This piece is an English translation of an article by Jan M. Johansen on our study, ‘The impact of public libraries in Denmark: A haven in our community (2021)’. Original piece in Danish: http://dgbib.dk/folkebiblioteket-et-tilbud-med-hjerte/
Previous Library Lab blog post about the study: https://christianlauersen.net/2021/04/19/a-haven-in-our-community-the-impact-and-value-of-public-libraries/
What do we really know about the public library and the citizens’ views on the same? Is it just gut feelings and professional pride when librarians across the country point out their particular profession and industry as relevant and significant?
Roskilde Central Library and consulting house Seismonaut have set out to investigate this, and the result is now available in the form of the report “The impact of public libraries in Denmark: A haven in our community (2021)”. As it is now, public libraries, in line with many other institutions, are often assessed on parameters such as lending and visitor numbers, but rarely on effect and impact. This means that the discussion of the public library’s relevance and role often takes its starting point from “how many loans did the library have” instead of “what did it mean for the citizens to borrow the material”
The Danish public libraries are popular if you measure them by how much they are used, but are popularity and relevance necessarily the same? Director of Libraries and Citizen Services in Roskilde Municipality and the initiator of the study, Christian Lauersen, thinks not. “The purpose is not to find the ultimate truth about the impact and value of the public library, but to create a more nuanced debate and expanded language and understanding about the role and significance of the public library in society and for the citizens – now and in the future. We want to create a language that can to a greater extent accommodate the impact and value that public libraries brings to communities and not just use”
By putting the citizens at the center of the study and focusing on their experiences, you get away from the somewhat one-sided measuring points and illuminate at best the library’s real relevance, while at worst you at least end up nuancing the debate.
The most significant impacts of the public library
Not surprisingly, the public library means something different for each individual user, but the study shows a number of features of significance. Overall, there are 4 dimensions of impact that stands out:
Haven: The public library is a haven in everyday life, where citizens find room for contemplation and take time for themselves and each other
Perspective: The public library is a credible communicator of knowledge and gives citizens an enlightened and critical perspective on life.
Community: The public library is a place where citizens experience togetherness – alone, or with others – and where they experience that materials and facilities are a common property without financial barriers to use.
Creativity: The public library is a source of inspiration and stimulates citizens imagination. The public library can also help motivate citizens to try something new and acquire new skills
That, one might think, is a bit fluffy, but beneath the surface are some things that, firstly, make the public library distinctive and, secondly, more important than ever before.
In an age of alternative truths and runaway conspiracy theories, an institution that mediates and helps to create perspective is not without significance. E.g. does 83% of the respondents in the study believe that it is utterly important that the public library offer free and equal access to knowledge and cultural activity, while only 28% believe that various digital services have made the institution less relevant.
Just as the opportunity to underpin creativity and commitment speaks into the demands and desires of both business and politics.
Finally, one should probably not underestimate the importance of a haven in society that supports community without financial barriers; 75% believes that the public library strengthens the local community and environment. This is basically where the modern library really stands out from other learning and cultural institutions. Not least if you lean on Eric Klinenberg‘s theories about social infrastructure and the importance of free, shared and common places for people.
It’s (still) about people
Another important point in the study shows that the public library as an arena for the meeting, connection and interaction between people means a lot.
And here, not least, the staff plays a special role. In addition to literally being the library’s face on the outside, the staff is also a point of reference and a link for many users to the local community and the public sector.
Christian Lauersen is not surprised. “In that context, the public library as an institution and place has an important role now and in the future,” says Lauersen and continues, “my job is basically not about libraries, it is about people. In order to create good libraries that make a difference in society, you have to start with people. ”
It also does not comes as a surprise to Lauersen that the library staff are highlighted. He has stated this in a previous articles, and still believes that when people increasingly turn to the library for help, the importance of a human face only increases.
And here the public library is still something very special.
“You do not have to pick a number, but can go straight to the staff and then they will do what they can to help you along the way“, as one citizens puts it in the survey. This is undoubtedly also why public libraries are so well-liked and held. The library is not an authority or is seen as an obstacle in the users’ path in life, and this is reflected in the attitude towards the public libraries.
An attitude we have now become much wiser about.