Editorial: The library as a ‘free zone’

Every now and then, we take a step back from our everyday assignments and become incredibly aware of the business we work in. Freedom of speech and freedom of opinion – that is what we work with. For me and many others, this has become even clearer over recent years in a Europe with acts of terrorism and refugees. The world is closing in on us, ever present in our daily lives – and democratic principles are put to the test.

The public libraries in Sweden – and undoubtedly many other places – have shown moral courage and opened up for people fleeing. They have shown that they are the free zones they should be. How many other places can you think of where you can go without having to buy something or having someone ask you why you are there?

Being able to get hold of information and express opinions without being monitored are democratic rights. Perhaps here in Scandinavia this is such a given right that we have become naive and do not pay attention to the fact that integrity is something we must protect. Freedom of opinion and integrity must be constantly defended.

Search engines’ algorithms influence what we find. Try searching for the same word at home on your own computer and then again at the library. The results will be different. The algorithms track our previous searches and adapt the result so we end up in a filter bubble.

The fact that our searches are saved may be irritating for the majority of us, but can be dangerous for others. People living in exile have a lot to lose if the authorities in their own country can monitor them electronically, as is the case for vulnerable children living in controlling families or individuals living under threat. 

The library must be available to all and therefore everybody must feel secure in the library’s environment.

IFLA recommendations

The International Library Manifesto (UNESCO/IFLA) states that libraries and information services shall protect each user’s right to integrity and confidentiality regarding the information that is sought or gathered and the resources used, borrowed, acquired or transferred.

In August 2015, the IFLA Statement on Privacy in the Library was issued. The recommendations do not simply touch upon the library environment, they also concern the  librarian’s task to actively impart knowledge of how to protect your integrity in the digital environment that forms part of the media and information awareness – known as “digital selfdefence”.

Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. At my workplace, we have started by changing the internet statistics tool to one that does not track the individual user’s search patterns. We are also checking all the public computers to make sure that it is not possible to install any device that can be used to gain access to other users’ information. A simple checklist is a good start for this. Hopefully, this will lead to many people feeling secure and security is essential to our well-being.

Final edition of SLQ 

Openness and the universal right to education is something the Scandinavian library ethos is based upon and an indirect reason behind the creation of the Scandinavian Library Quarterly (previously Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly) almost 50 years ago. The national library authorities wanted to spread the good Scandinavian example to other countries, setting about this by creating an English-language publication. The same that you are now holding in your hand, or have before you on the screen. 

But the discussion is taking a new direction and as of the end of the year, the exchange will take place in other forums than SLQ. December 2016 will see the final edition of SLQ, the theme naturally being the future. Those wishing to study the past, in the spirit of openness, we have published every edition from 1968 onwards on slq.nu. Maybe you will find that most things are familiar, forms and concepts change, but the core and tasks of the library remain the same.

Head of Department Public Programs Department National Library of Sweden