More than just head of the library

The quote above is taken from an advertisement for a new head of library and cultural affairs in a smaller Danish municipality wanting to develop their library as a centre for the collective cultural activities and initiatives. The tendency to combine the two jobs and place them in the hands of a librarian has become common over the past few years, where the library’s role as cultural centre has attracted special attention once again, after a long period of obscurity in the shadow cast by the information paradigm.
The library is refinding its cultural roots, but the model is not the exalted temple of culture and knowledge from which information is spreading in everwidening circles. The library in late modern society is developing into a more hybrid institution which co-operates closely with other local institutions and networks in a new, open cultural policy. The librarian’s job is not only to search, interpret and mediate, but also to initiate and develop cultural activities.

The library mingles with other players in the cultural arena and makes its expertise available, sometimes almost invisibly, other times in more concrete ways. Some libraries have also quite physically merged with new village halls or local community centres where this symbiosis intensifies and strengthens the enterprise in relation to the local community. The other day I noticed a job advertisement looking for a ‘culture centre librarian’ – a new function as bridge builder between library and local cultural life.

Here it is quite obvious that the librarian has something which is in demand: namely the ability to expand what is on offer in the cultural sphere.When the children’s librarian helps children’s institutions and schools in composing the theatre programme for the season or the library lends a hand in the organisation of local art festivals and culture nights, their cultural competence is being drawn upon as well. But also the ability to analyse a problem, to find one’s way through an avalanche of information and materials, and not least to relate to many target groups are much sought-after qualifications.

The library in more than twenty Danish municipalities has therefore become the ‘home’ of regional or local children’s culture co-ordinators. It may be a (children’s) librarian or somebody with an equally relevant background who is going to act as co-ordinator and network builder within the children’s cultural area. The project which runs until the end of 2003 was initiated by the Cultural Council for Children and the Danish National Library Authority together, while the ownership as such is local.

The children’s cultural co-ordinator is not supposed to implement a nationally defined children’s cultural policy, but to work across different art forms and sectors in co-operation with other in – stitutions and groups for the purpose of strengthening culture for, with and by children. Each co-ordinator must find his/her own way – there is not one particular model or pattern to follow.

In the suburban municipality of Greve, where the library has up till now taken the front position as far as children’s culture is concerned, the children’s cultural co-ordinator is now working together with children’s institutions, museums and churches in an effort to create a network which in the long run will be able to take on the responsibility for this development. Here the coordinator must try to make sure that children’s culture maintains its roots while at the same time adapting to changes – a long-term goal that requires a firm grasp of the situation, flexibility and the ability to co-operate. Such capabilities are of course to a great extent personal competencies – but they can be developed and sharpened.

Librarians who are going to be involved in cultural mediation and planning will need particularly to improve their analytical sense in order to single out the often very complex demands of a reflective society where everything is open to debate and nothing remains the same. Planning is no longer a question of preparing and working out long-term action plans, but rather to support the dynamic forces in networks which in many cases are operating on the edge of chaos. It is imperative to work out overall goals, based on the wishes and needs of many different players, with the co-ordinator as a kind of chaos pilot.

At the same time the co-ordinator should be able to communicate the common goals to politicians, local administrations and other decision-makers who expect order and lucidity expressed succinctly – preferably in power points with no more than seven pointers! An impossible task? It sounds daunting, but remember it is a p rocess already set in motion. We all become more skilful in dealing with chaos and order simultaneously.

Finally, the cultural co-ordinators must sharpen their aesthetic senses and the ability to recognise quality. But what is quality in a culture which has left cultural dogma and automatic cultural standpoints behind? Here one might turn to Kirsten Drotner’s definition in her book Folkebiblioteker og medier (Public libraries and media) from 1999 in which she states that “Quality can be defined as aesthetic differences which make a difference to the users: The quality in cultural p roducts lie in their ability to ‘move’ something in the individual user – he must feel touched, indignant, thoughtful”. Or to put it another way: Quality in art and culture manifests itself in the use of it.

Operating with this rather less finite quality concept requires a thorough knowledge of product as well as user. Mediation is not a question of making available an already fully accepted culture, but to create an arena for cultural experience and adventure which will provide each individual with the chance to create, preserve and change meanings. Culture and art should no longer be regarded as part of the civic public’s project of enlightenment (and individual authority) or as an additional benefit for those who already possess the cultural capital. It should not necessarily be perceived either as society’s unifying force, but rather as a space for reflection and challenge. The library must contribute to further developing and extending this space and making it accessible both within and outside its own walls. The hybrid library and the networking librarian can be instrumental in bringing this about.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Cultural Sociologist and Head of Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, The Royal School of Library and Information Science, Copenhagen