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The children’s library – past and present

Keynote speech at Scandinvian conference for children’s literature and libraries in Stavanger, Norway, February 2001. Published in Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly , 2001: 2 and in IKONER, 2001: 2

The great hunger

In one of my childhood textbooks there was a story about the boy Mathis who desperately wanted to read, but could not get hold of any books.Then a man in the neighbouring town promised to lend him a book. On a winter’s day he walked over to fetch it, and promised himself that he would not open it till he had reached home again. But on the way back the temptation became too great.The book was burning in his hand. He unwrapped it just to have a peep inside. It was a history of the world – and opening that book meant the introduction to a completely new world. He became totally engrossed in it – forgetting everything around him. But as it was a bitterly cold and frosty day the reading turned into sleep or unconsciousness. And only because his parents began to worry and went out to look for him was he saved!

The story seems to contain an ambivalence. On the one hand reading is presented as a kind of basic urge which has a magic power of attraction. On the other hand the exact opposite: reading can be dangerous, one might even call it a death urge, because it may swallow you up and devour you, or at any rate turn your attention away from essential reali-ties.With this ambivalence the story reflects the paradoxical ambiguity in the attitude to reading which is apparent for so long in the industrial society.

Not very many years ago children were first and foremost creatures who were trained to become adults and then go to work and do what was expected of them.We still come across adults who were not really supposed to read books as children because it was not a useful thing to do. Especially in rural areas and within those social classes where one depended on selling one’s physical working capacity it would never do to get fancy ideas from reading, which might then detract from physical work.The attitude was prevalent even though Nordic mythology tells us about Odin’s power over the runes – a special power by which he governs the elements.The myth has it that right through history man has known that knowledge is power. But it is not until quite recently that this realisation has had a direct influence on every single individual.The old saying that the shoemaker should stick to his last and not interfere is in fact just that – old. It belongs to another culture and is something we should forget about.

Physical work plays an ever smaller part in our wealth and it is nearly always combined with the demand for a high level of knowledge skills. But from the time of the emergence of the public libraries about a hundred years ago we have many stories about in particular poor people’s immense appetite for reading and learning. In his memoirs Vilhelm Moberg tells us, for example, of how as a child he discovered that behind the wallpaper in his room was plastered a layer of newspapers – and here he found a serial which he absolutely had to read because there was nothing else, and so of course he had to pull down the wallpaper!

The daily bread

The classic public library was among other things meant to alleviate the information poverty which prevailed in the early days of the industrial society and which was seen as a barrier to obtaining better conditions in life.The public library was born from the desire to give Mathis,Vilhelm and other information poor people access to enlightenment and to what we today call our common cultural heritage.The classic public library was characterised by frugality and deep respect for the book and the custodians of the book. It was a difficult and lengthy process to turn these small and modest book oases into real institutions which gradually had to become professional. But they were a successful link in the strategy for improving the general level of competence in the early industrial society.

A tremendous leap ahead from this kind of library model happened in the 1960s and 1970s with their unique prosperity, baby boom and educational lift.This is when the modern public library in its pre-digital form was created – and we still often come across reminiscences from this period. It was then that even the smaller local authorities managed to create professionally run institutions.The large libraries especially, became efficient lending factories – very much in tune with the beat of the industrial society.

But NOW. As we all know only too well – now the situation is completely different.We do not have information poverty. Neither do we have information wealth like we did when the industrial society came to its close.We have an information explosion.We have the world at our fingertips on the Internet.We have remote access to no end of television chan-nels.We have play stations and infotainment and we are in the middle of a development where more and more people talk about the imminent media convergence which – so to speak – makes us draw our breaths through the media.They will be with us all around the clock. And in a world like this, it becomes quite obvious that we shall need a completely different kind of library.We have to tear down the meticulously erected walls of the library of the industrial society and tune in to the beat of the network society. How do we go about it?


And yet. Notice how paradoxically tenacious certain old-fashioned cultural artefacts are. Look at the success of the book. Notice that people keep wanting to have places where they can meet, provided they are of a certain quality. Notice that even though the music industry complains about piracy, MP3 files, lack of copyright protection – their sales are booming. If anybody had asked the book people five years ago: Is it possible that in a year or two you will see a successful book which will make 12-13 year-old boys (boys!) forget everything around them just as blessed Mathis did? Will there be a book which booms the western market totally with millions of copies printed? They would probably have answered: No, it sounds rather like a fairytale and we do not believe in it. But it is in fact happening right now with the Harry Potter series which demonstrates beyond doubt that the story lives. Harry Potter is printed in 80 mil. copies all over the world.

I do not believe the allegation of the literati that the great story is dead. Only the blasé think that.The story is fundamental for man’s ability to articulate, interpret and communicate his experiences. Film might be a kind of story, but language is the medium of realisation par excellence.

I should like to quote from an essay by Norwegian author Jan Kærstad on the potential of fiction: ”We know hardly anything about our strength  and possibilities. Sometimes I see man as a creature all folded up.We walk upright, but we have not managed to raise thought. Mentally speaking we are cripples …. I further imagine that books, fiction is just about the best tool for making us unfold …. And that is precisely why I am worried; why am I not hunting in a more determined way those books which will make me rise, which will make me grow a few centimetres? Because I no longer wish to be changed? I admit it: because I am afraid”.

More paradoxes and questions

When imagining the future children’s library, the question we should not ask ourselves is of course – ”how can we adjust our existing institutions? By and large this is, however, how we do things in practice.Today we are hampered by very painstakingly created old knowledge-heavy and tradition-conscious institutions. Often they are peopled with a tremendously conservative and highly professional staff which does not make the job any easier.

