Equal access for all?

Public libraries are characterised by decentralisation. Sweden is a sparsely populated country in which its 8.8 million inhabitants have access to 1,200 libraries in 289 municipalities. Add to this an extensive network of university and college libraries, school libraries, hospital libraries and special libraries financed by public means. The Library Act of 1997 endorses its intention that there should be libraries in each municipality. To complement the public municipal libraries there is a superstructure consisting of county libraries, lending outlets and a depository library.

The Library Act prescribes a library in each municipality, but it does not prescribe the level of standard this library should attain. The State cannot order a municipality to raise its levels of library standards, nor through funding try to counterbalance differences between the libraries in various municipalities. Since the 90’s the gap between standards in the different municipalities has tended to increase rather than decrease.

In appeals from the Swedish Library Association and open letters to the Minister of Cultural Affairs and the Government, a national library policy has been called for.Why is the issue o f a library policy raised at this particular moment in time? There are several answers to this.A final decision concerning a revised library act looks to be late in coming. The past years have seen this Act scrutinised from every angle and a revised version has been announced, though delayed. It is now expected to be presented during the autumn of 2002.

Representatives from the public library sector have suggested that debates regarding the role ascribed public libraries have been conspicuously missing, or have certainly maintained a feeble position in decisive political issues, such as education,IT and regional growth. A generally held opinion is that lib raries have not attained the ne cessary level of priority required to benefit from government grants. Government policy has seen a shift in emphasis away from libraries and towards efforts in the areas of literary and reading comprehension.

From a narrow point of view there is some truth in these statements, but there have none the less been several important library initiatives on a national level. There is a common Library Act for all publicly funded libraries, stating citizens’ rights to access literature wherever they live or whatever their financial circumstances. There is a National Union Catalogue freely available to the general public on the Internet. Several ventures have also been initiated improving library facilities for students at all levels.

The weakest and most decisive link in the public library chain is that of the municipalities themselves. They find it taxing to raise the lib rary issue to high priority status when sectors such as health, schools and care demand so much more of their resources. Public libraries need to stake out new claims by positioning themselves in other political areas, trying to connect and function in collaborative efforts within education and the health services.

The next few years will be crucial for public libraries if they choose to establish themselves as part of the educational system. The issue is twofold – being seen by society at large as part of an educational institution and whether the public libraries consider it part of their identity to play this role.

Most public libraries are politically commissioned to function primarily as cultural institutions with their point of departure firmly positioned in stated culture-political aims. Reality has nevertheless shown how library activity veers more towards being a resource and support for students at different levels. This particular discrepancy needs to be made plain in the municipalities. A library’s assignment must be displayed and, if need be,able to deal with changes. The notion of life-long learning may constitute such support when grappling with changes as it acknowledges different kinds of learning during a lifetime.

Publicly funded libraries should be a joint resource. Regional networking between different kinds of libraries is becoming a reality in several regions, but the aim of mutual understanding is still a long way off. There are obstacles pending on assignments, differing educational background and not least, disparate responsible authorities. Public libraries cater to all inhabitants of a municipality, whilst a library as part of an institution for higher education has the students as its main target group.

Public libraries have several assignments, many of which may differ in content, whilst assignments at university and college libraries are more straightforward.Librarians also have to combat the generally held view of themselves as being “Guardians of the Book Temple”, when they would much rather be seen as pilots navigating us through a society of information and knowledge. The question still remains – whether the individual user does have access to all libraries on equal terms?

Head of department. The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs.