Camus or Cookson?

The question then is what should be done when librarians’ quality-based selection does not conform to public demand

National libraries have an obligation to col- lect all of a country’s published works. Collections in other types of libraries are based on selection, the criteria being the library’s goals and user profiles. An aca- demic library selects material based on the needs of students and researchers. A spe- cial library wants to have as comprehen- sive a selection as possible within its spe- cialist area. In both cases selections are made on relatively objective premises. Dif- ferences of opinion are not uncommon, especially when budget restrictions dicta- te, but in general personal feelings and value judgements play a minor role.

The selection process at public libraries is more subjective. The fundamental aim of public libraries is to provide society with access to knowledge, education and cultural activity; an aim grounded in the idea of what constitutes a civilised society. Public libraries are for everyone, irrespective of age, ethnicity, sex, religion, nationality or class. In short the entire population. This is a vague goal, and difficult to realise in comparison with libraries that have a clearly defined user group.

Many countries face the problem of having an almost non-existent publishing industry. For libraries in these countries the concept of material selection is irrelevant. The Nordic countries, despite being a relatively small linguistic community, have a fairly sizeable publishing industry. The standard of Nordic public library systems is at a level that many countries would consider unattainable and the concept of having time available for material selection would be regarded as a luxury.

Quality

Swedish public libraries are founded on a long tradition of popular adult education. The material they make available is generally of a high quality. The concept of quality is however to a large degree associated with the selection of fiction. Swedish public library staff has spent a lot of time discussing which novels should or should not be purchased. The question is whether or not this time could have been devoted to other more strategic activities. In the long run this kind of subjective discussion seems unnecessary. Values change. That which at one point in time was deemed controversial can, a few decades later, be considered harmless. And the question of what constitutes quality is difficult to define.

During the radical Seventies we were quick to reject romantic novels for female readers (e.g., so-called manor novels, fiction from Harlequin, Mills & Boon, etc.). The reason for this was that these books were thought to be devoid of literary quality. To a certain extent, this was true. But literary value judgements were not always consistent. Lightweight adventure and war novels for male readers embodying the same literary quality as the above-mentioned romantic novels were more easily accepted. This illustrates how difficult it is to be consistent in regard to literary value judgement and that the question of what constitutes literary quality always involves an element of subjectivity.

Populism

That this was a contentious issue was clearly illustrated a little over ten years ago when The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs initiated a project designed to reassess selection and purchase routines. Three libraries participated: They were to purchase more on user demand and weed redundant copies in order to highlight the more active sections of the collection. As well, the libraries were to depart from the norms of the Swedish classification system and display titles in a more user-friendly manner. Everything went smoothly at two of the participating libraries. All hell broke loose at the third. The so-called GÖKproject (GÖK, acronym for the Swedish cities of Gothenburg, Örnsköldsvik and Kalmar) became the most discussed and debated public library project of the century. The molehill of press cuttings soon became a mountain.

The critics were extremely vocal; they perceived the experiment to be a threat to the fundamental precepts of the public library system and felt that the motive behind the project was purely populist. The project was regarded as a threat both to the very idea of public libraries and to librarians as a professional group. Instead, critics advocated reinforcing the instructive role of libra- rians and suggested that librarians should focus more on advice and guidance apropos quality fiction. The project was seen as an attempt to make public libraries more marketoriented, a concept which had a decidedly negative bias.

When the project was terminated in 1995 the English cultural consultancy Comedia was engaged to conduct an evaluation. Comedia’s report (Evaluating the GÖK project. The innovative capacity of the Swedish Library System) stated, inter alia, that “The concern that user influence in book buying would result in the libraries buying poor quality books has not been borne out by events. Very few of the books bought by user demand can be deemed to be poor quality books”. Comedia further declared that “The ensuing media attacks on the library service revealed the lack of confidence within the profession and a sense of isolation. Where do the Swedish libraries turn for intellectual support for new thinking and developments within the service? How does the service as a whole justify changes beyond the immediate context of each local library and understand the role of the library in the wider debates of social, economic and cultural change in Sweden? This raises the question of how far the Swedish library service is an integrated national service or is a series of more autonomous institutions linked only by a strong professional culture”.

The critics dismissed the report.

Easy reading

The project has now been forgotten. Public libraries have been compelled to face other more pressing problems. How to interact with ICT? Is it desirable to limit access to the Internet? How to cope with falling circulation figures? Does the public library have a role to play in the future?

Whether or not public libraries have succeeded in spreading quality fiction is an interesting question. If circulation figures showing which books are most borrowed are anything to go by, then one could conclude that this ambition has not always been realised.

In order to ascertain public library remuneration levels the Swedish Authors’ Fund conducts a yearly survey to determine which authors are borrowed from public and school libraries. Roughly 98 million loans in all. The most recent summary from 2005 shows that Astrid Lindgren with a little over a million loans continues to be the most borrowed author. The other titles in the top twenty are all children’s books.

The most borrowed adult books are thrillers, detective and suspense novels by bestselling Swedish authors such as Håkan Nesser, Henning Mankell, Jan Guillou and Liza Marklund: easyreading page turners. While not without literary merit they are hardly contenders for the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize in Literature should be a guarantee of literary quality. Loans of Nobel Laureates, however, are low. Selma Lagerlöf leads with just over 80,000 loans. She received the Nobel Prize in 1909. Loans of Nobel laureates’ works soar when the Prize is announced, only to diminish within a relatively short time. Loans of Gao Xinjian’s works were for example 20,000 in 2001, but only 2,321 four years later.

Public libraries serve the entire population: An enormous spectrum of tastes and trends that necessitates managing of a great variety of individual requests. The question then is what should be done when librarians’ quality-based selection does not conform to public demand.

This should not be construed as meaning that public libraries are negligent regarding selection issues. Rather, the question is if it is reasonable that the main focus should be – as appears to be the case – on the selection of fiction. A library must, of course, en- sure that works of Nobel Laureates are available even if they are not among the most borrowed items. Axiomatically, demand for suspense and romance must also be met.

In 2005 Catherine Cookson’s novels were borrowed 100,000 times. The works of Albert Camus 11,354 times. Would a more active approach to guidance and advisory strategies be able to change this?