The mulitcultural society as the norm

We are not talkong about ”how to behave towards Pakistani”
Improved professional skills among the staff of cultural institutions and adaptation to a multicultural society are the themes of a Nordic project first initiated by Nordbok in Copenhagen and later developed into a programme involving co-operation between Nordbok and the Nordic Museum Committee. The project, which started in August 2002 and will continue until 31st March 2004, is administered by the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority. Actual work on achieving the aims of the project, however, has barely commenced.

Briefly stated, the aim of the project is as follows: Archives, libraries and museums, including the various connected institutions, must face the fact that all the Nordic countries are now multicultural societies and will remain so. This must have an obvious, permanent influence on our courses of study and training programmes. Acquiring professional skills relevant to our multicultural societies should not – as at present – consist at the most of an hour or two briefly considering the subject and then a further course that the majority choose not to take. Instead of being a matter of choice, this subject should constitute a normal part of basic training.

That is the project’s explicit and extremely important aim.

In order to achieve this aim, four working groups have been set up; one each for archives, libraries and museums and one which covers all three sectors. These working groups have developed a course programme that was tested out on representatives of the three sectors from 22. to 27. November 2003. The project hopes to see this programme accepted as a basis for the introduction of individual courses in the relevant Nordic centres of study.

The trial programme can be directly copied, certain elements can be used or it may simply serve as an inspiration for something completely different. The important aspect is to promote an understanding of the necessity for the inclusion in both basic and further training of what can briefly be described as ‘multicultural expertise’.

What precisely do we mean, however, by librarianship adapted to a multicultural society? This question can probably be answered in many ways. Personally I have found it useful to classify types of expertise in four different ways: information skills, awareness skills, cultural skills and social skills.

Information skills
My understanding of professional information skills relates to the methods of obtaining and organising knowledge. This expertise possesses in principle no cultural element and has gained ground in the training of librarians at the expense of cultural skills. In many ways a parallel can perhaps be drawn with the manner in which social sciences, which claim to offer tools for the understanding of all cultures, have flourished at the expense of the humanities, which provide knowledge about specific cultures.

The process of obtaining literature in many different languages and distributing it throughout the land among people of various ethnic origins can be regarded as primarily an informational task. The same can be said about helping people of various backgrounds to use the Internet in order to establish contact with their country of origin. The cultural element in these activities can be limited to what is necessary to reach the informational goal. One needs to learn no more than is sufficient to do the job and any multicultural competence will reflect this fact.

At the same time, however, the purely informational approach presupposes that it is the user who possesses most of the specific cultural knowledge. The user must know what he or she is looking for and must turn for assistance to the librarian trained in the skills of information search.

Awareness skills
Expertise of this nature is vital to anybody who works with or comes into contact with persons of different cultural backgrounds. This applies to teachers, policemen, municipal employees, etc. and of course also to librarians, regardless of the type of library. Many universities and colleges of higher education, as well as a number of private institutions, have developed courses of study within this particular ‘genre’. Awareness skills focus on interaction, the treatment of identity and cross-cultural communication.

We often hear that after a course of study in cross-cultural awareness, it can be difficult to return to a place of work where colleagues lack the same experience. This problem arises from the fact that one has not acquired the kind of knowledge easily conveyed to others. On the contrary, the essence of such a course of study is to undergo a process within oneself, a kind of personal maturing. The aim is to learn to adopt a critical and analytical attitude towards one’s social surroundings, thus making it easier to understand not only one’s own self and one’s actions but also those of others.

Although rewarding for oneself and useful in relation to people one would otherwise regard as strangers, putting this new awareness into practice is nevertheless very demanding, since it is much easier to act according to prejudice. A further serious difficulty arises if one’s colleagues view cross-cultural awareness with scepticism. It is therefore very important that whole working environments acquire these awareness skills. Awareness skills are absolutely fundamental to anybody whose work involves relationships with people of a different cultural background. The view that these skills are something special and out of the ordinary only serves to exemplify our failure to appreciate that the multicultural has now become the norm.

