BIELEFELD: National Libraries as a resource for the future provision of information

Tomas Lidman, Riksbibliotekarie, Kungliga Biblioteket, Stockholm, Schweden


In this lecture it is my intention to present some thoughts and ideas about the tasks of national libraries in a ten-year perspective. Where will we be in the year 2008? In one way, the perspective is narrowly national, but it is also my ambition to try to be more general in my approach. In her lecture, Margaret Haines attempted to outline an information strategy for the entire British nation. In other words, my ambitions are more modest but not necessarily easier to fulfil.

The national libraries face sweeping changes. The task of collecting, describing, storing and making the national cultural heritage available, as it is expressed in words, ideas and thoughts, is becoming increasingly difficult. After remaining practically unaltered for centuries, that task is now being subjected to dramatic change. New knowledge will be presented for use alongside the old, familiar routines. Books, periodicals, advertisements and other printed materials of a more transient nature come to us in new forms – indeterminate and transitory – and difficult to handle. However, the task of the national libraries will remain the same – to reflect the breadth of societal development in our particular sphere of activity. We will have to deal with all the new material, adapt, make new priorities in our budgets and seek new skills among our colleagues. A real challenge in the true sense of the word. The question is – are we up to it?

I would try to answer that question by presenting you with a scenario. What might our national libraries look like in ten years' time? What are the major issues? And perhaps even more important: what would we like to see, and will we be able to influence developments? Naturally I must confess that my predictions rest largely on my knowledge of conditions close to home, that is to say, in Scandinavia, and I am aware that there will most undoubtedly be differences when making comparisons with the larger countries of Europe in particular. At the latest meeting of IFLA in Copenhagen, the national library section's conference focused on strategies for the future. One interesting lecture on this theme was given by the Director General of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, Erland Kolding Nielsen, who discussed the cultural tasks of national libraries in the future. I warmly recommend you to read his report, which made quite an impression on me.


Cooperation at the Nordic level has changed. NORDINFO – the Nordic Council for Scientific Information – the operations of which were previously targeted at libraries, now concentrates on supporting specialized IT-projects. And the organization has also been called in question. On the other hand, constructive regional cooperation between the libraries in the Baltic Sea region flourishes. The national libraries in the Scandinavian countries are cooperating more and more closely and are finding common solutions in various problem areas. The languages unite in the new Europe. The Nordic region, in the sense the term has been used since the Second World War, is becoming less distinct as a political and cultural concept.

The national libraries’ task of safeguarding the cultural heritage has been retained and is now being strengthened and developed. Admittedly, material in certain areas has undergone a change of character – electronic periodicals, reports and dissertations are becoming increasingly common, the archives left by authors frequently contain electronic preparatory work. But more than one half of any country's collections are still delivered as hard copy. Primarily doctoral theses, novels, popular periodicals and newspapers. Non-commercial scientific and research literature is often published in electronic form and is retrieved by the national library at regular intervals to be stored in massive databases available to the library's readers. The present divisions into audio and visual materials, publications and archive material have been revised. Illustrations, music and text are intermingled in electronic editions which sometimes more closely resemble the official records of public authorities. And for this reason, constructive cooperative projects have been launched between all those institutions who work to preserve the cultural heritage, the purpose being to facilitate investments and costly maintenance work. There is some concern that the electronically stored material will be destroyed in the long term. An animated discussion about migration models and selection criteria is under way. Problems with intellectual property rights have been solved, allowing the national library the right to supply Swedish printed materials within its organization irrespective of where they were published – in much the same way as libraries are allowed to use conventional materials. CD-ROM as a storage medium has proved to be only a transitional solution and is in practice already obsolete for the handling of documents.

More and more frequently, the basic content of catalogues is supplied by the publishing houses themselves and arrives in electronic form. The national library processes and refines the data to a level from which various bibliographic products can be generated automatically. It is becoming increasingly common for both illustrations and full text to be linked to bibliographical references. A reader can quite simply switch from the bibliographical description to the main body of the text. We see a development whereby catalogue work will focus more and more on an analysis of the subject and content of the text.

The national libraries’ computer system has been developed in such a way as to make the system suitable for a whole range of applications. The database itself contains different types of information that are useful to different sectors of society. Book wholesalers, publishing houses, purchasers of books, advertising agencies, schools, teachers, students, researchers and the general public; all of these groups need to consult this central information bank from time to time. Access to information is still regarded as a public service and is free of charge to the user. The system also provides modules for local applications in other libraries. This has been made possible by the adoption of general standards, which means that most systems can now be constructed on a modular basis. A special department at the national library is responsible for this development.

