Libraries and democracy
an interview with Erik Allerslev Jensen

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LIBRARIES AND DEMOCRACY -
AN INTERVIEW WITH ERIK ALLERSLEV JENSEN

One of the most well-known and most respected librarians of Scandinivia, Erik Allerslev Jensen, has now retired from active library life. 1960-1976 he was Danish Library Director, and in the strong development of the Danish public libraries during this period Erik Allerslev Jensen was one of the most frontrank figures, often the leading one. He has also been an eager protagonist for Nordic and international library cooperation: Founder and Director of the Nordic School of Advanced Library Studies 1958?68, President of Public Libraries Section of IFLA 1965-69, member of Executive Board of IFLA 1967-73 - and founder (and 1968-70 editor) of this publication.
His library life has - mostly been one of great progress, but looking at the political situation of his home-country of to-day, Erik Allerslev Jensen seems to find reasons for preparations for a more severe library climate.

SPLQ:
In many ways, Denmark has led the the whole development of library systems in Scandinavia. And in certain areas there are still major qualitative differences between Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries. What do you feel to be the main reason for this unevenness o f development?

EAJ:
These discrepancies are growing less, and I'm sure they will soon vanish altogether. But one of the reasons why Denmark has led the field, I think, is the long?standing interplay between central and local government responsibility for the libraries, with government grants on a considerable scale. The purpose of this interplay, as I see it, is to secure an average standard for the country as a whole: in other countries, where library operations are purely a municipal respon-sibility, you have to reckon that individual municipalities will have fantastic libraries - among the best in the world - while some will have very poor libraries, and others again none at all. It seems important to me that one should not only be able to improve the good libraries one has, and make them still better, but that one should also get down to improving things in places where the service is poor. And this sort of opening is not achieved by giving all the responsibility to the municipal authorities. As I see it, this is very closely bound up with a legislation resembling that we have in education. And in fact, in its manifesto on public libraries, UNESCO has urged member coun-tries to ensure nationwide library services by means of legislation.

SPLQ:
What do you think are the most important differences as regards the opportunities for a strong development of the libraries between, on the one hand, Denmark, which has long had a Libraries Act, and, on the other, Sweden, which hasn't got an Act of this kind?

EAJ:
In Sweden, we have seen a trend towards certain large authorities - the big towns ? organising a splendid service, and spending masses of money on it, while others neglect this job. And there is no way of forcing an improved service in areas where it is poor, if you don't have an Act. In the absence of an Act, central government efforts in Swe-den cannot play the same role in levelling?out standards as they do in Denmark.

SPLQ:
But even in the countries where library services are well developed, major groups of the community are outside, or feel alien to the libraries' supply. The main reasons for this, naturally, are social, economic, and educational. What do you feel to be the most important functions of our libraries when it comes to eliminating these obsta-cles?

EAJ:
I think the only way to solve this problem today is to assign parts of the library system to actual workplaces, where they can provide an outreach library service. One of the good aspects of library systems in the socialist countries is that the function has been decentralised when it comes to workplaces. And by workplaces are meant not only schools and universities, but also factories, offices, and so on, places where people work and spend time. And provided this is possible from the purely practical point of view, which is to say provided the in-stitution is of a certain size, then an opportunity should be available there to use a library.
The experiments with libraries at workplaces now under way in the Scandinavian countries are somewhat solitary swallows. Projects in which a few thousandes kronor are got together with enormous difficulty to start the whole thing off. They are not, as you might say, fully orchestrated.

SPLQ:
Do you think an organisation with a "full orchestra" would neces-sarily involve taking resources from other sectors of the library sys-tem, and assigning them to the libraries at places of work?

EAJ:
No, I don't think so. In fact, you have to be perfectly clear that a system with fully developed libraries at places of work would be much more expensive than the present system, simply because of the higher degree of use that would result. It is quite obvious that it would give us a mass of new users, people who had not previously had an opportunity to borrow books. So I don't think one can take anything from other sectors for this purpose ? the system as such is far too small.

SPLQ:
Do you think the libraries have a role to play ? and if so what sort of role ? when it comes to altering the social conditions of those groups which do not today use the libraries?

EAJ:
Yes, there the librarians and other library staff have the same openings as other citizens to work for a social system that will make possible a change of this kind in the distribution of resources. They can work for this both within and outside their professions. But I don't think one can expect from library workers as a group any direct, concrete activity to alter social conditions.
As far as I'm concerned, it is an absolutely impossible idea that library workers should organise themselves in a socialist front and take as their prime objective the introduction of a socialist system. It cannot be the role of the libraries to fight on one or the other side. The role of the libraries is to put material at the disposal both of those who are concerned to work for socialism and of those who want the opposite.

SPLQ:
Looking at the present difficult political situation in Denmark, I should like to ask you what you feel it means for the libraries that highly reactionary forces inimical to culture are acquiring an increasing amount o f room in popular opinion?

EAJ:
It involves a danger of the more or less total annihilation of the public libraries and their activities. The "Progress Party" ? the reactionary, Poujardiste party ? considers that the libraries should "pay their way", in other words that users should pay the costs. This would make it possible to establish elite libraries for the welloff, who can pay the costs of a firstclass service of this kind, while the great majority of the population would not get any library service whatsoever. That is one aspect of the present situation. The other is that ? even if such a reactionary attitude, and one so hostile to culture, sounds fantastic ? we should not underestimate the significance of such views being put forward in political life. They make, in fact, a greater or a lesser im-pact on the non?socialist parties, which are afraid above all of violent attacks from the far right. Indirectly, the attitude of the "Progress Party" on these questions, and the pressures that it exerts, mean that the non?socialist parties tend more or less to give way in certain si-tuations. There are, after all, many people in these parties who hold, in their hearts, the same views as the "Progress Party". Just like the warhorse hearing the trumpets, they prick their ears and say "Aha".

SPLQ:
During your last years as Director of Libraries, the waves of debate rolled pretty high in Denmark as regards the role of the libraries, and the influence of the state. And after a great deal of argument to and fro, the revized Libraries Act that finally saw the light of day last year involved a marked weakening of the state's commitment in this field. In the light of this, how do you see the future development of Den-mark's public libraries?

EAJ:
I take a very dark view of the future, because the new Act that we have is in reality one that simply postpones abolition of the Libraries Act for two or three years. The further extension of the present Act involves the introduction of block grants, which mean ? so far as the libraries are concerned ? that the state grants are incorporated in a lump sum which the individual municipality can use as it pleases. This means that if it doesn't want to spend any of the state's funds on the libraries then it needn't; if it wants to spend a whole lot of money on them, then it can do that too. But we probaly shouldn't reckon on the latter being the case to any great extent. So that if a system of block grants is introduced within the next few years, it will cause irreparable damage to the public libraries. The existing discrepancies in standards beween different local authorities, which have so far been largely evened out by the state grants, will be aggravated. One can take, for example, the case of Sweden, which on average has a very high stan-dard of libraries. There, the gap between the best libraries and the worst is very large, all too large. And this will always be the result when the municipalities themselves are 100 per cent responsible. And with the block grant system, this is the development we shall see in Denmark too. Even if we possess good resources in our public libraries ? and we do ? it will not take all that long before they become antiquated and inadequate.
In the United States, which has otherwise been a pioneer in the library sector, I once heard an American librarian explain that one third of the population has access to a superb library service, and one third to a fairly inadequate service, while one third gets no service at all. This is hardly a consummation to be desired. The situation has in all certainty changed since federal support to the public libraries was introduced in 1956. But the libraries we see on visits to the States naturally belong to the upper third.

SPLQ:
You have been keenly involved ? to put it mildly ? in Scandinavian collaboration in the library field. We need only recall the Kungälv courses (the Scandinavian School of Further Training for Librarians), which were your creation. Would you care to give views on this colla-boration, a bit o f the background, and the importance it has had?