Cultural skills
In the daily practice of awareness skills it is a great advantage also to have relevant cultural expertise. The working group for the library sector has raised the question of the place for specific knowledge about different cultures. Those who support finding a place for cultural skills are confronted by the following objections.

- The population of the Nordic countries contains people with roots in 150 or more different nationalities. Such a variety of cultural backgrounds means that any concrete project to improve cultural skills would be pointless.

- Attempts to teach how other cultures actually are inevitably lead to the reinforcement of stereotypes, thus defeating the purpose of the project.

- In a course of study already under considerable pressure, it is impossible to find a place for the teaching of cultural skills. There are many other subjects that need to be covered and better so than at present.

I shall return to the last of these objections towards the end of this article. The first two points can be met by the following counter-arguments.

We are not talking about teaching how other peoples are. This is an objection typical of those professions, such as sociology, which are mainly processoriented, and may be valid enough when referring to attitudes such as “how to behave towards a Pakistani”. Such recipes serve only to confirm prejudice. Rather we are talking in a somewhat old-fashioned humanistic manner about teaching something of the different cultural histories of the world, their art and their literature. Nor are we talking about studying 150 or more different cultural traditions. Just as the cultural history of Europe as a whole can be dealt with in a meaningful manner, so can one clearly approach other great cultures of the world.

It is very important to remember that although the cultural element in the training of librarians may be less nowadays than before, most librarians have at least 12 years normal schooling behind them, schooling which in the main has been based on learning about their ‘own’ culture. Very few will possess more than the most elementary knowledge of cultural history from other parts of the world. This gap in cultural skills is to such an extent taken for granted that hardly anyone reflects on it.We can observe, however, t
hat many pupils with a different cultural background to the majority often fall behind in school because so much of the teaching takes the majority culture for granted.

It is clear that awareness skills will always be under pressure from an everyday reality of general scepticism among the majority. However, awareness skills are much more effective when reinforced by a sound foundation of cultural knowledge.

A discussion on how it is that young people from the minority populations can top crime statistics and yet at the same time be more law-abiding than their Norwegian counterparts may well provide a serious basis for a dialogue on cultural differences. How much easier, however, for such a dialogue to have as its starting point the pleasure of discovering a new literary tradition.

In other words, awareness skills and cultural expertise will mutually support and strengthen each other and provide a far better foundation for communicating with a wide variety of library users.

Finally and not least, cultural skills are in demand. People of immigrant background look for guidance and information not only on the cultural and literary traditions of the ethnic majority but also on the culture they themselves come from.

Furthermore, given a multicultural society, library users from the population majority also have a much greater need than they realise for knowledge about the cultural background of the immigrant population.

Many library users from immigrant minorities are well-educated within their own cultural background. In their new homeland, however, this knowledge is useless outside their own ethnic circle. The very fact of moving to live in a new country represents a dramatic fall in personal skills. Almost everything one knew about coping in and with society becomes irrelevant and must be relearned.

The consequences of losing these skills can have a serious effect upon selfimage, family situation, employment possibilities and the ability and motivation to interact with the majority population of one’s new country. A library run on the basis of multicultural expertise will be able to promote the search for knowledge among minority users and heighten their selfrespect. Such a library can also attempt to establish dialogues about literary traditions other than those of Norway and Western countries. Such initiatives are needed by members of the majority population as much as by the minorities, since dialogues of this nature can help to reveal human nuances and underline the relevance of different cultural traditions. This is nothing less than sound integration politics.

In addition there remains a further argument for the importance of cultural skills.

When discussing multicultural/multilingual/ international libraries (choose the term of preference) emphasis is often laid on quantity. It becomes a question of obtaining as many books as possible, in as many languages as possible and for as many libraries as possible, in order to satisfy all the many impatient users. Not surprisingly, there is never sufficient money available to fulfil these aims.

