Th. Døssing: Denmark’s public libraries. Copenhagen, The Danish Publishing Office, 1938. - 15 sider, illustreret. - (Danish foreign office journal, nr. 204, 1938).

Back to the English index
Back to the start page

Back to Th. Døssings Bibliography

Denmark’s public libraries

Denmark's Public Libraries
By TH. DØSSING, Director of the State Inspectorate of Libraries

As in most countries on the continent of Europe, there are two groups within the library service of Denmark: the scientific libraries and the public libraries, each with its own objects. The task of the scientific libraries is to serve research founded on the study of sources. The task of the public libraries is to serve common enlightenment among all classes of the population, and their principal material therefore consists of popular scientific literature presenting the results of research work in general terms.
Almost all the scientific libraries are owned by the State, whereas the public libraries are run by Municipal authorities with State aid, a position that corresponds to the educational system, in which the higher grades and university training are under the State, and primary education in the elementary schools is a municipal task carried on with State support.
In addition to this division between the scientific libraries and the public libraries, there is now a specialisation, for the endeavour is to give each scientific library its own special subject. Of the libraries in Copenhagen, for instance, the Royal Library is a special library for the humanities, and the University Library a special institution for natural science and medicine.
All libraries, including the scientific libraries, associated with educational establishments, are public and open free of charge to all, and it is therefore only natural that in their practical activities, even if their administrative system differs, they all form one unit, one great system, a system in which all the books of all libraries are available to every citizen through his local library, no matter where he may live. This unity, this collective library system, is however, something new, and has grown up with and to some extent as a result of the rapid expansion of public libraries in the present century. The public library system is an old one in Denmark. It is a child of the 18th century craving for education, a contemporary of the general elementary school which was introduced in Denmark in the year 1814. The child grew very slowly, however, and only reached maturity through a sudden florescence in the 20th century.
Throughout the whole of the 19th century the public libraries were small and played only an insignificant role in the general work of popular enlightenment. The reasons were many. First, but by no means most important, was the fact that so to say all popular enlightenment proceeded under the influence of 'the cleric and poet Grundtvig, who held that the lecture, speech, "the living word" ?? was the chief organ, and not reading, the book, - "the dead letter". Here it should be remembered that with its relatively dense population, and with short distances from place to place, Denmark offers unusually favourable conditions for the holding of lectures and for assembling the people together.
Secondly, there was this serious defect in the popular enlightenment of the 19th century, that by "the people" one meant the lower class alone and considered it right and sufficient to give them something else and less than the interests which absorbed the upper strata of society. And this proceeded just at the time when the lower classes in town and country, the workers and the peasants, fought their fight for political, social and economic freedom and for equality with the middle and upper classes.
Finally, it must not be forgotten that a comprehensive and effective work of popular education presupposes a certain general social standard, and especially such conditions of labour that the masses have at their disposal the leisure and ample time, to widen their interests. This means that modern technics, which have made short working hours possible, have also created the possibility of general enlightenment comprising the entire nation.
As has been said, the public libraries of the 19th century were small and little used, and the middle and upper classes had their own social-club libraries or subscription libraries. The modern public library movement came to Denmark with the new century, under the direct influence of Great Britain and America. Now the ground was fully prepared. The general elementary school had been in existence for about a hundred years. Political freedom was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. The peasants and their political parties had waged war victoriously against the former rulers of society, and the labour party saw victory ahead for its ideas. A new popular-scientific literature had seen the light, suitable for forming the foundation of the new libraries.
The present-day public libraries are not institutions for casual reading in an idle hour. They have a clearly defined object, a consequence of the political and social freedom which, with the general elementary school as basis, has created in all strata of society an unprecedented craving for enlightenment and the ability to acquire it from books. Thus the number of those requiring books has multiplied many times over, and there has arisen an entirely new circle of readers who seek general educational works and the sort of literature that provides answers to the many different questions that arise in the richly variegated communities of today.
The public libraries serve general popular education at every stage. They support and supplement the work done at school ? the council school proper and other schools for elementary instruction, folk high schools, agricultural schools, technical schools, commercial schools, etc. And in particular they are a help to the individual who wishes to continue his education on his own account or to widen his general interests.
Now what do the libraries purchase in order to meet these requirements? What can one find in a public library? First and foremost a collection of the best literature for children and the young. Good fiction of all kinds, chosen, entirely without prejudice, with a view to every stage of development, and, in conjunction therewith, instructive geographical and historical books, as well as a varied selection of books on cultural and social conditions, with principal weight laid upon Denmark's own history and culture. Finally, a selection of the latest and best books dealing with natural science and giving guidance in practical life ? farming, trade, handicraft and industry.
In the reading rooms of the large libraries the public has access not only to such reference works as encyclopaedias, dictionaries, the statutes, etc., but also the large collections of hand-books on the various trades and professions. There are also provided the current year's issues of periodicals and newspapers.
In Danish libraries most importance is attached to making the collections as varied as possible. Only by that means can they be libraries for the whole population, and solely in that way can they be neutral, for variety alone can ensure that consideration is given to all religious, social and political leanings. There is one restriction, however. It is in the nature of things that literature for a work of popular enlightenment must be mainly in the native tongue, indeed in Denmark, where most of the towns are small, it would be financially impossible for the majority of the libraries to procure the necessary foreign literature. Exceptions are the municipal libraries of Copenhagen, and, in smaller degree, those of the other large towns also, but on the whole it would be good economy to centralise the purchase of foreign literature. This in fact is the case in Aarhus, where in 1902 the State placed that task on the newly opened State Library, a task which it still performs now that it has become also the library of the new University in Aarhus. In addition, the public libraries have themselves started a co?operative, joint collection of the foreign fiction most in demand and the work in connection therewith is in the hands of one of the larger public libraries.