We have to think: what do children need? What kind of skills will help to create the good life? How can we turn them into good democrats and citizens? How to release the creative instincts and turn them into action? How do we make use of new technologies in order to create a vibrant interplay between the individuals’ power and creativity?

Let us look at some aspects of children’s situation today.We have a tremendous media explosion. Lots of TV channels, Internet, a great variety of multimedia. A great number of possible activities outside school: clubs, hobbies, sports – and sometimes the child encounters ambitions on its behalf.The choice is almost too wide.

Modern society is loosing its norms and for many adults this makes bringing up children more difficult.There is a danger of loss of identity or at any rate of fragmentation. On the positive side it could mean freedom to cultivate creativity. But there is a grave risk of many children getting lost in a world full of confusion and lack of direction. One of the answers to what children need must be: a framework that encourages creativity and protects against loss of identity – that is to say an ever balancing attention.

What to do?

I believe we must be extremely value conscious. If we know what kind  of values we want to pursue - which is by no means easy. If values are being intellectualised instead of being linked to social reflexes adopted through unequivocal upbringing, they become vulnerable.

Professor Per Schultz Jørgensen, former chairman of the Children’s Council, suggests that “it is not a question of extending the services and the possibilities for passive entertainment, but to improve those cultural offers which turn children into players.We must try to make children into participatory, productive, responsible and reflecting human beings. They should be given a deep and fundamental feeling of being valuable contributors to our society.”

We have to manoeuvre between fantastic and hitherto unknown opportunities for children on the one hand, and on the other we face the very real risk of a loss of identity, because to a much lesser extent than before are we born into a social identity – a place in society.

The white and the black games

Focus has been on children lately – sparked off by the Danish minister for culture, Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen’s children’s cultural political report. The Cultural Council for Children was established in 2000 and has now prepared a plan of action for the next four years. So things are getting organised and well-defined.

The Finnish brain researcher, Matti Bergström concentrates on the child’s inner life and its – as we see it – chaotic ’possibility space’. Professor Bergström maintains that it is not only a question of ’white games’.The white games are our pedagogical efforts trying to bring up children in our own image. But there must also be room for the ’black games’ where children test themselves and the world around them.They must be given space. At a recent conference, Matti Bergström posed the question: do children need a knowledge lift? His answer was no, they need a chaos lift. We must allow children space and opportunity for the black games which are created in the unorganised and unsupervised meeting with other children.

Very briefly, Matti Bergström’s reasoning can be boiled down to this:The core of culture is art.The core of art is creativity.The core of creativity is possibility.The core of possibility is play. The core of play is chaos.  Therefore all culture is based on chaos. More than ever before do we wish to encourage each individual’s creativity and culture-creating ability. The skills of the agrarian and industrial society have long since become obsolete.

The library of the networking society

In our networking society my vision is that the library can act as the child’s (and in fact any citizen’s) co-operative partner and helper.That is nothing new – but it must be brought about in a different way. Creativity and learning must go hand in hand and children will to a much greater extent determine the activities.

This means a new institutional concept and new roles for the librarian –and also new services.The result is a library far removed from the idea of the industrial society’s book lending factory.The collections will continue to be the obvious prerequisite, but the institution’s success will depend on its ability to create strategic alliances with other partners, kindergartens, schools, societies, clubs and sports.The virtual library will also become a reality for children: an increasing number of virtual services will become available for children to use at school, for their homework and in their leisure time.

The librarian’s new role

The inter-acting librarian is swiftly replacing the neutral information communicator.There is a marked tendency for the librarian to act as ’value enhancer’, e.g. by selection and annotation of sources, for example in Internet guides.We may also expect a more culture-producing librarian or at any rate a much more personal approach.

Most of all, the librarian must develop a closer dialogue with the users and become adviser, consultant, active co-operative partner – for example in relation to kindergarten and school.The librarian will also become a children’s cultural co-ordinator who will investigate the fora where children act and where the library can step in with something special and relevant to offer. 

New services

The library will increasingly help with homework via the Internet.The school class will have a homepage with links to other web sites with information on subjects that are currently being studied.The libraries co-operate on an Internet guide which will suit the needs of different groups of children. An Internet enquiry service of high standard is on the cards where children can ask more complex questions. And the library will certainly become the arena for a multitude of cultural activities.That is perhaps already the case today, but the librarian will have to become more creative herself if she is to make her mark. Children will become more personally involved and bring their influence to bear, which is important in itself, but will also be part of the effort continually to encourage citizens to form their own society.

How do we bring about this new standard for libraries? How do we rea-lise the vision of using our increasing wealth to create a better life for people in our countries? In principle the recipe is quite simple. Any textbook on development management will tell you how.The essence is that each company, each institution must create its own vision of development. Naturally there must be a common hybrid library vision, but the individual libraries must adapt this vision and prioritise according to local players.This means that the vision should be shared by the players. All relevant parties should be able to claim some kind of ownership to the vision and that applies to politicians, staff and partners alike.

Strategies and action plans must be worked out.There must be management and there must be motivation, and ready support when barriers have to be forced.We must actively cultivate the values of the culture of change which are amongst other things: generosity, high level of tolerance, zest, zest for play, zest for adventure – and reciprocity.

Many have already started – and more are following suit. But it will be a little while yet before the goal is reached, at any rate for some of the libraries, because some institutional frames are so solidly built that they cannot be altered without a fight.

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This page forms part of the publication 'Danish library policy' as chapter 12 of 13

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