Toward a national library strategy?

During the peak year of 2002 the Swedish book trade accounted for impressive returns on steadily increasing sales figures. The rise was due mainly to the fact that sales tax was considerably reduced but also because there was an increase in the general interest in books alongside the consumer’s healthy purchasing power.

There is a paradox in this. Much of the book publishing is subsidised by the Swedish State. The State also supports the distribution of State subsidised books to libraries. They also subsidise subscriptions for cultural magazines, supply range subsidies for the book trade and subsidise reading comprehension activities.

Despite all this subsidising the libraries lending rate is decreasing, but not due to a failing readership. At least they are buying literature. Or to be more specific, buying what publishers consider commercially viable enough to be issued as paperbacks. As in so many other countries the Swedish book market has evolved into a best-seller market, which has laid the foundation for an explosion in paperback sales on a scale without international parallel. In 1996, two million paperbacks were sold in Sweden; by 2002 the figure had quadrupled.

Libraries are indispensable for exposing the kind of literature not usually seen in book stores or book clubs. Public library activities related to reading comprehension is also of great importance, not least with regard to children’s reading ability. Further education, to read and express oneself in a linguistically adequate way becomes therefore more important, as does the ability to search, evaluate and work over information gained. Despite the media’s and the Internet’s explosive growth rate, the bulk of information still remains text-based. There is a risk that a new class society will emerge where failing competence in information retrieval will become the main segregating factor, unless libraries start paying more serious attention to their duties as part of the information sector.

Libraries also serve as intellectual and democratic free zones; they are information bureaux as well as cultural meeting places. They also provide an educational environment to many students.

The public libraries have gone through major changes in the past years. There has been the evolvement of adult education, a centralised university sector and ventures aimed at lifelong learning. Measures that have given the public libraries a more distinct role in matters of education. New technology and increased access to netbased information has entailed significant changes, both in content and working methods.

When discussing the EU’s memorandum in Sweden, much stress is laid on the functions of libraries to support educational policies. The students will often venture to the nearest library regardless of what curriculum they may be pursuing and this library is most likely to be a public library. They need advice when searching and amassing information as well as support in their contacts with course counsellors and other research libraries. The student is seldom interested in who the library’s authority is. Therefore, public and research libraries need to attain substantial collaborative measures to meet the demand.

A demand for a national library policy common to all types of libraries has grown stronger, as have expectations on national measures to support the libraries in their task with regard to learning and information. As opposed to many other countries, Sweden lacks a collective national policy for the library sector.

There is at present a discussion going on regarding a revision of the Library Act that came into effect in 1997. Parallel to this an overhaul as to the responsibilities of the National Library is being inquired into. This implies that there are at present opinions as to how the State’s responsibility to the library sector should be formulated. This presupposes collaboration based on a national strategy and mutual goals. For such a national strategy to be effective it needs to be shaped by representatives from all political areas that have ties with the library sector, as well as representatives from all concerned levels, not least from the local level.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Head of department. The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs.