Translation of my interview with Erling Bergan, editor of Bibliotekaren (The Librarian), the Norwegian Union of Librarians‘ journal. Link to the original interview: https://www.bibforb.no/biblioteket-ma-vaere-anti-facistisk-ellers-blir-det-bullshit/
Are libraries a neutral institution?
Christian Lauersen was to be presenting at the Granitol conference at Gjøvik this winter but injuries after a nasty bike ride prevented him from coming. We still got a chat with him about the role of the library in a society that seems to be increasingly polarized.
You put up for an energetic lecture at the Granitol conference, entitled “My library will be anti-facist or it will be bullshit – why the library is not a neutral institution”. What did you mean by this title?
Yes it was really annoying that I was prevented from coming – I had looked so much forward to debating this highly relevant topic with the Granitol participants. What I mean by the title is simply that the public library should actively consider its role in our society. We should say aloud that we are fighting for a better world and disregarding fascism, nazism, racism, etc. and we must be keen to put act behind the words and convey and promote literature that can enlighten and bridge, create room for debate and dialogue with focus on diversity, inclusion, minorities and the consequences of polarization. And we cannot do that if we take a neutral stand. I believe that the library has a responsibility to make this world a better place to be and live. We only lift that responsibility if we take a clear stand and act. Actually, the question whether the library is neutral or not is close to irrelevant; The library must ensure equal access to information and knowledge for everyone. Is it a neutral point of view? No, it’s a value-laden and political standpoint. The library as a social institution cannot be neutral as I see it.
“I believe that the library has a responsibility to make this world a better place to be and live. We only lift that responsibility if we take a clear stand and act”
You mark opposition to fascism. Are there multiple directions the public library should flag opposition to?
Yes. Fascism is just one of many. It is all directions and currents that suppress, exclude and polarize. Nazism, racism, hate against women, homophobia, etc.
An inclusive room
How can the public library be anti-fascist in practice?
“Anti” puts it a little on the tip. One could also turn it around and use “pro” instead: pro-diversity, pro-democratic, pro-enlightening, pro-inclusive. But practically, most public libraries already do this. By creating an inclusive space with equal access to information and knowledge, the public library is a major pillar in creating a healthy and democratic society. But there is a need to discuss and communicate the library’s role as an active participant in creating a better world, both internally in the sector and towards the citizens and decision-makers. There is also a need to discuss how we put action behind the words in a sensible way. So it’s about formulating the role of the library as a committed and important player in achieving some social goals, moving forward towards inclusion and understanding, and moving away from polarization. Find out and convey literature and resources on minorities, diversity, inclusion, democracy, etc. Support digital education in our post-factual society. Events and debate on the same topics. A New Enlightenment! We should dare to intervene in the public debate and point to the library’s role as a counterpart to polarization and a member of democracy development.
Is anti-fascism meant as a parole for active engagement, or as a delimitation of material and speakers that the library considers to be fascist?
It is meant as a parole for active involvement and for determining the role of the library. Basically, I do not want to exclude anyone from the library, neither people nor books.
“We should dare to intervene in the public debate and point to the library’s role as a counterpart to polarization and a member of democracy development”
So the public library should not have any blacklist of people and organizations that should not be allowed into debates at the library or be represented with books and journals on the shelves?
– It is a good and very central question, which can be difficult to answer. On the one hand, I do not think we should give a voice chair to, for example, racist organizations. On the other hand, it is in the library’s DNA and statutory law to be inclusive and exist for everyone, even for people you are fundamentally disagreeing with. I don’t think one should make any blacklist of people or groups one doesn’t want to get into their library. But one should think about how to create an arena for healthy and democratic dialogue on difficult issues. I can’t imagine a situation where we would give an openly racist organization permission to use the library to promote its message, but I can imagine that a representative of an anti-democratic organization participated in a debate event, creating a room for dialogue on different issues. views. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, it is always good to discover and hear different views on an issue, including those that are radical or extreme. It is often in the encounter with the radical or extreme that it becomes clearer to us what is right and wrong, and what we ourselves believe in.
So actors on the far right, who otherwise escape the public in society, should not be blacklisted by the library?
No, as I said, I don’t think blacklisting is the way forward. It leads the mind to McCarthyism and it will be very dangerous. But we should be clear about how we set the stage for dialogue between different views – both when we promote literature and when we make programs and events.
“It is often in the encounter with the radical or extreme that it becomes clearer to us what is right and wrong, and what we ourselves believe in”
What characterizes a library that is bullshit?
That it does not take a position on the role it has in society. That it is restrained and neutral to the outside world. That it does not have the ambition to make a positive difference in society.
Take an active position
Is opposition to fascism the most important measure public library can do to avoid a bullshit stamp?
No, fascism is in this case meant as an example of everything one can fight as a library. If your public library is not to be bullshit or irrelevant, it must decide what it wants in the world, what it will work for and fight for. We may well have different views on this, but I expect that we will actively take a position on it.
There are probably many librarians who believe that the public library should be neutral to questions in society. Why are they wrong?
If the library is neutral, it risks being indifferent. The library is a 5.000-year-old institution built on amazing values such as enlightenment, education, life-long learning, inclusion, democracy – values that may be more important than ever. If we do not dare to play it actively in order to make a difference in this world, I think we are failing. The library is a large institution, and with it comes a responsibility.
Is there too much bullshit and too little anti-fascism in Danish public libraries?
I think that the Danish public libraries do a lot of good work in this respect. We could probably be better at telling the story of why we do what we do – actively saying what we think is important, what values we emphasize, what we reject, what we are fighting for. But the public library is of course also a politically controlled organization and it sets some framework for what one says and what one does not say.
“If the library is neutral, it risks being indifferent (…) If we do not dare to play it actively in order to make a difference in this world, I think we are failing. The library is a large institution, and with it comes a responsibility”
A democracy-creating institution
In 2014, a new sentence came into the Norwegian law on the purpose of the Norwegian Library Act: “The public libraries shall be an independent meeting place and arena for public conversation and debate”. It has had great significance in this country. Should the Danish Library Act be changed accordingly?
I really like that wording. In Denmark these days, an audit of the Library Act is being discussed and it might be useful to get something similar. It also shows that the library is more than the materials, which takes a lot of space in the Danish library law. It sets the library as a democracy-creating institution in society
.In January this year, the Independence Party – a new party on the outer right wing – borrowed a meeting room in Bergen’s public library to hold a foundation meeting for a local branch in Bergen. An organization calling itself AFA (Anti-fascist Action) has complained to the library manager, who replies that she has “taken an editorial decision based on the law referring to the principle of freedom of speech. Rejecting the unpleasant voices is contrary to this principle. Then we are no longer a library for everyone. ”The case has been big in the newspaper Bergens Tidende. Would you encounter a similar situation in your library with such an argument?
I cannot comment on the specific case without knowing the circumstances, the party and its principles. But in general I would be concerned if I considered that the party’s principles and values were in fundamental contradiction to the values that I think the library and the society in which the library operates are based. But we should be aware that the library also acts in a political arena, and if it is a legal political party, it sets some limits for what we can and what we cannot do. What I would like to do in such a case was to invite representatives of the party in question to come and participate in a debate event on the opportunities and challenges of democratic society in 2019. It would be to use the library in an open, enlightening and democracy-supporting platform where we set different attitudes and perspectives in the scene.