How a Public Library Can Improve Public Participation and Democracy

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The Library Takes Up the Case (LTC) – this is the name chosen for a new kind (however based on traditional library principles) of Web-based knowledge portal that libraries should start offering to their communities, for the purpose of meeting one of the major challenges of our time; the uncertain future of public participation and true democracy.

The abundance of information on the Web and in media conceals the fact that news and data are often insufficient, unbalanced and/or very complex and, often as a result, poorly or not at all organised. Dealing with such deficiencies has always been part of the library mission and libraries should be the first to take action.

One method may be the LTC – a most concise and user-friendly web portal. In short an LTC portal should contain links to major documents and facts in specific cases and debates.

You find below a suggestion of elements of an LTC.

Why this kind of library service?

Click the link and

The public library today is a vulnerable institution. Despite its strong traditions and wholehearted efforts of innovation the last decades by the library community and suppliers (advanced ICT, digitalisation and new e-media) and by certain politicians and administrations (a number of nice, new city libraries), public libraries are still much associated with printed books and leisure reading, traditional social welfare, if not charity, and middle class adaptions of classic Enlightenment ideas.

In especially Northern Europe and North America in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th reading and first private then public libraries became increasingly popular and as commonplace as elementary schools. Libraries represented certain new opportunities to poor and uneducated individuals but became at the same time vehicles for securing a stable social and economic order in accordance with the needs of capitalism. But today, ironically in the so-called Age of Knowledge, the most market-oriented politicians are no longer alone when they point at public and school libraries when they claim budget cutbacks are inevitable.

Furthermore free e-book lending is lifting libraries to an all time high level when it comes to provoking the Market. This is reflected e.g. in the five challenges to libraries recently coined in the IFLA Trend Report:

  • New Technologies will both expand and limit who has access to information.
  • Online Education will democratise and disrupt global learning.
  • The boundaries of privacy and data protection will be redefined..
  • Hyper-connected societies will listen to and empower new voices and groups.
  • The global information environment will be transformed by new technologies.

In other words: If the library had not already been invented, today’s politicians would hardly invent it.

Public libraries to choose sides?

In this situation public libraries need a new platform for proving their value and indispensability.

Automation and digitalisation should be a great relief to man but make us at the same time superfluous, mainly on the conditions of manufacturers and global corporations. This has its parallel in politics where the distance between the voter and the power is growing. Workers’ unions, grassroots movements, NGOs and researchers conclude that a major challenge of today’s Age of Knowledge ironically is the deficit of true democracy, public participation, transparency and unbiased information.

Public libraries have always aimed at beeing “unpolitical”, “neutral” and “objective” and striving for consensus and avoiding provocations. But should they eventually choose sides for those democratic values and the groups and individuals who most need the defence of those values?

Far from becoming mainstream such views have been supported by certain authors, like John Pateman (UK/Canada) and Leslie Edmonds Holt and Glen E. Holt (USA) with titles like, respectively, “Public Libraries and Social Justice” and “Public Library Services for the Poor”, and Mikael Böök (Finland) who advocates “library power” and the library as a “Fourth Estate” and the future “ruler” of information and the Internet.

The librarian as an editor

Another effort in opening up the political potential of public libraries has been made in Scandinavia lately, both in Sweden and especially in Norway with their new “debate libraries”. Those are not new institutions but new compulsary assignments and library services, based on revisions of the national library acts, however on the initiatives of the national library associations and others.

The following sentence was added to the Norwegian act 1st January 2014: “The public libraries should serve as an independent meeting place and forum for public dialogue and debate” (our translation from the original). The same year the Swedish act had a similar revision (see the article “The New Independent Norwegian “Debate Libraries”” in Information for Social Change # 34, page 4 ff).

The word independent in this connection means in short that the chief librarian is to decide contents and form of debate meetings the same way she or he decides which books to buy. No officers of higher rank nor politicians can overrule the librarian’s decisions.

A few months later the Norwegian Minister of Culture confirmed this and at the same gave her consent to the perception of the chief librarian as parallel to a newspaper editor: “The chief librarians themselves choose and prioritize how they will achieve the goals of the new mission statement […] the manager should be free to plan activities at a public library. The library management […] will assume the role of an editor”. And, she says, “I think it is important that the library brings out themes that engage citizens locally, to retain its relevance”.

