The objective of the public library is to... 1970

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The Objective of the Public Library is to . . . . .


"Is it your intention to accompany the borrower to the shelves, show him where Faulkner's novels are and perhaps give him advice on which of them he should choose; then, maybe continue the conversation by suggesting books by other authors, and if the conversation should turn, for example, to the Danish butter export, show the borrower and discuss with him relevant literature on that subject?" "Yes, something along those lines," I answered my English colleague. Both of us smiled, aware of the gap between us. The difference between the small, easily surveyable Danish or Scandinavian book market and its counterpart, the enormous English language market, was not the only reason for the gap. My eagerness to mediate and his eagerness to be tactful and thereby perhaps neutral was probably most important.
This took place in 1957 when it was still possible to give lectures for Danish library students on the topic "The librarian's calling and his tasks". Words with such strong emotional connotations are not given much of a hearing these days, and only a minority of librarians would be so officious as to drag a borrower about from one carefully selected book to another. It is still common, however, for the Danish librarian to acquire an all?round and rather thorough knowledge of the bookstock in his library, and the conception still prevails that it is the librarian's duty to influence the nature of what the library has to offer in the field of communications.
The Danish Public Libraries Act regards the public 1ibraries as being part of the general cultural policy of the state, defining their aims as follows: "The objective of the public libraries is to promote the spread of knowledge, education and culture". The act also speaks of "making it possible for every citizen independently to arrive at his own opinions, obtain general and professional orientation, acquire knowledge, personal development and artistic and human experiences". The Danish librarian does not merely carry out the requests of his borrowers, his job is to evaluate which materials in the field of communications have quality and which do not, say no to the latter and do his utmost to fulfil requests for the former. He is, in other words, a so?called mediator of culture.
It is largely due to experiments carried out in the field of sociology that such terms as "culture" and "quality" have been seriously questioned in recent years. Those responsible for mediating culture have been forced to consider whether their efforts actually do promote a democratization of communications. Perhaps they preserve the superiority of socalled highbrow culture, instead.
Danish cultural policy entered a new era in 1961 with the establishment of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. It was in essence mainly intended to promote endeavours within the arts, the initial objective being to support the production of works of art. This one?sided approach gave rise to heated discussions among the population, and today is generally considered to have been a deplorable mistake. Not much consideration was given the libraries in this regard, but now that those in charge of the cultural policy have become increasingly aware of the endeavours made to mediate, cultural values, the library system, which is by far the Ministry's largest item of expenditure will have the spotlight turned on it.
The situation is such that every few years vehement debates are carried on among librarians as to which definition of literary quality the libraries should adopt when it comes to choosing which literature is to stand on the shelves. To many the librarians' speculations about book selection criteria must certainly resemble a tempest in a tea cup, especially at a time when the availability of funds reduces the necessity for financial considerations. Nevertheless, the complex of problems contains perspectives of an extremely far?reaching and principle nature for all activity concerned with mediating cultural values.
The sociological analysis of communications into transmission, the message to be transmitted, and the reception of the message has increased the awareness of those responsible for mediating cultural values for the receiver side of the process. Interpretation of the message is determined more or less by chance factors, but quite as important to its interpretation is the receiver's social background, education, etc. Some, inspired perhaps by the new "youth culture", have reached the conclusion that the quality of a particular form of communication should be measured by its ability to stimulate participation, inspire a sense of community and by the degree to which it can be considered an event in a particular environment. This is a new as well as a broad criterium for quality, but nevertheless a criterium or a method.
There is also the point of view that any attempt by librarians to define quality is an intolerable cultural intervention. The objective must be to make available as much material as possible for everyone, make it freely accessible and then let the individual reach his own conclusions. Often heard accompanying this point of view is the opinion that since the library's expenses are paid for out of the taxpayers' pocketbooks, they have a right to read what they want. An unavoidable result of, this attitude is that so?called popular or ephemeral literature will be let into the public libraries in large quantities since this type of fiction appeals to a great many people.
Finally, there is "the radical leftist movement" in the field of culture which now, as always, considers the production of popular literature to be an unacceptable speculation in pauper culture which thrives at the lower cultural levels of the population. There is a steadily growing tendency among the radicals, in recognition of the fact that book selection policy has probably been too persistently one-sided in its criteria, to open the libraries to genres such as the comics, detective novels and pornography, categories which previously were rejected or misjudged.
Viewed in this perspective the sociological investigation from the Danish School of Librarianship, Læste Boger [I] (Books that are read) can almost be considered a provocation. The last part of the statistical analysis - which will show which people read what, the consumer's social make-up - is not yet concluded. But it is in itself extraordinary to be presented with an investigation that dares take the precarious leap from being a mere statistical analysis of the quantitative aspects of communications to analyzing its qualitative aspects.
