The Public Library – The Research Centre of the People

Summer means reruns on all channels. On this blog I have the pleasure of reminding of and introducing to younger readers a much quoted (at least on this blog) article by Swedish author Sven Lindqvist from 1989: «How Public are Public Libraries». The article is marked by being written about 5 years before the World Wide Web started showing its potential, however Lindqvist’s idea of the public library as the «research centre of the people», launched in this article and in a number of speeches, stands firm:

«Libraries should become popular research centres which not only supply sources of information, but also produce the basic data one needs to ex­press one’s opinions on different issues. As we know, political power in a so­ciety like ours largely depends on who controls the investigation processes. To­day only the state, local authorities, en­terprises and large organizations have these resources at their disposal. … municipal libraries should be given the resources to help environ­mental groups and other pressure groups, local associations, village com­munities and trade union branches to obtain the information they need, in about the same ways as the parliamen­tary information service helps the parliamentary parties with investigations in various questions».

«For fifty years Sven Lindqvist’s books have been the centre of literary and political controversy in Sweden». He is the author of 33 books, mostly non-fiction, out of which 15 are translated to English (see even interview in The Guardian, 2012). He has for decades been a strong library advocate and was for years member of the Board of the Swedish National Library.

The article was first printed in Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly #3, 1989. I republish the article with permission of the author and of the journal (renamed Scandinavian Library Quarterly (SLQ) since 2012). Read the whole article below.

For our Scandinavian readers I even republish my interview with Sven Lindqvist in the Norwegian journal «Bok og bibliotek» #5-6, 1994 (pdf-file). See even at (Norwegian IPs only).

Anders E.

Read the article:

How Public are Public Libraries?

By Sven Lindqvist, Author, Sweden

First published in Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly #3, 1989. Republished with permission of the author and of the journal.

We are on our way into an information society. In this society, the library will become a more important, more costly and a much more disputed resource. I would therefore like to say something about the threat to the accessibility of public libraries.

One reason is the increase in the cost of international specialist literature. The usual price of 500 to 1,000 crowns is more than ordinary people can afford. In other words, they will become even more dependent on the library.

Will books eventually become so valuable that libraries no longer dare to lend them? Is the day approaching when only the professional readers of institutions, organizations and mass media have the right and opportunity to read foreign literature? Developments like these must be stopped. We must retain our right to read, because it is a pleasure — one cannot enjoy it vicariously — and because information gives power — something that should not be reserved for the few.

How public are public libraries?

The real reason that these questions were debated in Sweden in the spring 1988 is that one of the most important libraries in Stockholm, the Arts Library, does not allow members of the general public to borrow books as from the end of last year. This caused vehement protests from library people, art critics, authors and other intellectuals. I asked myself what it was like at other research libraries in Stockholm. Most of these are associated with an institute, authority, school or research institute and serve both internal users and the general public. How can the conflict between the different user categories be solved? How are their different needs balanced? How accessible are public libraries, and what is threatening their accessibility? I asked these questions at ten special libraries in Stockholm.

The hidden library

I found that the greatest obstacle between libraries and the public is that the public does not know that the libraries exist. Or, rather, the inability of libraries to announce their existence. How many sports enthusiasts know about the Sports Library? How many film fans have been to the Film Library? How many rock devotees know there are books on rock at the Music Library? Very few, I’m afraid. Even those who know these libraries exist have difficulties in finding them because they are generally very badly signposted. In an extreme case there was no sign outside the building saying that it contained a library. There was nothing in the entrance, nothing beside the lift on the ground floor, nothing in the lift and, when you left the lift on the fifth floor, there was nothing. The library was not signposted in any of the places where an organization normally advertises its existence. This is an effective way of making a library non-public, and in this particular case, the librarians had not even noticed.

More ways of keeping people away

Other deterrents are security guards and security systems. The worst experience I have had of this sort of thing was at the Lenin Library in Moscow in the winter of 1961. Outside were two soldiers with fixed bayonets demanding special passes before admitting anyone. In Stockholm, protection of the library and its staff against drug addicts and thugs sometimes justifies a security guard at the door. However, care must be taken to ensure that these guards do not misunderstand their instructions and make it their business to keep the rest of the general public out. This has been known to happen and library employees have not always noticed. Computer technology is a marvellous aid which already allows me to sit at home and browse through the catalogue of Stockholm University Library. Tomorrow, I hope that in a similar way I can call up the research library’s Libris and the municipal library’s Boksök systems. And in ten or twenty years, when personal computers are as common as the telephone, everyone will be able to do this. Then I can gain access to a Nordic branch of the Library of Congress catalogue in perhaps Oslo, Copenhagen or Stockholm. But for the uninitiated and during a transition period, the computer is an obstacle that frightens people away or makes them more dependent on library staff. To avoid this, it is essential that the system is as self-explanatory as possible and that enough terminals are provided. If a thousand catalogue drawers are replaced by one terminal that can be used by only one person at a time, then the library’s accessibility has been radically worsened.

