The libraries are filling up with literature in new ways

There are significantly fewer books on the shelves in Danish libraries. At the same time the libraries prioritize the promotion of literature higher than ever before and inspired by the world of art, they are developing the kind of promotion that will ensure their raison d’etre in a future cultural landscape.

The poetry machine at Greve Library. An installation consisting of three books with sensors, where you can compose you own poem. Photo: Anders RosénThe libraries arrange festivals, stage literary exhibitions and orchestrate literature via performative initiatives. In partnerships with universities, authors and literary players they rethink the role of literature in a changed literary cycle. They use words like cultural education, communities and local cohesion, when trying to explain what they want with literature. The library’s new literature communicators are exploring new avenues, and the rationale is no longer just to match the right book with the right borrower, and consequently the endeavours cannot be measured in books, but have to be experienced, sensed and tried. “Today’s libraries are many things, but the communication of literature has become an essential part for the libraries if they want to maintain their relevance”, says associate professor Rasmus Grøn from Aalborg University, who has done research into the libraries’ literature communication in the past. New figures show that book stocks in the public libraries have been reduced by 44,6 percent since 2000. But in the libraries’ new rationale, good literature communication is not a question of the number of books, and the report does indeed indicate that despite massive weeding there are still slightly more titles in the public library today than four years ago, but there are fewer copies of each.So, while critics seem to get fixated on empty bookshelves, literature communicators are busy filling the rooms in the country’s libraries with literature. Like the art world, the libraries want to work actively with literature – and not only make books available as the last link in the literary food chain. At the same time, some libraries are doing pioneering work in terms of documenting, exhibiting and promoting literary forms which would otherwise be under pressure in the literary cycle.

Literature’s potential

For quite a while, the library has been in a state of flux. The library as a book house is now more of a culture house and modern community hall, and digitisation, IT and citizen service tasks have all put their heavy stamp on the library’s identity. But now literature is returning to the library’s self-understanding with a vengeance, and the communication of literature is an essential element in highlighting the library’s raison d’etre and rethinking the role of the library as a house of literature.The library is the cultural institution with the largest number of visitors, but far from everyone comes because of the literature. “That is why the library must reach out even further with its literature communication and place literature as the basis for everything a library should do and be”, observes literature communicator at Aarhus Municipal Libraries, Lise Kloster Gram. Together with Aarhus University, she is primus motor behind the international author’s stage, Authors in Aarhus, which has just been visited by i.a. Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma and French author Delphine de Vigan. “Literature has enormous potential and therefore we are all the time exploring what it is capable of. We must not be afraid to use literature, and today we are working far more single-mindedly on the educational perspective. Earlier, we just tended to grab an author and put him on the stage, but now we try to let the experience unfold over the whole arrangement”, says Lise Kloster Gram. That means, that apart from the classic stage interview there are always several activities going on; master classes at the university, reading circles in the libraries or communication particularly directed at immigrants, and the ambition is that the international author meetings will contribute to creating a more nuanced picture of what is going on in the world.

Renewed political focus

Ambitions on behalf of literature have soared lately, and more and more libraries are employing literature communicators to develop new forms of communication, and many of the newly appointed have a background in university literature studies. At the head of this development, you will typically find the larger libraries, with the will and not least the resources to experiment with communication, ably assisted by the renewed political focus on the qualities of reading. After many years of preparing the citizens for the digital Denmark, the libraries have now found another focus, and suddenly library leaders all over the country are talking about literature again. “The core of the library is literature, but we have to find new ways of dealing with our core, and that is why we are seeing a whole lot of experiments going on in the library world at this time. Literature can be a history disseminator, it can create local cohesion and literature contains an important educational aspect. As a promoter of literature, our institutions are obliged to work on all fronts, and in my opinion it is being ambitious on behalf of literature to show that it can be used for something other than to immerse oneself into in the summer cottage”, says Søren Mørk, head of Elsinore Municipal Libraries.

From book to literature

The libraries’ subject matter is no longer only ‘the book’ but ‘literature’, and consequently the communication also includes the literature that is to be found outside the framework of the book, for example the literary performance, blog formats and digital literature. “Today, it is to a far greater extent a question of the libraries inspiring people rather than presenting a collection, which will at any time satisfy the individual citizen’s specific needs”, explains assistant professor Rasmus Grøn from Aalborg University. “And this is where communication becomes important”, emphasizes Rasmus Grøn, who in his PhD treatise has examined rationales in the communication of literature in the libraries. He adds that previously the libraries saw the user as a customer with some very specific needs, but that since then we have discovered that these needs are very flexible and susceptible. Most library users would actually like to be influenced, and that is exactly one of the reasons why they come, because they might easily find the books somewhere else. Studies show that generally speaking, the users are very satisfied with the library, and they also wish to meet the unexpected”, says Rasmus Grøn.

Inspiration from the museum world

An improved infrastructure in the library world means that more and more books circulate from library to library, and this has meant far fewer books on the shelves. The critics often deplore this development, while the libraries see it as an opportunity for better communication. Just as museums do not display their complete collection all the time, the libraries are discussing curating the book collection, and generally speaking, the communication of literature is greatly inspired by the museums at the moment.Søren Mørk from Elsinore Municipal Libraries belongs to those, who feel that the libraries can learn a great deal from the art world. “One of the objectives of the museums is that they should also play an active part in writing the history of art, and the libraries must play a similar part by writing the history of literature”, says Søren Mørk.

The courage to choose

Together with the libraries in Albertslund and Frederiksberg, Elsinore Municipal Libraries have developed the project The literary exhibition house, which presents exhibitions about three literary classics: Ulysses, Hamlet and Utopia. In a library context, an exhibition would traditionally refer to an arrangement of books that thematically or otherwise are related, but the ambition behind the new exhibition format has been to move away from the book covers and instead concentrate on the content. The physical books are completely absent in the exhibition, on the other hand the works are presented with spatial devices and as installations for the public to explore. “We are also trying to reach out to those, who do not approach the librarian in order to borrow a book. Instead, this kind of exhibition format allows us to start in a completely different place, where we focus on the physical experience of literature”, says Sigrid Radisch Bredkjær, who as literature communicator at Albertslund Library works with the development of literary exhibition formats. Roskilde Libraries have, together with Aarhus University and author Peter-Clement Woetmann developed the Poetry Machine: an installation consisting of three books with sensors, where you can compose you own poem, which will tour the Danish libraries. Peter-Clement Woetmann relates that when the Poetry Machine was placed in Blågården Library in Copenhagen, a young girl was thrilled to learn that she might take home her very own poem. She returned the next day and asked, “Can I take a poem home with me today as well?”“So it makes eminent sense. Many people imagine that poetry is something that has to be interpreted via a code in order to find a deeper meaning, and therefore they do not think poetry is for them. The poetry machine is a communication tool, which shows people that it is possible just to tumble into literature”, he observes.

Pioneering effort in Danish libraries

Associate professor, Søren Pold from Digital Design and Information Science at Aarhus University is one of the scientists helping to develop the Poetry Machine. According to him, there is no doubt that Danish libraries are taking a pioneering initiative within this field, and he tells us that the Poetry Machine i.a. has been presented at a conference on digital literature in Wisconsin. “In international terms, it is being noted that the libraries in Denmark are doing these projects and doing it professionally and at a high level. It is quite unique, and it is not happening in the same way in other countries’ libraries,” explains Søren Pold, who has also conducted follow-up research on another major project about exhibiting digital literature in the libraries, a project that has resulted in the appointment of an Advisory Board for digital literature in the libraries. Thorbjørn Zeuthen Tirsted, literature communicator at Hillerød Library, thinks that the communication of literature helps rethink the libraries so that they can move along completely new paths. He has just been launching the project The authors’ foyer, which will support local author en vironments, and Hillerød Library has therefore established workstations for authors, who are also being offered professional text readings.

More active player

“The library should no longer only occupy one place in the literary food chain, but any place where it makes sense”, says Thorbjørn Zeuthen Tirsted, who is chairman of the nationwide network for library employed literature communicators. It works on the development and innovation of literature communication in the Danish libraries. “The library must be removed from the classic passive role, where the borrowers themselves have to seek them out, to being a far more active player”, he concludes.

Journalist MA. in the History of Literature