As part of a comparative study of public libraries in the US and in the Nordic countries, we travelled through four states – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee – in May 2006. On the way we visited public libraries in Austin, New Orleans, Holy Springs and Nashville. In all libraries we were well received, and we got the possibility to interview both managers and ordinary librarians. Our approach to both visits and interviews was sociological and community-oriented rather than ‘library- technical’.
Inspiration from the US – past and present In the beginning of the last century frontiers from the Nordic libraries went to the US to study the development of the American public libraries. Once again on a pilgrimage we witnessed the latest trends. The great challenge of today is not only to run the library efficiently but also to make it as visible as possible in the so-called ‘experience society’.
In the present Nordic library debate, it is an essential subject how we can strengthen the bonds between the public library and the local community. This is important because the competi- tion between the public library and other cultural, educational and entertaining offers is as tough as never before. The legitimacy of the public library in the future is thus highly dependent on the mutual relationship between the library and the surrounding local community. Due to reasons we will touch upon below, this relationship is more developed in the US than in the Nordic countries.
Booktalk in Austin. Photo: Jochumsen/Hvenegaard
A tight relationship between library and community
Although the public library in the US and in the Nordic countries shares common ground in terms of basic ideals such as providing free access to information and supporting empowerment, there are some principal differences too. In the Nordic countries, the public library is a very integrated part of the welfare state, a cornerstone in the ‘Nordic model’. The libraries are financed solely out of public funds as well as their activities being based on national library legislation.
Contrary to this, the public libraries in US are basically a local affair. There is no federal legislation and federal support to the libraries is very limited. On a state level the situation is very much the same. The running of the public library is thus a matter for the local city council. This decentralized policy means that the libraries reflect the local community. Every library has a board consisting of local citizens. The functions of the board can be only consultative, but very often it is the board members who – in close collaboration with the manager of the library – decides the strategy. Together with the fact that the libraries are also dependent on local private goodwill in the form of donations and volunteers, this policy seems to provide the background for a very tight relationship between the library and the local community. It would be possible to emphasize several aspects of this relationship, but as space is limited we will pinpoint three aspects, which from our point of view are especially interesting in a Nordic context.
The visibility of the library
To get the needed local financial and political support American libraries have to be highly visible in the community. The relationship with local educational and cultural establishments and with organisations representing the civic society is often very close.
The great number of social and educational programs to the benefit of the local population, which is initiated by the American libraries, can be seen in close connection to the demand for visibility. In all the libraries that we visited, visibility seemed thus to be a very important factor behind the tight bonds between library and community. The demand for visibility contributed to determine the mission of the libraries: namely to support and service the local communities.
In a Nordic context such questions about visibility and the interaction between visibility and mission are both interesting and very important in relation to the survival of the libraries in the future.
The library and the cultural diversity
Due to the financial and political circumstances American libraries usually mirror the local community they are part of in a very direct manner. To us, a particularly interesting aspect of this is the way the libraries reflect cultural diversity. Major libraries will often contain departments which emphasize different cultures, just as minor libraries often will reflect the dominating culture of the surrounding community. This manifests itself in both staff and materials and in exhibitions and events. To visit different branches in for example Austin is also a journey through Afro- American and Hispanic American culture. As such American libraries appear as institutions that support and communicate the diversity of the community rather than seeking integration in a common culture.
Taken into consideration that the Nordic societies are becoming still more multicultural, it is highly exiting to watch the American way of dealing with this issue. The use of volunteers Our visit to New Orleans gave us a very good impression of the mutual relationship between library and community in the US. During the difficult times after Katrina the library in New Orleans has played an important role in finding the way back to normality. Local citizens have participated as volunteers in the rebuilding of the library as well as in the daily operations. This is impressive for a Nordic visitor and even more when one discovers that the use of volunteers is not an isolated case related to an extreme situation, it is a widespread and a generally highly appreciated practice in most American libraries. The work of volunteers is a contribution to the daily operations and as such it is easy to judge the use of volunteers as a replacement of proper public financial support. But use of volunteers seems to be much more than that, namely an important ingredient in the social coherence of the local community, based upon a long and well-developed tradition for an active and committed civic society.
The use of volunteers is thus also a way to strengthen the relationship between library and community, and Nordic libraries could without doubt take advantage of the experiences from this practice, too.
Winners and losers
In this article we have focused upon some elements of the library tradition, -policy and -practice in the US, which could be of interest to the public libraries in the Nordic countries in the present situation. However, it is important to notice that the American libraries, as they are locally financed and partly dependent on private donations, do gain very different resources. The richness of for example Nashville or the poorness of for example Holy Springs in the northern Mississippi manifest themselves very clearly in the local library.
In Nashville we saw the luxurious new main library and the countless possibilities related to this. In Holy Springs we saw the sparse library and understood the difficulties involved in attracting private donations, qualified labour, volunteers or even users in an area dominated by unemployment and low income. In the light of this we can not help asking whether a well-provided library would not be an important lever to obtain development in such an area, and furthermore whether that would not be in the interest of the whole nation? The conspicuous disparity of the libraries thus draws attention to the fact that a very decentralized and donationdependent library system obviously causes winners and losers. In other words: Just as we in the Nordic countries can get inspired by the American way, we also have to be aware of the right balance between equality and diversity, between centralization and decentralization and between public and private.