A Tale of Two National Libraries: Norway and Nigeria Come Together
Nasjonalbiblioteket, the imposing yet welcoming stone-fronted complex which symbolises Norway’s commitment to the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, sits on one of Eastern Oslo’s many picturesque, tree-lined streets. It was in this building that I met with Aslak Sira Myhre, the current Director of the National Library of Norway, who will be in Nigeria in June 2017 to mark the beginning of a historic cooperation with his Nigerian counterpart, Professor Lenrie Aina.
The National Library of Norway serves, in many ways, as the tangible repository of the universe as it has ever been known or imagined by the people of one of the world’s richest countries. The institution has two main offices, in Oslo and Mo i Rana, which form the core of a network of smaller, municipality-run public libraries. The more symbolic of the two; the multi-floor, multi-building complex from whose roof I first saw the sparkling waters of the Oslo fjord, is where I was introduced to Norwegian knowledge-preservation practices. There, Mr. Myhre explained to me the nationally-held idea of the right of any Norwegian citizen to access any and all available information on their histories, languages and cultures, regardless of which far corner of the earth their ancestry might be traceable to.
On the back of this idea, the cooperation between the Nigerian and Norwegian National Libraries was born. The two countries have, at first glance, little or nothing in common. However, besides the hundred-plus years of trade in consumables like stockfish (a type of cod sourced, dried and then exported from small Norwegian cities like Lofoten and used in many Nigerian soups), another point of connection is crude oil. Nigerian oil workers and their families form a significant portion of Norway’s African diaspora, and the Norwegian government has an obligation to provide public resources to their school-aged children not just in English and Norwegian, but also in Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and every other Nigerian language books may be published in.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an abundance of such books in the world. Further, the books that do exist are not available in large enough quantities to serve Nigerians with access to public libraries in Nigeria, speak much less of the diaspora. This is where the second of the two Norwegian National Libraries, the office in Mo i Rana, becomes crucial. There, an intricate yet smoothly-running operation converts the written word from fragile, location-specific, paper-bound limitation to instantly and widely accessible digital data.
Mo i Rana is a picturesque former mining town two hours outside Oslo by propeller plane (fourteen hours by sleeper train for those so inclined). Coming from the airport, I passed farm-houses with barns covered in snow up to their second-floor windows, set to the side of freshly-tilled land which smelled faintly of cow dung. In the city centre, colourful buildings nestled between small mountains, deep inside one of which rests the aggregation of knowledge produced by and/or for Norwegians.
Buried beneath a snow-capped peak glistening in the light of the low-slung sun, a four-storey, two-wing, one-annex vault sits behind nuclear blast-proof airlocks. Within those unassailable walls, every single item ever printed, published or produced in the country’s national language is stored. Unlike Nigeria, Norway is not a country that forgets.
My tour of the National Library’s digitisation facility left me in awe of how the world can be shaped by vision and technology. With its 20 petabytes (and counting) of digital information, Norway’s national library’s storage capacity is comparable only to other giants of the information world like Google, with whose cooperation the Library’s mass digitisation facilities were initially developed. I was guided by Mr. Myhre, who re-emphasised the citizenry’s State-secured right to information in their mother tongues. “As it is, our multilingual library has fewer than thirty texts in Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa. We have none in any of the other languages spoken in Nigeria, which means that Nigerian-Norwegians cannot access publications in their native tongues.
“The cooperation with the Nigerian national library is groundbreaking for us,” he said, “and we hope the agreement carved out alongside Professor Aina will be a stepping stone we can use to make the same kind of agreement all over Africa.”
This cooperation between the two National Libraries will see the Norwegian Library receiving the right to produce and distribute digital texts in Nigerian languages to the Norwegian public, while the Nigerian Library receives free copies of every text digitised to be used at its discretion.
On paper, this deal sounds simple enough. But the process of converting physical texts to digital material, and then archiving this material in easily accessible formats, involves fantastic synergies between man and machine on a scale that has been perfected by no national library except the Norwegian one. Swisslog, the foremost warehousing technology development company in the world, provides all of the robotics serving the Mo i Rana Library. A three-storey, 400-meter-long building houses 1.2 million physical books which are constantly being catalogued, filed and retrieved by robots based on requests put in at every public library all over Norway.
“We have a policy which says there must never be more than 48 hours between request and receipt. Not all of the books are stored here; the rare and extremely valuable books are stored in underground vaults in Oslo.” The nondescript building which houses the library’s robots is made of a warm red brick, but its insides are frigid both in temperature and feeling. During my visit, chrome machines filled the air with the sounds of their clanking wheels and gears as they sourced and shipped requested books. It was a sight far more efficient and impressive than any I had ever seen, and I felt a pang of emotion for the now redundant librarians whose job it must have been to wheel ladders from shelf to shelf in search of those same books.
About hundred meters away is the digitisation section, a one-storey, U-shaped building. There, three large rooms play host to about twenty 6-foot-high scanners which endlessly capture page after page of text. A roster of staff rotates duty, supervising the time-consuming process and correcting errors that occur when, for instance, the vacuum inside a scanner fails to completely turn a page.
Every year, between 30,000 and 45,000 books pass through this section. Their last stop is a brightly lit office with mini basketball hoops and several massive screens on the walls, where jocular programmers fill their days with designing and constantly improving on the software that delivers the finished digital books to the Norwegian public. Since the digitisation project began about a decade ago, three million items and about 460,000 books have been digitised, all of which can be accessed by searching for titles, publication dates, author’s names or even words inside the text.
In Norway, the National Library is considered a custodian of both the past and the future. The Oslo library, whose four wings were built over the course of more than a century, in architectural styles that both clash with and complement one another, is a symbol of a country not just accepting of the march of modernity, but in full embrace of it.
In the Oslo Library, I was privileged to look on as soundproofing technology was built into the walls of rooms with ancient doors and shelves preserved in their original state. I passed under hundred-year-old murals that led to reading rooms full of computers with direct access to the library’s digital archives. In Mo i Rana, I walked the endless aisles of a climate-controlled vault full to the brim with the entire recorded history of a nation, cocooned within a mountain. And as Norway continues to look outward on behalf of its citizens, Nigeria is set to find its place inside this carefully ordered labyrinth of timeless information.