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Norway working visit report, as part of the Erasmus+ KA1 project

A working visit to Norway was organised from Monday 31 January to Thursday 2 February 2017 as part of the Extending the Literacy Houses Approach Erasmus+ project.

A working visit to Norway was organised from Monday 31 January to Thursday 2 February 2017 as part of the Extending the Literacy Houses Approach Erasmus+ project.

The Erasmus project focuses on the enrichment of Literacy Houses by means of best practices surrounding three themes, these being migrants, policy and formal & informal learning. To address the theme of migrants, we visited the city of Bergen in Norway.

The participant group consisted of ten employees from various organisations in the West-Brabant Literacy Houses network. They were received with open arms by the employees of the Public Library in Bergen. With approximately 275,000 inhabitants, Bergen is the second-largest city in Norway.


Tuesday morning, 31 January

Director Leikny Haga Indergaard gave us a warm welcome. The Public Library in Bergen is housed in a building that is 100 years old, and has undergone many modifications and renovations. As a result, there are many different spaces, each with a unique appearance and atmosphere. The schedule for this morning consisted of getting to know all theemployees at the library who play a role in the theme of lifelong learning


Facts and figures related to Bergen Library 

  • One central location, six branches and two prison libraries
  • 87 FTE = 118 employees
  • 80 computers, 6,600 m2 of public space
  • Open 312 hours a week
  • 49% of the inhabitants of Bergen make use of the library
  • 1.4 million visitors per year

Sverre Helge Bolstad, head of the Learning and digital services department, runs us through an impressive list of programmes and activities, ranging from programmes for children of immigrants and Language Buddies who teach each other a new language, to courses for the elderly on how to use a computer and an organised debate on the 100 must read books selected by the library. (More information about the Bergen Library’s core collection)


Creating, learning and participating

Low-threshold access to literature, movies and music

Inspiring, contributing to the community, sharing experiences


Many of the Bergen Library’s programmes focus on developing digital and media skills. The library organises around 1,700 activities and events each year. The library is seeing increasing use by students and immigrants. The library’s traditional role as a place where books are borrowed is fading, with the exception of children’s books.

In recent years, the library’s purpose has changed. In addition to providing access, the focus has come to lie on learning, creating and participating. This approach has resulted in an attractive programme with myriad diverse activities, which are mainly aimed at children and new ways of learning.

The library now has a Fab Lab, a youth library that was designed and furnished by young people and, in the basement of the old building, the Learning Centre, with 16 workstations, five laptops, work spaces, facilities for copying and printing, newspapers and assistance for those who require it. The Learning Centre is open every day between 8.30 a.m. and 8.00 p.m.

According to Anne Berit Helland, special librarian for multilingual services, the low threshold and public nature of the library are its main selling points. The library also functions as a ‘third place’ for immigrants and refugees, where they can study, but also where they can meet.

Of Bergen’s 275,000 inhabitants, 16% have a background as an immigrant or a refugee. Of this group, 35% uses the library, and the library has a lot to offer them:

  1. Language Café: 70 to 90 people who participate in 14 meetings. Each meeting focuses on a single topic. An informal approach is used.
  2. Reading Room: participants receive assistance in reading from volunteers. The groups are small, consisting of no more than four participants.
  3. Norwegian Practice: implementation by the Red Cross. The participants, numbering between 70 and 100 per session, practise the Norwegian language at three different levels on a weekly basis.
  4. New Amigos Café: participants play a bilingual game. This allows participants to play in different languages and learn the language of other participants in the process.
  5. Mother Language Café: children are introduced to different languages at different tables. Popular with schools.
  6. The library has a multi-language collection.
  7. Exhibitions from the countries of origin of refugees.
  8. Language Buddy: participants teach each other a new language.

During a working visit to the Netherlands, one and a half years ago, they were inspired by our Taalzoeker website, and they are now working on implementing something similar in Bergen. The Taalzoeker website provides information on where to find assistance with learning the Dutch language. Working with volunteers has been introduced as well. Before, all of the language groups were supervised by library employees.

The library strives to facilitate meaningful interactions and inclusion for immigrants. People need to become part of the community. The following phrases embody the Bergen approach:

  1. informal meetings between people;
  2. a focus on cooperation;
  3. a focus on interests and curiosity, without demands;
  4. involving different groups. 

Tuesday afternoon, 31 January

Integration and inclusion in Bergen

Solve Saetre, policy officer for the Municipality of Bergen/special advisor for inclusion and immigration for the city of Bergen, explained to us how refugees and holders of residence permits are coached. The focus in this process is on inclusion, rather than on integration.