The National Library of Norway has in 2014 and 2015 advertised and distributed project money to stimulate local and regional programs on open debates in libraries. So far mostly city libraries but also a number of rural libraries have run debates on themes varying from racism and the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo attacs via city planning to the ongoing governmental process of centralisation and merging of municipalities. Of course traditional literary events in libraries continue but the new “debate libraries” try to go beyond this and have an additional focus on societal issues.

The LTC portal

An LTC portal may be a complement to the “debate library” or a stand-alone service.

During the past one and a half years of testing and dicussing the new Norwegian paragraph and service it was emphasised that to rise the level of quality of the debates libraries should provide relevant knowledge. Presentation of an LTC list of quality web resources along with the invitation to the debate event would be a natural approach. We have seen book exhibitions to promote events in libraries; then why not web resources as well?

The LTC portal is also a vehicle of regaining general library visibility on the Web. After the introduction of the World Wide Web in mid 1990ies libraries and library consortia put lots of effort in building portals with hand-picked high quality Web resources. Only to start closing them down ten years later. This was justified with reduced public use, due to the increasing popularity of Google Search, partly based on the alleged “perfection” of this very dominating search engine.

Even many librarians seemed to have capitulated to Google and library users were thus more or less left to themselves with the Web. What remains is reference help (on request) and search instruction (hopefully not only based on the first page of Google hits), public Internet-terminals and eventually wifi for free use.

This leads to another paradox: Public librarians do a lot of active presentation of books on blogs etc. as well as traditional booktalks. Every library even has a certain expertise in designing advanced book displays about current events and themes. But apart from publishers’ blurbs in e-book portals, when do we see web-based information and knowledge beeing actively mediated?

Yet one paradox: Many public libraries put much effort in local history on their websites. But where is the concern for the local community in the age in which we live? Here LTCs would be a contribution.

As we have seen the inconsistency of physical and digital library services also applies to the renowned principles of library ethics commonly known as neutrality and impartiality. One central paragraph of the IFLA Public Library Manifesto reads: “Collections and services should not be subject to any form of ideological, political or religious censorship, nor commercial pressures”. But when it comes to Web resources these standards seem to have a lower standing within the library community. When users ask for help they are often presented simple Google searches or are instructed how to “google”. Are they informed about the big risk of getting manipulated results, either when the search engine itself runs the show or when the initiative is taken by e.g. a manufacturer and advertiser?

Information deficits and imperfections

While our lives (to begin with western and northern “liberal” and “social” democracies) are more than ever full of information at the same time flaws, imperfections, deliberate or ignorant disinformation and even corruption of information increase (see e.g. Herman and Chomsky).

Where open political censorship isn’t commonplace, more descrete pressure occurs and, consequently, self censorship, this owing to political and/or market forces, e.g. when media avoid covering serious cases when big advertisers are involved.

And as media bring news, features and editorials references and links to the original sources are usually left out – again for economic reasons. External links make readers leave and perhaps never return to the article or site, which generates fewer clicks to ads and reduced revenue.

Search engines and social media today make their living (very comfortable living, som of them) from extensive targeted advertising where user behavior is recorded and ads tailored to the individual user. This becomes a great economic challenge to news media, including online editions, which until recently covered most of their costs by banner and pop-up ads. One of the efforts to compensate for this loss is content marketing which however has seriously blurred he border between advertising and journalism. Content marketing is controversial among journalists but the big staff cutbacks these days make it more tolerable to many.

The “tyranny of clicks” is a threat to press ethics in general. But the worst is yet to come. The challenge to quality journalism may increase considerably as a result of Facebook’s new program “Instant articles” launched 13th May this year: Facebook (FB) has been a major driver of traffic to news websites in recent years but an obstacle to an even higher FB contribution is the average download time of about 8 seconds for an article from a newpaper site to the FB mobile app. On the contrary FB’s new “Instant articles” will provide practically instant access. But only on the condition that FB publish the articles and videos directly from their own servers. A number of leading international news outlets have seen no alternative and have already partnered with FB on this. They will definitely succeed in spreading their breaking news fast and even increase ads revenue (despite a 30 percent share to FB), on the other hand many of their present readers will after this probably stick to Facebook and ignore the publishers’ own sites. This will undermine the newspapers’ frontpages and brands and at the same time subscription as a source of income. Which again will form a viscious circle and make news outlets even more dependent on FB.

