As we snaked through the cobblestone streets of Tallinn’s old town, the onlookers’ confused stares and disbelieving smiles faded and returned as they waved, and then saw that, wait, yet more of us were coming up the hill, waving, ringing our bells, and smiling to cover up our focused determination to reach the end. I was at back of this long line of bicycles, and by the time I reached Freedom Square, our celebrations had already begun—hugs, tears, champagne, bicycles strewn everywhere. We had arrived. We had done it.
Just what had we done? Nothing less than a mobile library conference, an event unlike anything else in the library world, perhaps unlike anything else in the world period. More precisely, this was an “unconference,” or a participant-driven meeting without a traditional conference structure. This particular unconference is called Cycling for Libraries, and it pushes the boundaries of even the unconference’s unconventional method of professional gathering. How it does this can be summed up in a single word: bicycles. For two years running, librarians and library lovers from all over the world have gathered for an international bicycle tour. Over the distance traveled, they eat, sleep, and live together, visit local libraries along their route, and, most importantly, find endless opportunities to discuss library issues.
The first Cycling for Libraries unconference took place in May and June 2011 when librarians rode cycled from Copenhagen to Berlin, arriving in Berlin in time for the 100th Bibliothekartage. This year, the location was the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and I was among the 80 librarians and library lovers from 18 countries who started in Vilnius on July 28 and ended in Tallinn 10 days later. Our numbers sometimes swelled to over 100 when we were joined by local librarians. In our bright yellow safety vests, guided by a team of Finnish organizers in orange, we covered over 600 kilometers on our bicycles, visited libraries in the capital cities and country villages, pushed our way over bumpy dirt roads, and were blessed with police escorts though major city streets. Where we stopped, we were greeted by local residents, mayors, a minister of culture, and small town librarians who greeted us in song.
The first inkling of the idea for Cycling for Libraries came to organizer Jukka Pennanen, systems analyst at the National Library of Finland, ten years ago, but at the time, he wasn’t able to generate enough interest. He returned to the idea in 2010 while chatting with a colleague who planned to cycle from Copenhagen to Berlin. Pennanen decided to go along, but later changed his plans and decided to invite friends and turn it into a marketing event for libraries. He pitched the idea to other Finnish librarians and right away Mace Ojala, a library assistant at the Helsinki City Library, jumped on-board as a co-organizer.
The pair printed the Copenhagen to Berlin route on old catalog cards, laminated them, and handed them out at the 2010 IFLA conference in Gothenburg, Sweden.
“The idea got out of hand really quickly,” said Ojala, “one person passed the idea to another and it snowballed. I think it intuitively connects with people’s interests.”
Although initially conceived of as a marketing event, Cycling for Libraries strives to be many things: a forum for discussion and problem solving, a medium for publicity and library advocacy, a promoter of international cooperation, and a supporter of the physical and mental health of librarians.
For Ojala, the focus is on the development and growth of librarians. “I am not so worried about our users. I believe I can help, and I want to help, librarians,” he said. He looks to the unconference model as a better and more functional way to for librarians to connect with each other. “Librarians are human beings and we can connect on a more human and holistic level,” he said, “when you have roommates and when you have to help each other with punctures on the road, you have to cope as a social animal. It is life-like. You experience a lot of life in 10 days.”
Participant Kseniya Timofeeva, who works in the International Department of Kaliningrad Central Library in Kaliningrad Russia, seconded this philosophy, saying “we are like a big family living together and overcoming challenges.” Her colleague Tanya Tupota piped in to add that “the informal situation makes people talk more honestly.”
Ojala suggested that the group dynamic is supported by common interest; “take all the librarians in the world and take a facet of those, in this case, all those interested in a bicycle tour. This is one other basic thing in common.”
Karen Holt, communications librarian at the University of Texas at Austin, put it another way, “I think we all have to be a little crazy to do something like this.”
Timofeeva and Tupota also cited craziness as a defining feature of the participants. “Our colleagues thought we were crazy,” said Timofeeva. “Yes,” Tupota added, “they said ‘we suspected you were crazy, but now we are 100 percent sure.’”
While Ojala stresses the growth of librarians, the advocacy component is more important to Pennanen, who stresses the visibility of libraries and librarians. During this event, “we come out from behind the shelves and let people know we exist.” He added, “when we block traffic at an intersection it is mental health care for librarians who might want to say hush and be invisible. It is good to be loud, to be visible. When we go through red lights with a police escort we get attention. People wave and clap. You can be a star for a while. We should think about this for the profession, bring personalities to the front, not only be formal and professional. Be more courageous, more proud.”
While each organizer has a personal interest in different aspects of event’s mission, the goals of problem solving and open discussion are important to both of them. This is why we received homework assignments before the event. In addition to the assignment of cycling 150 kilometers within two days, each participant was asked to submit a problem facing his or her home library or the library profession in general. These homework problems served as a starting point for numerous discussions in pairs and small groups as we cycled through northern pine forests and sprawling farm fields. While legs peddled and pushed us closer to our destination, I participated in or overheard conversations about open access journals, institutional repositories, library publishing, linked data, the state of Latvian children’s literature, education of librarians in Germany, public library outreach, services for senior citizens, and much more. These discussions stopped only when we had to move into a single-file line on busy roads or when we lost our breath climbing challenging hills. When a conversation broke off, there was no worry. We knew we had many days and many miles to pick up where we left off.
