Public libraries have during their entire existence been associated with democratic development. They have been key institutions in the opportunities for citizens to make informed choices and be active parts of the democratic process, based on a notion of the value of individual, non-instrumental learning – Bildung. Today this has changed.
In Europe, the notion of democracy is more dimmed than ever, as easily seen in the economic development in countries like Greece and Spain. Decision makers in the EU deliberately go against the will and well-being of ordinary people (formerly the basis of democracy) only to fulfill the wants of financial markets – economic growth is to be secured, no matter the cost. This is of course a dangerous and destructive path to go; the democratic vitality of European countries have had to make way for economic administration, dressed up in democratic language. A fiscal discourse is dominating the discussion and countries (and thus people) can be “helped” or punished at random.
In a society ruled by economism, "the market" defines the content of social and individual integration. Citizens are being reduced to consumers, and their democratic rights are replaced with their rights as consumers. This is a very different way of looking at people than the progressive democratic movements of the 20th century that created so much economic – and social – wealth were inspired by.
In this destructive environment libraries should have a chance to make a difference – but can they, or even more important, do they want to? We seldom see libraries explicitly talk about democracy, or democratic development, or individual learning, or Bildung anymore. What we instead see is a discourse that talks about access to not only “information” in a general, abstract sense, but to specific technical and commercial platforms and products as well. The bluntest example of this is the struggle among public libraries across Europe to get access to e-books. The access to e-books is today the one single most important question for libraries, not least here in Sweden. In a European context where a whole new way of thinking democracy is badly needed, this is, to say the least, embarrassing.
EBLIDA, the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations has initiated a EU-spanning campaign in order to “solve” the e-book issue with the publishers. The campaign takes its departure in a “position paper” (or “manifest”, as these things used to be called i a less administrative age). It is a statement which is clear enough: the word democracy is not mentioned. Access to information, as libraries provide, is defined as essential for a “competitive market”. Is this what libraries in Europe today has been reduced to, providers of information to a competitive market, sustainers of the ideology of economic growth?
Democratic development does not just need access to this or that “information”, it does require critical discussion, consideration of alternatives, political conflict. Without this democracy is dead. Public libraries has been very good in making all this happen – but how can they now, when they focus on issues which are important to please, first and foremost, those taking so many people down in the name of economic stability and growth?
Public libraries used to be able to sort out the bad guys from the good ones. They used to be strong in integrity towards politicians. Today the battle is with commercial actors - politics are not on the agenda at all. Really, you don’t have to be nostalgic to grieve this devaluation of libraries, neither in terms of their political relevance nor their social integrity.
The future is dark. A true change would require a completely different economic and democratic system, based on the good of man instead of economic growth – but, who dares speak seriously of this today? Certainly not librarians or their organizations.
Picture taken from CNN web site (may 25, 2012); Elderly woman praying outside the Bank of Greece in Athens, february 2012. We might assume she is not praying for more e-books.