Turning our public libraries into venues for political debate?

Norwegian public libraries find themselves in an entirely new and unfamiliar situation now that the Norwegian Library Act has had its objects clause amended. Norwegian public libraries are now meant to be “impartial meeting places and venues for talks and public debate”. Library managers must take the initiative and accept the role of editor by accommodating debate and discussion about issues large and small under the roof of their libraries.

Many library managers felt uncertain about this new role, often because they were wary of transgressing as employees of the municipal council. Were they at liberty to organise meetings and debates even if the Council’s chief administrative officer voiced opposition to the events? What about the mayor and other councillors? Would there be a loyalty conflict?

An early survey clearly showed that many library managers intended to liaise with the chief administrative officer and the mayor whatever the situation, while others would do so if they were in doubt. Some preferred not to organise events at all because they felt this would be inappropriate for a municipal library.

Wait-and-see attitude

Librarians tend not to be among the most attention-seeking, high-profile and confrontational of people, which may go some way towards explaining library managers’ initial somewhat servile position on the new objects clause. Most of them probably adopted a wait-and-see attitude, and what they were waiting for was generally to see what the large inner-city libraries would do.

The large city libraries were naturally the first to try out their new role. This is not surprising, as you need more than a single member of staff to organise this sort of event! Whenever we try something new, it is important to have sparring partners to test out our ideas with. This is particularly important if we are also anxious about making a wrong move.

A few pioneering libraries have indeed been trailblazers and shining beacons for recommended practice: not necessarily with respect to choice of topics, but the way in which library managers may adjust to the editor’s role.

Questions were asked

In Stavanger, Kristiansand and Oslo we saw debates that triggered strong reactions. In Kristiansand, the library manager rejected an application from the SIAN association (Stop Islamisation of Norway) to hold a ‘public meeting’ in the library. It falls within the remit of an editor to turn things down. Of course, any rejection will need to be well founded.

The Kristiansand library manager turned down the application because SIAN refused to accommodate debate and accept input from people with opposing views. The most high-profile events have been held in Stavanger and Oslo, where the topics for debate included xenophobia, racism and nazism.

The media carried numerous discussions in the wake of these events and there were objections, rage and fury, as well as cheering from supporters. Protesters asked questions like: Are libraries not supposed to be racism-free zones? How will non-ethnic Norwegians respond to having discussions of this nature in their public library? Should library managers not take a stand and refuse to accommodate this sort of thing under their own roofs?

Article 100 of the Norwegian Constitution

Freedom of speech is a well established liberty, it is even safeguarded by the Norwegian Constitution. It is easy to support freedom of speech – in principle. But we often find that our support for freedom of speech comes easiest when we agree with what is being said.

If the ideas conveyed make us feel uncomfortable and the opinions voiced provoke our disgust and repugnance because they conflict with everything we stand for, then freedom of speech is no longer such a well supported concept. In that situation, past defenders of the principle of freedom of speech can often be found amongst the protesters.

Freedom of speech is absolute

One example: The Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks had arranged to give a talk at Oslo Public Library about Dan Park, a controversial Swedish street artist. Park had caused uproar on a number of earlier occasions due to his controversial style and his open flirtation with racism and violence. Many protested in advance of the talk, demonstrated outside the library during the talk, and wrote letters to the newspapers in the aftermath of the talk.

Student librarians in Oslo were among those furious at the thought of Oslo Public Library opening its doors to Lars Vilks and his talk. And this is where I feel the crux of the matter lies: I might very well have been amongst the demonstrators outside the library protesting against the content of Vilks’ talk. I am also of the opinion that Dan Park’s ‘art’ is provocative and ugly. I would not even call it art.

However, I would NOT have been able to protest against Oslo Public Library being the venue for such a talk. In my view, the library and its manager, Kristin Danielsen, were right to allow the talk to go ahead. Freedom of speech cannot be a relative liberty – it must be absolute. As long as the ideas and views communicated constitute no infringement of Norwegian law, I cannot in principle see a problem with libraries housing such debates. However, no newspaper editor publishes every letter received; he or she makes a selection and strikes a balance.

Will every library have its own visiting nazi? No, of course not. The big debates staged at the big libraries attracted attention and became the topic of discussion the length and breadth of the land. At the same time, a part-time library manager in the back of beyond may have been asking how she could possibly match this. But she was never intended to!

Engage People

In my view, the intention behind the new objects clause is for our libraries to engage with local issues that enthuse and concern local residents. The racism debate is important, but may well not be the most pressing issue for local people in smalltown Norway. The issues they feel strongly about are school closures, the building of new nursing homes, the introduction of new street names, grazing rights, hunting and fishing, the building of a new bridge/ tunnel/road.

This is how we engage with people on their home turf. This is how we take people’s everyday concerns seriously, by showing that we reflect the matters that are important to them. And we need to remember that even though public libraries are owned and run by municipal councils, they are nevertheless considered impartial venues by their users.

Good library practice

In my view, and I speak as a former library manager in a medium-sized Norwegian town, this is all about focusing on matters that are particular to the region concerned. My point is that organising local debates need not be made overly complicated, and that we may well be closer to fulfilling the legislators’ intentions if we concentrate on local issues.

A large number of public meetings and debates have been staged in Norwegian libraries around the country, but these events have been neither controversial nor ‘sexy’ enough for the media to consider them newsworthy. However, this is what amounts to good library practice and successful implementation of the new objects clause!

President Norwegian Library Association