The sociological laboratory at the Danish School of Librarianship, which is headed by B. V. Elberling [2], lecturer at the school, carried out the investigation in February - March 1964 in co?operation with the Danish Institute of Social Research. It was a radio and television investigation with a nationwide interview of a so?called representative sample: 3,717 persons age 15 and upwards. Among the investigation's questions on reading and use of the library, it was possible to include the following 3 questions: I) Are you currently reading a book, 2) Have you read any other books within the past 3 years (maximum 3 titles), and 3) Do you read books in foreign languages? If so, name author and title. Of the 4,476 titles named in the interview 80 per cent were identifiable.
Briefly, the results of the investigation were as follows. Less than half of those interviewed read books and only one seventh could be called avid readers. Men read more than women, young people more than older people, and people with a higher education read more than those with fewer years of schooling. One fourth of the books read were borrowed from the library, a figure which corresponds to similar investigations in other countries, for example Berelsons [3]. Four fifths of the books read were fiction, for the most part novels, and there were fewer Danish titles represented than English or American titles in translation.
To a foreigner it must appear extremely hazardous to permit 16 library school students, almost finished with their training for librarianship, to judge the quality of the 2,700 titles named by those interviewed. However, the text of the public libraries act has thus been taken at its word when it states: "In the field of fiction the libraries must be able to make available to readers the best literature printed in Danish." And the actual situation in Danish libraries is that from among the 300?400 Danish and translated fiction titles published every year in Denmark, librarians select "the best" which turns out to be between one and two thirds.
The report confirms that the 16 library school students, as members of a highly homogeneous social group, had on the whole the same opinions of what is understood by "the best". The titles were divided into 5 categories and only 5 per cent had to be disregarded. 7 per cent fell in group A: the best books, 24 per cent in group B: good books, 34 per cent in group C: books of medium quality, 14 per cent in group D: inferior books, and 17 per cent in group E: the worst books. In this as in other investigations like it there are, of course, a number of reservations which must be made concerning the reliability of the answers obtained. E.g. an interviewee in an effort to live up to a recognized set of norms might name a socially acceptable book instead of a pornographic novel. I am not professionally qualified to evaluate the scientific realiability of this investigation, but what should be pointed out is that sociology does not operate with definitions of what quality is. The evaluation of quality is based on the librarian's own definition and is proof of a mechanism in Danish cultural policy in the 1960´s. This is the way the investigation ought to be judged, and it is this aspect of it that makes it relevant.
The report describing the last part of the investigation has yet to come. but numerous other sociological investigations in recent years make it clear that there today in Denmark exist two cultural traditions or patterns of life, each of which can be traced to its respective level of the population and between whose extremes there is a great distance. There is every reason to suppose that Læste Bøger in its entirety will reflect just this situation since the use of the public libraries is naturally one of the components of this societal pattern. One part of the population is interested in what is termed "cultural activity", definable perhaps as a means of making life more sophisticated and giving it more variety. This group is also that part of the population favoured with good salaries, a good education and good living conditions. The vocabulary and language skills of this group, its tradition for using the amenities made available by society makes its members born library users in large numbers. They are people who read books which librarians, belonging to the same social group, have chosen as being "the best".
The other part of the population, the largest group, has a smaller salary, a poorer education (85 per cent of the Danish population has only had 7 years of formal education), poorer living conditions, and so on. Using society's cultural facilities is not an integral part of the life pattern of this group, even though its members use the public libraries more often than they, for example, frequent theatres, museums and concerts. The many similar traits of this group along with its size support the hypothesis that rejection of "cultural activity" is not the result of personal choice. With only slight modification it can be said that patronage of the libraries is for the privileged.
It is not hard to understand why a number of librarians when faced with the culturo?political tasks placed on the public libraries give up and try to transfer to what may be a busy but, by comparison, uncomplicated life in the teaching field. Other colleagues prefer instead to concern themselves with improving the efficiency of the library system's technical organization and are soon so involved in this that the complex of culturo?political problems pale in significance.
The challenge for the rest of us, however, lies in recognizing that librarians in a great many things are patchwork tailors, set to mend the cultural and communications gaps in society and yet solely because of their duty to promote development and change in society the libraries constantly find themselves in the forefront in the struggle against the status quo. Inwardly one of the tasks consists of protecting the freedom of movement of the individual librarian or groups of librarians against the existing tendencies to make us unimaginative clerks in large organizational units. Outwardly the task consists of carrying through a practical experimental programme which can handle the current culturo?political goals effectively, giving all due consideration to the possibilities for erasing class distinctions. This includes those possibilities which already exist but are as yet untried as well as those which continually turn up.

[I] Voksnes læsning og biblioteksbenyttelse. Ved B. V. Elberling og Inger Bruhns. Danmarks Biblioteksskole. Copenhagen 1967. 115 pages.
[2] The Sociology of libraries and their publics. By B. V. Elberling. Libri, Vol. 16, 1966, pp. 87?112.
[3] A Report of the public library inquiry.New York, Columbia University Press, 1949, 175 pages.