An extended hand to integration

Interview with director Jens Thorhauge, Danish Nathonal Library Authority
With more than a generation’s traditions and experience behind them, Danish libraries are firmly anchored when it comes to servicing the country’s ethnic minorities. Up till now the endeavours have been concentrated on delivering material and information in the – in this context – relevant languages, and of course this is something that must be maintained and developed. But at the same time the libraries must advance further when it comes to services and activities that support integration, says Jens Thorhauge, director of the Danish National Library Authority. In this interview he advocates a change of model which offensively and purposefully places the libraries as essential players in the integration process.

Strolling down Nyhavn on a beautiful October afternoon, I spotted one or two Swedes sitting outside in the sunshine, but otherwise foreigners seemed to be in an absolute minority. Certainly this did not seem to be the place for the country’s immigrants and refugees to gather together and enjoy the embers of a truly hot summer. Over the past few years, they have however been at the very centre of the national political debate and policy-making at government level. The restrictions in relation to the country’s policy on immigrants and refugees, which the government, supported by the extreme rightwing Danish National Party, and also to a great extent by the country’s largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, have likewise attracted many comments and fierce criticism from abroad. The main aim of the new Danish immigration policy has been to curb the number of asylum seekers and to induce more refugees and immigrants to return to their country of origin as soon as possible. But another important objective has been to encourage the integration of those citizens of ethnic minority who remain in the country, and to strengthen their opportunities for making headway into the labour market on an equal footing.

When on this autumn day in Nyhavn 31 E, where the Danish National Library Authority resides in an old and carefully restored building across the yard, I have a talk with the director, Jens Thorhauge, the integration of immigrants and refugees – and the role of the libraries in this connection – is therefore to be our main subject.

The libraries embody various humanistic concepts which many of us – as indeed many people abroad – perceive as being in direct conflict with the immigration policy being conducted at the moment in Denmark. How can the libraries avoid being hitched onto a wagon that travels in a very different direction to the one their ideals dictate, was my first question to Jens Thorhauge.

- The present immigration policy is based on the wish of having fewer foreigners coming into Denmark and more foreigners leaving the country. Judging by several Gallup polls, the population as a whole seems to support this course of action and this is something that I don’t think the libraries can do very much about. But I do feel that our minister for integration, Bertel Haarder, has a valid point when he describes it as both inappropriate in terms of resources and humiliation in human terms to fob people off with social benefits instead of giving them a proper job. So the libraries ought to do their best to help realise this obviously positive part of the political aim more successfully than has been the case up till now. Namely the part that has to do with those immigrants and refugees who prefer to stay here and are given the opportunity to do so, being integrated in the best possible way in Danish society and on our labour market. And we also have to make sure that these people feel welcome in the libraries and are provided with the proper services. Speaking for myself, I do think that the libraries are strongly placed in relation to the endeavours now going on in terms of integration. The libraries have something to offer and a helping hand towards the integration of refugees and citizens with an immigration background would be completely in line with the libraries’ aims.

In a letter to Berlingske Tidende in the summer when a young Italian tourist was killed by what many surmised were second generation immigrants, a children’s librarian from Copenhagen suggested how the libraries might contribute to a better integration of i.a. young people from ethnic minorities and a strengthening of Danish ethical values. But it does require that the libraries are given sufficient resources, she concludes. Are the resources as inadequate as she quite clearly implies?

- Since the 60s we have been developing our library services to immigrants. So we have strong traditions and also plenty of experience in this area, and compared to other countries we have quite reasonable resources and are able to tackle things systematically. If you look at Italy and France, you will see that making material available in the immigrants’ own language is not only completely foreign to the politicians, but also to many librarians. If you want to read – well, you are welcome. Moliére is over there – in French, is the message.We are however, dealing with a complex set of problems here and more resources are needed at any time. But not only for the usual services. No longer is it sufficient to just offer access to materials and computers to the immigrants – we need a change of model. The libraries must generally speaking adopt a more progressive and forceful attitude. They have to support these groups actively with materials which will help them to master the Danish language, increase their knowledge of Danish society and introduce them in a positive way to Danish thinking and in a dialogue with the users establish some services and activities. Lifelong learning for immigrants and refugees must be given high priority and locally this will mean more money on the table. Libraries must get closer to the immigrants and their needs and do their utmost to develop new services which will help them solve everyday problems and find their rightful place in Danish society.

