Viewpoint: Room for CURIOSITY

Once again I have attended Scandinavia’s greatest literary event, Bok & Biblioteksmessen (Book and Library Fair) in Gothenburg. Once again I return home filled withsensuous impressions and full of enthusiasm for the world of diversity I have visited.

To me Bok & Bibliotek means an annual journey back to a gigantic manifestation of a shared space – where there is room for curiosity. This year with an impressive focus on African culture. But altogether with more than 900 exhibitors and a total of 3,000 programme items.

It is not for some spurious reason that the title of the fair contains the word library. There are library-professional exhibitors, seminars and debates. But first and foremost there is breadth and depth. Admittedly, there are events where authors are being questioned by sympathetic journalists. And there are lots of queues in front of authors signing their books. But these author presentations do not dominate.

What really draws me to Bok & Bibliotek is the ever-present zest for communication, the manifold literary expressions, that each year I come away with books I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would one day possess. I feel wiser to the world.

Bok & Bibliotek differs from the libraries by being a commercial fair where selling books is a good idea. But it is my own choice whether I just want to wander around and listen, watch and inquire or whether I wish to buy.

I can easily sympathize with ALIS-prize winner, author Bob Hansson’s declaration: “Even though I hate the consumer society, you are very welcome to go and buy my new book”.

The libraries’ most important function is not to sell. Neither books, nor anything else.What they have to do, is make room for curiosity.

The libraries are centres of public cultural education. Where all the other meeting places in our time follow the mantra about focus, focus, focus the libraries can focus on spread, spread, spread. The world is absolutely enormous, and it is very good for us to be reminded of that.

In the library I glance with curiosity over the shoulder of other people to see what they are borrowing. I look at notice boards, and I try to understand why the librarians have placed exactly these books in front of my wondering eyes.

As far as I can see it is rather immaterial whether the library has a certain physical size or a so-called virtual room. I appreciate being invited inside – and being challenged.

Nearly all library homepages are put together by way of CMS systems. It is practical and it is good – but they emit more than a whiff of databases.Where several pages are pre-defined for predictable parts. But I like the unpredic- table. I like to be thrown helter-skelter. When leaving the physical libraries I often stop and flip through boxes with discarded books. I cannot quite explain why, but I do like the disorder, that the book on football is placed in front of a book about Descartes, that a longforgotten novel is lurking somewhere between the cartoons. That is what I miss on the homepages – the jumble.

Along with the homepages we also get the libraries’ new electronic services. The libraries are seen as suppliers of services – and I use the word services advisedly – not as the starting point for communication. E-books, music, journals and audio books are to be found among the new library offers. Notice the word offer – it originates from the market, not from the public sector.

It is convenient to be able to sit at home in front of your personal PC and pick and choose between the cultural products. The Danish libraries’ net music gives access to more than 3 mil. pieces of music. On the ordinary market a consumer ombudsman would interfere in case of such an excess as “3 mil. pieces”. The same song can count as many tracks if it appears on many compilation albums etc.

Unlike other commodities, however, there are no requirements as to informative labelling of the libraries’ electronic products. Instead the wondering user is informed about which choices have been made and the preconditions for the database that is made available to the users. Important artists are missing – and you are not being told that this is due to lack of agreements with the rights owners. Decidedly lousy music is included – and you are not being informed that this is because one can only buy rights in great quantities, without quality assessment.

The digital cultural market opens up completely new vistas. The libraries can play a vital role as our guides. But today the only important formal difference between Spotify and the libraries may well be the geographical borderlines and the concrete license agreements. Spotify communicates both with us as consumers and as part of a web 2.0 community. The libraries  network communicates with us as consumers in the large market square.

There are lots of good reasons for the libraries to be keen to test new digital possibilities. But it has to happen based on the fundamental values that underpin the physical libraries: community spirit, breadth, openness in every sense. Also in a digital world we need room for curiosity.

The libraries’ spaces should be open to all of us. We must feel welcome and the libraries must live up to our common goal of diversity and neutrality. Just imagine if the libraries had a vision about creating a digital cultural fair – and the chaos this would entail.

Tom Ahlberg
Editor of cultural political newsletter
Søndag Aften (Sunday Evening)
Director of the publishing firm Underskoven
and former Mayor of Education and Culture
in City of Copenhagen

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Editor of cultural political newsletter Søndag Aften (Sunday Evening) Director of the Publishing Firm Underskoven and former Mayor of Education and Culture in City of Copenhagen