tisdag 28 september 2010

Public libraries and ethnic minorities

About a year ago my department agreed with the Swedish Library Association to do a national survey on the topic of Swedish public libraries and their work with ethnic minorities. The minority groups in focus should be five groups defined as “national” minorities. The study is now completed and results were presented at the Göteborg Book Fair last week.

The concerned groups are:

- The Sámi people, also classified as indigenous,

- The Jewish population,

- The Romani population,

- Swedish Finns, and

- Tornedalians, the meänkieli speaking population of Torne Valley on the northern border of Sweden and Finland.

Of these, the population of Swedish Finns is by far the largest group. It is also the group which is most assimilated and spread throughout the majority population in Sweden. Common to them all is, however, that they have been present in Sweden for a long time, and helped form what we can define as a “Swedish identity” – both in European terms and in local national terms. What they also have in common is the under privileged position in society. Most of them have also been persecuted and discriminated in Swedish society well into the 20th century.

Today, the national minorities have certain rights and are to be protected and given opportunities to uphold their specific identities, habits and languages within Swedish society. All kinds of public agencies are to take these groups into consideration – thus also public libraries. How this is to be done is, however, not specified anywhere. Two types of activities are mentioned in the legislative texts regarding this issue – activities directed towards the minority groups themselves, and activities aiming as increasing knowledge and awareness of the national minorities among the majority population.

Minority work in libraries is problematic, that we know from many international studies. Ambitions are often high, and there tend to be a widespread consensus of the importance of this work, but when it comes down to actual activities, these are often scarce and badly funded.

The result of our study corroborates this. Activities asked for was, among others, cultural programs, activities for children and elderly, cooperation with special libraries and minority organizations. From an overall national point of view, Swedish public libraries do virtually nothing for the five minority groups studied. Singular exceptions exist, of course, but as a whole the results of the study are very clear. Even though every question of the survey is answered with a 90+ percentage of “nothing”, some patterns emerge in the answers.

- Initiatives are local. Basically every activity measured is geographically local in that it is directed towards groups existing in the county or region.

- Initiatives seem to be directed towards language preservation and development, mostly through provision of literature in languages of locally present minority groups.

- Initiatives are primarily directed towards locally existing groups, not towards increasing knowledge and awareness of these groups among the majority populations ( activities of this latter kind do of course not require local presence of any of the groups)

- There seems to be no coordination on and between regional levels in the Swedish library system concerning these issues.

- Among library professionals, there seems to be a lot of insecurity surrounding possible work with the studied minority groups. Especially the Jewish and the Romani groups were commented as problematic.

When public libraries direct their work towards minority groups they often, despite small resources, make significant democratic contributions on local and regional levels. For initiatives to be effective however, coordination is needed; in Sweden today, more than ever. At this point when, for the first time, a fascist party has taken place in parliament, the need to show and work on the value of ethnic diversity must be further prioritized. Public libraries have the instruments to make a difference. It is important that they use them.

The results of this study will now be spread and discussed within the Swedish library sector. Coordination initiatives are expected.

The final report of the project “Libraries and National Minorities” is here (in Swedish).

Results in English will be published in relevant scholarly journals at the beginning of next year.

Pictures are: the flag of Torne valley, and the Sámi flag.

söndag 19 september 2010

The uniqueness of documents

When I was a teenager, I started to collect musical rarities, bootlegged recordings of – primarily - David Bowie and other artists and musicians related to him. Getting hold of these obscure recordings and concert tapings always gave me a thrill. The uniqueness of the musical documents was almost tangible. One of the most renowned Bowie bootlegs was the so called “His Master’s Voice”, a recording made from the last concert of Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Apollo , 3 july 1973. Among collectors it circulated in two versions. The more common one featured the same content as the official live album made from that concert, released in the mid 1980’s. The other one was similar except for a few songs at the end of the set featuring guest guitarist Jeff Beck – these songs have even today not been released officially. It was of course the latter which attracted interest. This was the unique document of this landmark concert in rock history – and I had it.

In the late 1990’s, with a collection of unofficial Bowie recordings approaching 500 items, I suddenly lost interest. I discovered I could get hold of almost every single item I owned on the Internet. The ones I lacked was there too – and they were cheap. The very essence of collecting, getting hold of the uniqueness of singular documents, was lost. None of the traditional criteria of value were present anymore.

I remembered this the other day as I was surfing around the obscure corners of YouTube. The sense of boredom over the fact that “everything” seems to be there came over me and at the same time joy over the fact that it is all just – there. I made an impulse nerd search for “S R Ranganathan” (the library pioneer – not famed Bollywood actress Suman Ranganathan) in the midst of all the music visuals. To my surprise I got a few hits, most of them uninteresting, but one hit struck me with awe. A tape recording from 1964 where Ranganathan, master of bibliographic classification, speaks – on the subject of Melvil Dewey!