Norway has to deal with a lot of labour migrants from other parts of Europe, specifically Eastern Europe, in addition to refugees. Due to the weakening economic growth (crisis in the oil industry), the number of immigrants from Eastern Europe is going down. Right now, around 18% of the inhabitants of Bergen are of non-Norwegian origin. The facilities for inclusion/integration for European immigrants are very limited; immigration from Eastern Europe is not encouraged. In some cases, European immigrants (from Romania, for example, who make up a problematic minority group) are even offered remuneration if they return to their country of origin.

Most of the refugees are from Iraq or Somalia. For these groups, the focus is therefore on inclusion, instead of integration. Theyre all citizens of our city.’ When it comes to immigration, there is ongoing tension between national and local politics. At the national level, policy has been implemented that makes it more difficult to obtain a residence permit.

A considerable amount of all public information is translated for the benefit of the immigrants, into more than 50 languages. They have also set up a service centre for foreign workers’. To the greatest extent possible, support is provided in the language of the person seeking support.

Furthermore, the refugees are given considerable support and guidance. Agreements have been made at the national level on the number of refugees with residence permits that are to be accommodated in Bergen. For 2017, this number is expected to be 850. Accommodation is provided for, as well as an introduction programme of at least two years. Holders of a residence permit will receive benefits of some €2,000 each month. This might seem like a considerable amount, but the standard of living is much higher in Norway than it is in the Netherlands.

The introduction programme takes up at least 30 hours a week, and is spent learning the language and preparing to join the Norwegian labour market. After two years, 42% of the participants have found a job, surpassing 50% after three years. This is the result of an intensive language programme and actively trying to find a match on the basis of background/origin and the labour market.

All of this indicates a positive attitude towards holders of residence permits, also among local citizens. Inclusion is further facilitated through buddy projects and by volunteers (from Red Cross, among others).

One point for attention is the spread of holders of residence status across the city districts, whereby concentration in poor districts should be avoided. Holders of residence permits are also free to look for housing themselves (‘private housing market’). The national government reimburses the municipal authorities for the reception and supervision of the holders of residence permits. This concerns an amount between €80,000 and €90,000, spread over five years.

As soon as a holder of a residence permit has obtained a residence permit for an indefinite period, he or she is free to settle anywhere in Norway. Until that time, the holder of a residence permit is obliged to remain in the designated municipality.

Libraries play a very important role in this process, facilitating meetings and social contacts. The library receives separate resources for the reception/supervision of holders of residence permits. Among other things, projects have been set up to put together bilingual books and disseminate them across poor districts and day care centres.

We noticed that the issue of poor literacy skills among native Norwegians received little to no attention. No information was available on this issue, people had no insight into the scope of the problem and no policy had been drawn up (as yet).


Norwegian training in the library and integration activities by the Red Cross

Nora Booro, Red Cross coordinator, was initially a volunteer and is now a salaried professional working for the Red Cross. The Red Cross in Bergen organises 14 activities, 6 of which have a multicultural focus. A joint venture agreement has been drawn up with the library, in order to promote inclusion of holders of residence permits.

Red Cross volunteers have been trained to provide language training. These training sessions take place one night every week and usually attract around 90 visitors. The language training is not intended solely for refugees/holders of a residence permit. Everyone is welcome. The names of participants are not registered, so illegal immigrants also show up.

The Red Cross volunteers also organise other activities, such as digital training courses (how to use an iPad, for example), the Buddies Project and hiking tours.

The language-related activities are supplementary to the Norwegian Language and Society courses offered by the Nygård School as part of the Norwegian Education Programme (discussed below), and are therefore supplementary to the introduction programme.

The groups largely practise conversational skills, with individual volunteers supervising groups of four or five participants. Upon arrival, the participants are assigned to one of three levels.

The following day, we found out that the library offers separate language training sessions at different times from those offered by the Red Cross. These training sessions are taught by the library’s own volunteers, and are different in that they are thematic and do not employ different levels. This means that these two types of language training are offered separately. 


Wednesday morning, 1 February 2017  

Nygård School for Norwegian courses for adult immigrants

Hanne Lavik, head of the Primary school for adults department.

The Nygård School provides formal education for adult new arrivals from the age of 16. Over the past year, the school has undergone a massive expansion, due to the incredible influx of refugees/holders of residence status.

When the school was founded in 1989, it had 40 students. The school currently provides education for 2,100 students. Since August 2016, there has been an increase of 400 students. Adult learners make up the majority of the student body. Approximately 200 students are so-called youngsters. Among other things, they are taught English and maths and take the primary school final exam. Children up to 16 years old attend the regular primary school.

The staff numbers 240 people, between 160 and 170 of whom are teachers.

The adult new arrivals take classes in Norwegian and Social Studies. The Social Studies classes are taught in the students’ own tongue, which can be Arabic, Chinese, Tigrinya, etc.

