Viewpoint: Democratic dialogues between cultures

Public libraries should qualify as platforms for the democratic dialogue
In many respects public libraries stand for integration. Cultures from all over the world mix on library premises. It becomes a place where the tall story, myth and lie from so many countries co-exist with truth, knowledge and learning. In such a context the lie can actually represent learning or knowledge and myth could be truth, at least as myth. Is this not what integration is all about? The ability to live alongside one another in a state of mutual respect and dignity?

Then why do we talk in terms of cultural diversity? Does more than one culture really exist? Is not culture in itself infinite? A poet from Minor Asia once told me that culture is merely the sum of ways in which people relate to each other and to the notion of existence. In other words, there is only culture and it can appear in different shapes depending on who the carrier is.

Nevertheless, public libraries are in reality a far cry from integration. Language and manifestations of literature, despite their origin in everything human and divine, are not integration as such. A language is ruthless in dividing those who command it from those who do not.

With diversity anything is possible and with greater diversity come endless combinations. Integration can never, as certain politicians will have it, downsize everything to the same template, demanding that “they shall be like Swedes”. An average tells us nothing about the width and depth of a phenomenon. To incorporate new ways of thinking and approaches in which to view life and society from people who have their origins from any other part in the world, will bring about a disturbance of the balance. The average mean will be displaced, making what was once measured against the norm eventually become the unusual.

Libraries must adapt to changes and make room for the new. They must reflect what is new in a society whose standards change with every new member and for each novel thought and idea.

But should not public libraries evolve at a faster pace than society on the whole? With its ability to reflect the past as well as the present and future, the public library should be that point in society where the necessary steps can be initiated at short notice and in which changes are instantaneously noticed. The public consists of all those who make use of the library. At libraries anyone can access reading matter and information. Internet complements and conveys contacts with literature from all across the world.

Thereby, yet another public library assignment becomes vitally important. It is not enough to convey literature, news and culture from the different countries. Sweden is not Croatia, Somalia or Vietnam. Sweden is Sweden and it has certain fundamental cultural norms. Norms that have been developed over hundreds of years characterised by peace and democracy. Sweden’s democratic psyche has its roots in the relatively durable position of the medieval smallholders. The Swedish and Nordic cultures possess, by international standards, a relatively high degree of equality between the sexes. This is not always the case with those countries from which many of the immigrants come. The public libraries therefore have an important assignment in informing and conveying the Swedish tradition. The library must make way for meetings, debates and discussions.

A consequence of the respect bestowed different viewpoints is the marginalization of Swedish cultural tradition. A visitor from abroad will be met by a chaotic situation.Who is the Swede? Libraries have increasingly improved their ability to communicate new media in various languages, but are the new Swedes given the possibility to grasp the underlying values of the society in which they have arrived?

Public libraries should qualify as platforms for the democratic dialogue, facilitating the meeting of different cultures including that of the Swede. Grant the public library the initiative to allow discussions between the cultural bearers from all countries, including our own.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Uno Nilsson