The original tape is owned by the University of Toronto. The sound quality is rather bad. Regardless, it provides a feeling of being thrown back into the very midst of library history. This globally shared document is unique in that it takes us directly to a man who has been immensely influential on modern librarianship – reflecting over his meetings with the perhaps one man that has been even more influential. The content of the recording is in every sense of the word unique.

But, what about the document itself, the one every individual on the planet can take part of, with the appropriate apparatus – is that a unique document? The original should thirty years ago be considered a truly unique obscurity, not available to more than a handful of people and perhaps mentioned in some scientific text as a “rumored” recording. Perhaps it would even attract economic value. We don’t know. One thing is clear though – the social media of today pressures our conception of uniqueness in documents.

In many cases, like the elaborate digitization of the works of William Blake in the William Blake Archive or the Codex Gigas (the Devil’s Bible) in the National Library of Sweden, research has benefitted from increased access to unique physical documents of major historical value, providing opportunities to increased knowledge, both of the works and the individual documents.

But YouTube? Is anything unique there – and if so – what are the criteria for uniqueness of these documents? Would it at all make sense to start collecting……rare YouTube clips?

The Ranganathan tape is divided into two clips. The sound quality is significantly better in the second one:

onsdag 15 september 2010

But.....do we really need it?

I'm having a quiet evening. Silent. Today's work consisted of a department board meeting in the morning followed by a four hour lecture on "the history and theory of classification" in the afternoon. Having gone through the Aristotelian divisions of knowledge and their impact on medieval libraries, the psychological turn of knowledge by Francis Bacon in the early 17th century and the pragmatism of Gabriel Naudé's library classification at about the same time, I landed in the 19th century and the creation of the large universal bibliographical classification systems we still use today. For the group of students in front of me, all this was new - it was the first encounter with what shall become a study of bibliographic control consisting of many aspects. After a short break well beyond two hours into the lecture the question came; "but...do we really need it - these monstrous classification systems?" I have had this question so many times. Still, I always hesitate when I answer "Yes". I need to go back on it every time.

It is, of course, a legitimate question. There has been a pressure for several decades now to abandon classification in libraries, most often for the idea of indexing, which of course is something very different. The fact remains though - no one does. In fact the tendency seems to go towards the opposite direction - libraries renew and develop classification. In Sweden the library sector is even about to leave the national SAB-system which has been a unifying standard for almost a century, and introduce the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) as the national system in use. A huge enterprise indeed. The question, however, remains....do we really need it?

There is no doubt that the large classification system, like the DDC are products of a way of thinking that flourished in the late 19th century when modernization where synonymous with order and rationality and a firm belief in the possibility to include all human knowledge put in print in the structure of one single system. The principles of divisions differed between systems - in the DDC, the decimal division was preferred. Today we don't have this belief any more - the world of knowledge is to fragmented and shattered to be able to grasp in one unifying system. We do not have the overview necessary.

Contemporary librarianship is obsessed with technology - right now primarily "social" technology. It does not seek structure and stability, it grasps for fragments and try to create institutional meaning out of phatic communication. There is no evidence that anyone other than the growing cadre of technology obsessed librarians actually wants this, but we do know one thing for certain. Users of libraries today prioritizes the retrieval of relevant documents. Here is the strongest argument of all for the continuing use and development of classification systems - they contextualize documents in collections in a way which radically increases the possibility to retrieve the documents sought. This may to some appear trivial - it is not.

When Swedish libraries now start to implement the DDC as a national classification system, it is logical and sound. It is an adaptation to the international environment of documents, both physical and digital, that is in circulation in the world today. The production of bibliographic data is increasingly standardized and transparent. It would be foolish for a small country like Sweden to maintain its own local system. Objections can always - with accuracy - be made against such a major shift of bibliographic focus, but together with the implementation of the RDA standard for bibliographic description, the road ahead lies open for progress in the good sense of that word.

There is, however, one more aspect in this, which, I hope, became clear for my class today. The existence and development of a classification system like the DDC, which came in its first edition in 1876, is a major factor of continuity for a profession which has been around for very, very long. Why do we stick with these systems today, when we do not share the values and basic ideas for their becoming anymore? Because they are a part of what libraries are all about. Beyond and above technology and every day bibliographical exchange, they are strong threads in the fabric of librarianship itself.

When I arrived to this conclusion after my four hours continuous talk of principles of classification I had a very tired group of students in front of me. Finally, another very frequent question came up; "could we have a break for coffee?"
"Better up - lets' call it a day". Class happy.

söndag 12 september 2010

So - how to start...?

The entries in this blog will all take their departure in my work as professor i Library and Information Science at Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden.

My aim is to make notes and comments on issues relevant for my research, but not just that; I will also make comments on my readings as well as political events taking place within the library profession and - when relevant - society at large.
Thus, I hope to make a contribution to discussions on library- and cultural policies (primarily in Sweden), but also - first and foremost - to dwell in the obscurities of bibliography, library science and daily life in academia.

My aim is to post at least one entry per week. We'll see about that...

Anyway, please feel welcome to read and comment and - enjoy.