Viewpoint: Creating a library for children

Workshop with Romanian librarians at Biskops Arnö in Sweden. Photo: Helena BergendahlIt was in 2009 that, for the very first time, I came to Georgia, the little country that lies between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus on the Black Sea coast. The author Marie Oskarsson and I were both members of our respective boards – in my case for Svenska Tecknare (Association of Swedish Illustrators and Graphic Designers) and, in Marie’s case, for the Children and Youth section of the Swedish Writers’ Union. 

We were asked by the Swedish Institute (SI) if we wanted to carry on a cultural exchange between Swedish and Georgian writers and illustrators. Since then I have been to Georgia no less than eight times.

The first time we went there, in 2009, the country was still marked by the war with Russia of 2008; it was possible to feel the strained atmosphere then – all construction projects were at a standstill, the unemployment was tangible.

Our mandate from SI was to create enduring creative relations between Georgian and Swedish writers and illustrators, as a form of cultural support. We decided to carry out a workshop which was inaugurated with an open grand seminar on children’s literature in August 2009.

We then had a few months before we went again to seek out workshop participants. Three authors and three illustrators from Georgia, and the same number from Sweden, were chosen to work together in groups of three in each case. The intention was to make it really hard and complicated (!) and for there to be a great many discussions. We described it jokingly as “high-altitude training for children’s book creators”.

Enormous demand 

In the days before the introductory seminar we saw – to our surprise – how the registration list became longer and longer. There seemed to be an enormous, pent-up demand for a seminar on children’s literature. We had to dedicate one day more or less to acquiring and borrowing all the chairs so as to fit in the more than one hundred attendees who had signed up. A press conference attracted four TV companies. We were overwhelmed!

The twelve selected workshop participants travelled the following day to Batumi on the Black Sea coast for a workshop lasting several days. This was then continued the following year at Biskops- Arnö in the Stockholm archipelago with further work, and study visits to Stockholm.

One year later, one of the book projects had been published, two were under way and a further book project had been initiated. Several of the Swedish participants travelled back to Georgia on their own account.

Long-term inspiration 

The children’s book author, Kajsa Gordan and the illustrator Anna Höglund were teaching at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Sweden. This, in its turn, resulted in a group of students starting the arts group Virgam for the publishing of alternative children’s books. The largest children’s book company in Tbilisi (Georgia) decided to publish some of these books.

This was perhaps the most inspiring thing of all – that we could observe the widening rings on the water. People met together and were inspired with solid, long-term results as a consequence. Even the Swedish Institute was satisfied and asked us if we wished to take on a further project, a children’s library project.

Creating a modern children’s library 

The background was that the Swedish Institute had contributed to – and took steps to starting – children’s library activities, both in Moldavia and in Belarus. It was not about building a library or indeed running it. Instead, it involved initiating, training, finding out where the children were and what their needs were. Where construction work was an issue, then this might involve helping with sponsors and requests for support, but always leaving the building work and running of the library to be carried out locally.

In a nutshell, this was a modern children’s library project! We accepted the challenge but with some trepidation. This has been rather different to a conventional cultural exchange, where we ourselves were the professionals. At the same time, we acquired both experience and a contact network.

We made a preliminary study trip in 2010 in order to visit all kinds of libraries, to meet the relevant authorities and investigate whether there was interest in our project. The response was definitely affirmative, even if it was a complex task to state precisely what we wanted to do. In a culture where it is well-established practice that those who finance something also decide everything about it, it was rather hard to understand that someone from another country wished to be involved and to develop something specifically Georgian.

Not a Swedish, but Georgian library 

Everyone thought we wished to build a Swedish children’s library, but what we wanted was to find out how a modern Georgian children’s library could look and operate. This work too started with a seminar. And once again, there were hundreds who registered an interest in attending!

The work of helping in the professional development of children’s librarians in Georgia ranks as one of the most satisfying things I have been involved in. These are women, many of a somewhat older age, very low paid yet all are devoted totheir occupation.

Without digital equipment, they ensure that the stock of books is widely shared. It also happens that they buy books themselves in order to loan them out. Moreover, this occupation is affected by the oldest, tiredest prejudice: that it is the older, uglier, unmarried women who are librarians!

When, last year, we handed over the project to an architect’s office that had more experience of leading building projects, we could add three seminars, two workshops and two study trips to Stockholm, one for librarians and one for the relevant authorities.

The importance of shared community 

This was a complicated process; all the contacts we had created were nullified several times for political reasons. Following an election in Georgia our contacts were replaced, also the civil servants. Where Georgia’s democratic development is concerned, it remains promising with several elections having taken place without violence and there are ongoing attempts to fight corruption.

I became curious and wished to know more – our task, after all, was to support democratic development. Democracy, after all, is more than merely casting a vote. But what is it really?

I learned that the most important thing – if one is to believe in our shared community – is that the social institutions really function; this means the health service, the police and fire service, for example. Also, that the political parties operate with their members and ideologies. That corruption is fought. But let’s not forget; the library is the first place where children make their own independent choices in the community and it is indeed here that the development of democracy starts.

The librarians are not teachers and parents; they are not there to educate or to teach; they are there to take the choices of children seriously. It is essential that, as a child, one can borrow any book without needing an adult to unlock a cupboard where the books are stored. Such was the case often in the children’s libraries we visited in Georgia.

Where are the children? 

After one trip I came back to Gothenburg and saw the city with new eyes. In Georgia, we had asked everyone we met – where are the children? What are the children doing after school? Where should the library be so that the children can find the way there? But where are the children in Gothenburg ?

During 2013, we took the Georgians on a study visit to meet the staff of the Göteborg City Library to find out what conclusions they had drawn from being evacuated and relocated while the large library at Götaplatsen was undergoing a complete refurbishment. In this case, active use was made of the temporary location to test different furnishing solutions and city locations.

This has resulted in a library of 300 square meters, close to the city’s iconic Central Station, which was originally a stand-in now becoming an ordinary library for the city. We learned that it is easy to get fixated on building prestige projects that fail to accord with how the visitors wish to use the library.

I have learned a great deal about Georgia and Sweden and the library in the course of this work and now indeed bemoan, just a little, the fact that I no longer have a project under way and a reason to travel there. Maybe this is an opportunity to work out something new? Cartoon strips as a political voice?

Helena Bergendahl is an illustrator and member of the board of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) in Sweden as well as jury member for the Biennial of Illustrations (competition and exhibition of original illustrations of children’s and youth literature) in Bratislava 2015.
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The introductory seminar on children’s literature caused an enormous interest and a press conference attracted four TV companies. Photo: Helenba BergendahlThe introductory seminar on children’s literature caused an enormous interest and a press conference attracted four TV companies. Photo: Helenba Bergendahl