East and west Oslo Differences in library usage? A survey of two local libraries

The article will present some findings from a study into library use in Furuset and Røa, two districts in the city of Oslo. The study was part of my Masters diploma at Oslo University College. It formed part of the research project PLACE, whose goal is to find out how the library as an institution and meeting place can contribute to strengthening the social capital of society.

City survey

The study follows up a city survey, supported by ABM- utvikling (The Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority), which documented the use of the main public libraries in Norway’s five largest cities. The goal of the survey was to find out what users did at the libraries, apart from borrowing and returning books. The method used was observation.

One main finding from the city survey was that only approximately half of the visits to the library were related to loans. The users availed themselves of library services in various ways. Many used the internet, read newspapers and journals, or sat and read or studied. A number of them used the library for socialising. The survey showed that persons with a non-western immigrant background accounted for a greater proportion of library visitors than in the general population. The findings also indicated that the library functioned as an informal meeting place, to a greater extent for the immigrant population than for those with a native Norwegian background.

Study of two local libraries in Oslo

The study of the two local libraries was carried out over two weeks in the autumn of 2008. The two libraries are branch libraries of Oslo Public Library (Deichmanske bibliotek). I wanted to compare library use in two districts of the city with different demographic and socio-economic conditions. Røa branch library is situated in a typical middle class district with a very small percentage of non-western immigrants. Furuset branch library is situated in a distinctly multicultural district, where the educational and income levels are conspicuously lower than in the first district. However in one respect the two districts are rather similar; that is in the age composition of the population. That formed a good basis for looking at differences connected to other background variables than age. The study had two purposes; the first was to record and compare user groups and usage at the two branches. The other was intended to shed light on how the library is used as a social space. I was particularly interested in looking for differences based on language background. The term immigrant background here is used to mean nonwestern immigrant background.


The method used was observation, supplemented by short interviews. The observer ‘shadowed’ a systematically random selection of users throughout the whole visit. It is important to note that this type of study gives a comprehensive picture of usage, but not a cross section of users. Those who use the library often will, to a large extent, colour the result.

Who were the users?

60% of the users visiting Furuset were of immigrant background. This is a high figure as only 38% in the district had this background. Admittedly, in the immediate vicinity the figure was as much as 57%. Røa branch library had only 2% with a non-western immigrant background. This was a lower percentage than in the district itself.

The large proportion of visitors with an immigrant background at Furuset branch library tallies well with surveys undertaken by Statistics Norway in 2009 and 2010, which showed that people with a non-western immigrant background used the library more than the population as a whole. The proportion of users is rather larger, but first and foremost one sees that people in this group use the library more intensively. They visit the library on average twice as often in the course of a year as Norwegian born users of non-immigrant background.

The biggest difference between the two libraries was that the proportion of children and young people among library visitors was considerably larger at Furuset than at Røa, despite the proportion in the general population being the same. 20% were in the age group 5-19 in both districts. At Furuset branch library 32% of the visitors were in this age group, whereas at Røa branch library the figure was only 14%.

Why was the proportion of children and young people among library visitors so much higher at Furuset than at Røa? The study does not reveal any answers, but it is reasonable to suppose that this may be related to the fact that, in this district, there is a larger proportion of young people of non-western immigrant background. It is likely that children and young people here are more dependent on the public library both for spare time reading and for finding material for school assignments, and additionally as a place to spend time, more than those of a similar age group in the middle class district of Røa. The location of the two libraries in their respective communities probably also plays a role. Furuset branch library is located in a residential area with lots of pedestrian footpaths and the residential units lie closer together than in Røa.

In a survey from 2009 about culture and media use among people with an immigrant background, it was shown that on a national basis there is little difference between the various ethnic backgrounds concerning the proportion of public library users in the age group 9-15. The number of visits is also relatively similar. Nevertheless, among the visitors to the two local libraries as much as 76% of those with an immigrant background in the group 5-18 said their previous visit to the library had been within the last week, whereas only 52% of those with a Norwegian background answered in the same way.

Differences in use

At Røa 62% of users borrowed or returned books in connection with their visit to the library. At Furuset only 45% borrowed or returned books.

At Furuset a larger proportion of users read or did homework in the library than at Røa. This activity was defined as: a user sitting and reading/working for 30 minutes or more. In the age group 5-18, 14% of those with an immigrant background worked in the library, whereas only 5% of those with a Norwegian background did so. A larger proportion of those with a non-western immigrant background used the computers. In this group there was also a substantially larger proportion that spent time at the library without using media, that is they did not use books, computers or browse the shelves.

Social use of the library

33% of visitors were together with other people at the library at Furuset, but at Røa the figure was only 22%. The majority arrived at the library together, while some met others during the course of their visit.

In the age group 5-18 the proportion of those together with others at the library was the same for both Røa and Furuset. However, a major difference was that younger children generally came in the company of adults at Røa, whereas they came alone or with peers or siblings at Furuset. In all age groups from 19 upwards, a larger proportion from non-western immigrant backgrounds came to the library together than those from a Norwegian background.

Among young people in the age group 15-18, the proportion was almost 40% for those together at the library. This suggests that the library is an important social arena for this age group.

Summing up

In the multicultural district, people from a non-western immigrant background were very well represented among library users and the proportion of children and young people was high.

The differences in library use shouldnot be over exaggerated, but some tendencies did clearly emerge. Røa branch library, to a larger extent than Furuset, was a place for borrowing and returning books and other media. Furuset, to a greater extent than Røa was used as a place for studying, school work, computer use and socialising. The differences in use seem to be connected to the varying needs of a middle class district and a multi- cultural district. The study indicates that the library plays a bigger part in the everyday life of children and young people from an immigrant background than it does for those from a Norwegian background.

Toril Høimyr
Department Head, Research and Development
Deichmanske bibliotek
toril.hoimyr AT
Translated by Akasie språktjenester AS

Department Head, Research and Development Deichmanske bibliotek