An introduction programme has been set up for the refugees/holders of a residence permit who are between 16 and 65 years old. This programme lasts a maximum of three years and entitles participants to 600 hours of free education, comprised of 550 hours of Norwegian language and 50 hours of Social Studies. Once they have completed these 600 hours, the students are required to sit an examination. The first examination is free of charge. 

As of 1 January 2017, those hoping to obtain a residence permit for an indefinite period must sit the examination and receive a passing grade for level A2 (oral) and level A1 (written). If, following the 600 hours’ worth of education, a refugee has not attained the required level and is therefore unable to pass the examination, the school may offer supplementary classes free of charge, up to a maximum of 3,000 hours spread out over 5 years. However, the school may only do this if it believes that the refugee/holder of a residence permit is sufficiently motivated. Participants for whom this is not the case, because they have been absent during class too often, for example, must pay for the classes themselves.

During the first year of the introduction programme, participants receive 30 hours of education each week (20 hours of Norwegian language + 10 hours of Social Studies/Kitchen Studies/Educ & Work).

The introduction programme is not free of charge for labour migrants. Many of these classes can be taken in the evening as well.

The examination is mandatory for anyone who wishes to become a Norwegian citizen. However, for many labour migrants (such as Dutch citizens), Norwegian citizenship is not required for a residence permit.

For more information about the school, go to https://www.bergen.kommune.no/omkommunen/avdelinger/skoler/nygard-skole  

Wednesday afternoon, 1 February 2017

Young programme

Per Vold, librarian at the Technology and Learning Department, Bibliotek Bergen.

A recent project involved the development of the U-rom (‘ungdoms rom’, which means ‘room for young people’). Five years ago, there was little reason for this group to go to the library. Together with thirty students from the Bergen School of Architecture (Bergen Arkitekthøgskole) and in consultation with various groups of young people, the library developed the room for young people. Over the course of several workshops, designed and supervised by the students of architecture, young people were asked to voice their wishes and needs. The librarians were involved as well. After all, media and materials require space. A vote was held to select the best ideas from those born out of this process. To a significant degree, the youth department was set up in co-creation with young people. This is true both for the space that was created and for the programme that was put together.



What do young people want?

The most important thing was that the space should have places where people could chill. It was therefore decided that the space should have a limited number of study spaces. There are plenty of places to study elsewhere in the library. Young people wanted to be able to play ‘FIFA’ and ‘Dungeons and Dragons’. Two separate groups of youngsters contributed to the programming schedule. One group was tasked with thinking up cultural activities and the other with thinking up activities related to learning.

The U-rom was mainly designed as a place where events could be held and debates could be organised. The activities at the library, such as concerts, video game events, a film club and English fantasy novel readings, are for the most part organised by partners.

What worked poorly, or not at all?

Different approaches were tried when it came to asking young people what they wanted. Asking ‘What is a library?’ turned out to be a poor way to get young people involved. Subsequently, human-sized ‘books’ were placed at various locations throughout the city, in which young people could write down their thoughts on the library’s youth department. 

What worked well?

The collaboration with partners, such as the Bergen School for Architecture, turned out to be a brilliant move. A diverse group of young people, who received remuneration for their participation, provided feasible results for the development of the U-rom. The group was diverse in view of the hobbies and interests of the participants. Giving young people the opportunity to come up with ideas for the programme was also a good idea.

Citizen Service Centre

The Municipality of Bergen recently set up a Citizen Service Centre not far from the library. This centre answers citizens’ questions to the municipality, with regard to housing, for example. Among other things, the staff at the centre provide assistance with filling out digital forms and applications. Lillian Røthe, the Citizen Service Centre manager, gave us an introduction at the centre, where the smell of fresh paint was still in the air. 

The current challenge was to make citizens more aware of the centre. To this end, several full-day events dealing with child care were organised to begin with. By means of narrowcasting behind the windows, pedestrians and passengers on passing trams were made aware of these events.

What did we notice and what stuck with us?

So far, this brief report gives an impression of our inspiring working visit to the city of Bergen in Norway.

Looking back on this experience, we notice that:

  1. The Bergen Public Library is a driven organisation with driven employees that actively seeks collaboration with numerous organisations. The focus is on the public demand, rather than on the budget. Naturally, this causes some tension with the budget.
  2. The traditional role of the library had almost entirely been suppressed. However, the library was clearly working on innovation and was involving all ages and target groups in the related activities. Although the library has a very traditional appearance, the activities organised there are far from it.
  3. The input of the target groups themselves was incorporated in drawing up and implementing the programmes.
  4. The library employs a proactive approach in the city of Bergen with regard to social and cultural issues. Furthermore, they are thoroughly prepared to continue the development of the library using the (limited) means at their disposal.
  5. They are very eager to collaborate with partners, both in Norway and throughout Europe.
  6. Everyone we met, people as well as organisations, held a very positive point of view towards the refugee issue. This made for a very positive dynamic, bringing about positive results.


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