Viewpoint: A point of view

Library visits are decreasing. Last year – if we count per quarter – saw just 28 per cent of Swedes visit public libraries on a regular basis. Tendencies are the same in most comparable countries, although local exceptions may be noted. Meanwhile, identity issues are discussed as never before throughout the library sector, both in terms of a library’s role in its local community and the librarian’s professional identity.

These discussions will often take place, either with reference to or based on the type of statistics displaying the ‘ordinary’ citizen’s rate of visits. It goes without saying that it is problematic.

Much of the library sector’s activities are not dependent on a wide range of media-consumption or an anonymous and fickle public. Most often, it is the type of activities carried out in collaboration with other organisations such as schools, retirement homes and integration authorities where perhaps the most important work is conducted. Indeed, it is also here we find much of the core competencies that make the librarian profession so enduring. It is very much in environments such as these whereby librarians promote reading abilities – among schoolchildren, young people, newly arrived refugees and the elderly.

Ever since public libraries emerged as a central part in the construction of the Nordic welfare states, and in which the models applied differed slightly between the countries, they have had the promotion of reading in common, and this has constituted something of a mutual core substance to the development  of these countries. It singled out public libraries from other types of libraries in that they connected to people who might not otherwise have come into contact with literature or enjoyed recreational reading as a natural part in their everyday lives. The welfare state’s basic ideal is that it works at its best when it has a critically minded, educated and politically active population. To create these conditions it was encouraged and considered important not only for the individual, but also from a societal point of view. A country with a high level of education  was better equipped to develop a democracy based on tolerance and equality. The reading promotional campaigns of public libraries at schools, workplaces and among the elderly came to position itself as an obvious and natural component in building up a society.

However, the situation is different today. The ideology of the welfare state is no longer dominant, not least in Sweden, and much of what was created during the 1900s, which made the country an international role model, is rapidly being de-constructed. The emotive priorities, which made public libraries both prominent and indispensible, are no longer at the fore. It comes as no surprise that identity issues become interesting. This development has – although it has accelerated dramatically in recent years – been going on for nearly twenty years. It coincides well with the economisation of public life, with its demands for measurability and evaluation – generating interest in visitor statistics – and developments in technology. This has created the commodification of the information concept, which at present often views the library user as an instrumental information seeker, and not as a complex human being. Libraries deliver media services to customers under the same conditions as all other media providers – broadband companies and others. This has not least, become clear over the past years’ discussion about e-books in libraries. But public libraries were never intended to be distributors of publishers’ products. When a child learns to read, it does so not in order to gather information, but to conquer a language. When newly arrived refugees take their first faltering steps into a new culture it is the fellowship of language that is the key to mutual acceptance.When the elderly learn the ‘Internet’ it is not only instrumental information seeking which interests them – they also want to access the riches of experiences and reading, which make up the digital world.

This is where libraries have their most distinct – and in terms of identity – their strongest role. Herein lies the opportunity to achieve what they once set out to attain – to assist in educating knowledgeable and linguistically capable citizens to take an active part in the development of society. Through partnerships with schools and other civic stakeholders public libraries can get beneath the superficiality of statistics by applying their operations. Statistics, which can so easily become a hindrance to what is most important to their mission – which is the promotion of reading; contributing to the strengthening of each individual and offering each and one the potential to become active participants in the betterment of the good society. There still remains a foundation for a strong sustainable identity – even when society on the whole fails to do likewise.

Joacim Hansson
The Document Academy and the Department of
Library and Information Science
Linnaeus University, Sweden
Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Professor The Document Academy and the Department of Library and Information Science Linnaeus University, Sweden