The public library between integration and cultural diversity

The public library is undoubtedly the cultural institution with which most representatives of ethnic minorities are in touch. The libraries have catered for immigrants and refugees through special services, and the public libraries play an important role in the integration process in the Northern countries as a whole. The report Frirum til integration (2001) substantiates the fact that the libraries play a very decisive role in relation to minorities and that their services encourage the integration process by strengthening the individual’s educational and linguistic competencies. Something to be proud of indeed. If one compares the achievements of the public libraries with those of other cultural institutions, the report Kulturinstitutionernes bidrag til det kulturelt mangfoldige Danmark(2001) shows that the libraries can be seen as innovators, able to inspire other cultural institutions.

Even so, I would like to pose the question: Should the libraries function exclusively as ‘quiet integrators’ – as an extension of political and social integration policies of varying governments? Or should they also act as creative spaces for diversity and exchange of culture? This is not just a question of a non-committal cultural meeting between different, distinct cultures, as when the libraries act as hosts for an ethnic evening with exotic food and belly-dancing between the book shelves. This strategy for multiculturalism very easily comes to represent something static which is only interested in underlining differences and creating barriers. Or, to put it in another way: While practising respect and tolerance, we still run the risk of trapping people in a rigid system of categories – and being trapped ourselves.We might encounter here a kind of ‘apartheid of consciousness’ with the grave risk of ending up with our backs turned on each other, each in his/her liberated isolation. And when multiculturalism in its more extreme form is used as an excuse for ‘anything goes’ and nothing is open for discussion, one might perhaps be allowed to join the American political scientist, Benjamin R. Barber, in describing ‘multiculturalism as diversity run amok’.

To question multiculturalism as st rategy does not mean a desire to return to an Eurocentric enlightenment tradition, neither does it mean that we ought to place the national culture in the centre. We do not need a preoccupation with ‘the national’ or a celebration of our own eminent qualities. Cultural policy must be ahead, not behind, the development of society in recognition of the fact that we are part of the global society. It is therefore a question of paving the way for a true cosmopolitanism which allows us not only to view between integration and cultural diversity others as ‘exotic’, but which also encourages us to examine ourselves – so that we discover that we ourselves are ‘others’ amongst others.

Other peoples’ art and cultural expression is a language which we must learn to decode.We must try to translate, but at the same time realise that it happens through dialogue,and that the translation will never be complete.We must try to put ourselves in the other person’s place. Art and culture are important in bringing this about. A cultural policy which believes in cultural diversity is therefore not a question of categorising, refining and labelling them and us, but rather the realisation that we can all of us contribute and all of us learn in a cultural space which is being redefined.We must accept the existence of a new hybridity where nothing is ‘pure’ or ‘true’ any more. The idea of the cultural meeting in the sense of well-defined cultures with tradition and geographic anchorage facing each other, is outdated. And here I find that the concept ‘cultural diversity’ better than multiculturalism reflects these new hybrid cultures which do not only cut across boundaries and t raditional cultures, but which dissolve them into new forms across genres and cultural patterns.

How to carry out this strategy in practice? There is no cut and dried solution, but it is very important to concentrate more on choice of materials and a policy for activities and events so that fusions in literature,music, the visual media and not least youth culture b ecome visible in the lib rary’s mediation practice.A good example is the Danish group Outlandish with their multiethnic hiphop performed by three young second generation immigrants originating from Pakistan, Honduras and Morocco, who after their stay in the Middle East have developed a new rap style inspired by American music. Or the many post-colonial authors such as for example Rushdie, Kureshi and Naipaul – or their Nordic counterparts where new hydbrid identities are created. As far as the lib rary’s possible events and activities go, here would be the chance to present more performers with an ethnic background who express themselves in new ways instead of a more pure ethnic revival based on tradition and ethnicity.

The real challenge will be to find a balance which will not allow integration, social work and enlightenment to smother the development of cultural and artistic diversity in the library space.A diversity-based cultural policy is to just as g reat a degree a cultural policy for the ethnic Scandinavians as for all other ethnic g roups.We are all part of a new, global society.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

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