Cheers for the public library!

“Libraries are worth four times more than they cost” was the headline in a Norwegian newspaper after Svanhild Aabø earlier this year obtained her doctor’s degree from the University of Oslo for her thesis on the Norwegian population’s views on the value of public libraries. Her survey is the first in the world to employ the methods of economists in order to assess the value of public library services on a national level.

Public libraries are among the few public meeting-places in Norway and are visited by people from all levels of society. According to Aabø’s survey, The value of public libraries. A methodological discussion and empirical study applying the contingent valuation method, no less than 94% of the population consider it a democratic right to have a public library in their municipality. This figure is quite remarkable. The survey shows that public libraries have a value both for users and nonusers, since the majority of people assess libraries not only on a basis of self-interest but also on their value to the community as a whole. The value of personal and family use represents roughly 60% of the total value. Of particular interest is the fact that cultural and social motives underlie 35-40% of library evaluation. In other words, people not only consider libraries as important in their own lives but are also pleased on behalf of other users, since the social role of libraries is to disseminate culture and knowledge, preserve our literary heritage and promote democracy and equality.

At the present time public libraries in the Nordic countries are undergoing a process of renewal aimed at preserving basic values while adapting library services to a modern, multimedia environment. In Norway today the debate concerning the functions of the library system and its future role as a source of culture and knowledge is wider and more intense than ever before. The background to this debate is one of cutbacks in library resources, leading to a dismantling of the system of branch libraries and a serious decline in media services compared to just a few years ago.

The library of today is digital and has perhaps gone further than any other public institution in taking advantage of technological development to improve its services, achieve more efficient use of resources and create new initiatives suited to a modern knowledge- based society. The result is an increased use of libraries and a wider public. These developments have, however, also led to greater differences between individual libraries. A political debate now exists concerning the role of libraries in society, the value of literature, the dissemination of knowledge and the pleasure of reading.

The public library system is a democratic institution fulfilling a vital social function to offer everybody equal access to information and knowledge. This function must be combined with respect for the individual’s right to acquire whatever knowledge and experience he or she may choose to seek. Libraries must shift their focus and adapt their services in line with changes in the community. On the road to a knowledge-based society we must develop strategies to meet the new demands of the public and thus increase the importance of libraries. It is the use of libraries which justifies their very existence.

Literacy has been an important factor in building societies based on welfare, democracy and human rights throughout the world. Knowledge is increasingly important in our modern society – a society much more complex and varied than ever before. Society needs well-educated citizens, meaning learning becomes a life-long activity. So long as reading and writing are basic accomplishments in a knowledge-based society, libraries will have a significant part to play in strengthening these skills.

In the knowledge-based society of today library users are becoming more self-reliant in their search for knowledge and entertainment. Librarians must develop new skills of a pedagogic nature in order to give added value to the information they supply. In a multimedia society it is necessary to acquire skills beyond those of reading and writing. Public libraries are informal centres of knowledge, defined as public meeting-places by reason of both the physical library space and the virtual services they offer.

Members of the public visit libraries voluntarily, usually in their own free time. The democratic principle of free access for all must be maintained. These are the values and the image we must build upon when creating new strategies for the library of the future in a knowledge-based society.

Director Department of Libraries The Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority