Viewpoint: Wanted: Dangerous librarians!

We need some strict, angry ladies …

There exists a stereotyped image of the librarian, her finger to her lips, hushing at any suggestion of talk above a whisper. However, anyone who has visited a library recently will know that there is in fact considerable tolerance for normal conversation and noisy children.

We need some strict, angry ladies…

I have no wish to bring back the disapproving librarians of a previous age but dramatic things are happening to our libraries. The politicians are closing down one branch library after another. Local libraries, which once introduced each new generation to the pleasures of reading and provided a meeting place where people of all social classes had free access to literature, are in the process of disappearing. Even where branch libraries are still hanging on, they are hardly ever open.

William Godwin, a 19th century anarchist and writer, once declared that anyone who holds a feast in a wellassorted library has access to countless dishes, all well worth tasting. However, in 2005, when little Lisa Simpson in the satirical cartoon series The Simpsons visits the Springfield local library, she discovers that it contains a couple of price lists, a few video versions of children’s picture books and not much else.

“Where are all the books?” Lisa asks. “Books?” answers the librarian. “Books are for squares. This is now a multimedia centre for children of all ages, but mainly for the homeless”.

The outlook for libraries is indeed gloomy. In the 1980s Oslo had sixteen branch libraries. The latest proposal is for four local libraries, one posh main library and a few lending centres. Helsinki, which is about the same size as Oslo, has apparently no less than thirty-five library units, while Gothenburg has twenty-six full-service libraries. Closing down branch libraries in Norway means more than just that. There is the associated reduction of social meeting places and the loss of one of the most important public services for language minorities. And this is happening all over the country. One of the finest features of a welfare state is being slowly dismantled. Once closed, a library will never be reopened. Now is the time to protest, but nobody takes to the streets any longer. Where are the librarians, those who lose their jobs and see their workplaces disintegrate from within? Are they on the barricades waving banners and shouting at the closure-happy politicians? No, librarians are a disciplined and sophisticated race. They might just conceivably complain to each other, quietly and over a cup of green tea.

In 2003 it was decided to close down my childhood library in Nordtvet, a satellite town 20 minutes by suburban train from the centre of Oslo. An active support group of library users was formed and I recruited four local literary celebrities (who all unfortunately have now moved away).We campaigned in a national newspaper and it helped, but only for a while. The librarians murmured their disagreement with the decision and returned to their teacups.

Smooth politicians possess some of the talents of a good writer, the difference being that politicians are clever with the spoken word, authors with the written.While a writer can make you believe that a frail, old lady is a massmurderer, politicians can convince you that it makes good sense to close down a branch library, or even twelve for that matter.We are both in the same business of turning logic on its head and taking our opposite number by surprise. A weak argument can be inflated into importance, while a sound counter-argument can be stifled by empty talk or made to appear critical of something most people agree about.

So what have tea-drinking librarians to do with all this? Let me tell you. We need some strict, angry ladies to point the finger of indignation at these politicians, obsessed as they are with their false economies, and to hiss a disapproving shush. The very cliché of a librarian is what we need. Those who can look people straight in the eye, unafraid, and tell them how important libraries are for our well-being, for the pleasure of reading and for the local community. Those who can explain to the world around that one of the finest things we possess is being taken from us. Remember that the librarian of yesterday had a secret weapon – the whisper. I have learned from a previous generation of librarians how to use this weapon, particularly when visiting a school as a writer I happen to find myself faced with an unruly class. At the first sign of unrest I lower my voice to a whisper.What’s he talking about? Shush! He’s saying something important! Suddenly everybody’s listening.

Where shall we find these librarians to brush away the opposition? I hereby propose the introduction of a new discipline in the training syllabus to be known as Respecting Librarians. Once the course is completed, these young people can be employed in libraries threatened with closure, where they can take up the fight against the local powers-that-be. Nobody is better qualified for this battle than librarians themselves. As a writer, I would gladly make myself available and could doubtless obtain the help of some local patriots and regular library users. Above all, however, I would like to see that finger of disapproval pointed accusingly by young, angry librarians who dare to speak their minds in low, disciplined tones.

Afterwards we could all get together, drink green tea and feel very pleased with ourselves.

Translated by Eric Deverill

Arne Svingen (37) is a writer, born, bred and resident in Oslo.