A principle in decline

Information services and the independent public library

Librarians still retain their ideals of independence and all-round versatility, but have they perhaps fallen into a rut? Have they forgotten their ABC? Developments in public library information services over recent decades would seem to indicate that this is so.

Librarians throughout most of the world gather on solemn occasions to honour principles such as those embodied in the IFLA’s Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom, recently revised in 2002. Here we can read the following:

  • “Libraries have a responsibility both to guarantee and to facilitate access to expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity. To this end, libraries shall acquire, preserve and make available the widest variety of materials, reflecting the plurality and diversity of society.
  • Libraries shall ensure that the selection and availability of library materials and services is governed by professional considerations and not by political, moral and religious views.”

We sometimes hear reports about breaches of freedom of information and expression or of librarians being prevented from carrying out their duties. These, however, usually concern dubious regimes far from the ‘White Man’s West’ and refer to the burning of books, the closure of libraries and other similar obvious violations.

But is it absolutely certain that we ourselves adhere seriously enough to these principles? Do library services in fact always reflect “the plurality and diversity of society”? Can we be so sure that we are never influenced by “political, moral and religious views?

In connection with my book entitled Videst mulig informasjon, which translates as The widest possible information and is taken from a clause in the Norwegian Library Act, I visited a number of public libraries and their web sites in order to examine their displays, collections, web links and the presentation of their information resources.

Vague terminology
As surely as Norwegian public libraries contain books, they will also have stands or complete sections entitled Offentlig informasjon (Public information). In Norway this has become synonymous with government information, i.e. material published by local, regional or central authorities. Here can be found brochures, announcements, reports, agendas and case histories. In this respect Norway is an open society with a wealth of publications and data bases. The facilities available under the heading of offentlig informasjon are often almost identical from library to library with regard to content and appearance. This is partly due to the fact that libraries are granted free subscriptions to the majority of government publications but also because the Norwegian Central Information Service (Statens informasionstjeneste, now part of Statskonsult) has distributed name plates to be used to indicate government and municipal information respectively. It should be remembered that during the 1970s and 80s the library system was incorporated into a widespread campaign for greater transparency within public administration.

In Norwegian professional library literature, including also a couple of government committee reports, there is general use of a wider concept, samfunnsinformasjon (community or society information). In some cases authors have emphasised the importance of libraries actively presenting motinformasjon (opposing information). Differing views and arguments will always exist and in many cases information from central authorities represents only the views of a political majority. However, this conflict between offentlig informasjon and samfunnsinformasjon has seldom or never been considered particularly important or worthy of debate.

The growth of the World Wide Web has brought no change. The narrow category of offentlig informasjon still remains the most common term used. Under this heading on the libraries’ lists of links the only information to be found is that supplied by local authorities and government departments. This situation will only become worse as more and more libraries entrust entire responsibility for this service to the web-site norge.no which confines itself to information from precisely these authorities and departments.

Also Swedish and Danish public libraries use terms similar to offentlig informasjon. The Swedes, however, make greater use of the wider concept samhällsinformation (community and society information) and increasingly classify their Web links under headings such as Health, Environment, Education, etc. which offer access not only to local and government authorities but also to various organisations and private persons. A quick browse through British websites indicates that similar solutions are common also there.

I therefore maintain that the government campaign of the 1970s and 80s for greater openness and improved offentlig informasjon, although extremely important to the general democratic debate, led to both the ‘genre’ and the concept of offentlig informasjon becoming fixed and consequently exerting undue influence today on the Norwegian public library system’s dissemination of information.

Of course, public libraries in Norway provide a wealth of social information in the widest sense, just as do libraries in our Scandinavian neighbouring countries and in Britain. Circumstances for literature on social problems have fluctuated over the years but all libraries offer a more or less comprehensive choice of books, periodicals, videos and other material on the social situation in Norway and in the world at large. Inter-library lending and the Internet have also enhanced the breadth and depth of these services. However, by presenting official information as a ‘genre’ of its own similar to fiction and non-fiction and without offering any contrary information on the same subject, librarians are in my opinion failing in their duty. An absence of conflicting views is harmful to social processes and leads to a more superficial democracy.

I also maintain that public libraries and their staff together with their national professional bodies reveal an attitude towards the authorities and their information activities which is uncritical and sometimes purely subservient. When loyalty is challenged there is a tendency towards self-censorship. Furthermore, any signs of tackling these problems have been ignored by central library forums.

One example in particular demonstrates this most clearly. In August 1977 a report was published in book form dealing with the Norwegian national assembly’s handling of a sensitive defence issue. This originally secret Loran C report concerned a navigational system for USA’s nuclear submarines which had been established in Norwegian territorial waters in contravention of national directives. The book aroused considerable uproar but was not confiscated by the authorities and several newspapers published the contents of the report without being prosecuted. Some six months later the public library system unintentionally became the focus of the national press when a student carried out a survey among the chief librarians at the 100 largest libraries, asking whether or not they had purchased the book and the reason for their decision one way or the other. 48 libraries had chosen not to purchase the book and several of them admitted that they had been afraid of “treading on official toes”. Such exaggerated caution and self-censorship is serious enough in itself, but no less troubling is the fact that this episode led to no debate in library circles. There was a general pretence that the incident had never occurred and thus no lessons were learned.

