The libaries’ democratic function stands firm

Participation of secret service agents, media storms, ministerial inquiries and then, this February, the firings of arms, are some of the things that events in Danish libraries and cultural centres have encountered over the past couple of years. This, however, will not influence the character and nature of events to come in Danish libraries. 

When the Danish poet Yahya Hassan in 2013 gave a recital at a library in a deprived neighbourhood called Vollsmose the library management had expected nothing more than the usual – like so many poet recitals before it. However, the event took an unexpected turn. Yahya Hassan’s debut poem collection, carrying his name, had been released a month earlier and had stirred up a storm and uproar nationwide.

The event ended up being cancelled and moved to a neighbouring school, where the police turned out in strength in the company of secret service agents, police dogs and no-fly zone restrictions.

Yahya Hassan’s recital is one of many examples of how libraries and cultural centres lately have been involved in situations that question their role in relation to freedom of speech. When the secret service goes hand in hand with libraries, the natural question is how the libraries reflect on this issue and what should be taken into consideration or changed in the future.

No closed shelves

To Peter Hansen, head of department at the library in Vollsmose, the recital in 2013 hasn’t changed the planning and conduction of events at the library.

“To us it began as a recital as any other. It was a collection of poems that were both  new and interesting. The fact that the police and the secret service made a sinister threat assessment was out of our hands. We couldn’t do much and we haven’t changed our position on events at all.”

He points out that the library of course takes stock of the situation and that they cooperate closely with the local police, but the same goes for events, as for the materials available on the shelves: Everything is accessible for everyone. No matter if it’s Yahya Hassan’s poems, books about Hitler or Hunger games.

“They are displayed side by side. No closed shelves here. We make it available and then it is up to people to decide what they want to read,” says Peter Hansen.

Head of Libraries in Copenhagen, Jakob Heide Petersen, agrees. They keep the collection up to date regardless of the current media frenzy or headlines. “I would rather have children read Tintin in Congo and take a stand themselves, than for the library to hide it away,” he points out.

Ministerial inquiry and media storm

Long before anyone had ever heard about Yahya Hassan, the Royal Library in Copenhagen was asked, by the minister of  culture at the time, to cancel the letting out of their premises to an event hosted by Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

It was the director, Erland Kolding Nielsen, who received the call from the minister, Per Stig Møller. He wanted to know why the organization had been allowed to rent the Royal Library hall. Hizb-ut-Tahrir is a political party ideologically built on Islam. Twice they had been investigated by the Danish Public Prosecutor and let go.

Back then, Erland Kolding Nielsen, stood firm on his decision not to discriminate against any organisation or individual based on ideology, race or religion – keeping to the Danish Constitution, that holds freedom of speech, assembly and association in high esteem.

However, he did point out that there’s reason to distinguish between events that the libraries host themselves and the ones hosted by others on the library’s premises. The only viable reason to cancel the Hizbut-Tahrir event would be safety, he finds.

A question of safety

According to Jakob Heide Petersen the libraries and cultural centres in Copenhagen are also aware of the question of safety, especially after the shootings in Copenhagen last February. One of the shootings took place in Krystalgade, on the footsteps to the main library. However, it has not changed their position or planning of events and exhibitions. Only if the police make a negative threat assessment, the event is cancelled.

“But we are no more or no less concerned with which exhibitions we put on, but rather with the quality, versatility and diversity of our events and exhibitions. We are not obliged to present every angle and opinion. But if it represents a controversial point of view, we bring in the opposition,” explains Jakob Heide Petersen.

The role in democratic capacity building

The libraries’ role in relation to freedom of speech is especially evident in relation to the current culture of debate. The libraries contribute differently than the media and digital platforms, in that they can provide the physical frame for new meetings and new relations.

“In larger cities like Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo it is important that there is a place where we can meet. Where people can meet. From different  parts of the city and with different backgrounds. That is essential for at big city,” he says.

Achieved through workshops 

But the library is not only the physical frame. It is also the sense of democracy that is extremely important.

“It is an important part of the libraries’ role to assist – in a qualified and educated manner – the users in communicating their views and opinions in a variety of media. We need new ways of debating and new forms of communication – and much more reflection and debate about what freedom of speech really means. Hand in hand with freedom of speech we should try to understand and accommodate each other much more,” says Jakob Heide Petersen.

He adds that this, for example, could be achieved through workshops, where those who do not usually dare to speak up and voice their opinion, could be included and heard.

Danish Agency for Culture
Yahya Hassan
The debut collection of poetry, Yahya Hassan, had a first print run of 800 copies at the beginning of 2013. In December 2013 the collection had a circulation of 100,000 copies. First edition of the book was printed in 19 editions. It is the best-selling debut collection of poems in the history of Denmark The poetry collection has been sold for translation to the The Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Brazil and Germany. Yahya Hassan (born 1995) is a Danish poet with Palestinian background and since 2015 also a politician of the Danish National Party. He was protected by bodyguards from the Danish Security Intelligence Service (PET) from 2013 until 2015.