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Transformations . . . or the complex story of going digital

Issued May 2002

Elsebeth Tank

The Danish National Library for the Blind

Address to the 2002 National Conference of Librarians:
National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress

April 29, 2002

Richmond, Virginia

Denmark is a small "Fairytale" country with a long history. Like the other Scandinavian countries Denmark is characterize by a well-organized society, a comprehensive and smooth, well-functioning infrastructure and a homogenous population consisting of only 5,5 million people.

In Denmark the public sector is extensive and far reaching. A major proportion of peoples' incomes is siphoned to various forms of taxes. Accordingly, the Danes expect to get their payments back as public services, whenever needed. Therefore it would hardly surprise anybody to reveal that Denmark is stuffed with public schools and universities, public social security programs, public hospitals, public libraries, public infrastructure; public-whatever-you-would-think-of-we-have-got-it.

A public owned and governmental funded organization also goes for "The Danish National Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled", DBB. In the opposite to what is the case in the US and Canada we in Denmark don't benefit from the use of volunteers. Unions and other significant organizations would prevent such things from taking place, which would be considered rather hostile and cause a lot of problems. Alas, we at DBB are constrained to use paid staff, only. And we are about 80 persons all together.

The overall obligation of DBB is to provide its patrons with equal access to information - as much as possible as fast as possible. But that can be done in many different ways reflecting different priorities. For years this mission has been carried out by means of analogue audio books and books in braille. Similar to our colleagues in other countries we have sent countless numbers of units in alternate formats to members all over the country. Though we will continue doing so for some more years we anticipate that the analogue era will be entirely over and done with at the end of 2007.

The process forward to this milestone is what I will be focusing on in this presentation. I'll present you to some of our main priorities and also to the processes we are going through to hopefully bring out our vision into reality, in the years to come. In many respects there are a lot of similarities in the activities of NLS and DBB, however, there are a bunch of differences as well. That is natural and a consequence of our different starting points and environment. Anyway I hope that my presentation could be regarded as an alternative input to the developing processes you are facing.

When making efforts to develop and implement digital methods and products DBB benefits from its small size. Actually, the digital development in Denmark is much easier to put through than must be the case in the US. In this enormous and diversified country the transformation really takes a top notch library organization to succeed. Just to think about it seems scaring. In this context the digitization in Denmark is nothing to talk about really, just a piece of cake.

Nevertheless, we at DBB have seen the project as fairly complicated. But we have formulated a vision, we have moved forward the development and we have gained a good deal of experience.

So therefore let me invite you on a tour to DBB (not in real life I am afraid but in the Power Point version). On this virtual travel we are going to look at several aspects of DBB's development during the past years. On the tour you will get to know about some of DBB's vital strategic choices, some problems, setbacks and triumphs we have experienced. Meanwhile, please make yourself comfortable - and hopefully you'll enjoy the next 25 minutes.

DBB is the Danish version of NLS. We are located in Copenhagen - the capital of Denmark, and from this place we produce and distribute materials to the patrons all over the country. The patrons are individual members of DBB, they are blind or suffer from other severe disabilities. In addition to the service for the individual members we at DBB have to cope with another demanding task. Meaning to supply the public libraries with audio-materials to support their services to print disabled individuals. In DK we have had a library law for years. The law was recently revised and among other changes DBB's obligations towards the library sector was extended. (This improvement, by the way, didn't come out of the blue, it happened as a result of lobbying activities from DBB). The revision of the law stated that public libraries can get assistance and advice from DBB in the field of accessibility. Though the libraries have to pay us for consultant services it is a vital point that it is mentioned in the law. Why is it vital, you may ask? The answer is, for three reasons:

  1. It underlines that the library sector, as a whole, has a responsibility to improve accessibility.
  2. It legitimatizes DBB's capacity when it comes to accessibility.
  3. It reflects the fact that networking and mutual integration is keywords in the age of digitization and at the same time it questions future success of isolated solutions.

The countryside

To introduce you to Denmark I will like to show you a neutral photography that provides you with an idea of the Danish countryside. It's nice and peaceful out there. The sun is shining. The heaven is blue and bright, there is no danger, no reason to worry. To me this picture is a symbol of life at DBB before we started the comprehensive transformation back in 1998. Since then life has been more complicated, more challenging but also more proud and promising. That is of great importance for not only the organization as a whole but also for each and every individual staff member.

Back in 1998 we formulated a new vision for DBB. In this case "we" means - the managerial team in cooperation with staff members, users groups, our board, the Danish Library Community and our owners, the Ministry of Culture. Thus, a considerable variety of stakeholders was invited to take part in the strategic process. We broadened out the discussion for several reasons. Above all we wanted to get every idea and whatever relevant knowledge on the table and make use of it, if possible.

