Library spirit in the Nordic and Baltic countries: Historical perspectives

Dyrbye, Martin; Mäkinen, Ilkka; Reimo, Tiiu; and Torstensson, Magnus (Eds.); Tampere, Finland: HIBOLIRE, 2009. 188 pp. €17,00. ISBN 978-952-92-5875-8.

This book is published by the network HIBOLIRE (The Nordic-Baltic-Russian Network on the History of Books, Libraries and Reading), a multinational and multidisciplinary network of scholars, and the research was funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers (Nordforsk). It is edited by a team of library experts from the region: Martin Dyrbye (Royal School of Library and Information Science, Copenhagen, Denmark), Ilkka Mäkinen (Department of Information Studies, University of Tampere, Finland), Tiiu Reimo (Institute of Information Studies, Tallinn University, Estonia), and Magnus Torstensson (School of Library and Information Science, Borås, Sweden). The contributors are national librarians, faculty members, and information professionals, also from the region.

The volume explores the emergence and development of the public library sector in Baltic and Nordic countries, including autonomous regions such as Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Åland, and the Sami region. The territory stretches from the far northwest of the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of Russia and is characterized by a variety of nationalities, languages, ethnicities, religions, and shifting geopolitical and social structures, as well as changing historical interrelations. The book covers the period of modern history, as public libraries in the area are a phenomenon of the nineteenth century.

The work opens with a brief preface by Sinikka Bohlin, president of the Nordic Council of Ministers. She highlights the essence of the “library spirit” in the Nordic and Baltic countries, which manifests itself in obliging and enthusiastic staff; open access to books, information, knowledge, and culture; and cross-border cooperation, all leading to “regional investments in research and innovation, culture and welfare services for our citizens” (7), who she asserts are beneficiaries of one of the best library services in the world.

The book consists of seventeen chapters. The first introduces the concepts of Bildung and Volksbildung (popular enlightenment), which, according to Ilkka Mäkinen, explain the particular role and success of public libraries in Northern Europe. As he explains, public libraries have become an important element in life throughout the northern countries, and have positioned themselves as one of the four cornerstones of Nordic progressive cultural development, together with universal access to elementary school education, free access to literary works, and the press. The latter ultimately led to “free popular enlightenment,” representing one of the characteristics “of the Nordic cultural life” where “the gap between the elite culture and the general level of education of the people is kept as narrow as possible... Culture should be embraced by the people: it should be popular, or folking, as the Swedes say” (11).

The essays provide a historical overview of the region and they integrate the public library within the cultural context, along with the development of the education system, the publishing industry, and the book trade. The dedication and job satisfaction of library workers whose activity has grown from vocation to profession represent one of the keys of success for library service in the region. Professional associations, for instance, maintained the library spirit in the area. They were founded in the early years of the twentieth century. Library legislation was another element that ensured the success of the library system and demonstrated the constant and sustained government support for the library sector. Library science education is also presented from a historical and comparative perspective, with highlights on various library schools in the region.

Three articles are devoted to the Danish library profession and public library building design in Denmark. Martin Dyrbye introduces pioneers of the library spirit in Denmark and their views on the professionalization of librarianship, library education, and professional associations. Lis Byberg points out that Norwegian public libraries trace their roots to local reading societies and that the industrial era brought about “the modernization of libraries, strongly influenced by the American example” (44).

Magnus Torstensson features the American influence in Swedish librarianship. He finds commonalities in the public library mission in the two countries when he discusses “the energy with which librarians worked to get the library as widely used as possible” (77) and the librarians’ efforts to reach out to non-library users. Torstensson also elaborates on the Nordic concept of Folkbiblioteken, the people’s library that derives from the Latin bibliotheca publica, which distinguishes the academic library from its public counterpart. He also points out the influence of concepts from Anglo-American librarianship, such as “free libraries” and libraries as “people’s palaces,” that Nordic libraries adopted (79).

Ilkka Mäkinen features book societies, reading societies, and commercial lending libraries in eighteenth-century Finland. Universal elementary schooling fostered the general public’s access to education. Parish libraries supported public education before Finnish municipalities became involved with the Society for Popular Enlightenment that “help[ed] create and distribute cheap and popular literature and increase[ed] thirst for education” (117). Mäkinen also mentions the American influence on Nordic librarianship.

Libraries in three former Soviet republics—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—are present in the volume. The Soviet era, during which libraries served as institutions for ideological education and as tools for communist indoctrination, represents the dominance of political precepts over library activities, with censorship as the norm: “Fulfilling the task of propaganda institutions also meant that collections had to be in accordance with the political doctrine: books which mirrored different views had to be removed” (141).

A comprehensive foldout table provides a chronology of the major events that marked the development of public libraries in the Nordic and Baltic regions. The chart can be used for comparative analyses of the countries and territories featured in the volume. The book is complemented with black-and-white illustrations, photos of individuals, and pictures of buildings and library interiors.

Library spirit in the Nordic and Baltic countries: Historical perspectives is the first work that features libraries in this part of the world in their interconnectivity and brings to light commonalities of their historic development and philosophy of reaching out to every member of the society.

Hermina G.B. Anghelescu, Wayne State University