The hybrid library

Cultural policy has arrived at a crossroad – or perhaps one could describe it as being “out of step” with the development of society. We are on shaky ground, in a state of flux. Traditional social structures are on the move, social relations are transient and demands for readjustment and mobility increase. The new buzz-words are flexibility, floating, portable, transparent, interactive – well,the list seems endless.

Things are happening in society, and also in art and cultural life which affect cultural policy – or rather which ought to do so, because the values and effects of cultural policy were, to a large extent, formulated in a society very different from the one which is now emerging. Public cultural policy in the Nordic Countries is deeply rooted in traditions and habits. It is not easy to change course, as cultural life is to a great extent institutionalised and based on values originating in Enlightenment thought and the welfare project.

The debate on culture is going nowhere, and it is difficult to find real visions and new rationales appropriate for a new era. Cultural policy – at least in Denmark – is characterised by organisational restructuring and economic reprioritisations rather than by visions and new goals in a late-modern, globalised world. At the same time, cultural institutions are finding it difficult to legitimise themselves and produce ar guments as to why they exactly should receive support before many others. Traditional concepts of ‘quality’ and ‘authority’ are no longer adequate means for understanding and communicating values in a socie ty where diversity is undermining a unitary culture.

At the same time sociologists have become the magicians of our time, and each of them is happy to mutter their formulas above the fog arising from the cauldron of late-modern society. Some find that we are entering a completely new époque, i.e. that an ”epochal transformation” is taking place which shows itself in concepts such as the late-modern society, the risk society, the knowledge society or the dream society, while others tend to feel that it is in fact a question of a continuation and a radicalisation of some existing tendencies in modernity when they talk about the high – m odern or late – modern society.

The British sociologist, Anthony Giddens, uses the concept reflexive modernisation as an expression for the changed societal conditions which he describes as follows in his book The Consequences of Modernity (1990): “The reflexivity of modern social life consists in the fact that social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming information about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character… We are abroad in a world which is thoroughly constituted through reflexively applied knowledge, but where at the same time we can never be sure that any given element will not be revised.”

Society’s increasing reflexivity is a challenge, not least for the public library. The Enlightenment project is based on the fact that armed with our sensibility we move higher and higher up the ladder of development, whereas the reflexive society cannot give us the recipe for what truth is. The universal truism has given way to the realisation that everything might be diff erent. Not even art, which in modernity was considered the very peak of cognition, is today able to create a common horizon, but tends rather to become a reflectory workshop or a laboratory for new forms of selfknowledge. Here it becomes a tool for development of self-identity, because the self, too, has turned into a reflexive project combining personal and social change.

The public library has,as an institution, been hit by this reflexivity in concrete demands for readjustment and change. It manifests itself in the idea of the hybrid library which is a reflection of an amalgamation of the virtual and the real library and of the many new hybrids between libraries, cultural centres, museums and knowledge centres.

The very concept ‘library’ can in the reflexive society be described as a competence centre within the field of culture and knowledge, rather than as the publicly available organised collection of books from which it has originated.

The Danish professor of multimedia, Lars Qvortrup, has in a number of his publications dealt with the concept hypercomplexity, and he sees it as part of our present conditions that it will never be possible to provide a sufficient volume of information which would provide the basis on which to make decisions of ultimate truth. The problem is not lack of inputs – quite the contrary. The complexity cannot be abolished, and one cannot be either for or against complexity – it simply exists. But we must try to create temporary stabilisations, and we must improve our capacity to handle complexity. And this might be the challenge for the public library: To create temporary stabilisations in a constantly floating world.

Splendid words – but how to put them into effect? It might be reflected in the library space itself and its design: Both to provide a meeting place for the exchange of opinions in order to reach new platforms of (temporary) agreement and to create quiet spaces for reflection (which is not the same as reflexivity). It might manifest itself in competent, if not necessarily final, answers to the avalanche of questions from users. And it can be obtained by presenting art and culture which supplement and challenge the purely market- orientated culture in order to provide a springboard for the population’s identity search which is a continuous process all our lives. Here the work should neither be interpreted nor explained, but regarded as a sphere of possibilities, a world of potentials which are only realised by the use r himself. Therefore the mediation must happen in an interactive and dynamic way with the user at the centre.

This development means a change of the skills required by library staff, and here I use as my point of reference the four learning concepts which Qvortrup operates with in his book Det lærende samfund (The learning society) 2001. As opposed to the centrally and rationally constructed library of the past with its emphasis on qualifications, i.e. factual knowledge, the emphasis is now on competencies and creativity. In this context, competencies are taken to mean reflexive knowledge, i.e. the ability to handle a job/task in a different way if the situation changes – which is exactly what is happening. Here one has to leave one’s usual role behind and view the situation from outside in order to find new solutions. An example is the introduction of new information technology that has challenged the librarians’ competencies as regards new strategies for searching and mediation. Creativity is defined as the ability to relearn in order that one may rethink the very value foundation on which the solution of the task is based. It might for example be the change from the orientation towards the materials in the library to the orientation towards the needs of the user, an immense challenge for a generation of librarians schooled in choice, processing and retrieval of suitable materials. Here we might well be on our way into what Qvortrup defines as the 4th order, namely culture, which is where the true paradigm-shifts happen.

If the public library as an institution is to legitimise itself in a reflexive, hypercomplex society, it has to be its culture, its image of itself that is mediated to the public. Just as the image o f the culture and knowledge temple of the past won through because of its almost religious rituals and regular rhythms, the new library will have to find its story, so that it becomes neither a revitalisation of previous core services nor a dissolution into everything – and therefore nothing. The hybrid library might be a bid – but is it enough?

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

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Cultural Sociologist and Head of Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, The Royal School of Library and Information Science, Copenhagen