The library as democratic hothouse

How can the library help encourage the citizen to join in the political debate and take an active part in our democracy? A number of libraries in the project ‘The library as democratic hothouse’ are looking into that question. For example in Herning where the library works together with local journalists and politicians on developing a new local debating culture – both on the net and via discussion in the physical space. How can the library help encourage the citizen to join in the political debate and take an active part in our democracy? A number of libraries in the project ‘The library as democratic hothouse’ are looking into that question. For example in Herning where the library works together with local journalists and politicians on developing a new local debating culture – both on the net and via discussion in the physical space.

- If the library is to be instrumental in creating a new debating culture among the citizens, we as librarians must leave our passive mediator role behind and become active in a far more direct way than has up till now been the tradition, points out head librarian Grete Halling from Herning Libraries.

- The citizens like to debate, but the debate has to be nurtured, otherwise it dies down. It is quite natural for the library to assume this role, as the library’s fundamental task is to support and encourage democracy, she explains.

- In 2007-2008 Grete Halling was facilitator for the project ‘Herning Debate’ which has experimented with various strategies for initiating local debates and keeping them alive.

From the start the homepage www. has been the pivotal point of the project. But it soon turned out that many citizens were also keen to participate in the debate evenings at the library where new subjects for debate on the homepage were introduced.

Local politicians got the debate off the ground

Before the project started Grete Halling invited the town’s 31 local politicians to submit their contributions on topical political issues to the homepage. 12 politicians accepted. A number of citizens also contributed, and during the six months the project was running, a vast number of subjects were aired.

Top of the list came the debate about a new Youth House which was a serious wish among the young people in the town. – It is definitely my impression that the young people were very eager to express their views, more so than the older generation. Also because they are more familiar with expressing themselves and entering into a dialogue in the virtual space, whereas the older generation is not accustomed to using the computer to participate actively in democracy, she maintains.

Other themes were e.g.:
- New Danes, how best to integrate them?
- Wish for organic food in day-care institutions
- Need for provincial theatres in connection with cuts at the local theatre
- Lack of offers to teenagers in the small villages
- Protests against closing of small schools and ideas for the placing of a new large school
- Car-free town centre
- For and against demolishing of old houses in the town centre
- Where to place the new regional hospital?
- The young in Herning Municipality
- need for youth residences and lack of educational milieu in the town itself
- Need for practice rooms and more funding for musical life.

Remember to nurse the debate

However, the politicians were not very diligent in following up on the citizens’ comments and entering into a dialogue with them via the homepage. To fuel the dialogue, Grete Halling sent out regular newsletters to politicians and the local newspapers with summaries of the individual debates. But although all the politicians feel that the dialogue is important, the project concludes that it takes time for them to get accustomed to the virtual debate forum.

She also spent quite a lot of energy calling on politicians, municipal officers and organisations who might be able to answer the questions posed by citizens. Four out of five debates got a response that way.

- If there is no reaction to their contributions, the debaters are bound to loose impetus. But most decisionmakers are in fact very interested in answering when they discover that the discussion exists, she says.

Speakers Corner or webcam?

The library also set up a mobile Speakers Corner – a box where the citizens can go in and voice their opinions to a video camera. The boxes circulated between the local libraries, shopping centres, the gymnasium and other educational institutions. – But people were not interested in using it, even though we were standing outside the box and encouraged them to take part. It is difficult to talk to a dead wall, and older people felt a bit uncertain as to what this would be used for. So we only got 4-5 contributions to put on the homepage. Perhaps more people would have been inclined to participate if they could have been sitting safely at home in front of the webcam and say what they felt. But unfortunately we did not have enough money to exploit this possibility although we would have liked to.

Local journalists as chairmen

On the other hand there proved to be great interest in participating in debate evenings at the physical library. – When we opened our homepage, we introduced the first theme at an opening event at the library – a debate evening about New Danes and integration. A political journalist was chair, and the panel consisted of local experts. We sent out invitations to local political organisations and asked them to write a piece on the new theme, and we invited pupils from the gymnasiums via their social studies teachers. It proved to be a great success to the extent that we arranged another debate evening on the future of the town, where architects, entrepreneurs and politicians presented three major building projects and answered questions from the audience. We also had a cultural politician event at the library, when the homepage tackled the theme of local cultural offers. About 65 people took part in each meeting. Many were new to the library.

The HerningDebate also participated in debate meetings elsewhere in the town, e.g. in the local theatre and at the opening of an IT workshop for immigrants, and the library has decided to try out more debate forms in the physical space in the new project in 2009 ‘ In the midst of democracy’.

We are going to work together with the local paper on creating a local offer of debate and develop a new debate culture. The framework for the project is the new branch of the library in the centre of town which focuses particularly on news and democracy, explains Grete Halling.

The librarian as provocateur

The advantage of letting the library be the pivotal point of the debate is that the library is an active and neutral player in the local community. The librarians are in daily, close contact with the public – it is therefore quite obvious that the municipality uses the library as ambassador in the effort to create a better citizen dialogue.

But the experiences from Herning also show that it takes time to get the debate going, to promote it and encourage the cautious, silent citizens to take part. It is therefore important to test various forms of debate and motivate politicians and council officers to invite the citizens to a dialogue. At the same time the library has to find its balance as a neutral, objective player, without being either too conservative or too provoking.

- The evaluation of our project indicates that in future librarians should not only be guides but also apolitical advisers and provocateurs. It is a challenge to orientate oneself broadly, to create a network of local opinionshapers and to choose themes and formulate questions that are so provoking that people are going to think, “I just have to react to this” – at the same time as not stepping on anyone’s toes. We did have the experience for example that an administration was worried about the way we formulated some questions. And most important of all, you have to accept that it takes time and requires a continuous active effort to spread the news of the debate and to get it cracking, concludes Grete Halling.

The projects in ‘The library as democratic hothouse’ has received funding from the Development Pool for Public and School Libraries. The Pool is administered by the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media and by the Education Agency (Ministry of Education).

Interview by Monica C. Madsen

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield