The public libraries of Denmark . some personal impressions / K. C. Harrison. 1969.

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The public libraries of Denmark : some personal impressions

The Public Libraries of Denmark



I have recently returned from my sixth visit to Denmark, all these journeys having been made for the purpose of studying the Danish library scene. On taking stock, I find that I have now visited over forty Danish libraries, more than half of these being public, libraries. I must disclaim, however, any pretensions of regarding myself as an expert on the subject, and I am much more conscious of the gaps in my knowledge than of that little I really know.
This latest visit was for the purpose of up?dating myself prior to the preparation of the second edition of Libraries in Scandinavia. The chapter I have written for that book on the topic of Danish public libraries tends to be a purely descriptive one, but in this article I have been asked to give my personal impressions and to be critical. I propose to take full advantage of this, and hope not to lose too many Danish friends as a result.
It is only fair to begin by stating what I have seen and what I have not, so as to clarify the basis of my impressions. Copenhagen I have visited, and Frederiksberg, as well as Århus, Odense, Horsens, Silkeborg, Esbjerg, Vejle and Roskilde. I have also visited Hillerød, Hørsholm, Værløse, Brøndbyerne, Lyngby?Tårbæk, Vejlby?Risskov, Viby and a number of other smaller libraries and branches in cities. Bibliotekscentralen (The Library Bureau) [I] and the Danish School of Librarianship have been visited, as well as the State Inspection of Public Libraries on numerous occasions.
On the debit side, I have never visited Ålborg, Randers, Frederikshavn, Herning, and a number of the places which are to the forefront in public library development. These are gaps which I hope to fill in the future, but I wanted to make clear at the outset the limitations of my experience.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a critic is one who pronounces judgment. Although the definition of "criticism" goes on to include the terms "censorious" and "faultfinding" it does not exclude admiration. This is fortunate, because foreigners find a great deal to admire in the Danish public library scene.
First of all, foreign librarians admire the brief, simple and explicit library laws of Denmark, especially the current one of 1964 which came into force on April I, 1965 and which begins: "The purpose of public libraries is to promote the spread of knowledge, education and culture by making books and other suitable materials available free of charge." This uncomplicated statement could hardly be bettered as a brief definition of public library aims. We admire too the generous state grants, the way in which the law includes the promotion of school libraries, the special grants for cooperative undertakings, for the Merchant Seamen's Library, for authors' compensation and other projects, to say nothing of the special attention aimed at improving the arrangements for cooperation amongst the public libraries of Greater Copenhagen [2].
After a few years' experience of any law, criticisms can be made of it, and doubtless work is already in progress in drafting new legislation for public libraries in Denmark. Yet the effects of the current law have been by no means exhausted. A case in point concerns the provision of gramophone record departments in public libraries, now permitted and encouraged by the Public Libraries Act of 1964. A few good examples have been inaugurated but many libraries, notably Copenhagen itself, still have to make this provision. No doubt many are in the planning stage, but Danish librarians are finding that shortage of floor space is almost as acute a problem as the shortage of money to implement this costly service.
I also suspect that much remains to be done to implement para 2 (4) of the 1964 Act. This gives public libraries permission to establish and run departments in commercial, industrial and other establishments and institutions in their areas or make arrangements for library provision in cooperation with them.
Complete coverage of the country has to be achieved by April 1969. In fact, it has already been practically achieved and this must give great satisfaction to Danish public librarians.
There are other facets of the library scene in Denmark which are envied by many librarians overseas. One is Bibliotekscentralen (The Library Bureau) and the support which is given to the good work it does. The central cataloguing of books and gramophone records, the indexing of Danish newspapers and periodicals, and all the other cooperative ventures are very praiseworthy. One practical aspect I must however criticise, and that concerns the binding done at Indbindingscentralen (The Binding Centre). The quality of this work can hardly be faulted, and I realise that improvements have taken place to make the bindings more attractive and colourful, but the spines of the books still have that institutional look. As it is the spines that present themselves to readers in libraries, something should be done to individualise them.
Another focal point of foreign admiration is the Danish School of Librarianship, efficiently operating from its 13,000 m2 new building in the southern part of Copenhagen. Is it the biggest library school in the world? Certainly it must be the largest in Europe and it will be the envy of library educationists everywhere. Backing its roomy accommodation are up-to-date courses designed to produce all types of librarians, and it is interesting to note that the course for public librarians is now four years in duration. In this respect Denmark has once again given a lead to the rest of Europe and indeed to most countries of the world.
When librarians from overseas visit Scandinavia one of their chief objectives is to see many of the new buildings which have been provided for libraries in recent years. Denmark has its quota of showpieces in this respect - I am thinking of Horsens, Roskilde, Hillerød, Brøndbyerne, Værløse, Lyngby-Tårbæk and some other public libraries housed in buildings erected during the 1960s ? but the country is also interesting to foreign librarians because of the existence of a library buildings consultant on the staff of the State Inspection of Public Libraries.
