Viewpoint: The public library in the service of civic society

…there are to be no hidden agendas or underlying demands…

Is it the public library’s role to act as a substitute community for those informal meeting places which are sadly lacking in post-modern society? Should it encourage people to gather there at all and is it the responsibility of the library to keep alive a local community? Is it to be a forum for debate which focuses on values and topical issues? In short, should it be civic society’s unique space for free communication and critical reflection in contrast to the market’s commercialisation of experiences and the rather one-way information provided by the state? And does it in fact function as such?

One might harbour a nagging fear that the library’s function as a meeting place could well disappear as we move towards a virtual library which via networks facilitates access to digitised materials and media. This is, however, not the case in the library in Denmark which has must successfully handled IT-development. On the contrary, in the provincial town of Silkeborg the library has experienced an increase in the number of people who visit the library for a variety of purposes without actually borrowing anything. But the library’s role of a ‘place to be’ has changed along with the introduction of information technology: Now visitors come to use the internet, play computer games or create products in the multimedia workshop instead of just to read the newspaper or a journal.

The study by Henrik Jochumsen and Casper Hvenegaard Rasmussen Gør biblioteket en forskel (Does the library make a difference) (2000) shows that whatever the lifestyle of the users, they do attach great importance to the library as a meeting place and ‘place to be’. The authors conclude that there is no indication that libraries as we know them today are in danger of becoming superfluous, because “the library is not only an information centre, but also a knowledge centre, a cultural centre and not least one of the few non-commercial meeting places and ‘places to be’ that exist in the local community. It is a major task for the public libraries to make sure that this fact is made abundantly clear – to the local politicians as well”.

When libraries increasingly function as a social space, it should be seen as a reaction to the lack of public and relaxed meeting places in post-modern society.
There is a shortage of places where one feels part of a common, local community without having to join a society, evening classes or go to a café. The English report Libraries in a World of Cultural Change (1995), which is still of topical interest, maintains that “as the streets and the vitality of street culture have been ruined by cars, local shops have been more or less replaced by covered shopping centres, museums and other free areas have been forced to charge entrance fees, the possibilities for ambling along, looking, standing chatting, sitting down somewhere and watching the world pass by, have become more restricted and made more difficult. This, we feel, is one of the most fantastic qualities of the public library as a neutral ground and as a democratic, non-sectarian territory”.

The right – and the possibility – freely to move within the public space is as the quotation says, one of the most significant qualities of the public library.
That it is a ‘non-sectarian territory’ must at the same time be regarded as a prerequisite for providing the framework for the free communication and critical reflection which I mentioned above. These are splendid words at a high level of abstraction and sometimes they seem very far removed from everyday life in the public library, where long queues of borrowers wanting the latest best-seller or young boys fighting for access to the PC to play computer games, hardly encourages critical reflection.

Rather it might be the library’s activities as organiser of events which might contribute to the dialogue about values by providing an arena for the battles of civic society. But generally speaking the public library is not making a great impact on the public debate, and the debate which actually goes on, very rarely propagates to media such as newspapers or television. Other more trendy ‘spaces’ in cafés, art galleries or in Copenhagen for example The Black Diamond, The Royal Library’s showroom-like extension, provide the setting for current media debate. Something new is needed. Here I feel that the Fremtidsforum (Forum of the future), which took place in Kolding in spring 2000, was an interesting, more comprehensive attempt to ‘break through the sound barrier’. The purpose was to test the public library’s role as virtual community centre by trying out new forms of co-operation with local players and focusing on the public library as the local community dynamo which helps set the agenda in the locality.

The background was ten lectures, in which well-known Danish experts described their view of the society of the future, dealing with ‘hot’ topics like the environment, genetic engineering, IT, lifestyle etc. At each lecture a local ‘celebrity’ took on the role as opponent, and the lecture was subsequently placed on the net in full text with sound and pictures. The project’s homepage featured a debate forum for further discussions, and when the project finished, the site was handed over to the local authority as a starting signal for a new project on the town’s future. This model is a very interesting suggestion for new library activities, and even without the virtual part, the ambitious series of lectures has by itself strengthened the possibility for critical reflection on the society of the future, where everyone who felt so inclined, has been able to have a say in the debate.

If the library is to act in the service of civic society, there are to be no hidden agendas or underlying demands. Civic society is not to be subordinated to the library, but the library must provide a framework for civic society on its own in order that an actual critical public may manifest it-self. If a hidden agenda exists to the effect that the public library must promote specific values, the civic society concept is being used as a foil.When selecting materials or organising events the library should in no way attempt to promote certain moral points of view or canonised,national values. Civic society is not only about a spirit of community, but also about opposition, and the public libraries cannot claim to be the only ones to know what constitutes the ‘good’life or the ‘right’ values in a culturally diverse society. By opening up the possibilities for debate, the public library can, however, show how a truly democratic society’s most fundamental value – freedom of expression, works in practice.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

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