Nordic Plus

Kulturhus – a Scandinavian concept on the move 
A view from experiences in the Netherlands
Exchanges between the Nordic countries and the Netherlands have always been very fruitful for the development of public library services. The countries have much in common: social democracy, liberal societies, active citizenship with a view to the world. Seen from the south, the Netherlands are often considered as being Nordic, so why not regard it as ‘Nordic plus’?

From the early stages of public library services, Dutch librarians have been travelling to the North. In the fifties and sixties, especially the development of services in rural areas was the focus. These trips were also used to discuss national library matters off site and to scout new library leaders in the group. Very fruitful impulses to the setting up of regional support services in the Dutch provinces.

In the eighties, a new impulse was necessary and found in a trip in 1986 to Sweden and Finland, to study kulturhus (cultural centre) and cultural library services. The visit to the then recently opened Kulturhus in Leksand, the visits to Kulturhus Rättvik, to the Uppsala city library new premises, and the just opened city library in Tampere, made profound impressions. Dutch librarians had experiences, but not very good ones, with multifunctional buildings.

So, what is so special about Kulturhus? Kulturhus is an attractive concept for various reasons:

-a strong focus on the cultural dimension – a clear role of the library strengthened by combination with other services
- a cultural and open setting, inviting to participation
- all services in one building; quality architecture, underlining cultural participation
- overall management for all functions and services.

One policy, one management, one building

Especially the last two features opened the eyes for new types of library services and buildings, with dreams about more efficient local management. In the Netherlands, public services are often performed by associations or foundations of citizens, who once took the initiative to set up library services, welfare, etc. The cultural field is therefore made up of many different stakeholders, who all receive more or less municipal funding; not a favourable situation to organise cultural services under one management. At the same time, all these social and cultural institutions have offices and – very often – limited opening hours.

In later years, the concept of community information as developed in the United Kingdom and the Unites States were studied, and implemented in Dutch libraries as public information services. Distribution of government, legal, financial, social and e.g. consumer information was set up making use of the public library network. But the dream of the Kulturhus was still there, and the situation for rural library services was worsening; budget cuts and fewer facilities in the countryside. In 1990, Director Henk Middelveld of the regional library services in Overijssel presented his concept of Kulturhus Dutch-style: A combination of the Nordic Kulturhus and the Anglo- Saxon community information: one policy, one management, one building.

It took another ten years to get the first purpose-built Dutch Kulturhus in Zwartsluis opened: Sluziger Kulturhus includes the library, local radio, daycare centre, homes for the elderly, adapted housing. Through the perseverance of librarian Corrie Folkersma, citizens and organisations cooperated in a new way of organising cultural programmes and structuring services. Combining various functions under one roof, in a cultural setting was convincing.

Middelveld: “A library as a stand-alone service can hardly be maintained in small villages, but it is possible by combining services: Cultural services, non-profit services and facilities and even commercial partners such as an assurance company or a housing service. Create one management and one policy and programme, and if possible, create a nice building. Scandinavia is still an example: They build twice as expensive but five times better in quality and sustainability. This focus on quality building has now even had another effect in the Netherlands: Kulturhuse are used as the drive to city and village development. They help to upscale and facelift the public space in the centre.”

30 Kulturhuse

The opening of the first Dutch Kulturhus in 2000 was a start for the province of Overijssel to provide subsidies for the development of more Kulturhuse. In a first round 16 plans for Kulturhuse were approved, in a second round another nine. The province of Gelderland followed in 2004 with its first opened Kulturhus in Beek, and with a similar stimulation budget regulation of 9.2 million Euro for four years, wishing to support 30 Kulturhuse.

A project bureau has been set up with consultants who help active municipalities to get their plans set up and realised. This bureau is anno 2007 called VariYa and now aiming at spreading the concept to other provinces. (For an overview, see: Both provinces are proud that already colleagues from Scandinavian countries are visiting their Kulturhus!

In Utrecht, another province, the newest Dutch-style Kulturhus has been realised in Doorn. The Dutch library journal Bibliotheek devoted a special edition to the concept and realisation of Kulturhus. For this special I was able to make a trip to Sweden, interview colleagues and compare with the first impressions when I organised the tour in 1986. The visits to Kungsbacka, Kungälv, Luleå, Katrineholm and Hallonbergen/Sundbyberg were completed with interviews and presentations from Skövde, Härryda and Västra Frölunda.

All these Kulturhuse, wonderful examples, keep their promises of combined cultural service to the broad community. Compared with the Dutch Kulturhus, the Scandinavian ones have a stronger cultural atmosphere, very often through the widely present galleries with sculptures, paintings etc. The inclusion of Kulturskolan gives the extra dimension of other types of users entering the building, enabling the library to go beyond mere literary events.

In the Netherlands, the range of programmes seems to be more also on social issues. There is less specialised staff available such as theatre- or culture- pedagogical support which under pins the high quality of Scandinavian programmes. The restructuring of administration in several municipalities in Sweden has an effect on the management and organisation of cultural services.

In the Netherlands, efforts are made to come closer to one management or at least one board of managers for Kulturhuse. It seemed in the interviews I had, that the Scandinavian colleagues have a more relaxed attitude towards cooperation and joined programming. One could imagine that the concept has not yet reached it fullest potential, especially when libraries go beyond their focus on literature. It will be interesting for Scandinavian and Dutch colleagues to exchange views on the needs for management and professional specialists, and joined programming in a Kulturhus setting in the 21st century. A promising concept to keep us on the move as well.

Marian Koren
Netherlands Public
Library Association

koren AT

Netherlands Public Library Association