A debate is taking place in the Nordic countries concerning the place and purpose of the public library in the community. The library as a concept is facing challenges brought about by changes in society and for a long time we have concentrated on the problem of what form the public library of the future should take in order to meet these challenges. Instead, however, we should perhaps question whether or not we need libraries at all, especially now that ‘everything’ has become digital and is available at the touch of a key. What fundamental principles make it legitimate for the community to use its resources on providing its inhabitants with library services?
A century or more ago the public library system was established as a source of public enlightenment and as an important contribution to social and economic equality. The public library was seen as a means to break down divisions in a class-ridden society and to ensure all citizens access to knowledge and culture, regardless of what they were or where they lived. As the welfare state gradually grew, public libraries developed outreach services in order to further these aims. Hospital libraries were established and many public libraries introduced services for those who were housebound. Mobile libraries visited small communities in the mountains and along the fjords. Prison libraries were established.
The public library system of today still retains a social mission and must also in the future play an important role in support of democracy and freedom of expression by providing unhindered access to knowledge and culture, whether stored in analogue or digital form. More important than ever will be the competence of librarians in actively presenting and promoting their services to both individual users and to groups. The social objective to include all sections of the community still remains, but now we must also take into account every citizen’s opportunity to participate actively and to make a creative contribution. We live in a 2.0 world, where everyone has the chance to create and to shape the future.
So what are the challenges facing us in transforming what are traditionally considered to be the outgoing activities of the library? We must break with the standard concept of the library as a room full of books, and little else, which need to be brought out to those who are unable to visit the library in the normal way.We can no longer differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘the others’, meaning those who cannot make use of traditional library services.
We must think of people as a whole, as people who will go through different stages in the course of their lives. No matter what role we play at any particular time, we still need what the library has to offer. You and I have as equal a right as anybody else to make use of these services, regardless of whether we are serving a prison sentence, spend most of the day at work or have problems driving a car or using public transport as a result of failing health. No specific groups of the population are being excluded. Public libraries must be there where the people are. Furthermore, as more and more small branch libraries are closed, we must think of new ways to meet people out there in the community, since they can hardly visit a library which no longer exists.
As the head of IFLA’s section for outreach activities I have participated in extensive debates about the stigmatisation of certain groups and the social responsibilities of the public library system. Up until last year this section was entitled Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons (LSDP). The term ‘disadvantaged’, however, was perceived by many as imprecise and rather negative. We trust that the new name, Library Services for People with Special Needs (LSN) will give rise to more positive associations. Our aim is to focus on the need for special services among individuals, both singly and as part of a group. In some cases special arrangements will be necessary in order to achieve an equality of service. LSN exists to strengthen and support libraries in precisely this role. In this way libraries in hospitals, in prisons, in kindergartens and on the road will serve as a means to reach this aim, rather than as just an end in themselves.
This issue of SPLQ presents a variety of library services with the common feature that they contribute to reaching out to the public. At the same time they serve to break down the traditional picture of the library as a place that must be visited in order to be used. Now the library comes to you, wherever you are and whenever you need it.
Head of department Norwegian Archive,
Library and Museum Authority
Tone.moseid AT abm-utvikling.no
Translated by Eric Deverill