Are the municipalities and the libraries in general prepared to prioritise such a change of model? – I am convinced of it. The support for FINFO ( is a striking example of this. FINFO’s target group is both citizens of foreign origin who have lived in Denmark for quite some time and those immigrants and refugees who have recently arrived in this country. Today 139 public libraries have adapted to FINFO locally, and you can enter any Danish library and get help in searching in FINFO. The database encompasses eleven languages, and is developed in close cooperation with the respective users.What the many ethnic minorities need to know as citizens in Denmark, they will to a very great extent be able to find in FINFO. This information network signifies a major break-through in library service to ethnic minorities in Denmark, and in several libraries this is backed up by materials, including all types of media and inventive mediation and help, which means that in relation to these ethnic groups we are close to a realisation of the hybrid library.

Several libraries are well on their way to carrying out a change of model, strengthening and bringing about a development of services in relation to integration. In many cases with support from the Danish National Library Authority’s development fund for public and school libraries. Such as at Gellerup library in Århus, Blågårdens library in Copenhagen and in Vollsmose in Odense – an area with about 78 nationalities represented and where in connection with the library a learning centre for adult refugees and immigrants has been established. In these three spearhead libraries several types of workshops, clubs, events, informal language tuition, help with essay-writing, job corner, help with job applications etc. have been introduced, together with other initiatives which might contribute to better integration and a building of bridges betw
een ethnic minorities in the area and the society where these people should function and hopefully thrive.

In Vollsmose the library has organised a club for Muslim girls which now has attracted almost 130 members. Originally the club was intended for girls between 12 and 16, but it quickly developed into such an attractive place that several girls refused to leave the club when they reached 16. So the age limit was abolished, and several Danish girls have in fact become members. Here the girls meet a couple of times a week for discussions, lectures, visits to companies and all kinds of different activities and events which will open their eyes to aspects of Danish life hitherto unknown to them. For some of the girls, the library club has more or less been the only place that they were allowed to visit, because their restrictive and concerned fathers felt that in the library the girls would not be infected by our secularised society.

Inspired by these enterprising frontrunner-libraries, the Danish National Library Authority last year launched a development project where each of the four county library networking areas in Denmark were to employ librarians as integration coordinators. Amongst other things they are to assist the local libraries with developing new services and arranging courses and training programmes to encourage the integration process. The project period expires in about a year’s time, but should the evaluation prove positive, we shall certainly consider extending the period. Choosing this model is very much inspired by the excellent experience we have gained from the programme with children’s cultural coordinators as agents and promoters of change within the area of children and culture. This initiative has already resulted in new working methods, new forms of mediation and a more intense cooperation with institutions and organisations outside the library walls. So it seemed quite obvious to employ such a model in relation to the ethnic minorities as well.

Together with these four integration coordinators and with DNLA and the State and University Library in Århus and its Immigration Library as anchormen, a campaign is now about to get started which will be aimed primarily at the libraries in order to encourage them to give high priority to the integration issue. The Ministry for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration has at its disposal 160 mil. DKK for the purpose of integration of foreigners on the labour market, and we have been allocated 500,000 for our campaign. As part of the campaign, the coordinators will be arranging work-shops nationwide, and a special amount will be set aside for the libraries to spend on the preparation of information material for the end-user. Particularly information about what specific offers the libraries are able to provide.

The political advisory committee for the Public and School Libraries’ Development Fund has furthermore approved the amount of 3 mil. DKK from this fund being reserved for projects that support the libraries’ quest for improved integration. This is a course of action where we shall undoubtedly witness some resourceful ideas on behalf of the libraries, and where the DNLA can then supply the funding, and we are very open to project proposals. When dealing with these proposals we shall also involve the integration coordinators.

Do the four integration coordinators have an ethnic background other than Danish? – No. Very few librarians in Denmark have that. In fact some years ago the Royal School of Library and Information Science, together with the Danish Union of Librarians’ special group for immigration and refugee work, tried to remedy this situtation via a campaign targeted at university/college applicants. But it failed completely. At any rate, we have not succeeded in recruiting library school students from the ethnic minorities.

But a Danish librarian could well have just as much in common with a Palestinian refugee as a librarian with a Pakistani immigration background, don’t you think? – You may have a point there. But one thing which the Palestinian and the Pakistani do have in common, and which is an experience the Dane does not share, is meeting the Danish society as a foreigner and that of knowing how it feels to be in this position. So for that reason alone it is important for library staff to include more people with another background than the purely Danish one. This does not mean that they should then primarily be involved in service to the users from the ethnic minorities. Like any other librarian they must be able to deal with all aspects of library service. But it would no doubt strengthen the affinity among the users, if the composition of the library staff more or less reflects the population. It is no secret that the success in Vollsmose is largely due to the fact, that three members of staff of foreign origin are working in the front library and the learning centre. One is a librarian who graduated from the Royal School of Library and Information Science, but has roots in Greece, and the other two originally come from Bosnia and Bulgaria with a different educational background. One of them – a young woman – got her job more or less by accident, but very quickly turned out to possess so much talent and initiative that Odense straight away gave her a permanent job as cultural mediator.

Are Danish librarians sufficiently equipped professionally to fully realise the change of model advocated by the Danish National Library Authority? – Apart from professional qualifications, the task requires insight, imagination and an appreciation of different values, culture and mentality. A degree from the Library School does not automatically provide you with these things – the school cannot provide for everything. It gives the students some general, methodical competencies – but a great deal has to evolve on the job. And, of course, also through further studies – at the Library School or anywhere else for that matter. But I think that many librarians have also demonstrated in a most convincing way that this type of work suits them down to the ground. So I have no worries on that score.

Don’t you feel that many aspects of this particular library initiative regarding integration of immigrants and refugees could be something that other groups in our society could benefit from? – I most certainly do, but even so we have to move in where the need is most pressing. And I know that some politicians have heated arguments as to how far the libraries should go. Is it, for example, up to the libraries to help with job applications? Characteristically, politicians from municipalities with many immigrants and refugees are more inclined to answer yes to this question. But, of course the libraries have to work very closely with employment services, the local authorities, professional organisations, educational institutions, the business sector and initiate a fruitful and open dialogue with these people and any other players in the field, before setting the wheels in motion. The libraries must ask themselves: What can we do to encourage integration that nobody else does? How can we move a step ahead? What can we do to support other players in the field? What kind of niche would be obvious to carve out for ourselves?

A good example of how the library can transgress traditional limits for what a public library should take on, one can find in Århus, where the libraries for a period of time worked with illiterate Somali women. Some people saw this as a great paradox, but the point was that what the library was offering here was information, and it had to use whatever means available in relation to respective target groups. It was quite simply a question of via conversation and teaching to explain to these Somali women what kind of society they had become a part of.

Luckily, the libraries are able to exploit the general goodwill that they, to a great extent, enjoy and the good image they have in immigration and refugee circles. They are seen as a place wi
th no hidden agendas, and compared to the majority of integration initiatives by the public authorities that we have witnessed so far, the libraries very much seem to provide the success stories. It is also very important that these efforts are completely in keeping with what could serve as a banner for the future – the library as a learning space. This development is going to accelerate. And it fits in well with the debate on information competencies and the concept that at all stages of life – from kindergarten to doctoral level – we need certain competencies in order to fully exploit the information resources at whatever level one finds oneself – and that everyone should possess these information competencies.

Are there any surveys that illustrate what the country’s immigrants and refugees themselves want from the libraries, and which services they are particularly interested in? – A few years ago the report Frirum til integration was published which described the immigrants’ use of the libraries in four major Danish cities with many immigrants and refugees. The report showed that these groups use the library more frequently than the Danes and that on the whole they are very happy about the libraries. They do not borrow as much material as the Danes, but they use the facilities and the services on the spot more often. Not least the PCs and the newspaper section.

But something which the libraries probably ought to be more aware of, is the fact that the difference between individual immigration and refugee groups is just as great as between one of them and ordinary Danes. Just as within the individual ethnic group there might be considerable differences from person to person. These people have very different social and cultural backgrounds, and perhaps there has been too much stereotyping in this area and not sufficient differentiation in the services offered.

In your paper at this year’s IFLA conference in Berlin, you made a distinction between a multi-cultural society and a society characterised by cultural diversity. Wherein lies the difference? – In a society with cultural diversity the different cultures interact and enhance each other instead of fighting against each other, so Cultural Diversity is a positive concept which the libraries can only support. Unlike the situation in a multicultural society where individual ethnic groups and cultures exist and develop separately – isolated from and closed in relation to other cultures.

Up till now the libraries have had the meeting and the dialogue between the different cultures as a positive framework and goal, and they should continue to do so. There should be access to a broad spectrum of material in the immigrants’ native languages, and I am convinced that the superstructure function for materials which we have in the Immigration Library under the State and University Library, has this completely in hand. But it is not up to the libraries to act as regional societies for the different minorities and in future the libraries have to work harder on the immigration aspect.

It must also be stressed that the library provides the visitor with a secularised space.We have to stand guard over religious freedom, but also over the fact that the practising of religion is a private matter, and that Danish law takes precedence over for example the Sharia legislation.We are not to accept all the traditions and mechanisms to do with the suppression of women which the fundamentalist groups in the immigration and refugee environment try to maintain via interpretations of the Koran.

A good initiative with lots of perspective in relation to women from the immigration and refugee fraternity is the portal, established with support from the Ministry for Integration under FINFO with information for women of foreign origin. At the address they can find basic information on sickness and health, marriage, children, education, legal matters and jobs – and much more about women’s conditions in Denmark. Also a news part and a correspondence column.

At the IFLA conference in Berlin you also made the point that for the libraries it is not a question of supporting assimilation, but rather integration. How does this affect the libraries’ initiatives? – It means you have to have a balance. An integration implies that immigrants and refugees become one hundred percent integrated in relation to the social rights and duties they have as citizens of Denmark. They must give and take in the same way as ethnic Danes must do – and in this process the libraries can be an important tool. On the other hand, it is not the libraries’ task to support an assimilation where the cultural background and identity of the immigrants and the refugees are suppressed and where they culturally speaking are being “Danizised”. This is in no way in tune with Danish library tradition and strategy. If we look to the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, we see that he operates with the concepts of demos and ethnos. The first refers to the population as a political concept, to the citizen. The latter to the population as a cultural and linguistic concept. In relation to demos there must be full integration and in relation to ethnos accept and great respect.

The basic philosophy of the public libraries stresses the concepts of broadmindedness, openness and tolerance. Could not this lead to conflicts with the extreme, fundamentalist attitudes expressed by some immigrants and refugees? – I am sure it could. And if it were to happen, the libraries must keep cool and not be intimidated. Visiting the library is an option and those who cannot accept that pluralism – religious and cultural as well as political – is Alpha and Omega in a Danish public library, well, they will just have to stay away – or hopefully one day change their attitude.

However, I don’t think you are touching upon a major problem here. It is much more remarkable how the arrival of these new user groups in many ways have helped to ‘open up’ the libraries – both in relation to the close community and its problems and possibilities and in relation to the world outside Denmark – and spurred them on to venture along new paths in mediation, to transgress former professional and institutional borderlines and to develop new internal as well as external working relations. Let us be happy about the enhancement of Danish culture and our library system which in many ways the ethnic minorities are responsible for.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Per Nyeng is a journalist and former editor of Bibliotek70/Bibliotekspresssen. From 1965 to 1969 he worked as a librarian in Luleå.