A Comment on the `Danish report Public Libraries in the Knowledge Society´ The Heart of the Library

The title in itself, The Public Libraries in the Knowledge Society, indicates a distinct line of vision and developmental direction. The connection is not to the experience society or to the future in general, but to overall political strategies for globalisation and innovation.

Whether ideology or pragmatism is to be found behind this important choice, I do not know, perhaps a bit of both. At any rate, the choice reflects the fact that the report from the Committee on the public libraries in the knowledge society was initiated on the basis of two important preconditions: The Committee’s recommendations being contained within the frames of present Danish library legislation, and known economy.

The picture of the library presented in the report is in good keeping with international, trendsetting library development. After quite a number of years with bewildered searching for some kind of meaning and purpose in contemporary life, the report motivates the public libraries to rise to the occasion with pro-active suggestions for a promising renaissance.

“It is no longer obvious what a public library is, what kind of offers it should provide and mediate, or what should legitimate it at all in relation to its surroundings. For the library it means that its role and tasks will at all times be up for discussion…”. These are the words in the report’s analysis section, which undoubtedly makes interesting reading for the person who want to familiarize himself with important common social conditions that set the scene for library activities today.

Of the five overall recommendations in the report, the decidedly most spectacular one has to do with the development of ‘Denmark’s Digital Library’. When (not if) this recommendation becomes a reality, Danish public libraries will together take an epoch-making stride towards the exploitation of technology’s potentials. In this field the Danish public libraries are totally in the lead.

Initially the aim is to develop a common net dissemination. Over the following years the offer will be extended via integration of digital media such as films, games, music, literature and digitised cultural heritage. The initiative is a crucial step into a digital library mindset. It is a great and courageous thought! It ought to be congratulated!

At the annual meeting of the Danish Library Association in 2010 the première was celebrated of a new children’s library portal, www.pallesgavebod. dk. The portal has been developed by a large number of players on the Danish library stage. The result is an amazingly exciting and creative example of how by using the children’s own favourite channels the public libraries can add real value to the complicated lives of modern children. The portal is also an example of what the libraries are really capable of when they succeed in combining all good talents in order to find < a common solution. The new children’s library portal augurs well for the future adult version, which will become ‘Denmark’s Digital Library’.

With the exception of ‘Denmark’s Digital Library’, the report’s recommendations reflect Danish best-practice rather than next-practice. Under the headings ‘Open libraries’, ‘Inspiration and learning’, ‘Partnerships’ and ‘Professional development’ concrete examples are put forward – all of them excellent and useful initiatives to get to grips with, but even so I am left with a feeling of a little too much brain and too little heart.

Nor is this tendency a purely Danish issue. In Sweden the trend is cultivated as ‘aspect policy’. In world-wide terms the public libraries must render themselves useful to the community by merging with municipal citizen service activities, organise homework help, promote reading and support learning. Running a library is a serious business, after all, but somehow something is lacking.

Over the past few years a normative keynote has found its way into the concept of both library and other cultural or even art-creating institutions. Art by itself is not quite comme il faut. There must be a purpose. Therefore, also the libraries are required to contribute to fulfilment of concrete, political goals. In the struggle against climate and lifestyle problems and to the advancement of Denmark’s position in the globalisation, by way of example. Libraries have at all times aimed at goals that were useful to the community, but it is something new when the goals are linked directly to a practicalpolitical agenda and at this level of detail. Why not leave it to the libraries themselves to define which universally human areas they want particularly to support and when? And why climate and lifestyle issues exactly rather than famine, human trafficking, not to mention world peace?

The report’s analysis section quotes a wise, Norwegian library researcher by the name of Ragnur Audunsson, when he talks about identifying one of the public library’s vital challenges as: “At one and the same time to create a common understanding and cohesive force, and also promote and stimulate the diversity and the multi-cultural. At best, the library can be both an instrument for seeking that which we have in common and at the same time cherishing and mediating the diversity.”

As an active, practising library director I am very well aware that every-day-life is paved with prioritisations.What I miss in the report are weighty prioritisations that can promote, stimulate and mediate diversity and the multi-cultural. I also missed more profound reflections which would make us wiser as to why we uphold the inviolable integrity of the library, while at the same time taking on tasks which get dangerously close to exercising authority and risk coming into conflict with the ideal of ‘the free space’. Once the innocence is shattered, the condition will remain irreparable.

Elsebeth Tank
Library Director, Malmø City Library

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Library Director, Malmø City Library