The purpose of public libraries cannot be fulfilled by the establishment of a number of independently working institutions. Only the large boroughs can be self?sufficient to any extent; in all smaller boroughs and in all rural parishes the problem would only be partly solved, and the supply of books in the rural districts of Denmark, as in those of all countries, is the most important problem in the work of the public libraries. In Denmark the endeavour has been made to cope with it by erecting "central libraries" - large borough libraries which, in addition to serving their own town, cover a rural population of from 50,000 to 100,000 and supplement the work of the small local libraries.
As a general rule, lending to juveniles proceeds through the public libraries, but in many cases also from special children's libraries connected with the municipal schools. These school libraries, however, are always in co?operation with the public libraries proper.
The first twenty years of the present century was a period of library agitation. In 1912 the Copenhagen municipal libraries were reorganised and in 1914, the first central libraries were started. It was to these latter that the first two specially trained, whole?time librarians in the provinces were appointed.
The working systems adopted in the public libraries, including the enormous card?catalogues and lending cards, has been developed on the British and American model, and the Danish public is now so familiar with it that service is quick and practically simple. The first library buildings were erected out in the provinces. The first steps towards a library school were taken in 1918.
The State, which in 1910 only granted about 10,000 Kroner towards the public library system, began to increase its support rapidly, the amount in 1919 being about 100,000 Kroner. In 1909 the State opened an office in Copenhagen to support the new endeavour. The State grant was made in proportion to the local grant, and in the years 1910?1919 these grew so much that in 1920 it was found necessary to place the entire work under a more permanent form by means of a Libraries Act.
The Libraries Act, which has since been renewed and amended several times (most recently in 1936), does not order the opening of libraries. The local authorities themselves decide whether or not they will have a library. Nor does the State place any conditions on libraries which do not petition for State support. Thus the Act is permissive, not comiulsory, and offers State support on certain conditions.
Libraries requesting State support must have general enlightenment as their object, and therefore the collection of books must ie as indicated above. Lending nust be free of charge or the fee low - not exceeding 2 Kroner per annum ? and practically all libraries are free. The local grants must be sufficient to guarantee running costs. As a minimum the Act specifies 100 Kroner per annum, but this is a survival of ancient times when the libraries had only casual spare?time reading as their object, and such a sum is obviously quite inadequate even in the tiniest parish library.
The libraries must also provide books for children and juveniles, but, as already stated, the local authorities can open special school libraries. This provision, however, is little used; in general all library work in a commune is centralised in one library, from which the children themselves can borrow or the schools can borrow collections for lending out to the classes.
The State grant is given in proportion to the local grant. Originally the State contributed an amount equal to the local grant, but in recent years it has been reduced. Now the State grants 80 per cent. of the first 15,000 Kroner, 40 per cent. of the next 10,000 Kroner, and 20 per cent. of, the remainder. This descending scale, however, means but little in most cases, as the majority of Danish towns are very small, only 13 having over 20,000 inhabitants. In addition to the ordinary grant the State makes a special grant of 6400 Kr. annually to the central libraries. Finally, the Act contains provisions as to State supervision of the libraries. An office, the State Inspectorate of Libraries, under the leadership of a Director of Libraries, carries out this supervision and distributes the State grant. The office issues certin technical and bibliographical aids to the libraries, including printed catalogue cards, and as a separate departient there is an Information Bureau, chose activities will be described later.
The State Inspectorate of Libraries [so directs the training of librarians, artly through the medium of short nurses, partly at the School for Lirarians, where a one?year course is held subsequent to three years practical training at some large library, that is to say four years in all.
The library system recognised by the Act is based on the central libraries as he main link in the entire chain. In 1924 there were two central libraries and now the number has grown to 30, covering the whole country. As Stated, no commune is obliged to start a library, and there are still many parishes without one. The inhabitants of these parishes are not overlooked, however, as every citizen can borrow from the central libraries free of charge and post?paid. Lending in the rural areas proceeds in various ways, either direct or through a parish library to individual borrowers, or in the form of temporary additions to the collections of the parish libraries, or books may be sent to small circles which have joined together for the collective study of specific subjects. A large part of the school?library work in the rural areas is also concentrated in the central libraries, and in recent years a separate department of the central libraries has administrated the entire juvenile and school?library work within the area. From this department children's books are sent out for lending by the schools, which can obtain instructive literature in many copies for use in their daily work, and finally, the central library places small collections of hand?books in all the schools.
The central libraries also act as local advisers to the smaller libraries; they advise as to' purchases, arrange the cataloguing, hold courses for
the librarians of the parish libraries, and so on.
Almost all the central libraries have book?cars which call at regular intervals at all smaller libraries in the area. The cars carry books that have been ordered, distribute books to school libraries, fetch and carry book collections to be revised and renewed at the central library, and carry good collections from which the parish libraries can make selections to supplement their own books.
Through the parish library or by direct application every citizen can borrow not merely the books of the central library but those of all public libraries. If the book wanted is not in the central library, the requisition is passed on, for instance to the State library at Aarhus, if the application is from within the particular sphere of that institution, or to the aforesaid Information Bureau at the State Inspectorate of Libraries. Apart from the State library at Aarhus, all scientific libraries in Denmark are located in Copenhagen. The, Information Bureau finds out from which library the book can be obtained, and it goes direct from there to the requisitioning library. Orders from foreign libraries also pass through the Information Bureau.
By its provision of a State grant and by its special support of the central libraries the Libraries Act has brought about a complete reorganisation, one might say a new organisation, of the entire system of public libraries in Denmark. New libraries have been started and the old ones have been reorganised with the help of the central libraries. During the past twenty years about 300 librarians have passed out of the School for Librarians. A large number of library buildings have been erected in the boroughs and in the rural areas. But the most important thing is that the books have been increased both quantitatively and qualitatively, and that the people make use of the new libraries to an extent that justifies the growing grants as well as makes them necessary. Even in the serious years of the depression through which the Danish community has passed it has been very easy to maintain the grants to the libraries.
The growth of library work since the enactment of the Libraries Act is easily visualised by means of a numerical comparison between the budget years of 1918-19, when the Bill was under debate, and 1936-37:

