Public library research is often both legitimizing and apologetic in relation to the mission of public libraries. On many occasions, this comes from the fact that research is performed in tight collaboration with libraries studied. An obvious risk of too tight relation between the researcher and the research is a mix up of knowledge interests. Although quite a lot research is being done, the truisms of library work are seldom seen put under scrutiny. Nowhere does this become clearer then when questions like social integration and/or exclusion is in focus.
This does of course not mean that all library research is “bad” research. On the contrary; during the last decade several projects and research programmes have been successfully completed displaying not only interesting results but good and creative research designs as well. As tend to be the case in most library and information science research, however, questions are dealt with one at the time. In Scandinavian public library research, as indeed in the libraries themselves, the issue of the library as a “meeting place” has been in focus now for quite a number of years. Much fine research has been done, most prominently perhaps by the Norwegian PLACE project, but many questions are still unanswered. The very concept of “meeting place” is still vague, at least if we get outside the strictly academic discussions, and it has triggered discussions about the concept blurring both the core values of, and the meaning of specific activities in, libraries.
It is, however, useless and uninteresting to ignore problems. Public library research needs not only to be cautious in empirical studies, but is often coloured by an almost romantic point of departure. Public libraries are talked about in arcaic terms, and the meaning of research is seen as helping libraries to maintain an identity which is hard to obtain in times of political ignorance. Political ignorance? Yes, I choose to use this hard term for the situation in Sweden and Europe today. Insecurity has now for long been a constant in Swedish public libraries and it basically stems from an anachronistic view of what public libraries can, might, and must achieve in society. The present government in Sweden is deliberately turning society back into a full fledged class society, enthusiastically supported by the ruling mechanisms of the European Union. It is very clear that an enlightened, strong population is not prioritized – the systematic deterioration of the school system is an example of this. It is also something which leaves public libraries in a political vacuum – the political prerequisites for its traditional mission is no longer there in the way they used to be. On the other hand, it is a situation which should (in the best of worlds) trigger the will to political activism and independence among librarians. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case, as it is always more comfortable to keep quiet.
This situation is unique in Sweden. For the first time in a century, public libraries are not seen as means to increase the well being of citizens and the kind of individually based Bildung ideal that libraries have represented during the 20th century is not there any more. Still public libraries prefer to see themselves in the light of the 1970’s – a time which today seem more distant than ever. Of course, most librarians or library representatives would never admit this as they plunge themselves into new technologies and social media as an entertainment-stained substitute for the constructive combination of lust and seriousness that libraries used to represent. But it is a thin disguise. Most of it is basically nonsense to please political power, both locally and nationally – all dressed up as “user needs”.
What should the role of research be in this development? Well, most importantly, it is necessary to see that the knowledge interests of the library sector and the library research are not the same. Libraries need knowledge to develop new ways of working to secure the love of politicians (and users). The interest of research is analytical and critical, with the potential to expose the mechanisms of change in the relation between libraries and their societies. These two do sometimes collide.
It has been said many times that the social conditions of Sweden is so special that they can’t really compare to those of other countries with well developed library sectors, such as the UK. This is no longer true (if it ever was). With a political system effectively deconstructing the welfare state model built during the twentieth century, we should start looking more to the west than at ourselves to find inspiration for new research.
British library research has for a long time had a tradition of critically studying the library sector of the country, and its relation to both political power and local society. The results are sometimes both hard and invigorating. The perhaps most famous example of this is the Open to all? project carried out by Dave Muddiman and colleagues in the late 1990’s - final reports were published in 2000. The results of the studies in this project raise a fundamental, but quite annoying, question: do public libraries work against social exclusion, or do they indeed pander it? It is shown that librarians tend to focus on the wealthy middle class users that so much look and behave like themselves – even though the purpose of so many activities is the opposite. Now, to simplify the results from this large study in this manner is of course on the brink of the criminal, but still it is something that goes through it all in one way or another.
Recently a book on the issue of social exclusion came out in the UK: Public libraries and Social Justice, by John Pateman and John Vincent. It takes its departure in the Open to all? studies, and revisits the issue of whether libraries do actually work to meet those who most of all need the library. Once again, the result is that there is a will to do so, but librarians only rarely go there themselves. Conclusions are pervasive. The well educated middle class comes to libraries. We do not have to worry about them. It is the others; those who do not come, or dare to come, that should be in focus of the libraries’ interest – no matter the will of ignorant politicians. Still, the needs of the former are met and those of the latter are not. The book is a good example of when researchers see a different version of the truth than librarians. There is no reason to believe that Swedish, or Scandinavian, librarians behave differently. With few exceptions we can assume that the more “librarian-like” a user is the better service he or she gets – but we do not know, because no one has dared to ask.
We need research like this in Sweden, and in the other Nordic countries. We need to thoroughly question the “happy” national library statistics, we need to put a critical eye to the self proclaimed successes of the increasing numbers of integration projects in the library sector, and we need to make a deep investigation into the attitudes and prejudices of the librarians themselves. Not until this is done can we create a basis for understanding the complex relation between public libraries and the political mechanisms that drive them in one direction or another. Not until then can libraries be seen as they really are in contemporary society - political weathervanes or independent institutions that put the good of citizens first.
The results of the Open to all? project has been summarized in the following article:
Muddiman et al. (2001) "Open to all? The public library and social exclusion: executive summary". New Library World, Vol. 102(1163/1164), pp. 154-157.
Pateman & Vincent's book is the following:
Pateman, J. & Vincent, J. (2010) Public libraries and social justice. Farnham: Ashgate.
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