EAJ:
In putting forward the idea of the Kungälv courses, I was influenced by the Scandinavian collaboration that was under way in a number of fields. Once I'd started to interest myself in training, I found that Arne Kildal, who later became the Norwegian Director of Libraries, had proposed as early as in 1917 the setting up of a joint Scandinavian school of librarianship. No training in librarianship was given at that time in the Scandinavian countries, although preparations were being made for a school in Copenhagen. Familiar as he was with the American library system, and believing that the Scandinavian coun-tries were so close to each other in their social structure, mentality, and so on, he considered that a joint school of this kind would be tremendously valuable. One can't help thinking that if only this idea had been realised, then a great deal could have been uniformly structured in the Scandinavian libraries, including the solutions to technical problems. If we had this sort of joint training, then we would have been forced to arrive at joint rules on cataloguing, and a joint classification system. After all, it is not any sort of national interest that has dictated that "elephants", for example, are assigned to a dif-ferent place in each of our systems. And in many other fields we should also have arrived at joint rules, which would have strengthened Scandinavian collaboration, and thus also development in each indivi-dual country. But unfortunately local patriotism carried the day in 1917, as it has done on so many occasions since.
The main significance of the Kungälv school is that it has stimulated a sense of Scandinavian community. That sounds a bit unattractive and highflown, but it's something of that sort I mean. As an institution for professional, theoretical training, Kungäalv was naturally very restric-ted owing the great differences between our countries, which emerge when you sit down round a table and start looking into things. But the opportunity to get together with, other professionals has meant a lot to many of those taking part, and probably also for the debate in certain fields.

SPLQ:
What is your judgment of other Scandinavian collaboration in the library sector, between the library associations, and the directors of libraries, and so on?

EAJ:
The continuous Scandinavian library meetings I think are an excellent institution. Above all the personal contacts between the Scandinavian directors of libraries, the heads of the Scandinavian schools of libra-rianship etc., are of importance per se. You can always learn some-thing from the way other people solve problems.
I think one should add in this context that it is a definite advantage in our collaboration that the library systems of the different Scandinavian countries have developed essentially at the same pace. This applies, for example, with regard to a common Scandinavian labour market. I think it would not only be an excellent idea, I think it more or less self?evident that we should employ colleagues from our Scandinavian neighbours to a much greater extent than we do, that we should have a real common labour market. This problem could have been solved if Kildal's proposal had been accepted in 1917. But the collaboration that exists should be greatly expanded. We shall be much stronger if we can act as a unit. We must not forget that these are small areas we are speaking of, with an aggregate population hardly greater than that of two or three states in the USA.
Particularly in certain purely technical fields, collaboration and joint action are bound to offer great advantages; I am thinking here, for example, of library furnishings and the publication of catalogues, the sort of things that the Scandinavian library centres are concerned with to a very great extent. These have not only shown themselves a typi-cally Scandinavian type of enterprise, they have also been of tre-mendous importance, as is clear for example from their fields of work and the sort of budgets they now operate with.
As head of the first library centre in Denmark, I had a budget, if I remember rightly, of 17,000 Dkr., and when I left the job in 1946 I was very proud to have got turnover up to 200,000 Dkr. The centre's current budget is something around 50-60 million Dkr.
The whole of development shows that there can be no doubt of the advantages to be won by collaboration.

SPLQ:
Your international involvement is by no means restricted to Scan-dinavia. You have long had well?established library contacts the world over. What do you think it possible to achieve by international collaboration in the library sector, in view o f the vast differences in the initial positions of different countries, politically, economically, and culturally?

EAJ:
It is true of international collaboration to an even greater extent than of Scandinavian that the important thing is personal contacts, while it can be very difficult to agree on purely technical questions. When it comes specifically to getting collaboration going between countries with widely differing cultural and economic backgrounds, I must say this has not been the greatest difficulty in international collaboration. People work, for example, very well together in groups comprising representatives of both the east and west, because it it is found, on closer study, that the actual basic problems are identical to a greater extent than you might think. And just a simple matter like people from the east and west working together on committees and in sections I feel to be important. The countries that particularly benefit from international collaboration, and from the activities of IFLA, are those with poorly developed library systems. And here it is at all events some-thing positive that we can describe and demonstrate to these countries how the problem of providing library services has been solved in the Scandinavian countries.

Interviewer: Jan Ristarp