Ida Bachmann: Public libraries in Denmark. 1942.

Back to the English index
Back to the start page
 

Public libraries in Denmark

 
Public Libraries in Denmark

BY Ida Bachmann

Formerly Head Librarian in the Public Library
at Maribo

IT HAS BEEN DEMONSTRATED again and again drat dictators count books among their most dangerous enemies, and the burning of libraries has preceded the supression of peoples and ideas. On the other hand, whenever democracy has flourished, it has done so hand in hand with libraries, to such an extent that the development of the public libraries of a coumtry can be considered a pretty exact meassuring stick for the democratic purposes of its rulers and legislators.
In the Spring of 1933, when Nazi Germany cleared the ground for its "new Europe" by burning first the Reichstag acrd then the books,
the Danish Public Library, in the modern sense of the term, was only thirteen years old, the Danish Library Law having been passed in 1920. This law, however, far from designating any sudden break with an illiterate or book?less past, was only a continuation and consolidation of a century-long development. The history of Danish libraries reaches back to the Middle ages, and that of public libraries to the last quarter of the Eighteenth Centtuy.
Ten years before the discovery of America and three years after the establishment of Copenhagen University, the foundation of the University Library was laid by Professor Peder Albertsen, who donated a work on medicine and a few other volumes to the faculty of philosophy. At his death fifteen years later he bequeathed his library, consisting of 24 books, to the University on condition that the Cathedral of Copenhagen hold a yearly requiem for himself, his friends and benefactors. For centuries (until 1861) this venerable, slowly growing library was hidden away in the loft of Trinitatis Church, next to Runde Taarn. Until 1788 only University professors were permitted to borrow its tomes. Here it was hidden during the English bombardment of Copenhagen in 1801, suffering the destruction of only one book, entitled Defensor Pacis.
About 1660 the scholarly and book?loving King Frederik III founded his Royal Library, which for more than a century remained the private library of the Danish Kings, before it was made available to the public.
It would be impossible to write about public libraries in Denmark without first mentioning these two great institutions, the University Library of Copenhagen and the Royal Library, without which the Public Library would be only a torso compared to what it is today. However, in the history of public libraries proper, the year 1778 constitutes the beginning. In that year the historian Peter F. Suhm opened his splendid library in Copenhagen to the public. Regardless of profession, sex, or age, anyone who sought knowledge, information, or education was allowed free use of his almost 100,000 books and guidance by his librarian. It was in Suhm's library that the future philosopher Henrik Steffens, who had dressed carefully in his confirmation suit in order to look as old as possible, made the wonderful discovery that here was one place where youth was no hindrance; the librarian led him to the open shelves - an invention which was to be made all over again by American librarians a hundred years later - and invited him to look over the books for himself.
Another public library - in Marlbo - was started around that time (1795 ) with similar vision, but by a man who had no barrel of gold, as Suhm had, to spend on it. The books were donated, at the request of the founder, by "the good people" of Lolland, and the library was established in a chapel of the cathedral, with a clergy-man as librarian. It was an achievement not to be ignored to start a public library in the dark provinces nineteen years before the introduction of compulsory education. And what is more, this library has functioned ? more or less efficiently ? ever since and is now a fully modern public library. The establishment of these two libraries was the result of the ideals of freedom and general education which swept over Europe at the time of the American and French Revolutions.
During the Nineteenth Century numerous libraries came to life and suffered a natural death, for lack of funds and people who could run them - and also for lack of appropriate books. Books for an educated general public have not always existed. Fiction was apt to be either subtle or silly, non-fiction either strictly scholarly or superstitious. "Mathematics for the Million" and such other books, written by professionals in a language which can also be understood by non?professionals, are a newer creation, without which public education and public libraries can scarcely be imagined as lasting institutions. Libraries of the "Latin Schools" or "Learned Schools" functioned, open to the public, but patronized only by the few. And little by little private institutional libraries or town and parish libraries grew up, some failing, some fumbling, each one trying in its own way to serve its readers. But the Danish Public Library is a logical part of the democracy which has developed since the turn of the century, a consequence of it and a necessity for its further development.
A great event, still remembered by some as the beginning of a new era, was when the State Library in Aarhus was opened in 1902 with the purpose of serving readers outside of the capital. Several private and public libraries were incorporated in the Aarhus Library, and it could open with a large, though somewhat uneven book collection numbering some 200,000 volumes. In the early Thirties it became the official Library of the new University of Aarhus when that was opened, and at the same time it has retained its broader function as super?central for the public libraries.
In 1912?13 the Copenhagen Public Library (founded 1880) was reorganized as a modern institution, along the lines of public libraries in England and the United States, but wisely adapted to Danish conditions and needs; and very soon the provincial towns followed suit, with Holbæk and Vejle in the lead.
Thus the Library Law of 1920 was passed when the development of libraries was well on its way. The radical change which the law accomplished was that it gave the public libraries their official stamp as educational institutions, side by side with schools and University, subsidized by the State ? provided they lived up to the standard of the law. Thanks to this State subsidy, granted in proportion to local subsidies, libraries were enabled to appoint professional librarians. A State Library School had already been established two rears previously.
This time the library was built on a more solid rock than the desire of enthusiastic educators to give people books. The law was passed in order to meet a wide public demand, and it is this steadily growing demand which has plated the modern public library in the very center of the Danish community. The library has become the source of information, of knowledge and cultural values, to which high and low, rich and poor, old and young turn without hesitation, and I venture to say without regret. The Danish public libraries never received great bequests, as have American libraries. Through many years they had to struggle with budgets that rarely kept pace with growing demands, with inadeduate buildings, and shortness of personnel. And yet, depression or no depression, the demand from the public for more books and library service has been answered by the Danish authorities with steadily increasing library budgets. They are paid for by the people for the people, and in the end that is perhaps their strength, for it has freed them from duties toward anyone except the people.