This emphasis is understandable, since quantity is easily measured and shortage of books is indeed a serious problem. The actual nature of the books purchased is, however, also relevant and not simply in relation to ‘high’ or ‘low’ quality. Persons who have fled from political persecution, for example, will be looking for literature or channels of information which circumvent what is officially approved in their country of origin. There are also a number of aspects of each user group which may demand further consideration, such as level of education and age spread (from certain areas, for example, a high proportion of refugees are children). Developing a library collection, however, and being able to recommend suitable literature to users naturally require knowledge about the culture or society from which the books come. Unfortunately, such problems are not solved by giving responsibility for selection to one central library in each of the Nordic countries, even though these libraries do an excellent, professional job.

Social skills
Libraries are widely used by the new minorities and would appear to be alone among our cultural institutions in fulfilling the ideal that all population groups should be represented among users. Admittedly, it is equally true for libraries as for other cultural institutions that poorly-educated members of the majority population – and their children – are underrepresented. Interestingly, this educational divide seems less apparent among the new minorities. Instead we see a clear gender gap with very low representation among adult women from certain countries.

Young people from population minorities often see libraries as a free space away from the social pressures they experience from one side or the other. This applies particularly to young girls. Older people use libraries to maintain contact with their homeland, while the unemployed find a meeting place which costs nothing and where they can keep themselves up-to-date with what interests them. And everybody can obtain assistance according to their needs.

As a result, some librarians find themselves combining their professional role with that of social worker and youth club leader. Much of their work lies in an area with no clear borders between the informational, the cultural and the social. Although some countries arrange courses to assist librarians in dealing with problems of discipline, nevertheless the use of libraries by the new minorities is a positive phenomenon fully in keeping with the fundamental aims of the public library sector.

Since libraries are widely used by people from the new minorities, a number of politicians feel that the public library sector should play an even greater role in the process of integration. To an even greater extent than already is the case with many libraries, they could perhaps offer advice and assistance in connection with the individual user’s relation to the community, such as help with seeking employment, health information, social conditions, etc.

A more diversified librarian training or a too diversified role?
There is good reason to question whether or not the role of librarian has expanded to cover too many duties. There are three strategies available in response to the wider role now demanded of librarians.

The first strategy presupposes that the basic training of librarians should be extended to encompass all necessary functions. My own personal opinion is that training should definitely to a much greater extent than at present respond to the cultural diversity of modern society and the new demands on library functions. For example, should not the learning of awareness skills be made a standard part of all vocational training where the nature of the work involves contact with persons of different cultural backgrounds? On the other hand, how far should one go towards including aspects more specifically relevant to libraries and multicultural demands?

Another strategy would be to let various types of ‘special studies’ become normal requirements for any librarian working in a library of more than average size. Such extra qualifications could, for example, be some specialist knowledge of Arabic language, culture and literature or perhaps a certain expertise in social and health-related problems among young people from a minority background.

The third response is to recognise that the varied functions of today’s public library system far exceed the reasonable limits of the role of librarian and therefore to allow libraries to open their doors to several different professions. These could be specialists in information and communication technology, linguists, cultural experts, health personnel, etc.- all in addition to the librarians themselves.

The multicultural norm
The challenge inherent in our project is to establish an understanding of the multicultural norm. Clearly the project represents a modest beginning to a long
process.Whereas globalisation and internationalism in themselves are terms with a positive ring, their consequences such as wide-spread immigration and the creation of multicultural communities have acquired a less positive aura. The multicultural society, however, is here to stay and we must accept the fact. The sooner we manage to identify the perspectives, the knowledge, the literature and the teaching concepts which best meet the types of competence required, the easier it will be to adjust the training programmes for librarians to include content relevant to the normality of our multicultural society.

The need to create satisfactory learning environments for students from the whole cultural spectrum in each of the Nordic countries has long been recognised. Many educational institutions have made it a measure of success to ensure that the composition of the student body should reflect the cultural mix of the population as a whole. Very few of these institutions, however, have made it an equally pronounced aim to ensure that the education they provide is fully geared towards serving a multicultural society.

That must be the next step.

Translated by Eric Deverill

Per B. Rekdal