Not only did we carry out a process that, in itself, was meant to foster a great deal of enthusiasm in the organization, we also experienced that the public library sector gradually became more aware of the need for accessibility for blind and other disabled persons.

The strategic process clarified to everybody involved that digitization should be the predominant issue at DBB. By use of digital technology it seemed possible to secure visually impaired persons access to the same sources of information as sighted people. For the first time in history the idea of equal access to information could and still can be fulfilled. That is now what we believe in, and that is what we are working for!

Not only was the implications of digitization clear to everybody, we also rather quickly recognized that a digitized organization requests alternative processes to replace the well-known ones. Different methods of organizing the work should be considered and endeavored; and indeed the technologies with enormous potential call for new and maybe even more inventive qualifications from the staff members. What a challenge!

DBB poster

Now I think the time has come for me to present you to your Danish colleagues at DBB. The poster was made at the beginning of 2000. It is the figurative expression of a comprehensive programme that we have carried out during the past two years to strengthen the level of competencies in the organization We have named this programme something like "unleash all values", and we actually have been able to set free different forces and to thereby lay the groundwork for future innovation. As part of this program we have organized 800 seminar days during the past 2 years. Every staff member has participated, in average each and everyone has been through 10 days with different courses.

Voyage of discovery

When we have formulated our new vision of digitization all staff members were invited to join the voyage of exploration. I didn't promise anybody that we should expect a bed of roses. On the contrary. It was spoken out loudly that we were going to set food on new land. To do so we needed a variety of personal skills. Wanted qualifications in such a process are for instance: courage, creativity, talent for teamwork, cooperativeness, humor and leadership. In return for this advanced requests, DBB would offer life lines and other safety devices and then, of course, coaching, inspiration and support in general. The overall intention really has been to empower staff and enable everybody to cope with the challenges and that is what people have been told, over and over again.

I am sure we have all met people who are said to be impervious to change. That is almost part of our human nature. Yet strangely enough, in the ongoing, developing process at DBB resistance to change has been almost nonexistent. There might be several reasons for that. Here I want to draw attention to two factors which in my understanding have been of great importance.

One factor is the ultimate invitation to take part and gain full involvement in the process.

From the very outset many staff-members took to the process of change and felt a great degree of ownership and responsibility. In my opinion an extensive involvement generates an understanding and ownership and at the same time it reduces anxiety and uncertainty - both feelings which normally cause opposition and hostility in an organization undergoing the process of change.

The second utterly important factor has to do with the management of the human resources. At DBB we practice a very open and direct management style. Our managerial team and I have agreed upon the need for changes and we have continuously, and very directly, brought the message out in the organization We have made no fuss about it but we have said to people - "Like it or not - we have to change this organization and we invite you all to take part. If you don't want to participate it is your free choice. In that case you will have to find yourself another job within the next two years"

When talking about the human resources I find it substantial to emphasize the necessity of a fruitful working environment. And now I am not referring to wonderful buildings or exquisite interiors, which would be far from the reality for DBB, I am thinking of the way we are working together; the way we behave and how we actually feel about it.

Hard fun

Denmark experiences a steady flow of ideas and expressions from the US. From this flow DBB has adopted the great expression "HARD FUN". You see, "HARD FUN" adequately reflects our ideal of working together. We have to work quite hard to accomplish our mission, accordingly our working days are long. And again long working days should be loaded with fun and joy, why shouldn't they? It is our shared responsibility to make them take the right course. That is a claim beyond dispute - simple as that.

Thinking of the requests to employees today where we ask for a creative, intuitive, unorthodox, flexible and outstanding performance - a centralized and rule-oriented environment would not be the perfect match. That, at least, has been a conclusion for me.

If the situation happens to be the same in your working places - you too will have to find out what it takes to create a mentally rich environment - or if you have got that already - what you could do to make even better? Open-mindedness, generosity, appreciation and tolerance are all together self-evident examples, I think. And here I take it that my American colleagues could be a brilliant example for us in Europe since the human characteristics I put forward seem to be part of your nature. So you are indeed some steps ahead, in this regard.

To improve performance and enable the developing processes, we at DBB have decided to deliberately end the old story of how to organize and how to work together. Though the old way of doing things has been useful and appropriate for many, many years it couldn't catch up with the challenges of today. So we had to formulate some new stories - we could also call them values.

One part of this process has been to examine today's trends in society thoroughly. By doing so we wanted to identify relevant characteristics that one way or the other might affect our situation and therefore should be taken into consideration. Complexity in itself is a trend and tends to make such an effort endless. And indeed the number of relevant characteristics that arose were significant. To make the whole thing manageable a few essential ones had to be selected.

They are (new photo):

An old-fashioned, hierarchical organization will be unable to function satisfactory in a society with those characteristics and to benefit from them sufficiently. That has been a further motivation for us to break down the hierarchy, to share responsibilities and to make "Values replace rules".

