Can anything be deduced from research about the impact of the public library on welfare and quality of life? In the USA, Pew Research Centre conducted a survey in which the citizens were categorised according to their relationship to the library. Thirty per cent of the population had a close relationship to the library and said it would have a significant impact on them personally if the local library were to be closed.
As far as I am aware, no such observations of the significance of the library in people’s lives have been seen in Norway. However, the PLACE (Public Libraries Arenas for Citizenship) project conducted in Norway between 2006 and 2012 did give some indications.
In the PLACE project, we were primarily interested in the library’s role as a meeting place in the community. What kinds of meetings are held in the library? Does the library help to create an integrated community that is good to live in? What role does the library play for immigrants looking to settle in a new country? What do users do in the library – how is it utilised?
These were just some of the areas we were interested in. In order to find answers, we conducted for example two surveys, observations in three branches and qualitative interviews with immigrant women. The surveys and observations were carried out in three districts in Oslo: a suburb with a large immigrant population, a gentrified district in the inner east and a typical middle-class district with a large number of villas.
The importance of libraries
Survey respondents were asked to evaluate the importance of various meeting places in terms of creating good local communities using a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means completely immaterial and 10 means very important. In the last survey from 2011, the library had an average score of 7.66.
This was slightly lower than community halls, sports centres, swimming baths, cultural centres et cetera (8.5) and schools (8.14), but ahead of market places and parks (7.26), local cafes and coffee bars (7.47) – and well ahead of the local shopping centres (5.78). Between the first survey in 2006 and the last one in 2011, the library’s average score went up from 7.09 to 7.66. Thus, the library seems to be of great importance to the quality and experience of living in a local community.
Both surveys showed that a wide range of meetings are held in libraries: they serve as a meeting place in the district, where the inhabitants can randomly encounter friends and neighbours, and where they are exposed to the diversity of the multicultural city. More than one third of users say they have struck up a conversation with a stranger and a very large proportion of these have struck up a conversation with people who are different to them in terms of ethnicity, cultural background, age et cetera.
The library is a place where people go with their family, friends, colleagues, et cetera to do something together – whether it is planning a long weekend in Paris, working on a school assignment together, taking children or grandchildren to the theatre or going with a partner or friends to a lecture.
Observations in three case libraries
In the qualitative observations in the three case libraries in Oslo, some of the key findings can be summarised as follows:
Through observations and interviews it became clear to us how the library is an arena where people can drift between different roles and life spheres: the parent and caregiver role, the role of citizen, the role of employee or prospective student et cetera.
Example: In the middle-class library, we observed and interviewed two women in their 30s who went there every afternoon after work. They had brought a cup of coffee, and were sitting on a sofa chatting; taking on the role of friend. Then one of them got up, walked over to the area with books on religion and life stances, and came back with a book on Islam. She said that this was a topic that was discussed a lot at work, and she wanted to learn more about it in order to participate in the debate. This took her into the role of citizen.
This could be considered a typical example of the seamless movement between roles and life spheres that we were able to observe. Very often in our dealings with public institutions we are either job applicants, prospective students, relatives of patients, patients, citizens, recipients of social benefits, et cetera. In the library, people can drift between the various roles that make up the whole person. What impact does this have on the quality of life?
A user among others
When we started the PLACE project, we were interested in the extent to which the library may be an arena that helps enable us to develop a tolerance for the diversity that characterises today’s society. We found that the library is indeed such an arena. However, at the same time, we became increasingly aware that the library is also a place where a person can just be a
user among other users, without revealing
their true self.
No one could tell by looking at the 35- year-old woman and the almost 50-yearold man sitting next to each other on public computers that she was a successful young woman who had just had her first book accepted by one of Norway’s largest publishers, while he was one of the longterm unemployed, using the library to create a structure to his daily life. The library served as a space for normality, where they were both users among other users. What impact does this have on the quality of life?
The library enhances lives
In a follow-up survey we conducted in 2011 with a representative national sample, respondents were asked how well the library helps promote different values, such as solidarity and fellowship, lifelong learning, equal access to information and knowledge, knowledge of and interest in the world around us, democracy and quality of life. Many did not know how to respond to these questions.
The proportion responding “Don’t know” was between 35 and 40 per cent. However, most believe that the library is very good or fairly good at promoting these values. Of all respondents, 47 percent, that is 60 percent of those who had an opinion, think that the library makes a very good or fairly good contribution to improving quality of life.
For values such as equal access to information, democracy, lifelong learning, knowledge of and interest in the world around us, the scores were higher.
The library clearly enhances people’s lives.