Focus is on the problem of preservation. The preservation plan lays down what material is to be stored in digital form and how the requisite physical storage facilities should be designed. In addition to concentrating on our historic collections of national and foreign printed materials which are slowly disintegrating, particularly attractive collections of periodicals, posters and manuscripts are being digitized. Since the copyright on most of these documents has long since expired they are now available on the Internet, markedly improving both access to and knowledge about them. The national library now has a leading position with respect to new technical applications in this area.

The increased political interest in information policy and the role of the national library in society which emerged in the early and mid-1990s has continued. The expansion of the university and university college system, the Adult Education Initiative and the decentralization of decision-making processes mean that the Royal Library is seen in a new light. Increasingly, it has come to be regarded as a suitable institution for implementing the Government’s plans to pursue a state policy for information provision. The digitization of information resources and the expansion of the digital networks have radically changed the accessibility of information. Where that information is stored is becoming less and less relevant. The national library can no longer concentrate all its attention on the library as a warehouse full of books. To understand the situation correctly it is necessary to take a more serious look at the situation of the individual user and the type of information required, and to use these factors as the point of departure for planning the work of libraries. The national library must test a growing number of government measures in order to promote a positive development in this area. Gradually, the tasks of the national library have moved closer to those of the other institutions whose work involves preserving the national heritage. Thus, new tasks have devolved upon the special department for national coordination and planning which was established at the national library in the year 2001. These new duties involve the allocation of government support.

We are witnessing a surge of interest in our history and our cultural heritage in society at large. As the pace of life accelerates – people change jobs more often, are forced to move from one place to another, must be constantly prepared to learn new things – people’s need of basic security also increases. It is an increasingly attractive prospect to exhibit and give people access to the national library’s collections, representing as they do a broad panoramic vista of societal evolution spanning several centuries. The national library’s “products” will be in demand. Technological advances will make previously inaccessible treasures available to a broad public. In addition, a large number of different public events based on the library’s various functions are offered: exhibitions, debates, recitations, seminars, etc. As a result of these endeavours the national library is now well established as a cultural institution and is presented as such when its services are marketed both in Sweden and abroad. The national library is also regarded as an attractive cooperative partner by a number of interest groups. Writers and cultural workers see the institution as a natural place to which they can donate their documents. The role of specialized research library has had to be strengthened as a result of major cut at the universities. Regrettably, security requirements now compel national libraries to restrict direct access to sensitive and valuable material. The security aspect is also one of the main subjects of discussion when premises, exhibitions, seminars, etc are planned.


  1. The national libraries will acquire more clearly defined tasks based on their function as libraries. They will have to develop their national tasks and lead the way when it comes to the general development of libraries. Cooperation between different types of libraries should be facilitated. Free and open access to information, a vital component of any democratic society, must be maintained and developed.
  2. The national system for information provision will be developed to form a communal information resource involving interested parties from all sectors of society and with a broad range of applications. Together with those who actually construct the database, the national library will be responsible for ensuring that the information contained in it keeps pace with developments in society, and for monitoring the quality and availability of that material.
  3. In a changing world, the national libraries must work to ensure that new texts produced in their respective countries are preserved for posterity regardless of their form and content. The emergence of new technology means that libraries will have to adapt their routines and tasks to these new circumstances.
  4. New methods for describing the content of texts and illustrations will lead to changes in routines for cataloguing and classifying material. In cooperation with publishing houses, printing shops and the originators, the national library will be forced to take full advantage of the opportunities for improvement that are offered.
  5. The national libraries will have to take measures to improve access to their collections. A carefully prepared strategy for digitization of vital parts of the collections will be required in order to highlight the most important material. The result should be made available via the Internet.
  6. The question of preservation will become increasingly important, often in conjunction with strictly observed security considerations. The national preservation plan will lay down the guidelines for this work. The national library should have such competence within its organization to ensure that the plans can be implemented.
  7. A growing interest in the cultural tasks of the national libraries and the special departments means that they will become established as well-known national cultural institutions. They will be obliged to pursue carefully considered programme and exhibition activities, show their collections, demonstrate their professional skills and seek to actively influence cultural life. National library officials will take part in the debate on library policy.
  8. Work at libraries is by its very nature international. We both import and export knowledge. International cooperation between libraries will increase on all fronts, among other things as a result of the integration of the member countries of the European community. The national library must work to facilitate this development. It must make its mark on the entire Swedish library system, but the library itself will also be required to initiate and manage projects.
  9. In the light of cuts at university libraries, the role of the national libraries as important research libraries will be strengthened. The national library will have to take pains to acquire a full and representative selection of foreign material in certain vital core areas.
  10. The various administrative and library routines of the national libraries will be fully integrated, providing a more reliable basis for planning, and creating conditions for work of high quality.