Both the length of the event and the challenge presented by cycling long distances under sometimes taxing conditions were often cited as things that set Cycling for Libraries apart from other professional events. Sandy Roe, head of cataloging and metadata services at Illinois State University in Normal and Editor of Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, said “I like the opportunity to talk with people over multiple days, although sometimes they cycle faster than I do, which can be challenging. It has been a challenge physically and conceptually.” She added that “time out of doors can make you more creative. It can make you step back and look at things differently.” She also seconded Pennanen’s point about stepping outside of the usual place of business, “as a cataloger, anything that gets you out among other librarians and libraries is useful because so often there is so much distance between you and your user group.”
Unlike most professional library events, during Cycling for Libraries, library users mix with librarians. This year, about 5 percent of the Cycling for Library participants were members of the “library lovers” group. Some of these non-librarians were the significant others of librarians who joined their partners for support and adventure. Others were simply people who are both library and cycling enthusiasts. Palash Sarkar, from Jamshedpur, India, is an engineering student at Aalto University in Espoo Finland. Asked how he has benefited from the tour, he said that he now has “a broader knowledge about libraries and knows more about how to use them.” Sarkar also noted that, as a researcher, he can be an advocate for libraries now that he has a better understanding of the relationship between libraries and academic publishing.
There is much symbolism embedded in the concept of Cycling for Libraries. “Cycling reflects the need to change, to move forward,” said Pennanen, and “crossing borders is symbolically important. We are not thinking about nationality. We all have similar problems.”
The international cooperation and exchange of ideas is not merely symbolic. “I think we have so much in common, even internationally. We sometimes forget that, I think,” said Roe.
Timofeeva and Tupota, affectionately referred to among participants as the Kaliningrad girls, attended specifically for the purpose of making international contacts and developing cooperative projects across borders. “The Baltic states are part of the former USSR,” pointed out Timofeeva. “It is interesting to know where they are. A few years ago we were one country and it is interesting to compare. Latvia is maybe a little ahead of where we are.”
Tupota provided an example. “The Valmiera [Latvia] Joint Library has already gone through a renovation, and it was interesting to talk to the librarian about how they did it, how they worked with the designer and found a common language. They have already had an experience that we will have soon, so we can learn from them.”
Latvian librarian Silvija Tretjakova also mentioned the relationship between former members of the USSR. “We admire Russia,” she said, “but we are always a little afraid. The relationship with Russian libraries is a little bit frozen and it helps to see individual librarians, not only institutions. The participants from our neighboring regions—Russia, Estonia, Belarus—ask many questions about the Latvian experience.”
From an organizational perspective, Cycling for Libraries is a project of cooperation between Finland and the host countries. Half of the funding comes from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture (the rest from participant fees), and Pennanen and Ojala lead a team of eight other Finnish organizers. They worked closely with teams of local organizers in each of the three countries to plan the route, and the local teams then worked with librarians and officials in the towns and cities along the route to plan library visits, meals, and accommodation.
Tretjakova, who is the head of the Children’s Literature Center at the Latvian National Library and president of the Library Association of Latvia, led the team of Latvian organizers. When asked how she chose which libraries to visit, she said, “I wanted to emphasize innovation, for example the Valmiera Joint Library [a public and university library housed in the same building] or the library in the Community House in Jaunklidzis [a green building with shelves that can be moved aside to make space for theater and concerts and which hosts weekly visits from a doctor and a hairdresser to serve the people of this isolated community] or places where the libraries are not in good condition but where sending a group of librarians to visit can help inspire and influence local politicians.”
In the small towns, the local librarians invited politicians and arranged police escorts. “It was good experience for them and allowed them to show city managers that the profession is not only about old books,” she said. “Because it was so big and so international the local people were really impressed.”
Over the course of our journey, we spoke often of challenges—challenges for librarians, our libraries, our users, our countries. Cycling for Libraries also has its challenges, the biggest of which is balancing all the facets of its mission. Participants from last year noted that there was more time for group discussion and that there was a “problem of the day” which allowed for more focused daily discussion.
The event is organic and flexible and this means that it can respond to the needs of the local communities. This year more time was spent on publicity (e.g. a visit from the Minister of Culture in Riga and interviews with local newspapers and television stations) and on the cultural events prepared by the local towns. Music, singing, dancing, even the induction of Ojala into the Livonian Order of Knights provided a taste of the local culture and history, but this left participants with little time in the evenings for group discussion.
Anneli Sepp of Tartu University Library joined us for the final two days from Tartu to Tallinn. She said that “the idea is very good, but I had hoped to have more of chance to talk more broadly about libraries in Estonia, and specifically about the political situation, for example the closing of school libraries and a new law that states that federal money for public libraries can be used to purchase only books on a list approved by the Minister of Culture.”
When asked what they had learned between 2011 and 2012, Ojala and Pennanen spoke of technical aspects of organization—dealing with luggage and when to take breaks. “How long does an ice cream break take?” asked Ojala rhetorically, “it is not 5 minutes, it is 45.” For the next year, the challenge will be to find a balance between the needs and goals of the participants and those of the local communities.
Speaking of the future, when asked where we will be cycling next year, neither Ojala and Pennanen would say. Ojala offered only the tongue-in-cheek answer that his official response is to the moon and the stars beyond. Pennanen said that they are looking at suggestions from participants and potential partners. Rumors among participants suggest anything from the UK to somewhere on the continent of Africa. So look out world, librarians and their bicycles might just be coming to a city near you.