Joeckel, Carleton B. : Realities of Regionalism. Danish county libraries .

Back to the English index
Back to the start page


in: Library Trends. Chicago, 1937, page 74-80, including two maps.

Realities of Regionalism

Danish county libraries


AUGUST 3-15, 1936

Edited with an Introduction by


The Danish and Swedish schemes for the organization of "central libraries" constitute a much more completely organized type of regional service. Denmark has been the leader in the development of this kind of library, and Sweden has frankly copied the Danish plan in most details.
I shall next attempt to describe as briefly as possible the essential elements in the Danish system of central libraries. The population of Denmark, it should be stated, is approximately 3,500,000, and its area is 16,500 square miles. This means an average density of 214 persons per square mile for the nation as a whole, and 169 per square mile for the country outside of Copenhagen. Perhaps the best comparison with an American state is to say that Denmark is very roughly half the size of Ohio, both in area and in population.
The Danish library slogan, as enunciated by the founder of its public-library movement, Andreas Steenberg, may be paraphrased as follows: "Any book for any person at any place." Public-library service in Denmark is provided by nearly a thousand parish or municipal libraries, most of them small, since there are few large cities outside of Copenhagen. In spite of the national slogan, library service is by no means universal; a considerable proportion of the parishes as yet have no direct free library service. To supplement the service of the local libraries, the public libraries in twentynine of the larger cities and towns have been designated as "central libraries" and perform certain functions which will be enumerated later.
On the accompanying map (Map 1) are shown the locations of the twenty?nine central libraries which have been established up to the present time. It will be noted that there is at least one such library in every county or province and that certain counties have two central libraries. Copenhagen, the capital city, does not participate in the regional scheme, and service in the Copenhagen district is supplied by one of the suburban cities. The average area served by each central library is about 600 square miles, and the average population served by each library is about 90,000.
The nature of the services rendered by the central libraries is probable best explained by a description of the functions of a typical example of the group. For this purpose, the Central Library for Southwest Jutland, located in Esbjerg, a seaport of 28,000 population on the west coast of the peninsula of Jutland, has been selected. This library is responsible for regional service in most of the county or province of Ribe. This county has an area of 1,185 square miles and a total population of 43,000. It happens, interestingly enough, that this Danish county approximates quite closely, both in area and population, the average American county.
A second map (Map 2) shows in detail the libraries of the county and the boundaries of the parishes of which it is composed. It will be noted that there are still a number of parishes without local libraries. The eastern parishes of the county are served by the central library immediately to the east. Note also that the principal city, Esbjerg, is located on the extreme west of the region, and that the longest distance from the city to the boundary of the county is about forty-five miles.
The Central Library of Esbjerg is primarily a municipal library which serves its own city. It is governed by a board composed of local members with one representative appointed by the county and two by the Library Association of Southwest Jutland. The librarian is appointed by this governing board, but his appointment must be confirmed by the national library agency in Copenhagen.
The library receives a regular grant-in-aid from the national government as a municipal library and also a special grant for its services as a central library. Of its total annual income of approximately 55,000 kroner ($12,300), 30,000 kroner are received from local sources, 4,000 kroner from the county, and 21,000 kroner from the national government.
It should be emphasized that the central library has no direct control over the local libraries of the county, which retain virtually complete independence. The Danes, be it said, cherish their local library autonomy fully as much as do Americans. In his relations with the local librarians, the librarian of the Central Library may advise and suggest, but he may not command. In the rare case of serious Inefficiency in the administration of parish libraries, he may recommend to the national library agency that the national subsidy be withdrawn. or that a new librarian be appointed. There is little doubt that the librarian of the central library has great influence in the administration of the small local libraries in his area, but he has no direct authority over them. In a strict governmental sense, therefore, the library system of the Danish county is not at all comparable to an American county library.
The service which the central library renders to the libraries and the people of the county appears to be comprehensive and generous in the extreme. Both the municipality and the library of Esbjerg seem willing to give much more than they receive from the national subsidy without counting the cost in arty precise terms. They quite cheerfully say it is all part of the service which the city is glad to render the county. The library merely does its bit in maintaining a cordial feeling between the principal city and its natural hinterland. The services actually rendered by the central library to the county include, among others, the following items: (1) direct reference and loan service at the central library; (2) bookmobile service to local communities in the county; (3) interlibrary?loan service; (4) traveling library service; (5) preparation of reading lists and lists of recent accessions; (6) advice and technical instruction to the librarians of the small libraries; and (7) some direct technical service in ordering and cataloging books for small libraries.
Summed up in a sentence, each Danish central library group may be characterized as a loose federation of libraries in a natural economic and social region. It is not a consolidated library system organized as a single administrative unit. Certain Danish librarians are quite frank in saying that the system would be more efficient if the library areas were served by single consolidated regional libraries, but they realize that the country is not yet ready for this form of organization and are wise enough not to try to force the issue.
The essential features of this Danish system of central libraries seem to be three. In the first place, it provides advice, instruction, and informal inspection for the small town and rural libraries of Denmark by the competent staffs of the central libraries. In this respect, each unit might be described in American terms as a branch of a state library or library commission.
In the second place, the system provides a central unit which offers services roughly comparable to those of the headquarters library of an American county. This central unit, however, has no administrative control over the local libraries which it serves.
Finally, a liberal system of national grantsin-aid has stimulated the rapid growth of the Danish library system in general. The possibility of the withdrawal of these library subsidies has provided the national library agency and the librarians of the central libraries with an effective device for maintaining reasonable efficiency in the administration of local libraries. In other words, the subsidy law has sufficient teeth. It is difficult to see how the Danish plan could operate successfully without adequate state grants-in-aid.
Is it possible to translate this Danish plan into American terms? In many respects the situation in Denmark is comparable to that in a considerable number of American states, particularly in those areas which are served wholly or in substantial part by a system of independent local libraries. To be specific, it should have possible applications for middle?western states like Illinois and for New England states like New Hampshire or Vermont. Indeed, it is in the library demonstration in northern Vermont, conducted by the Vermont Library Experiment Committee, that we have perhaps the closest American parallel to the Danish system. In America, as in Denmark, the need for state grants?in?aid to implement the system is apparent.