Viewpoint: Next stop: The knowledge society

The library as a common, public basis for general, all-round education (Bildung) is a product of the industrial society. The labour movement’s division of the phases of life into: 8 hours work, 8 hours rest and 8 hours leisure time inevitably led to a need for the leisure time to be filled with something constructive. This is where the library introduced itself as a serious offer, particularly because it was always being stressed that the materials were chosen with Bildung in mind, the good book versus poor quality entertainment. Add to this the library’s useful effect: better readers made better workers, useful knowledge could be transformed both into the common good – and the benefit of the individual. The library came to be regarded as a leisure time option.

The libraries expanded at a furious speed. Launched decentrally, but surprisingly alike in objective and expression. Unquestionably one of the greatest successes of the 20th century, today such an integrated part of society that we do not even think about it.

The 1990s saw the beginning of a breakaway from the library concept of the industrial society. In Denmark reflected in the unifying idea of the ‘Libraries in the information society’. This formed the basis for the intense focusing on – and prioritisation of – the new digital, technological possibilities. Fundamentally, however, the concept of the libraries in the information society represented no clash with the line of thought of the industrial society.

Library cathedrals were expanded, the centralistic perspective was maintained, communication went from the libraries to those people in need of more reading and experiences.

Today no-one talks about the information society anymore.

There is still a fair amount of cathedral thinking in the actual library system, but more and more the libraries operate on the basis of the premisses of the knowledge society: Libraries discuss values, libraries may change, they have to adapt to the users’ needs, have to collaborate with other knowledge institutions and must make room for new partnerships. The many changes in the public libraries over these past years all show the same general tendency.     And the libraries are no longer considered to be just a leisure time option. The library frame is open towards all human communication needs.

When conversation turns to library policy, however, the premisses prevalent in the industrial society are still being used as a basis for discussion: number of loans, size of stacks, number of distribution points and more recently also number of visits. Focus turns on reaching new, younger customer groups – in order to consolidate future demand. At the same time it is forever being emphasized that the aim is for the new groups to be tempted into using the old products.

If the libraries are to take the concept of web 2.0 seriously, then basically the communication must be one-to-one. Web 2.0 is not mass communication. Future generations will expect that public institutions put the individual user first and communicate with him directly.

Today the libraries see their task as part of a whole, which entails providing the users with the opportunity of greater absorption – on the users’ own premisses. Collaboration with other cultural institutions has therefore intensified quite considerably. And collaboration with private enterprises has become more and more popular. Partnerships can indeed lead to greater turnover and thereby better cathedrals. But partnerships are only interesting if they contain tension fields in relation to the libraries of the industrial society. Partnerships are created through the wish to meet people, to create space for deeper involvement and provide the frames for more comprehensive communication.

In the knowledge society depth is a decisive parameter. In the knowledge society one may suppose that the fact of borrowing a book for a long period makes for better absorption than brief loans. The larger the number of people exceeding the deadlines for return, and thereby – voluntarily – having to pay for a free product, the more absorption!

Considering that the library is one of the knowledge society’s leading institu- tions, the library-political discourse has moved markedly away from the modern library concept. Politicians are content with discussing the libraries of the industrial society: number of distribution points, number of stacks etc.

The libraries could improve the discussion by de-empha- sizing statistics based on the values of the industrial society and giving greater priority to modern tools such as for example intellectual capital statements which are based on insight and contemplation rather than on the Olympic criteria: quicker, taller, stronger.

Intellectual capital statements can help illustrate to which extent one reaches the cultural and communicative targets one has set oneself, and what kind of processes, instead of structures and models, that lead up to these. Both in relation to the individual library’s users and to its other stakeholders.

When the libraries invite their partners inside, they open the doors in order to break that ‘arm’s length’ that is otherwise considered to be a cultural-political foundation. It is impossible to cooperate, if you don’t open up; the very interaction with others provides this opening. With web 2.0 and more interaction and discussion with the users, the doors will open even wider.

The only people who are not “invited inside” are political decision-makers. Here both parties feel bound by the “arm’s length contract”. The intellectual capital statements provide an opportunity to assess the relation to all stakeholders based on common goals. Politicians should be considered one group amongst many stakeholders, not just regarded as a chest full of money. They should also be invited inside the workshop, and included in mutually binding discussions, develop common intellectual property. The objective would not be to coax the politicians into sending more money – but in the spirit of the knowledge society: to provide mutual insight and contemplation. Thereby waving goodbye to the industrial society’s library concept.

Tom Ahlberg
Editor of cultural political newsletter
Søndag Aften (Sunday Evening)
Director of the publishing firm Underskoven
and former Mayor of Education and Culture
in City of Copenhagen

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Editor of cultural political newsletter Søndag Aften (Sunday Evening) Director of the Publishing Firm Underskoven and former Mayor of Education and Culture in City of Copenhagen