There is no doubt that this is an appointment which ought to be copied in many other countries. Many of us have seen the practical results and benefits of having such a consultant. Hørsholm, Horsens, Hillerød and other fairly recent public library buildings all demonstrate the advantages which can accrue from having plans scrutinised by a library buildings expert. His influence has spread to other countries, and I well remember seeing the library at Hafnarfj6rbur in Iceland which clearly shows Sven Plovgaard's good influence.
Those of us who come from countries where there is no parallel appointment at state level sometimes find it difficult to imagine what actually happens when new public library buildings are being planned. But I have seen the buildings consultant at work. He receives draft plans from local architects at an early stage and gets the opportunity to comment upon them and suggest amendments. I saw one such example in his office not long ago. Plans of a library forming part of a civic centre were before him and the accommodation allotted to the library? was too little, yet it could easily be enlarged without destroying the overall symmetry of the buildings complex. The suggestion was made, and it was agreed. Result ? happiness!
I am not certain what happens if the local architects and the buildings consultant cannot agree and there is an impasse. Probably this happens only very rarely, but it would be interesting to know who has the final say.
Certainly there are a number of attractive new public library buildings in Denmark, all of them worth a visit. And there are more to come, for I understand that Randers is now completed, and that Herning, Sønderborg and Ringkøbing are among the places scheduled for new buildings. Yet, despite all this and past activity, one must agree with Helle Kannila when she wrote in the SCANDINAVIAN I ( 1968) I, p. 19: "Nevertheless, it is not altogether manifest that Denmark should be placed prior to Sweden. In the last few years Swedish local authorities have spent liberally on their libraries, and the work done is imposing, for in quantity as well as in quality Swedish library buildings are considered superior to those of Denmark."
Miss Kannila. is absolutely right. When one compares the Danish achievement, good though it is, with such an array of new public library buildings such as those of Gothenburg, Hälsingborg, Växjö, Eskilstuna, Solna, Kristianstad and many other places up and down Sweden, the truth of her statement is self?evident. It seems to me that the answer is a simple one, lying in the different financial resources available to the two nations. It will be recalled that in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a flurry of architectural activity on the Danish public library front. Copenhagen got new premises for its library, then followed such buildings as those at Hørsholm, Horsens, Køge, Roskilde and Hillerød. to say nothing of the many attractive branch libraries in the cities and larger towns.
Then, just as the movement was achieving momentum. came the financial blight and severe restrictions were placed on the provision of new public buildings generally. This must have been a severe blow to Danish librarians and to the State Inspection, but it is a blow which is familiar to their colleagues in Britain and many other countries too. Only the United States and Sweden seem to have escaped the worst effects of the world financial recession of the last two or three years: certainly Sweden's public library development in the way of new buildings has not been arrested to the same extent as in Denmark and elsewhere.
I have a criticism of Danish public library building, though it is one which could well apply in Britain and other countries. This is that, despite the existence of a buildings consultant in the State Inspection, too many plans are approved for buildings which turn out to be too small almost immediately after their opening. A case in point is the public library at Værløse. Opened in September 1964, when I saw the 720 m2 building four years later it already looked cramped and certainly seems to have no space left for additional activities. Future extensions may well have been planned, but this is a costly enterprise so soon after completion. Other examples could be quoted, in addition to Værløse.
It is quite obvious that this noticeable shortcoming is due, not to any lack of foresight or expertise on the part of architects or librarians or members of the staff of the State Inspection, but to the limitations of finance. All over the world librarians find it difficult enough to persuade their authorities to provide much?needed new buildings in the first place: to persuade them to allow empty floor space for future developments is becoming well?nigh impossible. Nevertheless, if the examples of buildings which have proved too small within a very few years of opening can be quoted to the authorities ad nauseam, there is a possibility that librarians might get the message across to those who hold the purse?strings.
In today's world, where conditions change more rapidly than ever before, it is hardly possible to visualise developments more than five years ahead, at the maximum. All the more important then, that we should design open?plan, flexible buildings, but at the same time ensure that we allow enough floor space to augment future re-arrangements and modifications.
One of the most recent public library buildings which impressed me in Denmark was that at Lyngby-Tårbæk. This is a comparatively rich community, one of the 22 boroughs of Greater Copenhagen, so it is fitting that it should possess a good main library. Serving 63,000 people, the library complex has four branches and twelve school libraries as well as this new main library of approximately 6,000 m2. A separate music library is contained in an adjacent house which has a history going back to i 750, but this is linked to the main library by a covered and glazed canopy.
I liked the foresight which has resulted in the provision of a drive-in car park for forty cars in the basement. This level also contains the stack, study circle rooms, staff dining room, cloak room and a story hour room for young children in a memorable red and blue decor.
The ground floor has the adult lending department, the children's library, a lecture hall with automatic control of curtains, and a forty-seater library cafe. This latter is wellsituated to serve readers, users of the lecture hall and passersby.