Pessimists say this transition of news in addition to the general decline will wipe out newspapers altogether. Nevertheless odds are against the less sensational news, especially those not accompanied by funny or dramatic videos, and other valuable contents of a traditional newspaper. The likely migration of this kind of material to more limited and targeted sites, periodicals and blogs will have at least two negative effects; first the risk of stimulating “echo chambers”, i.e. more or less enclosed environments or networks where certain information, beliefs and ideas are strengthened among the participants while alternative and contrasting information is repressed, secondly that an increasing number of readers will have Facebook as their primary or only source and miss information, knowledge and debates of general importance.

This general decline of the press, especially of printed newspapers, already leads to elimination of journalism jobs, higher time pressure, extensive “churnalism”, i.e. unconcerned rewriting of press releases, and poorer journalistic research.

“Citizen journalism” – blogging and publishing on other social media – is often said to strengthen and extend grassroot involvement and democracy, but recent studies of the “Twitter revolutions” e.g. in Egypt reveal that this new kind of networks “doesn’t generate more lasting political structures that can contest the military rule outside the squares” (E. Morozov).

And despite nice doctrines of Open Government etc. obtaining primary documents of a case is often cumbersome for the public as well as for journalists. The practical challenge of searching, finding and ordering or demanding documents is one thing. The forces that work against openness is another. This will vary from city to city and country to country but there are clear tendencies and examples of increased suppression of speech and public communication and information; from the processes against whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and organisations like Wikileaks, via the current French and British law proposals to forbid “conspiracy theories” and control “non-violent extremism” (UK), which can turn out to be extended to “thoughtcrimes” and relatively common oposition, to political efforts to hinder the general right to access to documents and proceedings of governments. Much of the latter limitations are already hidden behind expressions like “necessary modernisation” of public services and administration and New Public Management. Even everyday privatisation and outsourcing of public welfare make former public documents and proceedings trade secrets.

The press and the library

The press and the library have much in common; they both disseminate information and knowledge and as true children of the Age of Enlightenment they both intend to follow certain ethical standards regarding truth and objectivity. But this is where the gap between the two widens these days, simply because the library is not dependent on sales and maximisation of profit. Cuts in library budgets are common but news media suffer even more economically from the general loss of readers to the free Web, reduced advertising revenue and the current uncertainty of future e-business models.

Nevertheless no libraries are in the position of competing with any local nor national commercial news services with regard to the general, comprehensive news coverage their communities need and deserve. But an LTC portal is not meant to cover the whole spectre of topics but to take up specific cases of utmost importance to the community.

In the Norwegian debate the last 1,5 year about the “debate libraries” some ideas have arisen about cooperation between smaller, local newspapers and public libraries. The idea is that the newspaper will need the library’s research competence and the library may take advantage of editorial resorces. Even a very competent working group of journalists initiated by the Fritt Ord Foundation in 2013 supported this idea. So far there has been a number of debate events where the two institutions have cooperated with a journalist as a moderator and in the library premises.

The elements of an LTC portal

We suggest these elements of an LTC portal:

  • Links to informative and/or revealing documents of importance to the ongoing process, as soon as they get to the library’s knowledge (see “Routines and considerations” below). If you don’t trust a document to remain on its current location download it for future replacement. Notice: Mind the copyright. However governmental information is normally free and linking is always legal.
  • Links to agendas and minutes of local, regional and possible national governing bodies involved in the process. Also links to any specific pronouncements by political parties etc.
  • Links to grassroots campaigns, NGOs etc. of both or all sides and views. Links to their blogs, Facebook groups and events, Twitter hashtags and other social media.
  • Search links on relevant terms in newspapers and trade, scholarly and non-scholarly journals and magazines that cover the process. And/or hit lists in digital news archives as PressDisplay (the encosed dummy demonstrates search at two Norwegian services of this kind). Those are better than nothing, and even some pay wall blocked services allow searching and will display titles and metadata. If the library subscribes to the service, offer access on in-house terminals.
  • Links to relevant open discussion fora.
  • Links to relevant library books and other media; links to search links in OPACs.
  • Links to relevant encyclopedia articles.
  • Links to other relevant information on the specific process (see the example below).

