Who watches over the libraries?

Any examination of library services will most likely receive keen attention from the library sector. Sweden can at the moment boast two government papers on the subject, the first of which is entitled KB – ett nav i kunskapssamhälle (KB – a hub of the knowledge society). It is an overview of the National Library’s organisation and assignments, but also takes an expansive view on matters other than those related to the Royal Library (The Royal Library in Stockholm is the national library of Sweden. Kungl. biblioteket is its official name, but it is generally known in its abbreviated form, KB). The second paper (On library activities) was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to examine the need for a revised and possibly a more stringent library legislation.

Two simultaneous reports presented by two separate departments, Department of Culture and Department of Education – each offering different messages, makes for an interesting situation and is a challenge to the politicians of this country to take a stand. The KB-report recommends that the national library assume full responsibility for developmental and collaborative issues on the dissemination of information to all publicly funded libraries, whilst the Ministry of Culture report emphasises coordination and joint planning at all levels. The funding required to achieve the aims set out by the KB-report would be extensive, and options as to financing are somewhat lacking, whereas the measures put forward in the other report are not expected to cost anything. The reasons why two reports on the same subject come to such different conclusions are in part due to the different characteristics of each assignment, though this is not the whole reason. It is also due to the fact that one of the reports deals with a financially and politically much more forceful area – education and the other deals with a weaker area, namely cultural affairs. However, it is also a matter of structure; whereas the direct responsibility for the public libraries lies with the municipalities, the State assumes full responsibility for libraries connected to universities and institutions of higher education.

There is every reason to consider organisation and structure with regard to Swedish public libraries. The Library Act was passed by the Swedish Parliament in 1996 and took effect January 1, 1997, following a heated debate and with the threat of fees for library loans and contracted libraries hovering over the proceedings. The threat of fees was averted, but contracted libraries are still a reality in certain municipalities. After a decade of relative calm, libraries are once more under attack with branches being shut down, acquisitions decreasing and staff being handed their notices. The Library Act, which is only a framework act, cannot prevent this, it merely serves to regulate certain leading principles applicable to the general library sector, such as free book loans, securing networking ventures between different libraries, but failing to regulate details. The Act stipulates that each municipality shall have a public library “to promote interest in reading and literature, information, instruction and education together with other cultural activities in general…” but there is no indication as to how such activities should be administered.

There is a strong desire generally in the library world to see the Library Act tightened up, whilst a large number of politicians would rather see the Act (and other acts regulating municipal activities) vanish. It is interesting therefore that the Committee on Public Sector Responsibilities has submitted its first instalment of a report analysing structure and responsibility between state, county councils and municipalities – a matter which to a considerable degree concerns the public library sector. The point of departure for the committee in its assignment is that the tax payers are active and conscious of their responsibilities, but also place increasing demands on the welfare system. The main question is, who is to pay and who is to assume responsibility for the Swedish welfare society. The committee outlines two models: One places the direct responsibility for the public sector with the State; the other model involves increased independence on behalf of the municipalities. Considered in such a perspective the library issues appear somewhat marginal, but for the libraries it is a question of survival to be seen as part of the heavy political areas of concern such as health, care and education, yet contributing to creativity, quality of life and a living democracy.

Who watches over the libraries in times of cutbacks? Who informs the decision- making politicians that libraries are important with regard to children’s reading habits, immigrants and refugees, free information and lifelong learning? There is every reason to change the image of the library, to safeguard the newly awakened interest in the library and to discuss the library’s potential for growth and development.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Head of department. The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs.