Public libraries as cultural centers

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Public Libraries as Cultural Centres

Knowing, of course, that adult education services, interlibrary co?operation, open universities administrations and programmes planners in television etc. as well as information service and that sort of thing all are trends and important trends in the cultural service of to?day's public library, I have all the same made up my mind not to say anything about them, and instead concentrate on one new aspect of the work of the public library: its cultural arrangements, how they can find their place in the library pattern, and why they ought to live happily there.
In a paper called A Cultural Political Report published by the Danish Minister of Cultural Affairs in 1968 a definition of the word "culture" is not included. Perhaps it can be surmised by looking at the contents of the paper, i.e. theatres, museums, libraries, music, education of cultural workers and artists, and support to the creative arts. Some years ago in Denmark the word "culture" was more or less identified with art, and the aim of cultural politics was therefore to support the growth and distribution of art. This produced a certain amount of annoyance among the public which felt that as individuals they and their friends also possessed a kind of culture, even if they were not interested in refined and established art. During the last few years lengthy and embittered discussions about art and culture took place in Denmark with the result that the concept culture has been widened. "Culture" does not only mean art, but can be defined as "a possibility for spiritual expansion and development, personal concentration and renewal". It is obvious that the individual can grow and develop on his own, but even so, I would say that an active cultural concept is also connected with development, life and co?operating with others.
If this definition is accepted, cultural politics must be the official aim of making available to people as many good offers as possible for development and growth, absorption and renewal and cultural centres are places where people in a community can develop, have human experiences etc.
Cultural politics can use the concept of the cultural centre as one of the expressions to achieve its aims, but only as a single aspect of the pattern of cultural politics which ought to start in creches, nurseries and schools.
We like to believe that we are all socially equal in the welfare state, and it is fashionable to say that people with equal social rights ought to have the same cultural opportunities. It would be more modest to say that everybody ought to be given opportunities for cultural activities and cultural experiences of different kinds. However, as long as social equality does not exist, only a certain part of the population is able to make use of the official offers of culture, and active social politics, better opportunities for education and a general widening of democracy go hand in hand with cultural political activities. But we may perhaps be sufficiently optimistic to believe that unless we go bankrupt, are hit by an atomic bomb or die of pollution, society will undergo so many changes in the next few years that there will be a greater demand for cultural experiences and better possibilities for accepting and utilizing cultural opportunities.
Rationalization and technicalization will change the worker's situation, perhaps giving the individual more freedom to develop himself and choose his own way of living. Many more people will enjoy more leisure time, and a far greater part of our existence will become completely "free" because people live longer and perhaps it will be possible to keep them spiritually alive much longer than now. Urbanization will result in a still greater concentration of people in towns, thus cultural offers will reach a greater number of people and the demand for this is greatest in towns, there community life is less active than in the country in pite of this concentration. These factors can form a basis or better utilization of cultural politics, but the most important thing is the educational situation: the increased length of schooling will create a better foundation for appreciating cultural values as well as greater curiosity and open mindedness than is possible when young people start working in a factory at the age of 14 and maybe work there the rest of their lives. At the same time it will happen that the basic education will no longer be adequate, people will continually need further education, possibly re?education, and it may look as if there will never be time for anything else but education. I believe in the opposite because experiments have shown that the best educated people are those who also are most interested in culture, I am saying this bearing in mind the exception of bigoted scientists and all kinds of one?sided specialization.
These are some of the changes one can visualize which in one way or another will influence the attitude towards culture and cultural politics. Added to this will be all the things we can only faintly imagine, such as young peoples culture and what comes out of it ? new societies, the growing democratization we hope for on jobs, new philosophies of life, new moral standards and many other things. Whether cultural institutions and cultural workers will participate in the promotion of different attitudes, whether they will work for some changes and against others, I cannot predict, but the attitude of the institutions towards innovations will be of consequence in one way or another, irrespective of a passive, reserved or expectant attitude or whether one participates in the events of the moment.
Why ought one be interested at all in cultural politics? Because otherwise it will become more and more difficult for people to preserve their independent views and their inner freedom. There exists a great deal of specialization in all societies with the result that very few highly educated people can keep their knowledge to themselves, and the philosophy which forms the basis for the man in the street is illusionary or at best too superficial. By active cultural politics one can perhaps force the specialists to pass on their special knowledge to others. One of the conditions for real democracy is, amongst others, that everybody is being informed of their background, the time in which they live, and even if cultural politics appear in different guises, it is its most essential aim to make people more conscious of themselves and their own time. The public library is certainly not the only place where this can be done, but it is one of the places, where cultural politics can make an impact on many people.
The idea of the public library as a cultural centre is not new in Denmark. Especially in the 60s, the subject was discussed among librarians and people outside the libraries. This can be due to many things, such as the cultural centre idea in other countries, the development of libraries in other countries and the ordinary feeling for a demand for new cultural politics, but also because making money and buildings available for cultural activities is today a public matter.
In the eastern European countries, cultural centres have been a feature of daily life for a long time. Although they also had a political aim, they strove to give the individual citizen the opportunity for development and activity, and in western Europe, America and England many types of cultural centres have been created, aiming to further public information, art, politics and real entertainment. In Denmark different ideas regarding cultural centres have been discussed especially in the 60s, and in 1966 a ministerial report on cultural centres was published. The Danish State Library Director, E. Allerslev Jensen was a member of the committee, which prepared the report, but sset forth a minority opinion. One of the reasons was his belief that an act on cultural centres which aims at the establishment of a cultural institution with, in many respects, activities identical to those of the public libraries would create uncertainty as to the distribution of cultural tasks in the different municipalities in a field of activity administratively divided, but closely related as far as aims are concerned. He also feared that the realization of an act on cultural centres could prevent realization of the public libraries act.
In connection with this proposal of cultural centres a Danish newspaper published a funny drawing. Two people stood in front of a new, beautiful building saying to one another: "Here we have a cultural centre ? now all we need is culture". There is something in that remark. It points out that it seems rather silly to build new places for cultural activities if there already exist cultural institutions which can be enlarged and brought up to date. Such institutions sometimes can be found inside museums, sometimes in schools and folk?high?schools, sometimes within the theatre. In Denmark there is one institution in each municipality, ? the public library ?established in accordance with the Public Libraries Act of 1964 as a compulsory institution everywhere, which the state is obliged to support, in any case up to now, in all its activities. Of course, we have many small libraries in many places, but since April 1st 1970 the number of municipalities has been reduced from 1000 to 277. This is bound to result in the establishing of larger and more effective libraries.
The Public Libraries Act of 1st April 1965 presented the first serious opportunity for the libraries to turn into cultural centres or to co?ordinate the different facets of the cultural life in the various municipalities. The paragraph dealing with the aim of the Act demands from the libraries information, education, and cultural activity, and furthermore requests the libraries by external active initiative to extend their communication with the public and to work for the promotion of independent views and actions of the individual citizen. Under certain conditions the act places audiovisual material on the same level with books, and today many libraries therefore have collections of gramophone records, slides, some have art collections, and many have an extensive exhibition activity. It is debatable whether the Act also forms a basis for the many cultural activities taking place in Danish public libraries today, but they take place in any case irrespective of an adherent paragraph in the Act or not.
According to an investigation made by the State Inspection of Public Libraries in 1968/69, 4000 hours of fairytale telling, 500 theatre performances for children, 500 art exhibitions, 750 musical arrangements, 163 evenings with authors and more than 1000 other cultural arrangements, big and small, where organized at the Danish public libraries. If I could take you on a round?trip in the middle of the winter season you would, of course, in many libraries find only the traditional lending and reading activities, but in some of them you would also find many other activities. In Frederikssund you would find a puppetshow, discussion groups, exhibitions about foreign workers, many arrangements for children, at Brøndbyerne (a suburb of Copenhagen) you would find a beatclub, a club for children's theatre performances, evenings with authors, group theatre, at Lyngby, (another suburb), theatre, concerts exhibitions, ballet, at Gladsaxe (also a suburb) evenings with authors, concerts, exhibitions, children's arrangements, in Slagelse an art cinema, in Randers a cultural centre, where two museums and a library are housed in the same building and together have at their disposal a lecture room, localities for study circles and a cafeteria. In Aalborg, you would see children making Christmas decorations, playing in a puppetshow, in Hjørring you could listen to lectures on music, in Rønne (on the island of Bornholm) you would see ceramic exhibitions and watch a sculptur teach children to work with clay, in Rødovre (a suburb of Copenhagen) you would find exhibitions and concerts and in the children's library you would meet nursey school teachers playing with little ones etc. I could continue for a long time, painting a varied and colourful picture for you.
