culture’; ‘reading and liter ature’; and ‘meeting and debate’. Libraries are or should in principle be active in each of these five areas.

Public libraries as an institution represented and continue to represent four key values: freedom, equality, social cohesion and quality. These four values can be operationalised in nine normative principles for the proper functioning of public libraries:
– accessibility, availability;
– diversity, plurality;
– independence, objectivity;
– solidarity, social inclusion;
– social control, integration;
– maintenance of the symbolic environment;
– reliability, precision;
– professionalism, expertise;
– topicality, renewal.

Trends in society:

Socio-cultural trends influence the expectations of library users and the type of services they require.

*Demographics: figures from Statistics Netherlands (cbs) suggest that the population will continue to grow over the next ten years, but
less rapidly than in recent decades. The over-65s will constitute a larger proportion of the population than at present, while the ethnic composition of the population will also continue to change. Within the non-Western immigrant population, the four major groups (Turks, Moroccans, Surinamese and Antilleans/Arubans) will become numericallly less predominant due to the growth of new groups of non-Western immigrants. In addition, migration within Europe will create large groups of new Dutch citizens of Western origin. The majority of immigrants currently live in the four major cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht), but it is projected that those groups which have lived there for longer periods, in particular, will leave for the larger towns surrounding the ‘big four’.

*Socio-cultural trends: Rise in education level that has taken place in the past century will continue, though not at the same pace. Disadvantaged
pupils, of both ethnic and indigenous origin, will continue to need extra attention at school. The encouraging of ‘lifelong learning’ by the Dutch government and the European Union also means that people will more often follow courses and further training after completing their formal education. The Dutch are becoming more prosperous, and particularly if that prosperity is linked to the expenditure on leisure time, the strong growth of recent decades in that expenditure will continue. On the other hand, there will also be a group of people who have difficulty making
ends meet and who will have to rely on social support. More and more people will combine work and care tasks, which will squeeze the amount of available free time people have available.

People will more often opt to live alone. Attitudes to membership of associations and organisations are changing due to individualisation and informalisation; ties are becoming more temporary and more changeable. This is also reflected in changing attitudes to voluntary work; there are signs that voluntary work is in decline, but also that it is taking on a different, more temporary and project-based form.

regarding the ongoing informatisation process. Online computers are present in virtually all Dutch households, especially those with growing children, and are also widespread at school and at work. Virtually all Internet users use the Web to search for information and to communicate. Older people and those with a low education level will gradually make up their deficit in computer usage over the next ten years.

People’s expectations are changing as a result of what is happening in ‘the market’. People are getting used to freedom of choice, individualisation of services and certain groups are facing growing time pressures, and this is resulting in a need for different library services and for different forms of accessibility.

*Information, communication trends: Changes in people’s media use, the way they search for information and communicate make it essential for libraries to adapt their services. Moreover, it is not impossible that a different party could fulfil the functions currently provided by the library so well that the added value of the library disappears.

Digitalisation has radically changed the world of information: information is now faster, broader, more accessible, more international, and more personal. At the same time, there are concerns about the quantity (too much) and quality (too little) of that information. The library has an important function as a source of reliable information, but it must keep its services socially relevant.

Democratisation of production and distribution resources in media and communication is spawning new and interesting phenomena, which are currently developing rapidly and whose future role is uncertain.

Challenges and opportunities for the library:
Lifelong memberships of libraries will become less commonplace. The library will have to meet the changing expectations and needs of its users by offering innovative services. Given their task of acting as a place for meeting and debate, libraries can play a role in the ever more committed, local and temporary social participation.

In the media market, internationalisation and economic concentration go hand-in-hand. The government seeks to promote the provision of impartial and diverse information. The Internet has led to a growth in niche markets, making relatively obscure titles more easily available.

These new market dynamics have negative repercussions for libraries, but can also be a source of inspiration for a repositioning.
A complete new spectrum of contact opportunities has arisen, from direct interaction to social networking sites with user-generated content.

The policy of decentralisation has had a clear ‘localising’ effect on the configuration of the library sector. As an institution visited by millions of people, developments in local welfare and cultural amenities are important because of their relationship with the tasks of the library.

The future of the Public Library:

The starting point for the future projections described is the following summary
of six trends:
– from limited supply and access to information to abundant supply and wide access;
– from analogue to digital media and information supply;
– from the public-sector to private-sector operation of the media and information market;
– from a focus on the general public to an individually customised service;
– from the use of printed and audiovisual media to digital media;
– from allocation (‘broadcasting’) to consultation and conversation (exchange of content).

The added value of an ordered collection of physical information and culture carriers (as in libraries) is declining. Those collections are increasingly perceived as a limited selection from the total, compared with the rapidly growing supply of information available outside the library.

Based on its public task, the public library now faces the task of seeking out users and assisting them in organising their own content, rather than assuming that users will continue to come to the library for that content. Only if the library enters the
field of view of potential users will the conditions be created for bringing them into contact with both the physical and the digital library collection.

Future Scenarios:

In outlining the likely situation ten years from now, we assume a continuing decline in library use, leading to diminished support
among the population. In this future projection, the knowledge and information function of the library, in particular, will (continue to) suffer due to changes in the environment in which it operates, especially digitalisation. The function ‘reading and literature’ will also diminish further measured in terms of borrowing figures, due to a decline in reading and the higher proportion of books purchased and received as gifts. The threats appear less marked for the functions ‘development and education’ and ‘arts and culture’. A lack of figures on social impact makes it difficult to assess how the functions ‘arts and culture’ and ‘meeting and debate’ will fare in practice compared with ‘knowledge’ and ‘reading’.

Public libraries will however then have to offer something which makes them a natural partner for the responsible public authorities in combating the identified gaps.

Future scenarios – At a policy level:

It is essential that the user is the central focus. Libraries will have to gear their services to the way in which people
in the digital reality of today and tomorrow increasingly search for, organise, share and produce content themselves. Since it is no longer possible for libraries to organise everything that is published in a meaningful way, the emphasis in the gathering and ordering of information will shift from the library to its (potential) users. The key for libraries in the next ten years will be to facilitate this trend as adequately as possible.

Within the existing administrative configuration, it is important to combine the benefits of local anchoring and decentralisation with a sector which is able to develop meaningfully at national level.

SWOT of the public library sector. Via SCP


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