At its best, the public library is a fantastic place for this kind of search
The French philosopher Jacques Rancière has published an unusual book of travels. He does not travel to distant places. Instead he travels to places “by the wayside of the trodden path or at the end of the subway”. I myself took the subway to such a place over a period of four years. It took me to my place of work, which was the public library in a suburb to Stockholm, called Alby. Alby is often described in a stereotyped way as being one of these major city multi-ethnic and dysfunctional suburban areas. Through my work as a librarian at its local public library I experienced and learnt things, which made it possible for me to see and move beyond the stereotype. And for this I am forever grateful. But I neither can nor want to speak for Alby. It would be just another person pushing aside the voice of Alby itself.It will be made obvious that I see oppressive structures inherent in society. Yet, working at a local library, it seems unavoidable not to realise the force, as well as the potential for change in the meeting, the conversation and in relationships between people. People, views and conceptions of the world meet and are transformed within the space of the public library. Structures consist of relationships and I wish to bring these forth as inspiring and encouraging. If one wants to learn about an area or a certain locality, the best place to do so will be at a public library. In the tolerant public space there are numerous ways to study the welfare of a community and how a user, or resident, perceives their own situation and their relationship to the community. One gets to meet them all, from the youngest to the oldest.The most amazing thing is that people who make use of the library also remain active and involved. They have often made their way to the library because of a desire or a need, and seldom because of a problem. As a user you are permitted to remain co-creative, which is an unusual state of being and something that deserves to be safeguarded. There is no doubt that this particular space is full of potential. The sociologist Slavoj Zizek talks of ‘canned laughter’, the kind so often heard on silly sitcom TV-shows, and what their real meaning is. I had never given them much thought before, merely believing they highlighted comic situations.Zizek, however, implies that they function as a kind of filter, so that after a long, arduous day at work, I need not even bother to laugh out loud. The laughter is already there to make me feel as if I am having a good time without actually having to decide whether I think it is funny or not. Canned laughter is laughter to replace real laughter. Before I had even set foot in Alby I knew lots about the area and other areas described in a similar fashion. The media had bombarded me with ‘knowledge’ from the likes of journalists, civil servants, experts and politicians. I had given this kind of ‘canned knowledge’ as little consideration as I had ‘canned laughter’. It is a kind of ‘knowledge’ to replace real knowledge.It was ‘knowledge’ served on a platter, denying me my own point of view. Not long after I had established my own everyday life in Alby did I realise the enormous discrepancy between the dominant ‘knowledge’ handed out by the media, to what I was actually experiencing on a day-to-day basis. Inevitably I had to make a stand. As one piece of ‘canned knowledge’ after another was squashed, an entirely different area arose before me, different to the one I had at first seen and entered. And once this new way of seeing set in there was no turning back.
Dogge, one of Sweden’s most wellknown rappers, grew up in Alby. On Friday April 20, 2001 he wrote a column for the free newspaper Metro and the headline read: “All life’s good things are here in Alby”. Dogge writes about the beautiful countryside, its animal life, children playing and the sense of joy, friendliness and generosity. He portrayed Alby in a way never done when done from the outside looking in. I was struck by how Dogge’s point of view coincided with mine. Those who spoke to me about the column took for granted that I, and they, could see what Dogge described and how pleased people from the area were to be able to share that with me. This would never have happened a year earlier. I had finally learnt to see an Alby beyond the stereotype and the ‘canned knowledge’ of experts.
In Alby you learn to appreciate and handle differences. It is done in a manner that I have never seen elsewhere in majority Sweden. I grew up myself as a white, hetero, middleclass person inhabiting the inner-city area. If someone had asked me at the age of twelve: “Who are you?” I would most likely have failed to even understand the question. Normality does not reflect and one just IS. It is the universal human condition. For better or worse the people of Alby have understood from an early age that they are being questioned. One can from early on position oneself in relation to different identities and society in general. It is constantly said that the marginalised possess no language or voice. This is bullshit! It is the majority who need to learn to listen and appreciate the range of differences in people’s experiences, living conditions, knowledge and competence.
At its best, the public library is a fantastic place for this kind of search, involving challenging and qualified dialogues. It has been said that all the major problems of our age relate to the setting of boundaries, in the differentiation of peoples, the Us and Them syndrome etc. In these dialogues we need to challenge these boundaries and seek to overstep them to gain new experiences, and along this path create a space for dialogues that transcend. Translated by Jonathan Pearman At its best, the public library is a fantastic place for this kind of search