Libraries are vital meeting places

Last autumn, the books in the library in Ramsberg, a small community in northern Västmanland, disappeared!A book from the Rosenthaliana Library in Amsterdam, which was plundered by the Nazis and taken to the Institute for Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. Some time during battle, at the end of the war, it was hit by a bullet, probably from an allied soldier. Photo: Anders Rydell

A group of villagers took 4,700 books from the shelves to a “secret hiding place”. The politicians in Lindesberg Municipality had decided that the residents of Ramsberg did not need their own library. The leaders of the municipality thought that a mobile library, which was to stop in Ramsberg twice a month, was sufficient.

The residents of Ramsberg did not agree, and they protested about the closure at length. Instead of seeing their books given away, distributed to other libraries and discarded, as was the plan, they decided to take action. “The books will not leave here until we know that we can keep our library!” one of the initiators told Sveriges Radio.

Not unique to Sweden

The library rebellion in the tiny village of Ramsberg, which has about 250 inhabitants, is also significant from a wider perspective. In recent decades, hundreds of libraries and local branches in Sweden have closed. Most have died a silent death. Over half of Swedish school children today lack a staffed library.

This trend is hardly unique to Sweden. When I visited one of Germany’s largest public libraries in Berlin last year, an employee explained that a large part of the librarian’s work would now be replaced by machines, which would manage the cataloguing of books. Digitisation and ebooks mean that libraries face an even bigger shift. There is a clear risk that ebooks will be used as an argument to close more libraries. But thinking that mobile libraries and e-books can replace physical libraries builds on a very simplistic view of what a library actually is. What the protesters in Ramsberg mourned was not primarily the loss of the local book supply but the library as “an important meeting place” for society.

Library history as central meeting places

Limiting the role of libraries to lending stations is first and foremost ahistorical. In the long history of libraries, lending is a modern invention. The role of the library as a meeting place was much more important, and is often overlooked today. And above all, libraries played a central role in integration and identity formation.

The first major libraries in Europe were made possible by a new technique that spread from China through the Muslim world to the caliphate on the Iberian Peninsula just before the 11th century: the use of paper. Paper, which was more durable than the fragile papyrus and cheaper than parchment, was what made the Muslim translation movement possible, where many of the ancient works were saved for posterity.

Previously, old text on parchment was often rubbed out so that new text could be written in its place, now people could start gathering knowledge instead. The Umayyad library in Cordoba is said to have had upwards of 400,000 books – nothing even came close to that in Christian Europe.

Libraries became central meeting places, the equivalent of the ancient Greek Agora (square), for the political, philosophical and scientific conversations of the period. But they also served as bridges between cultures, where ancient philosophy, Islamic science and Indian literature met.

Libraries came to play a particularly important role for political and religious minorities. Not least for the Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from Spain and Portugal from the late 1400s, when the peninsula was recaptured by Christian rulers. The Sephardic Jews were largely the heirs and co-creators of the medieval Islamic high culture – it was often Jews who did the translations from Latin and Greek into Arabic.

Vital existential meeting places 

The Sephardic Jews carried this culture of education both to the east and west. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Saloníki (now Thessaloniki) became a Sephardic learning centre, famous for its libraries, printing houses and schools. In Western Europe, many settled down in Amsterdam, which with the help of the Sephardic refugees would become “Europe’s printing house”.

For these refugees, libraries became vital existential meeting places, which were to play a dual role. Partly in preserving their unique culture – but also as a catalyst for integration into the new society linguistically. With the help of libraries a new identity was formed, which both preserved their culture and integrated the new era.

Refugees, immigrants and education 

Libraries came to play a similar role for another group of refugees. In the 1800s, Paris became the capital of several groups of political refugees from the East. One of the first groups was the nationless Poles. For nearly a century, the free Polish litera ture and culture has lived on at the Bibliothèque Polonaise in Paris.

Another fascinating emigrant library came to have the same significance for the Russian culture – the Turgenjevbiblioteket which was founded in 1875. Up to 1917, the library was the natural meeting place for the period’s exiled revolutionary Russians. Lenin worked as a librarian there for a while. After the Russian revolution the library was inherited by white Russian refugees: aristocrats, the bourgeois, writers and journalists.

It was these libraries in Amsterdam, Paris, Thessaloniki and other locations that became some of the first victims of Nazi looting commands during the war. By cordoning off, looting and dispersing the libraries they deprived these cultures of their heart, as well as their centre for identity, language and history.

Already in the 1930s, the Nazis had looted many of the public libraries in Germany, which were branded as “literary brothels”.

In Sweden, the public, parish and workers’ libraries that emerged in the 1800s became a cornerstone in the broad educational project that took Sweden from a poor agricultural nation to a leading industrial nation.

Digitisation is no substitute for meetings 

Today we are going through another shift, the digital shift. And the question is whether libraries are actually necessary when we have the internet? Couldn’t hundreds of branches be replaced by websites that lend e-books? And couldn’t librarians be replaced by algorithms?

This type of perspective is based not only on a simplistic view of what a library is,but also on a simplistic view of “digitisation”. The internet and social media do not replace the physical public sphere, but complement it. Rather, digitisation has reinforced the importance of physical space and meetings – the need to be in a now.

Last year, a somewhat confused debate in Sweden’s culture pages raged, about libraries becoming the haunt of “unruly youths”, especially in the suburbs. You could also choose to see this development as an expression of our increasingly limited public sphere. The library is a unique place, one of the few areas where a security company does not drive you away if you don’t buy anything. Where you are a citizen (an almost forgotten word today), not a consumer.

Building intercultural bridges

The library as a literary public sphere is even more important in a time when many refugees are coming to Sweden. Since the autumn of 2015, when the large refugee wave swept over Europe, more and more Swedish libraries assumed the role of integration bridges.

70 people go to Motala library’s Language Café every week. Eksjö library has partnered with the Red Cross and provides homework help for newcomers and arranges a book club for SFI students. Norrköping City library saw the number of visitors increase by 45 percent in 2015, and according to the library, new arrivals account for a large percentage of the increase.

When working at their best, libraries can serve as cultural and linguistic bridges, as they have done for thousands of years. For today’s refugees, they are just as important as they were to the Sephardic Jews who were forced to flee in the 1500s, or the Poles who sought refuge in France in the 1800s. 

It is through meeting the literature, but above all, meeting other people, that a new identity can be formed. Libraries offer a completely essential key for this language. This could never be replaced by a website or a lending machine. This is why we need these meeting places more than ever today. The inhabitants of Ramsberg are right to resist, a library is more than just books.

Author and a journalist.
Anders Rydell is an author and a journalist. He is the Head of Culture at Hallpressen and author of The Book Thieves. The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Present Day Race to Return a Literary Inheritance (Penguin Random House).