The libraries are not in crisis

I attended the annual Norwegian library convention last week. Every other year the BIBSYS consortium and the Norwegian Library Association co-host the event, and consequently librarians from school-, public-, and academic libraries meet.

There is a general idea in libraries these days that there is a crisis going on. Many have spoken about e-books replacing the need for physical libraries and how the e-books will be the end of the library profession. As a consequence, a general pessimism and fear of the future has spread through our profession.

I therefore felt rather uplifted when Aslak Sira Myhre, former politician and leader of “Foreningen Les!” (an association to promote reading for children and youths), now leader of “Litteraturhuset” (“The house of Literature” as they call themselves..), held the keynote at the convention. I have had the pleasure of listening to him before and was looking forward to the keynote. He did not disappoint!

Some of the key issues he raised:

  • It`s silly to talk about how to get from “the Oil Economy” to “the Knowledge Economy” – because “the Oil Economy” would never have exsisted without knowledge. We cannot compete with countries in South East Asia on cost, so we must compete with knowledge; knowledge on how to use our natural resources. There, we are the experts!
  • The library works. Our patrons (Sira Myhre thinks its a stupid name, btw. We should refer to them as “the people”) are happier with the library than almost everything else where they live. The reason why it worked, Sira Myhre said, is that the libraries are placed where people live (sentralization will not work with libraries) and that they are free. But that`s not all: they are also filled with knowledge and competence – that`s a recipe to success.
  • In the 20th century, the library was all about giving access to information to farmers, women, workers etc. These days, the information flow has become a problem, and the need for librarians have not decreased.
  • Norway has been an egalitarian society, but we are on the verge of becoming a class society where the rich become “über wealthy” and the immigrants are forming a new underclass/ low working class. The library is a place where this new underclass can have access to knowledge free of charge.

That said, Sira Myhre said, even though there is no need for a library revolution, there is a need for some reformation. Libraries must work on several things, but these three are important:

  • Premises: The library must create spaces for more than book collections. The library must serve as much more these days and the library space/room must be tailored to its functions.
  • Staff: if the library will serve as a literature house/venue, the library must hire dedicated staff to organize the events. This is not something that librarians are trained to do, and it takes resources and experience to get it done.
  • Resources: Organizing good events, like debates, costs money. Politicians and other leaders must be pushed to see this. The events must be organized without influence – the politicians must not interfere with contents, even when it is controversial.
  • The librarians must leave their comfort zone and enter the turfs of their patrons; the shopping malls, the motor clubs etc. The librarians must be where the people are!

I heard one librarian I know exclaim afterwords: Now, WHY isn`t that man a librarian?!

Well.. we could certainly use someone like him in our profession..