Is the library open?

Limited opening hours also make the library less public. In an extreme case, a library was open for only twelve hours a week, never in the evening, never at weekends. Most special libraries are open «much longer but almost always only during office hours. It is an excellent way of keeping out most people with ordinary jobs. The question of opening hours is, of course, one of cost. During the public debate on the subject, the introduction of charges was suggested as a way of solving this problem. 1 know that opin­ ions differ on the free-of-charge principle. There are librarians, especially at research libraries, who take pride in be­ ing able to offer a service people are willing to pay for. But in my opinion this method should not be resorted to. It is contrary to the principles of both good economy and civil rights. To achieve good economy, library services must be free of charge Good economy requires that bread and butter cost money. Each time I have a sandwich, I consume bread and butter. Less bread and butter is left. A park, on the other hand, is quite a different thing. A park does not shrink because I walk in it. I do not consume the park by walking in it. The park costs society the same no matter how many people use it. The more people who come, the better the allocated resources are used. In other words, good econo­ my does not demand that one is made to pay for walking in a park. Truth is not diminished because it is shared. When we read them, library books are not consumed like bread and butter. Like the park, the library is a resource which is exploited more effectively when used by more people. In other words, the library should be free of charge if good economy is to be achieved. For civil rights reasons, library services should be free of charge Another reason that leads to the same conclusion concerns civil rights. The library has the newspapers, periodicals and books that citizens in a democratic society need to exercise their democratic rights, like participation in current affairs and voting in elections. We do not charge citizens when they go to the ballot-box. We do not make them pay a fee to express their opinion in a public debate. Neither should we make them pay when they go to the library to obtain the information they need. All stages in the democratic process should be free of charge. This is, in my opinion, a minimum demand.

The future research centres of the people

In the long term a more active role in the democratic process for libraries, and municipal libraries in particular, should be aimed at. Libraries should become popular research centres which not only supply sources of information, but also produce the basic data one needs to express one’s opinions on different issues. As we know, political power in a society like ours largely depends on who controls the investigation processes. Today only the state, local authorities, enterprises and large organizations have these resources at their disposal. Ordinary people cannot submit alternative solutions. They cannot calculate how much the alternative would cost. Ordinary people lack the basic information which is essential for political activity and are thus relatively powerless even in a democracy like ours. This is why municipal libraries should be given the resources to help environmental groups and other pressure groups, local associations, village communities and trade union branches to obtain the information they need, in about the same ways as the parliamentary information service helps the parliamentary parties with investigations in various questions. This is what I mean when I assert that municipal libraries should become the research centres of the people. But this is a project for the future.

What to do here and now

The current struggle is about keeping the libraries public, fighting off the introduction of charges and reductions in opening hours, preventing computer technology and security systems from frightening visitors away and ensuring that libraries do not sink into oblivion. And the public’s right to borrow books for use at home must be retained. In this main issue, I found Stockholm libraries were rather good. All but one of the library heads I spoke to were strongly in favour of home loans. Indeed, the head of the Arts Library was so strongly in favour that she resigned in protest against the decision of her superior, Per Bjurstrom, to abolish this right. Per Bjurstrom is a museum director. For museum staff it is natural that works of art should be exhibited but not lent. After all, you cannot borrow a painting of Rembrandt’s or a sculpture of Picasso’s to admire at home. Why should you then be allowed to do so with a book on Rembrandt or a book on Picasso? This is how a museum employee reasons. It is a question of two different traditions and it is unfortunate when people who in one tradition have power over those who work in the other. In the Bjurstrom case the decision to discontinue home loans for the general public was based on his misunderstanding of some isolated figures from loan statistics and his complete ignorance of what happens at other Swedish research libraries.

More power to the librarians

If librarians had been the ones to decide, this baseless and erroneous decision would never have been taken. This is why I say. “ More power to the librarians!” It is they who know the libraries. They want to keep libraries open to the general public. I think we need a law or regulation to safeguard the independence of library heads from the authorities and other organizations they belong to, and to guarentee public access to libraries financed by public money. 1have asked the head of the Swedish National Library to consider the need for such a law.

3 Responses to “The Public Library – The Research Centre of the People”

  1. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Seldom do I come across a blog that’s equally educative and entertaining, and let me
    tell you, you have hit the nail on the head.

    The problem is something which too few folks are speaking intelligently about.
    Now i’m very happy I stumbled across this in my hunt for something relating to this.

  2. Thank you very much 🙂 Now and then we write blog posts in English. Did you read this one?


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