LTC – Routines and considerations:

  • Before launch:
    • The enclosed dummy took 15-20 hours to design the first version and to collect the most important documents, ready for launch.
    • Contact the bodies and organisations involved and key persons to inform them about your new portal and invite them to cooperate and contribute. Also journalists will appreciate this library service.
  • Regular routines:
    • Every morning read the most relevant news sources and follow relevant debates. Notice when a new document is mentioned, get hold of it and place it or link to it on the portal. NB: Mind the copyright (also see “The library as a publisher” below).
    • Regularly search relevant governmental electronic public records services or ask relevant offices for new documents.
    • Regularly keep in touch with the key parts involved.
    • Consecutively inform about new links and documents on the library’s blog (or a specific blog on the issue) and/or on Facebook, Twitter etc. Even share it on others’ Facebook groups. Offer subscription of e-mail newsletters. NB: Mind all views; both for and against. Avoid spamming.

The library as a publisher

If the creator of an important document doesn’t publish it, approach them and try to make them reconsider. Allude to common sense and freedom of information legislation. If you don’t succeed but happen to get hold of it off the record, consider publishing it on your portal. If the press doesn’t do it’s job, let the library do it. But follow general journalism and library ethics, first of all protect your sources and never be partial.

Cases for the library to take up

  • We have below made a dummy to show a possible LTC portal the way users should find it on the library site. This example in English covers a real Norwegian project, “The Oslofjord Crossing”, a proposed but very controversial 10 mile bridge or tunnel across the Oslofjord of Southern Norway. In March 2015 the idea was put on ice for the coming 35 years.
  • In the same area in 2006 the public libraries of the four municipalities of the region initiated and ran a common LTC about a planned civil airport.
  • Global surveillance is an active LTC by the University Library of Oslo and “an attempt to give an overview of the revelations and comments following the leaks of Edward Snowden”.

As proved above far from all issues are taken seriously by neither governments nor the press. In those cases LTC portals will make a difference.

Local conflicts may have active parties on both sides with websites and Facebook groups with a certain coverage, but far from always and they are often very biased. An LTC portal will straighten things up.

Many cases will be covered very well in Wikipedia articles but firstly links to documents and facts are often “hidden” within lots of text and secondly only the bigger Wikipedia languages have a very comprehensive coverage. Thirdly the updating of a number of articles seem to be not so good as it used to be (but in saying this libraries of the World should take a concerted initiative to take concrete responsability for Wikipedia editing, if not take over the whole site. Co-editor Mikael Böök of this blog has proposed this, however not yet in English).

Other issues are poorly covered by the press. Three recent Norwegian books and reports list several serious “blind zones” or “non-issues” media are leaving behind with regard to news, reports and analysis, among those:

  • Poor coverage of European Union (EU) related issues (Norway is not a member but nevertheless heavily involved)
  • Poor coverage of the oil and gas industry and of the balance between energy consumption and the climate
  • Lacking adequate coverage of the management of Norwegian employees’ private pension fund contributions.
  • No focus on the fact that local and regional journalism are losing ground.
  • Inadequate media coverage of the state international development and development aid

“Straight to the point”

An alternative or a supplement to LTC portals about specific cases could be a permanent box or a coloumn with a central location on the library website containing the links to documents and knowledge of cases that hit the headlines or are on the agenda of the city council or other governing bodies that very day.

The job is to go through the local newspaper(s) every morning and notice important articles and reports, especially those without links and/or references to their sources; documents, minutes, quotes and external articles, and not only on the matter(s) covered by your current LTC(s). Then find and publish links to the original full text documents on your blog and/or website.

On the following portal dummy on “The Oslofjord Crossing” the links translated to English lead to the original, factual sources however in Norwegian language, except where there are English versions. First follows a short introduction to the public:

The Oslofjord Crossing – a Knowledge Portal by NN Public Library

Finding the actual documents and facts in political processes is often cumbersome and media rarely publish more than highlights and fragments. But on the following portal NN Public Library compiles the important documents, facts and links to news and debates about this significant political process for the city. The portal is impartial and balanced on principle; the decisions of the City Council and the grassroots’ campaigns are of equal importance. If an important document isn’t published on the Internet we try to get hold of it and publish it. Contact us with tips, corrections, dead links etc.: nnn[at]publiclibrary.nnn or telephone +12 345678.