It is evident that in order to make the library serve the entire population, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press must also be adhered to in the selection of books. "If a library buys a book which everybody agrees is a good book, then you can be sure that the lillrary has wasted its money on a poor book," said Th. Døssing, Director of the State Library Commission, at a recent library conference. "There is always disagreement about great ideas and greet books, and only that library which in its book selection places itself in the center of conflicts, those of all times and those of the day, only that library can become a library for all." In those words he expressed the wise policy which, under his leadership, has so greatly increased the usefulness of the public libraries. If the Danish people had not been exposed for years to unbiassed and many-sided information about the conflicting ideas of our times, if they had not had an opportunity to work out their own convictions, based on knowledge, they could hardly have been as impregnable as they have shown themselves against today's deluge of Nazi propaganda.
With no Carnegie in the country, such tasks as building up of the book collections, training of librarians, establishing live contacts with other educational institutions, had to be solved before there was time or money for library buildings. But during the last five or ten years before the invasion one modern library building after another rose all over the country. The collaboration of architects and librarians has produced a striking style of which the illustrations will give an idea.
The public library buildillgs of Frederiksberg, Aarhus, Svendborg, Thisted, Kolding, Viborg, Nakskov, and Faaborg are among the most outstanding examples of Danish library architecture. As a consequence of the invasion, all building projects have had to be suspended, but in the dilemma between economic disaster and menacing unemployment, a few plans will be resumed ? if it proves possible to get building materials.
Danish public libraries are indebted to America for many practical technicalities which lave been adapted, if not copied, from this pioneer in the field. In certain other respects Danish libraries have done remarkable pioneer work and have, for that reason, been studied by many visiting librarians from other countries.
One secret of the very high standard of Danish library service is that each library, whether its book collection is counted in hundreds, in thousands, or in hundreds of thousands of volumes, has almost inexhaustible resources of books at its disposal. This is due to the Central Library System, originally planned in 1909 by H. O. Lange, then chief librarian of the Royal Library. In this closely knit system of economically and administratively independent libraries, the State Library at Aarhus with its 360,000 books is super-central for the 30 large central libraries, at least one in each amt (county) and ranging from 20,000 to 60,000 volumes each. The central libraries, in turn, supply book loans and professional help and advice to the town, village, and parish libraries of their districts.
With the tremendous growth in the use of public libraries, practically all other Danish libraries have been drawn into the system of cooperation, the Royal Library (950,000 volumes) and the University Library of Copenhagen (430,000 volumes) as well as numerous other scientific and special libraries, State?owned or private institutions. By a most efficiently working Library Information Bureau at the State Library Commission in Copenhagen, every library, and that means ever inhabitant, has access to the wealth of books owned by libraries in Denmark and also those of the neighboring countries. It will give a more concrete idea of the scope of this exchange of books when it is mentioned that during the last normal year (1938-39 ) the Library Information Bureau procured books from no less than 230 Danish libraries and 109 libraries abroad. Living in the provinces or in the country, at a distance from the big libraries, was formerly a drawback for people who were doing scholarly research work. The central library system of Denmark has done away with that difficulty and made it possible for a person to sit in the backwoods and, for instance, prepare for his doctor's degree. It is unnecessary to point out what this library system has come to mean for Denmark's professional people.
The average use of Danish public libraries just before the invasion was one book per month for each family or household, and this result had been accomplished through twenty years of peaceful labor. The Danish people had learned to use their books, for work and for leisure, for learning and enjoyment. from being a pastime, accepted by the poor because it was cheap, the Public Library developed into a center of information, from which stage it has further developed into a center of education, information, culture, and relaxation.
Under the German occupation, with its censorship, its banning of books, its menacing economic crisis and soaring taxation, the value of that achievement is being tested. During the first year of occupation, the use of Danish libraries increased about 50 per cent, and this was not a consequence of the black?out, for the highest increase occurred during the light summer months. It is simply that people leave turned to where they know they can still find undistorted information and where they can keep alive their contact with European culture. So far Hitler has not burned the Danish libraries, but they are literally being consumed by their own borrowers. With 50 per cent more wear and tear, books will have to be discarded at a much faster rate than the normal budgets can afford to replace them. The Danish library authorities count on a deficit of one million Kroner for the present year (191-42). However, an immediate economic collapse has been warded off, as many local administrations have granted very large increases in their library subsidies, increases which will influence the State subsidies neat year, these being granted in proportion to local grants, and there is even a possibility of an extraordinary State subsidy for this year. Recognizing the importance of the Public Library in the present battle between the "new Europe" and European culture, which is both old and new, all leading newspapers, irrespective of political color, have advocated this wider support. And Denmark's librarians, always a hard-working lot, carry on while being put to their hardest test. Thus the Danish people, their governing authorities, and the librarians have agreed that this stronghold of democracy, the library, must be maintained at all co