onsdag 24 november 2010

Public libraries sctrutinized - how do they respond?

In Sweden we have, during the last few weeks, been exposed to a very interesting public debate on the role of public libraries. The core issue is that some libraries, among them Stockholm Public Library, the largest in the country, have out-sourced a large amount of the collection development to a commercial net book store owned by the largest publishing concern in the country. As such this is unprecedented in Swedish library history and the significance of this step should not be underestimated. However, I will not argue here on the issue as such, but instead focus on an aspect of the debate itself which is interesting and, when the waves of discussions and emotions have come to rest, will lend itself to thorough analysis.

Usually when discussions and debates on public libraries arise, the libraries are the “victims” – of bad economy, of evil politicians or of some other force outside themselves that is trying to impose on their democratically defined mission in society. This time, the roles are reverse – the librarians are the “bad guys”. This gives a certain flavor to the discussion as representatives of the libraries cannot count of the support of the public. This is something that the library sector is very unaccustomed to.

Much discussion has been taking place – as so often today – in great many places, not least in “public” fora that still are private. Facebook has been one arena of debate where several librarians have suffered severely (in terms of arguments) from hard attacks from not only authors, but also from the general public. I will have to return to these comments in another way than this as I do not wish to take discussions outside of these “private rooms” (that so paradoxically are the new favorites of public libraries, all in the name of “user communication”). The conventions of citing such foras are still uncertain to me. However, we can stick to the debate that is increasingly visible in public daily media. What is clear is that the library sector is not ready for the critique that is now directed towards it. A good example is a short comment on the role of public libraries published in Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, today. It is written by Inga Lundén, Head of Stockholm Public Library. The thing is that Lundén is not only that - she is also the chair woman of the board of Swedish Library Association. Her sitting on two chairs may become a problem here not only for her, but for the library sector as a whole.

Lundén´s comment is politically correct and an abstract defense of the widely accepted thought of libraries as important institutions safe-guarding certain democratic values etc. We have heard it all so many times before. In no aspect does she meet the very clear and issue related critique of “her” library. But do the public believe her? I doubt it. And of course it is important to ask – as what is she responding, as head of Stockholm Public Library now under such heavy fire from so many directions, or as the highest representative of Swedish library sector?

Lundén’s comment is interesting in itself, but even more as a representation for what might be seen as a new kind of library discourse in public debate. The defensive way of responding to critique of concrete changes in the policy of public library seems typical for many of the librarians now scrutinized. It is clear that this debate creates massive unease among public libraries. If public libraries of today are to go through with an ideological change of unprecedented significance and size, taking them into a position where sales values become more important than social responsibility, they might do well to study some conflict management.

Without doubt such a change is rapidly taking place now. Actions are taken, but the arguments are not there. Instead we see a sector hiding behind old familiar slogans that it obviously does not believe in any more. Analytically this is interesting. Politically it might, in the end, turn out to be devastating.

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