As I said before, we have seriously discussed the cultural centre idea in Denmark during the last 10 years. The report from 1966 was put away in a desk drawer where it has since remained, but the present Minister of Cultural Affairs has tried in other ways to breathe new life into the debate on culture. He has published a large cultural report, partly a description of cultural institutions, partly a proposal for changes and improvements. He has, inspired by the Midland Art Centre for Young People in Birmingham, started an experimental cultural centre in Rødovre (a suburb of Copenhagen). The Danish Public Libraries Act is under revision and several committee's have been oppointed to help prepare a revision. One of these committees stems from the Minister's own initiative, and has been requested to make proposals regarding the role of cultural activities the work of public libraries including proposals about the nature of tasks to be undertaken by public libraries within the activities of a cultural centre, for instance, by a co?ordination of cultural activities. The work of the committee must not only include arrangements offered to a merely receptive public, it should also make proposals to which extent an institution could be organized in order to meet the demands for an individual, active and cultural expansion. This last point has, of course, given the committee, (which does not merely consist of librarians) a certain amount of speculation. One is used to seeing children draw, paint and act in the libraries, but it is a little difficult to accept adults beginning to practice their different hobbies within the library's walls. The committee working on these problems has not yet published a report, but some of the things I will say now are inspired by the work of this committee of which I have been a member.
When we wrote the first draft of the paper, a member of the editorial subcommittee wrote a little, unofficial motto saying: "Culture must be accessible to all - equal views on books and culture ? equal support for all facets of culture". This is a rather simple way of putting it, but it was well meant. "Equal access to culture for all" means that there ought to be free entrance to the libraries' collections and activities and that one ought to be able to go there, irrespective of ones age, 2 years or 90, rich or poor, clever or stupid. Equal views on books and culture does not make sense, as the book is also a part of culture, it only means that people do not necessarily have to occupy themselves with books when coming to the library, that the audiovisual materials and cultural arrangements have their own value which ought not be considered as PR for books. Extension activities were considered as such some years ago. Equal support for culture expresses the demand that cultural arrangements and activities of the libraries should have the same public support as books and materials.
The library can, in my opinion, take active part in the cultural work in two ways: partly by taking the initiative, and partly by co?ordinating and inspiring in its capacity as cultural secretariat.
Like museums and other similar institutions which throw light on their collections by arranging lectures, film performances etc., the libraries ought to have the opportunity of giving their collections new life through different activities. By taking a long range view cultural activities in the, libraries can be considered activities which supple-ment the collections of books and other material and on this basis arrange, for example, fairytale hours, programmes with writers, concerts ? and not only classical concerts ? exihibitions ? not just art exhibitions ? film performances, children's theatre, experimental theatre as well as discussions on many different subjects. Regarding the creative occupations, I think that especially children and young people ought to be offered creative activities in the libraries because these age groups are happiest in an atmosphere which makes expansion and activity possible. In accordance with a study carried out at the county library in Esbjerg in 1969, 70 per cent of the borrowers were under 30 years of age, and it seems therefore reasonable to make special allowances for this age group when arranging the programme.
Personally, I hope that the creative activities for adults can be formed as debates and discussions about society, politics, modern music, art, literature and other actual topics. I do not believe very much in the idea of the public library as a hobby centre for adults, and I hope that most of the hobbies can be subsidied by our new act on adult education. But, of course, if there is a need for some amateur circles in a municipality and they have no place available for their activities, the public library as a service centre for the inhabitants ought to sponsor this activity, too.
The activities of the public libraries ought not to stop at traditional arrangements; the libraries ought to have the opportunity of arranging various activities apart from the usual programme by taking new initiatives. These initiatives may later on be taken over by e.g. associations or private groups. It will also be important for the libraries to be able to offer arrangements which may only be of interest? to limited numbers of people, since they do not have to consider the commercial aspect.
The cultural activities of the library ought not to arise out of an urge to enhance the prestige of the institution and the library ought not to compete with other institutions and societies, but ought to supplement, elaborate and activate. This means, for example, that a library ought not to arrange a large number of concerts, if there is an active musical society in the municipality, since by offering the concerts free of charge, the library would ruin the activity of the musical society. But it would be alright for the library to cooperate with the musical society, supplementing its programmes by offering for example beatconcerts if the musical society only offers classical music etc. It is also feasable that some associations have ideas which they cannot realize on account of financial or practical difficulties and which the library could actively support, planning and arranging in co?operation with the society on the condition that the arrangement is available to the public free of charge.
In 1967 the Danish Library Association published a paper on the pos-sibility of the public library acting as cultural centre. It was proposed among other things that the public library ought to function as cultural secretariat in the municipality. This idea is today very much discussed.
The municipal board, dealing with cultural matters, may often need administrative aid in order to ascertain the local demand for muni-cipal, economic support, so as to be in a position to arrive at reason-able priorities and constructive cultural politics for the municipality.
