The new independent ‘debate libraries’ of Norway

From an open debate 2014 at Deichmanske Library, Oslo, about the library's new role after the ‘debate clause’ was introduced. Photo: Anders EricsonBoth Swedish and Norwegian library laws were revised last year and included new, radical formulations that promote democracy through debate and exchange of opinions in the library. In Norway the chief librarian has even been given the status of an independent editor of debates, in line with newspaper editors.

Swedish libraries are now supposed to “promote the democratic development of the society by contributing to the dissemination of knowledge and freedom of opinion”. The amendment to Paragraph 1 of the Norwegian Library Act reads: “The public libraries should serve as an independent meeting place and forum for public dialogue and debate” (my translations).

It came as a surprise, except to the Norwegian Library Association, that in the public consultation relating to the Act it was suggested to add the word “independent”. There have of course been debates in libraries previously, but few or no Norwegian libraries have had promotion of social development through debate as an objective.

The chief librarian as editor 

Norway’s Minister of Culture confirmed that: “The chief librarians themselves choose and prioritise how they will achieve the goals of the new mission statement [...] the manager should be free to plan activities at a public library. The library management [...] will assume the role of an editor.” She also says: “I think it is important that the library addresses topics that engage citizens locally, to retain its relevance”.

Naturally there was a certain uneasiness around this. Would the chief librarian still be overridden by the city council? Do librarians have the requisite skills and attitude? However, several libraries have now taken the plunge and are organising debates.

They are experimenting and gaining experience, and doing it so well that the chairman of Norwegian PEN has stated that the library has come a long way in a short time in terms of its own debate profile. And mayors have publicly approved the new independent position of the chief librarian.

Government support 

The National Library now provides substantial funding to local and regional projects to develop libraries as venues for debate.

Many debates are on local issues, such as municipal planning, road projects and the environment. Some concern national issues, such as Norway’s future when the oil stops flowing. A government plan for large-scale consolidation of municipalities is another hot topic. Even global issues such as the climate crisis are on the agenda.

Some libraries collaborate with NGOs on meeting series. Others just make assembly rooms available to external debate organisers. In some districts smaller libraries join forces, often with the help of county libraries.

The Houses of Literature

“Houses of Literature” have been established in some large and medium-sized cities in recent years, with or without municipal contributions. Donors and literary communities have typically taken the initiative, but even libraries, such as Stormen public library in Bodø, have taken a lead. The first House of Literature in Oslo in 2007 was inspired by a similar German concept, which includes debates as a key component.

In some cities there is a degree of rivalry between the two institutions, and the new paragraph in the Act probably reflects the sympathy of national politicians towards the library.

Debate libraries must be able to deal with conflict. The Stavanger public library invited an open racist to participate in a debate on the person’s own conduct. Some of those invited to participate abstained but others lined up, from both sides, and the local press reported it as an interesting event.

Complies with IFLA statement 

In using the term “independent” the Norwegian Act is probably the only one to comply with the IFLA Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom: “Librarians and other professional libraries staff shall fulfil their responsibilities both to their employer and to their users. In cases of conflict between those responsibilities, the duty towards the user shall take precedence”.

Whether or not it is enshrined in law, in my opinion any library should be free to organise controversial debates, even de bates on public demands opposed by the authorities or politicians – and then respond to any reprimand with reference to the IFLA statement.

Long before the legislative revision, the public library in Lillehammer held large public meetings on urban development, for example regarding the railway versus a new highway. The chief librarian reported that “some politicians and administrators were annoyed, but most people appreciated it.”

Research centre of the people 

In my opinion there is a further potential in the new paragraph, especially when it comes to self-publishing and dissemination of information. Even here the reference in the Act to independence and the need for editors should be relevant.

A few years ago many libraries maintained topic lists on their websites, but today even librarians seem to believe that Google has reached a level where the library can relax in relation to the internet. You find very few services such as ‘Global Surveillance’, maintained by the University Library of Oslo, a collection of annotated links on surveillance with an emphasis on Wikileaks and Edward Snowden.

In 1989 the Swedish author Sven Lindqvist wrote an article in this journal (SPLQ #3, 1989, recently republished with the author’s permission on my blog), launching the idea of the public library as the “research centre of the people”: “Libraries should become popular research centers which not only supply sources of information, but also produce the basic data one needs to express one’s opinions on different issues.”

Contribute to democracy

My own contribution to this was the concept The Library Takes up the Case (Biblioteket tar saka). In this context I was given the assignment by a library to create a portal with information and documents about a controversial civilian airport, as the local press and local authorities did a poor job of keeping the public informed. This autumn I have been assigned the task by a network of libraries to create a web portal on the consolidation of municipalities.

A related variant is Monroeville Public Library, Pensylvania, USA, that always has two ‘Hot Topics’ on top of their website, presenting quality web resources on really controvercial issues.

With such focused services, libraries and networks of libraries should be able to play an enhanced part in current debates within and outside the local communities and thus contribute to democracy and public participation.

Freelance journalist and librarian