So, as we now step by step are developing a modern organization, the attentive audience presumably would like to know more about the outcome of the efforts. And I agree that is the interesting part of the story. You do not change organizations for the sake of the change. The overall aspiration must be to enable your organization to reach new goals. Therefore, let me brief you about that issue.

Goals of DBB

At DBB we have formulated a number of goals which must be given priorities by everybody. All of these intentions are essential and together they represent the top priorities of our actual assignments.

1. Digitization is the keyword

By stating that digitization is the keyword we underline the superiority of the digitization and we legitimatize a process that has been launched to transfer resources from anywhere in the organization to initiatives in the field of digitization And that, in fact, is what we have been doing for the past four years. We have evaluated the use of resources again and again and we, therefore, have identified opportunities to save money by means of reorganizing and new thinking.

Concretely, we have build competencies and gained experiences which all together enable us to produce digital talking books with the complete text file and a detailed structure. To incrementally begin the distribution of digital talking books, we have organized a 'book club' in the beginning of 2002 for a limited number of users who for the next year will have a new digital talking book every month. As you can imagine the idea of starting a book club is copied from the commercial publishers. It has a range of different advantages. One essential advantage comes from the fact that our members love to have offers similar to their sighted neighbors. An example could be this club-membership that beside the digital talking book provide the patrons with experiences likewise the one you can get as a sighted person.

For DBB it is valuable that the club members interact with us to help us learn from their experiences when using the new product. In the interactive process, we get to know more about difficulties for the users caused by new technology, and our attention will be brought to important issues that should be taken into consideration in the future development processes.

The digital audio books are distributed on CDs. For the moment we are able to store 20 hours audio combined with an HTLM structured full text file. The users may keep the CDs but are asked to deteriorate them, when they are no longer of interest - as a matter of fact it would be far to costly to have them back. I am not sure whether this practice will be normal in other countries as there obviously are a lot of copyright implications that must be respected. We have not yet allowed the public libraries to use digital audio books, to do so we might have to provide the CDs with technical barriers to prevent any kind of misuse. It is still an open question.

The Danish Copyright Law allows us to provide our users with novels and other published books as electronic text files which can be downloaded from our website. Which is what we are doing. About 500 novels and non-fiction titles are available on demand. It is easy for our IT-skilled members to use this new service and it is very popular. When a user has downloaded a title he or she normally reads it by means of synthetic speech, large print or the so-called Braille Light device.

Similar to what is the case in many other countries, Danish print-disabled persons never before have had the opportunity to access a daily newspaper. This unfortunate fact was changed a couple of years ago when DBB accomplished to get an agreement with a daily paper that ever since has been fully accessible on the web. DBB did the technical part of the job and the newspaper paid us to do so.

I am sure that you are all aware of the strong impact technologies have on different processes in the library. An ongoing obligation, therefore, is to take advantage of the new opportunities. One of the latest initiatives in this area for DBB has been to introduce a print on demand service when it comes to braille. From the beginning of 2002, we only print braille books on demand. The user gets the book a few days after it has been ordered. We don't expect to get it back. The patron is eligible to keep it or to throw it away when the attraction has disappeared. Hence, a lot of administrative and manual processes are eliminated. We do not actually save money through the print on demand service at the moment, nor is it more costly than has been the case before. The budget balances but cost reductions are expected in the future. And the users? They have truly welcomed the new service.

In the field of digitization the last initiative I would like to mention here is our converting programme. The programme was launched in the beginning of 2002 and we are now pretty far ahead of schedule which means that we, for the time being, have converted 3,000 analogue talking books into digital. It is our plan to convert the entire collection of talking books before the end of 2003. But then again our collection happens to be minuscule in comparison to the collection of NLS. In total we have about 14,000 analogue audio titles.

Anyway, at the end of 2003 we are technically able to end the analogue era and to go only digital. But we cannot really do so partly because of the majority of users who for several reasons will stay unable to cope with the digital reality for the next years, and partly due to the lack of the needed funding to ensure the sufficient capacity in terms of digital production, archives and distribution. We will therefore continue the step by step going digital process and our goal is to ultimately close down the analogue services at the end of 2007.

We are thinking a lot about "mixed products". An example could be to use the synthetic speech on different parts of a book - table of contents, indexes, notes or other parts of the book that do not necessarily request a human voice. By mixing the human narration with the synthetic speech we can increase the productions and we can produce faster. Furthermore, we intend to use synthetic speech on materials that have to be accessible very quickly. Radio and TV programs are good examples.

2. Unlimited user enthusiasm

Whatever glorious ambition we might come up with it would be completely worthless without the users enthusiasm on the matter. To keep that fact in mind is crucial and the reason for us to continuously strive to improve the services.

We do so in different ways. The time does not allow me to go much into details with all issues. Therefore I'll just mention one example among other new initiatives. We have invited our users to special events together with authors, narrators and librarians. The events have not taken place at DBB but in more attractive accommodations all over the country. Though our users have been asked to pay for participation, all tickets have rapidly been sold out.

You can always discuss the relevance of such an initiative. In my opinion the disabled users should meet library offers similar to those offers given by the public libraries. Though handicapped people are welcome to participate in the activities of public libraries, it is our experience that they normally don't.

Particularly blind and partially sighted people tend to live their lives a little isolated. By taking initiatives as the above mentioned DBB contributes to processes of integration. Likewise the public libraries we cannot solve the problems and are not expected to do so; but we can share responsibility and hopefully, we can inspire public libraries to take over and do more to make the disabled patrons feel comfortable in the public libraries.

3. Strengthen DBB's position as an appealing partner for cooperative activities

As part of our strategy we first of all decided that DBB should develop competencies that would help us to be regarded as an attractive partner, mainly for libraries, but also for publishers and other information providers. DBB's knowledge of new technology and its potential when it comes to accessibility should inspire and enable relevant organizations to publish in accessible formats, especially on the web. To enhance this process we at DBB have established a so-called web-center that primarily aims to inspire the library sector to go for accessible solutions. But we have also been asked to give advice to different firms, and we do so gladly and accept with a smile the small extra incomes that follow such a request.

Realizing that we cannot save the world all by ourselves, we strive to get actively connected with relevant partners to benefit from cooperation. Naturally, public libraries are indeed relevant partners for DBB and a few years ago we initiated a partnership with some devoted public libraries. Our ambition was, in companionship with public libraries, to organize spectacular, breathtaking, magnificent activities for disabled children.

We succeeded in getting external funding and then together with the representatives from the chosen public libraries we started the planning process. As a starting point we would not accept anybody except from the very best and most beloved performers for children, and actually a lot of those persons known from television programmes for children, musicians, authors and the like participated with passion.

The outcome of this initiative was outstanding and unforgettable for everybody involved. The children were thrilled. The families were happy to meet inclusion and acceptance and the staff involved were inspired and had a lot of job satisfaction. Those kinds of events are very recommendable - so if you haven't done it before you really should try it - the sooner the better.

4. Increased efficiency

I am sure you have made an observation similar to mine. To increase efficiency is a never ending story - and yet very beneficial. With a variety of different approaches, we have repeatedly tried to increase efficiency. We have changed working methods and found new ways to organize We have taken advantage of new technologies and thereby ensured a more efficient performance.

By encouraging staff members to sort of "mingle" while working we have increased production. One example is the IT-staff, that has facilitated the production by developing different soft ware programs. For instance a programme that automates the process of marking up a text file in the XML format and another soft ware programme that helps us to generate an audio file with synthetic speech very, very fast. The two software programmes are for sale and actually we have sold some licenses for instance other libraries for the blind but also to an American university. The programmes can be downloaded for a demonstration from our web site, www.dbb.dk.

Digitization offers an unlimited number of opportunities in terms of increasing efficiency. One example to underline here is a project launched on DBB in January 2002. From that month the starting point for any of our digital productions is a so-called source file. Any book we are going to produce in a digital format starts as an electronic file. If we are unable to get the file from the publisher we scan in the printed version of the book, instead. The text file is hereafter marked up in the so-called XML format, and from this one source file we are able to provide the patrons with:

It is our goal to make 200 titles like this in 2002.

We constantly keep in mind the challenge to carry out the needed turnarounds whenever it would improve the results. The process of change nearly has been implemented as a daily activity, and that I regard as still more crucial!

5. Less cost more benefit

By talking about "less cost more benefit" I intend to emphasize the idea of getting alternative funding and here again we have an issue where we could learn so much from you - and we should. But we also have other opportunities.

As you can understand from what I have already told you, public organizations in Denmark are allowed to earn money for instance by selling a product. Evidently unfair competition with private vendors is not accepted but in the case of DBB we have developed competencies that are not available on the market and therefore we are able to raise an income by selling products and consultant services.

We also get more out of our budget by renegotiating contracts with different vendors and by being still more businesslike in our approach to the external environment.

Furthermore, we hope to launch initiatives in cooperation with commercial publishers. For instance, we are trying to convince one of the most influential publishing houses in Denmark of the wisdom in bringing out digital talking books on the market. Our intention is to produce the books and make them part of our digital collection but at the same time to let the publishers pay us and sell them on the free market. But I have to admit that we haven't succeeded, yet.

6. Make DBB a good place to work

This is the last main priority we have got. I have already been through a good deal of this in my presentation and I will leave that on for now.

Hopefully, you now have got an impression of the work we are doing in Denmark and for further information I shall once again direct your attention to www.dbb.dk.

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Posted on 2010-11-12