A cultural secretariat attached to the cultural board as an admini-strative body could put forward proposals for a plan of cultural sup-port and take care of the board's daily administrative tasks. In order to support the activities of societies, private associations could with the assistance of the cultural secretariat plan cultural activities, and the secretariat would be able to act as co?ordinator, helping to promote co?operation between different societies, avoiding scheduling two activities on the same day. They could perhaps publish a monthly bulletin for all members of the municipality with information on cultural activities both at the cultural institution and in the big and small societies. As mentioned before, the public library in Denmark is a compulsory institution in the municipalities ? in fact the only com-pulsory cultural institution, and it would therefore be reasonable to place the secretariat inside the library. It would be considered right for the societies and institutions to meet at least once a year at the secretariat in order to negotiate and to make plans. The public libraries themselves are not meant to make a whole lot of suggestions in the future without consulting the local population. The public library ought not to centralize cultural politics, on the contrary, through close contact with private societies and persons i should ensure that the local demand for activities is bein satisfied.
I am not aiming at 277 completely identical municipalities with completely identical institutions and activities, I am aiming at a varied and exciting picture. But it may be difficult for some libraries and municipalities to find the time for thinking up new ideas and putting them into practice. I therefore hope that it will be possible to establish a kind of national secretariat which could offer the individual libraries and cultural secretariats exhibitions, concerts, puppetshows, group theatre, film performances etc. The activity of the national secretariat ought not to be considered an experiment for the centralisation of cultural life, but an offer to supplement the various activities ? exactly in the same way as the activity of the public library is supposed to supplement and inspire and not be self?centred.
As far as I can see from the list of participants at this meeting, there is not one active children's librarian present. I consider this very regret-table as children's librarians are often those with the least prejudices and most ideas. Whether this is the reason for their becoming children's librarians or whether the rest of us have too many prejudices and too few ideas and therefore some of us present here have ceased working as children's librarians, I cannot say. But I would like to speak a little about children's libraries and cultural activities inspired by a paper which the Danish Association for children's librarians published a year ago. In this paper called: The children's library of the f uture[ I ], the children's library is described as a place where children can develop in many different ways, such as through play, by acting, singing and dancing, listening to music, seeing films, drawing, painting and working with clay etc. There is a certain discrepency between this image of the children's library and the library for adults, as the latter also aims at supporting education and information, not only thinking of culture and entertainment. Children's librarians quietly leave most of the education to the school libraries and concern themselves with the amusing, entertaining and the so?called cultural aspects of education.
One can, of course, ask oneself whether this is right, whether the children's libraries in this way will be solving social problems which do not concern them and whether children's librarians are trained to be entertainers, puppetshow actors and games supervisors? My reply to this question about the social contra the cultural is that I cannot draw special borderlines. There exist, of course, both nursery schools and play centres, but there are many children who do not come to the children's institutions, and who ought to have places where they can enjoy each others company, have common experiences in a free and relaxed atmosphere. The children coming to the children's libraries actually present the children's librarian with a task which cannot merely be brushed aside by calling it social and not cultural. Perhaps one day there will be open play centres where 3 children can go at their leisure to enjoy themselves ? even so, I believe that there will be a demand for many different activities in the children's libraries if they are to continue to exist.
Should children's librarians be nursery school teachers and games supervisors? Certainly not. If the libraries arrange activities for adults, calling upon actors, writers and musicians and often planning these activities in co?operation with experts from musical and art societies etc., then the children's libraries ought to have the same possibilities for calling in experts in order to assist with the activities which children's librarians are not trained for.
One problem will just have to be mentioned: the distribution of cultural activities and their planning. Some municipalities are large areas with a small population that lives spread out. It may prove difficult to make the population of these municipalities an offer of culture. Books, gramophone records and works of art can be driven out in a mobile library, but what about evenings with authors, concerts and puppetshows? Adults can drive in to the centre themselves ? but what about the children? It would be righ for the libraries to solve this problem possibly in co?operation with the schools, high?schools and with private individuals, who can make localities available for children's activities so that the children in the country districts will not be cheated.
As a final remark I should like to speak about what is required of the public library for its development as a cultural centre without loosing touch with its other activities - informative and educational. Much room is needed, much room and the possibility of using localities also outside the library. There is the need for money - although cultural activities are not nearly as costly as one thinks; co-operation is needed and a knowledge of local conditions, societies, educational insti-tutions, cultural idiosyncrasies. Planning is required, of course, as well as openness and tolerance, interest in cultural politics and its con-nection with general politics. There is much to be considered by those who would like to see the public library turned into a cultural centre where all kinds of people can acquire knowledge, information, have experiences and have the opportunity of concentrating and under-standing themselves and their surroundings. Many demands are made on the libraries and the librarians. Even if we have wonderful libraries with good books, good records, art on the walls and dancing within the library, it won't help unless we have the right type of librarian, well educated and with many other good qualifications.

The Children's Library of the Future. Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly, vol. 3, 1970 pp. 155?167.