Viewpoint: With the periphery at the center

Some years ago, I (Trude) went to a library in a small Norwegian town, where I intended to write three exam papers in approximately the same number of days. I placed myself in the innermost part of the reading room with all the secondary literature that a library wizard had retrieved from various shelves and on remote loan. My PC was plugged in, hot coffee was at hand, and I was poised for a pro ductive day.

But then I suddenly heard some strange noises from behind the bookshelves. It was a kind of mumbling that increased in´volume. To be sure, coming in I had noticed the solitary man who was leafing through some academic journals, but I was not prepared for noise.

After having attempted to block out the noise for about half an hour, I went to the librarian and told her that I was unable to concentrate. The librarian obviously knew the man, and headed straight for the reading room.

I felt a pang of guilt. After all, it was not my intention to chase him out of the library. But no such thing happened. When I returned the man was still there, but the noise had subsided.

Accessible for all

Since then I have reflected on this little episode, since it reveals a lot about what a public library should be: an accessible place, open to all, free of charge and with no dress code, no CV or network re - quired. Even if you are a person at the very margin of society, there is still room for you in the library.

And not only in Scandinavia; during our visit to New York in April, a man had made himself a bed out of some chairs outside the New York Public Library. The vagrant with his dirty socks was left to lie undisturbed on the steps leading into the venerable marble building.

Nobody told him to disappear, nobody turned up their noses at him. There was obviously a tacit understanding that a library is a protected spot. A place where you can escape from all prejudice, meet your like-minded or completely oppositeminded fellow humans and find quietude and recreation. It is also a place where you can be in the proximity of other people for an hour or three, if that is what you need.

Common property

Today, Norwegian public libraries are most frequented by children, immigrants and the elderly. Most libraries are located in small communities, in unassuming buildings and with an equally unassuming staff.

In terms of geography as well as target groups, the libraries are located on the periphery. The target group that most enterprises aim for, comprises people aged 25 to 50 who live in large cities, have a substantial household income and focus on material wealth. You may surely find these people in the public library as well, but they will hardly be in the majority.

In this sense, the public library remains committed to its founding ideology.´Quite simply, this is democracy and equality at its best. Beneath it lies the 18th century idea that knowledge and enlightenment should be accessible to all.

From being the privilege of only a few – those with money, power and education – literature became common property.

House of culture

There are public libraries in the large cities too, of course, but the overwhelming majority are found in small towns in small municipalities, on the periphery, similar to how the greatest literature found in the library also engages with life on the margins.

Today, the public libraries have more on offer than merely literature: readings, interviews with authors, themed events, art exhibitions, lectures and much else besides. In this way, the public library serves also as a house of culture for small towns and settlements with no house of culture of their own.

For this autumn, the library in Os outside Bergen has scheduled a poetry slam and its own literary festival. At Nord-Aurdal Public Library you can participate in a seminar on the meaning of dreams. The library in the little mountain hamlet of Lom, which won the “Norwegian Library of the Year” award in 2012, has a lending rate which is twice the national average.

Map and compass

Thus, the libraries in rural Norway are staffed by enthusiasts and people who are genuinely engaged in providing cultural events to everybody – not least to user groups who have neither the finances, nor the opportunity to seek out the large cultural institutions in the urban centers.

In a world and in a reality where it is becoming increasingly difficult to orientate oneself, the public library can provide both a map and a compass. It is thus only logical that the Norwegian Parliament, Stortinget, wants to reinforce´the social role of libraries, in terms of their responsibility for dissemination and their function as a meeting

For – where else can one spend a little time in peaceful coexistence with a solitary reader who is making strange noises on the other side of the bookshelf?

Lecturer and writer
Secondary-school teacher