Quick navigation:

Breaking newsComing Events  /  Major documentsOther relevant documents / Political committees; proceedings and decisions / Political parties’ pronouncements / News and debate / Grassroot Movements, NGOs etc. / Research institutions / Literature / Encyclopaedia articles etc. / Other long bridges and tunnels

Breaking news

3rd March 2015: The Ministry’s Report on Norwegian Highways 2015 was published. Moss Avis (MA, local newspaper) reported this 25th March: “Dry Crossing of the Fjord is left out of Plans until 2050″.

Coming Events

Moss Municipality holds a Public Meeting 3rd February 18.00 in the City Hall about the Concept Study on The Oslofjord Crossing.

Major documents

  • Consultation on the Concept Study: Presentation by The Norwegian Public Roads Administration. Invitation of 19th Nov. 2014. Deadline 1st March.

The local protest group No to Fjord Crossing Across Jeløy publishes all answers.

Search OEP – Electronic Public Records (a collaborative tool which central government agencies use to publicise their public records online (mostly in Norwegian) – and locate specific case documents relevant to your field of interest and submit requests to view them. Here a search on Oslofjorden”.

Other relevant documents

  • Memo of 27th Jan. 2015 from the project management consultancies Terramar and Oslo Economics to the Ministry of Transport and Communications and the Ministry of Finance.
  • The Institute of Transport Economics (TØI): “Transportation Infrastructure as the Road to Sustainable Regions” (report mentioned by Mr. S. Bakke in open letter in Moss Dagblad (local newspaper) 20th Jan. 2015) Abstract / Full Report.

Political committees; proceedings and decisions

Political parties’ pronouncements (Moss)

Progressive Party (FrP) (economic liberals)  / Conservatives (H) / Christian Democrats (Krf)  / Green Party (MDG) / Red Party (Rødt) / Social Left (SV) / Liberals (V)

News and debate

Newspapers and journals – online

Online editions of newspapers offer a great variety of free reading combined with pay wall blocked service. Here some search links on the combined term [Oslofjord + bridge/KVU]:

Newspapers and journals – print and online

The library has the daily newspapers in print. Print editions often have more relevant material than the typically news-oriented online editions, e.g. editorials and op-eds, feature stories and letters to the editor.

Some papers offer print editions in pdf or other formats. Electronic “newspaper kiosks” like PressRead/PressDisplay cover both paper and online editions. The service Buyandread offers free search: Click and paste e.g. the search [Oslofjord* (KVU^3.0 OR bro^0.5 OR bru^0.5].

Reading the whole articles requires subscription or pay-per-page or per issue. However NN Public Library offers this service free on in-house library terminals, together with the similar service ATEKST.

In addition the library offers search in older newspapers digitised by The National Library. This is limited to in-house terminals.             Here: [Link to opening hours at the library in question]

Grassroot Movements, NGOs etc.

Local and regional: No to Fjord Crossing Across Jeløy!: Website / Facebook NEW: No to Fjord Crossing via Karljohansvern to Jeløya  /  No to Oslofjord Crossing through Rygge! /  No to Motorway through the Moss Forest!We Who Want the Bridge between Horten and Moss  / The Fjord Wall  / Friends of Frogn Commons: Website + Facebook / The Alliance for the Preservation of the Hvitsten – Son Coastline: Website / Facebook  /  Hurum and Røyken Group of Friends of the Earth Norway. Twitter search links: fjordcrossing / Save Jeløy

National and regional NGOs, communities etc.: Action for Better Roads (search link) / For Railroads / Railroad Alliance / Railroad Forum East (inter-municipal organisation) / Oslofjord Board for Outdoor Recreation (inter-municipal and NGOs) / Oslo Region Alliance (inter-municipal and inter-county).

Research institutions

The Institute of Transport Economics / SINTEF Smart transport / Research Council of Norway / Norwegian university of science and technology (NTNU), Department of Civil and Transport Engineering


Books and articles not held by NN Public Library can be borrowed by interloan. Here some relevant search examples:

Encyclopaedia articles etc.

Oslofjord / Moss–Horten Ferry / National Road 19 / Toll roads / Sustainable transport  / Choice of tunnels vs. bridgesAnnual average daily traffic / Proposed undersea tunnels / Submerged floating tunnel / Effects of the car on societies

Notice: Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found there.

Other long bridges and tunnels

Great Belt Fixed Link (Denmark) / Øresund Bridge (Danmark/Sweden) / List of longest suspension bridge spans / Undersea tunnels.

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