Is Sweden a role model? Discussion between Susanne Krüger, Germany, and Gullvor Elf, Sweden


The Second International Summerschool, Stuttgart Media University, the faculty of Information and Communication, May 2009.

The theme was ”Managing Digital Technologies and Cross-cultural Challenges”. Participants were offered a variety if workshops and seminars, we had the privilege to arrange a three day long workshop with the title ”Library Services for Multicultural Commu-nities”. At the last session the students received their final task:  to plan a new library building including new services for the “New Global Library”.

Stuttgart Media University (HdM) The curriculum of the Library and Information study program in Stuttgart has always kept a strong emphasis on library services for different target groups. In January 2009 a group of master students arranged a two days conference on the topic: “Promoting Language and Reading Skills of Migrant Children in Libraries”. The lectures and workshops assembled 160 participating librarians. The topic of the Second International  Summer School fit perfectly into the frame of seminars with a practical orientation.


Gullvor: Why do you think the Swedish Library system is a role model for Germany?

Susanne: Comparing Sweden to Germany I can see that a national library act sets standards, which is important for the development of libraries. The libraries in Sweden have more stacks, greater funding, better services, more staff and more central services, which facilitates the performance of a single library enormously. Germany lacks a national library act or a federal library system; the regional departments (Länder) typically are independent and take responsibility for their own cultural and educati-onal politics. Public libraries are funded by local authorities only, and vary significantly in the quality.

Gullvor: It is true that there is a good national framework in Sweden, even if the local authorities actually fund both local and regional library services. Personally, I think the framework should be stronger, but at least we have a library legislation that proclaims that every municipality must have a public library and that the borrowing of books shall be free of charge. A crucial element of the legislation is the statement that the municipality shall take the needs of migrant groups into consideration when planning the library services. But can’t you see an advantage in the decentra-lized organization? It could create a larger diversity of services responding more directly to local conditions?

Susanne: Yes, maybe, that’s why our staff is very active. The lack of central support challenges each librarian to come up with good ideas. There is a diversity of ideas and an array of different services and programs. Every library has to figure out how to perform as well as possible given limited resources. And librarians use a lot of informal ways to communicate and support each other: by mailing lists and wikis. But you also lose a lot time when you have to create your own framework for projects, and sometimes libraries reinvent the same ideas over and over. What we need is a better national infrastructure for library develop-ment. For me an institution like ‘The International Library’ is just a dream!

Gullvor: We learned at the workshop that the importance of working to build national and regional collections can’t be underestimated. Keeping a supply of books in foreign languages is fundamental. In Sweden these collections serve as vital supplements to the local library collections. The government- funded International Libraries in Scandi-navia create big opportunities. For countries lacking central institutions charged with book supply, which is often the case, the services to migrants are dependent on the will and the capacity of the local library. The idea to introduce intercultural library hosts in Swedish public libraries was tried out with regional and government funds. A number of people with foreign backgrounds were hired to meet the needs of a multilingual library and to make integration work visible in the library room, changing a common perception that the typical Swedish library worker is white, academic and usually a woman. Public libraries had access to the “open source” of the project. In Germany there have been many lively discussions about the language skills of migrants. I know you think libraries can play an important role here? Why?

Susanne: When the results of the PISAtests (Programs for International Student Assessment) were published in 2001 they caused panic and bewilderment in Germany. Seeing themselves so much below average on position 22 of the ranking, the Germans’ self-esteem was thoroughly shaken. The scandalously bad results did not fit with the traditional self-image of Germany as the country of ‘poets and philo-sophers’. Since then libraries have actively participated in on-going discussions about the reasons for this calamity and the necessary consequences. One identified reason for the poor performance is the German school, where selec-tions for further studies are made very early in a child’s life. Children from families with a difficult social background, and also immigrant children, have lower chances to succeed in school because their parents are not able to give them the necessary support to get to the higher education. Therefore there are a lot of projects going on to support early education and language skills. The libraries struggle hard to be involved in these projects.

Gullvor: Public libraries are always a product of the surroun-ding society. Library services are determined by the strate-gies and guidelines of governments and local politicians. The wellestablished Swedish model for reception and introduction of immigrants is, however, presently under pressure. The current government has begun to reorient and restructure the model, and reforms are underway. Language education is at the heart of the assimilation question. In Sweden the official opinion is still that both native language skills and Swedish competency are needed, and that they tend to enrich each other. For over 40 years we have offered migrant adults courses in Swedish as a second language as well as education in the mother tongue for migrant children. Although cooperation is well established between the libraries and the organisers of language courses, no organisational link has been formalized. At our workshop, closer cooperation with language courses was also one of the things that the students wanted to bring in to the ‘New Global Library’. What do you think is the key to successful library services in the future multicultural society?

Susanne: The access to library services must be facilitated for many target groups. An inviting building and friendly staff help people to identify their needs. In the digital world not only literacy skills are needed but also ‘e-literacy skills’. Our students in the summer school came up with the concepts of an E-Mobile Library and a Learning Castle. They envisioned something as big and impressive as the Stuttgart Castle of the 18th Century! Which ideas do you think are most likely to become reality?

Gullvor: In the future the public libraries can perhaps play the role of being a neutral zone in the ‘global village’ that will emerge from the globalization of work and the mobility of labour, serving as a safe haven and supporting migrants’ interactions with other institutions in the local society during their first time in the new country, such as the immigration office, the school representatives, and the social welfare. In a broader sense we will all have a mixed and ‘hybrid’ background. This will of course be a revolution for the libraries and will totally change their content and direction.

Susanne Krüger
Professor at Stuttgart Media University (HdM), Department
of Library and Information Management. Topics:
Library services for different target groups, Literature

Gullvor Elf
Guest Lecturer at Stuttgart Media University (HdM),
Department of Library and Information Management.
Librarian at Linköping Public Library, Sweden

Professor at Stuttgart Media University (HdM), Department of Library and Information Management. Topics: Library services for different target groups, Literature
Guest Lecturer at Stuttgart Media University (HdM), Department of Library and Information Management. Librarian at Linköping Public Library, Sweden