Scandinavian Views: Cross-border library services

One of the best known Danish public library systems does not exist to serve Danish nationals. In fact, it is not even located in Denmark. The Danish Central Library for South Schleswig (DCLS), headquartered in Flensburg, Germany, exists to serve the informational and cultural needs of the approximately 50,000 ethnic Danes residing on the German side of the Danish- German frontier. The library is one of the world’s best examples of how a national minority population can receive robust educational and cultural services about its ethnic homeland, while actively promoting civic engagement in its adopted country.

Schleswig and Holstein (Danish: Slesvig-Holsten) are located at a strategic crossroads between continental Europe and Scandinavia. For this reason, there has long been considerable foreign interest in the area. For centuries, the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were able to walk the line of having a loose political affiliation with the Danish crown, while conducting extensive trade with both Denmark and the German-speaking territories to the south. This changed in 1848 when the Danish king announced his intention to integrate Schleswig fully into the Kingdom and, thus, sever the historic cultural ties binding Schleswig with Holstein. This caused two wars in the area, the first of which was won by Denmark. A second war, in 1864, ended catastrophically for Denmark, as it lost all of Schleswig-Holstein to the German Federation.

Following World War I, the Treaty of Versailles divided Schleswig into three zones, and residents went to the polls in each zone to vote to either reunite with Denmark or to remain part of Germany. Zone one, consisting of territory from the 1864 border to near the Flensburg Fjord, received nearly a 75 percent majority to reunite with Denmark. Voters in zones two and three expressed strong German majorities. In 1920, zone one was returned to Denmark, and the current border was finalized. During the cere- monies celebrating the transfer, both the Danish Prime Minister and King famously told the ethnic Danes living south of the border “you will not be forgotten.”

Danish community leaders and government officials determined that an ideal way to demonstrate to the minority group that they were indeed remembered was to offer them social services similar to what was available to Danish citizens. Therefore, a comprehensive network of day-care centres, kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools, sports clubs, churches, health care centres, senior citizen centres, public libraries, cultural programming, and other services were organised to provide ethnic Danes with social, educational, recreational, and spiritual services. These services were funded by a number of agencies, including the Danish and German national governments, the German State of Schleswig- Holstein, and numerous charitable foundations.

The DCLS operates similarly to its municipal public library counterparts in Denmark with main libraries, branches, and a whole host of services offered to patrons. DCLS has five locations situated throughout South Schleswig. The main library is centrally located in the downtown area of South Schleswig’s largest city, Flensburg. Branch libraries are located in the cities of Schleswig and Eckernförde in western South Schleswig and Husum and Bredstedt in eastern South Schleswig. Typical public library services such as book and film circulation, reference assistance, computer and internet access, and meeting space are standard at DCLS.What makes this public library system so unique is the high level of civic engagement it has with its patrons. The library has a special responsibility to promote Danish and Nordic culture to its users. To that end, it schedules a wide spectrum of classes, workshops, study circles, and other educational opportunities which give participants rich opportunities to connect with, and relate to, their Danish and Nordic heritage.

Hosting Danish language and cultural studies classes and making available a large collection of language instruction materials are essential library activities. While a system of approximately fifty Danish elementary and secondary schools serve children and help keep the Danish language vibrant in South Schleswig, the library’s efforts focus on adult education. These lifelong learning opportunities fit well with the Nordic tradition of folkeoplysning, or popular enlightenment. Extensive Danish language and literature courses, taught at the library, contribute positively to building an enlightened, engaged national minority population.

One of the most popular services offered by the DCLS is the bookmobile program. Two vehicles crisscross South Schleswig, making regular stops at dozens of schools, day-care and senior citizen centres, and even at private homes to provide books and multimedia materials to residents. Colourful Danish and Nordic motifs are painted on the bookmobiles, and they are a highly visible sign of the DCLS’s commitment to providing library services to ethnic Danes all throughout South Schleswig.

Two of the library’s best-known resources are its local history collection and research archive. The local history collection, named The Schleswig Collection, contains over 50,000 materials, including books, newspapers, and pamphlets documenting the history of all of Schleswig. It has a special mission to collect materials telling the story of the Danish minority in Germany. It has become a preeminent regional history collection, and it is used regularly by a wide range of researchers, from casual historians to school children to professional historians.

The first-class research archive staffs a team of professional historians and archivists who collect manuscripts, photographs, posters, maps, films, and sound recordings documenting the Danish and Frisian minorities in South Schleswig. They also publish extensively. To date, the research department has released over eighty scholarly publications covering a broad range of topics important to telling the unique history of South Schleswig and its residents.

The DCLS provides an outstanding model for library systems around the world serving national minority populations. DCLS’s success is aided by an excellent funding model and a bi-national commitment to providing topnotch social services to the Danish minority. Librarians in other countries looking to provide informational services and language and cultural programming to their national minorities can gather inspiration from the depth and breadth of services offered to South Schleswig’s ethnic Danes.

Dr. Jeffrey W. Hancks
Associate Professor, Western Illinois University,
Macomb, Illinois, USA.
JL-Hancks AT

Associate Professor, Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois, USA.