On the first floor, the periodicals reading area looks down on the adult lending library, and this level also houses three study carrels, the local history library, administrative offices, the cataloguing department and, last but not least, a wellstocked reference library with 40 seats for readers.
It was while I was in this reference library that I began thinking of a basic difference which still exists between public library provision in Britain and in most other European countries, Scandinavia included. This difference concerns not only the provision of reference libraries, but also the actual level of non?fiction books provided in public libraries. In Britain we have the tradition of great reference libraries in the large cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, and I think it is true to say that we supply non?fiction books in greater depth in our lending libraries than is done in Scandinavia and some other countries of Europe.
Can it be that some Danish librarians believe that public libraries should not attempt to supply non?fiction above a certain level, leaving such provision to the research libraries? It would certainly seem so to an outside observer, but if my surmise is true I would suggest that, however close the cooperation is between public and research libraries, it is time that the public libraries raised their sights.
In Britain we are soon to have a "University of the air" or "Open University" as it is now called. This teaching by TV and radio is expected to put an additional strain on public libraries, but I venture to suggest that British public libraries are already fairly well prepared by reason of possessing nonfiction stocks in considerable depth as well as many reference libraries capable of sustaining the needs of research workers. As education continues to develop and to broaden it behoves public libraries everywhere to equip themselves with the necessary literature, especially that at the highest level in each subject. Research libraries are generally equipped to deal only with their own clienteles, plus the necessary cooperation with other libraries, and they are not always geared to cope with demands which come from the continual broadening of education. Public libraries must be so geared.
Being particularly interested in the problems of public library service in metropolitan areas, I am pleased to note the recent moves towards more cooperation between the libraries in the Greater Copenhagen area. This is one aspect of librarianship in which first Metropolitan London and now Greater London has perhaps led the world. Interavailability of readers' tickets, cooperative interlending based on a union catalogue, subject specialisation collections, a joint fiction reserve, regular meetings of an advisory body of librarians (the Association of London Chief Librarians) to the London Boroughs Association ? these have all been fully settled and operative in one form or another for over twenty years, in fact for forty years as far as the London Union Catalogue is concerned.
Copenhagen has been far slower to realise the advantages of close library cooperation in all its aspects. When I wrote the first edition of Libraries in Scandinavia eight years ago it was true to say that there was no official cooperation between public libraries in the Greater Copenhagen area, though no doubt a good deal of unofficial cooperation was practised. There was an extremely limited and guarded scheme of readers' ticket interavailability between the public libraries of Copenhagen city and the boroughs of Frederiksberg and Gentofte, but that was all.
Now the picture is happily quite different. Obviously a good deal of spadework was done while the Public Libraries Act of 1964 was in draft, as a result of which the following sentence was included in that law. "A sum shall be included in the annual Finance Act as a grant for the common undertakings of the public libraries of Greater Copenhagen."
There is no need for me to describe what has happened since then because this has been efficiently done by Johs. Lehm Laursen in the SCANDINAVIAN [2]. I know that Mr. Lehm Lausen has been a constant protagonist and a doughty fighter for public library cooperation in Greater Copenhagen, and it is altogether fitting that he should be ohairman of the Standing Committee on the subject and the writer of that article in the SCANDINAVIAN.
Often there are advantages to be gained from being late in the field. You can come up from behind and finish ahead of the leaders, and this is precisely what Greater Copenhagen seems to have done. For not only have arrangements been made to do most of what is being done in Greater London, but in addition other well-laid plans have been arranged such as the establishment of book sets for study groups, and the special collection of children's literature in foreign languages.
Of course Denmark has the advantage of state subsidies for these activities. Lehm Laursen says: "The finance for inter-library cooperation depends entirely on Government grants: the boroughs do not contribute." In Greater London it is just the opposite, the boroughs contributing all the money and the State none, and I think this makes our job in London the more difficult of the two. One thing is certain: we in London will be taking a great interest in the developments in Greater Copenhagen and just as you may have learnt a little from us in the past, we shall undoubtedly learn much from you in the future.
My final paragraph must be on a note of admiration. In my writings and lectures I have frequently used the word "model" when referring to the Danish library scene. To many British eyes the Danish library law is indeed a model, so is the work of the State Inspection, the Library Bureau and the Danish School of Librarianship, to say nothing of the increasingly efficient cooperative arrangements and the quite unusually close relations between the public and research libraries. We in Britain have taken certain steps in the recent past towards achieving an overall equality in our public library services throughout the country. Some improvements have taken place in consequence but we are still a long way from the desired objective. The measures which have secured parity of service throughout Denmark should be studied carefully in Britain and in all other countries where inequalities persist.

[I] Bibliotekscentralen, the Danish Library Bureau. By Leo Alster.
Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly, i (1968) 4, pp. 226?38.
[2] Public Library Co?operation in Greater Copenhagen. By Jobs.
Lehm Laursen. Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly, i
(1968) 2, pp. 65?80.