External legitimisation
How could these attitudes take hold and become consolidated during the radical years of the 1970s? And why have no changes taken place since then? I have already hinted that some explanation may be found in the massive national campaign for increased dissemination of official information. The public libraries gave their willing support to what was regarded as ‘another leg to stand on’. The library system has always had to struggle for survival. Its history is characterised by changing legitimisation of its existence in relation to external requirements; from public enlightenment rooted in schools and education, through official information and local culture and on to today’s alliance with archives and museums.

Little was done, however, to increase awareness of the strategy involved in becoming a channel for official information. The task was pretty much accepted without criticism. A partial explanation can be found in the strong priority traditionally given by the public library sector to fictional literature and the humanities to the detriment of science and social studies. If asked to consider, for example, the provision of quality literature for children, every chief librarian and child department librarian in the country would be able to present without hesitation several solid grounds for increased budgets. There exist any number of conferences and courses in this particular area and librarians themselves produce interesting and innovative articles on the subject. Nothing similar, however, takes place in the realm of social and official information.

Even when Geir Vestheim, the first Norwegian to obtain a doctorate on a library-related subject, took a closer look in 1997 at the problem of government information, there was no ensuing debate. Maybe, as Vestheim suggests, the fact is that librarians have still not yet realised that we no longer live in a static society of the pre-war type, where ‘everybody’ is united in the common aims of enlightenment and progress.

There may even be a semantic and psychological explanation. The fact that the term offentlig informasjon has so easily been assimilated may perhaps be due to the original and still valid meaning of the Scandinavian word offentlig, namely ‘open’ or ‘public’. A close association is thereby created with ‘freely available’, a fundamental virtue in librarian circles.

A wider game
Even if the causes of our mainly domestic situation could be eliminated, it would still not be easy to put library information services on the right path. The Canadian,William F. Birdsall, feels that libraries have the odds against them. In his article The Political Realm of the Public Library, translated to Norwegian in Ragnar Audunson’s book Det siviliserte informasjonssamfunn (The Civilised Information Society), Birdsall takes as his starting-point the New-Liberalism which developed during the 1980s and which practically dominates the world today by reason of the globalisation of economies pursued by world-wide business concerns. Instead of being subordinate to political life, the economy will now take over politics. In his opinion the economic sphere “uses information technology as a tool not just to change the dynamics between the two spheres but actually to abolish the political sphere”. This applies equally to the politics of the library.

Birdsall is of the opinion that also the public libraries of the USA with their strong pragmatic tradition have been particularly adept at adjusting to swings in the political landscape, since they reflect liberalism’s conception of the individual as a rational, free agent. Admittedly, the library sector, also in the USA, has taken certain independent Little was done, however, to increase awareness of the strategy involved in becoming a channel for official information initiatives of a social character, but Birdsall considers that particular epoch to be at an end. Ragnar Audunson in his doctoral thesis makes a similar observation, noting that public libraries in Scandinavia and in Hungary during the 1980s, when the latter was under Soviet dominance, still held almost identical views of their role in the community.

In Birdsall’s opinion a market-liberal ideology of information technology now prevails. Today’s library-political declarations assume uncritically the task of attracting consumers to the information highway. Once the Clinton era had determined the library’s central position on the information highway, the only condition set by the public library sector was that general user access should retain some glimmer of democracy and equality.

In recent years it has been possible to observe a Norwegian example of something similar when certain individual libraries have assumed or have been assigned the role of offentlig servicekontor (UK: Neighbourhood Office). In these cases the question of the library’s independence and first loyalty can easily become a subject of doubt. Does their loyalty lie with the public or with the authorities, the producers of the information?

Birdsall warns against passivity and uncritical attitudes in the library sector and has come out in support of what he refers to as “the right to communicate”. This goes a step further than any demand for universal access and requires a significant contribution from the library sector in order to be attained. He recommends a strategy proposed by Karen Adams, one-time president of the Canadian Library Association, where the central point is that librarians should become active advocates “to support the critical importance of affordable, equitable and universal access to information.”

Is the trend reversible?
Only two or three generations ago the primary task of public libraries was to make available to the masses a more or less censored range of ‘pre-digested’ knowledge and information. A great deal of this information came from the authorities and often constituted some form of admonition. In 1814 Norwegian central authorities were responsible for no less than 230 of the country’s total of 270 registered publications. Much of this can be viewed as part of the social project embarked upon two centuries ago to promote folkeopplysning, enlightenment of the people, which embraced everything including courses in personal hygiene, lantern lectures on expeditions to the heart of Africa as well as the development of public libraries. Although folkeopplysning has been modernised and democratised on several occasions, also by the people’s own organisations, there are those today who with some justification increasingly declare it to be dead.

Nowadays it is easy to be dazzled by the enormous mass of available information and to believe that everything is so much better. Information, however, is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. The new situation demands no less of public libraries than before. Everyone agrees that the library will be needed in the future to organise, to make quality judgements and to present information. Equally important, however, must be the need to view information with a critical eye and to balance opposing views against each other. In the opinion of the Norwegian sociological researcher, Ole Bjerrefjord, the public library system should first and foremost place itself on a par with critical journalism and critical research. He has touched upon an important point which the library sector should consider without further delay.

A small but practicable step to start with would be for librarians to take into use the word samfunnsinformasjon (social information), thereby expanding their mental horizon. Ahead of us lie more important tasks of the type envisaged by Birdsall and Adams.

Translated by Eric Deverill

Freelance journalist and librarian

Anders Ericson
Freelance journalist and a consultant on library issues, ICT and media. He is a qualified librarian and worked as an advisor and project leader at the Norwegian Directorate for Public Libraries from 1981 to 1999. Further information: www.frilanders.net