[Figur 1]

It may be added that for the present year, 1937-38, the State grant is about Kr. 1,297,000, and for the coming year, 1939-40, the estimate is about Kr. 1,450,000.
The development of the Danish library system during the last generation has proceeded in a spirit of collaboration. The endeavour has been to concentrate forces, and it is quite in harmony with that principle that the school and juvenile library work is regarded as an organic link in the activities of the public libraries. The aim has been to create libraries for the whole nation, and special problems for special groups of the population are always tackled by the public libraries.
One example of these special problems is library work at the hospitals. This work, which is new to Denmark, is always done by the public libraries, this being so much the more natural as practically all hospitals in Denmark are public institutions and run by the same authorities as those which grant the library funds, viz. the county and municipal councils. By increasing their library grants, which means the automatic increase of the State grants, the public libraries are enabled to provide for hospital borrowings. Small collections of the books most in demand are placed at the various hospitals.
At certain hours the librarian in charge of this special work calls at the hospital in the book-car. Just as in the ordinary work of the central libraries, she distributes the books that have been ordered and carries a freely chosen collection which may be expected to interest patients. The supply is supplemented from the regular collections at the hospitals, and the librarian then passes round from ward to ward with a book-waggon of special design, lends out books, talks with the borrowers and takes orders.
Infectious diseases departments are not visited, of course. A still unfulfilled wish, is the establishment of one or more large libraries for tuberculosis patients, both those in hospital and those discharged but not yet free of infection. For such patients naturally there can be no question of having libraries common to the whole population.
The same is the case with seamen, not because seamen are otherwise than ordinary people, or because they could not read the same books, but simply because the crew of a ship on a long voyage has to keep the books for such a protracted period that ordinary libraries would not suffice. This is another unsolved problem, but a good deal of attention is being devoted to finding out how these two gaps in the library system of Denmark can he filled in a fully satisfactory manner.
The aim must always be to provide for all Danish citizens access to good and well-supplied libraries, regardless of age, social position, profession or place of residence.