Mechelen, 3-5 October

From Leiden I took the train to Mechelen in Belgium to attend a conference entitled “The multicultural library: a necessity in a creative and tolerant society.” It was organised by the Low Countries Libraries Link, comprising the Flemish Centre for Public Libraries in Belgium, The Netherlands Public Library Association and the Goethe Institut in Brussels.

This was a full but fascinating and very stimulating two day programme (with optional additional visits on the Saturday) with lots of formal and informal opportunities to network and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The programme with links to the presentations has since been made available online. The event involved a good mix of presentations, workshops and visits, but I’d like to focus here on the keynote presentation by Erwin Jans, a dramatist in the Toneelhuis in Antwerp, who has written an essay entitled “intercultural intoxication.” His presentation, “The tower, the library and the angels of globalisation” provided just the sort of conceptual thinking that has often been lacking in events I have attended in the past addressed at librarians.

Some excerpts from the conclusion of his presentation: “The library….should no longer be only the storing room of knowledge, but also a space for concrete exchange and dialogue between people…..the library could be defined as….a transitional space where existing and fixed cultural identities are questioned, decentred, dislocated and opened up to a process of doubt, reflexivity and change. Therefore, it should be part of a network of libraries (also abroad), cultural, social, political, religious…organisations; all of them engaged in the construction of a society that sees the possibilities of difference, not only of ethnic or cultural difference, but of difference as such. Jean-Luc Nancy formulates it as follows: “Every culture is in itself “multicultural”, not only because there has always been a previous acculturation, and because there is no pure and simple origin, but at a deeper level, because the gesture of culture is itself a mixed gesture: it is to affront, confront, transform, divert, develop, recompose, combine, rechannel.” I think that is what the angels keep on whispering in our ears when we are sitting in the library.”

It made me feel that public libraries could and should be working with those engaged in the arts and thinking in this way at a much more strategic level than is the case at the moment in the UK.

Just five (of many other) aspects of the conference that stood out for me include:

  • presentation by Chief of the Cabinet representing the Flemish Minister for Culture, Youth, Sport and Brussels Affairs, who consistently used the term “interculturalism” as an outcome of and prerequisite for diversity and community building
  • international exchange seemed to be a natural way of working with a profile that I don’t detect currently in the public library world, or at least not to the same degree, in the UK
  • everyone had astonishingly good English and yet nearly every speaker apologised for their English!
  • meeting Kirsten Leth Nielsen from Oslo Public Library, who chairs the group in IFLA that has just produced the Multicultural Library Manifesto and hearing more about this.
  • visit to the ATLAS centre in Antwerp, which is home to a range of government agencies dedicated to equal opportunities, Dutch lessons and social integration.

But one particular story will really stay in my mind. One of the delegates, Ali Abdirahman, who works in a library in Espoo in Finland, told me he went to Finland from Somalia in 1990. While walking to one of the conference sessions in Mechelen, he spotted a Somali woman in the street who looked somehow familiar to him. It turned out that indeed she was the best friend of his sister in Somalia, but the last time he’d seen her was 22 years ago! He had no idea she was in Belgium and she had no idea he was in Finland. I wasn’t present when this remarkable meeting occurred, but I was walking with Ali back to the hotel where we were staying  when he told me this story. Not surprisingly, he said they wanted to spend time together, but the only option was for her to come to the hotel for just an hour that very afternoon before he had to leave to catch his plane back to Finland.  Just as I left the hotel myself to go the station, I saw her arriving in a hurry. She waved to me (she must have seen I was in the same group) and said breathlessly in English “Is he still there? Is he still there?” I just smiled broadly and nodded and continued on my way to Brussels and then on home the following day. It somehow felt like a fitting end note for a journey that has been all about connections.

I will be writing a report on my findings from my travels which will be much less of a travelogue than this blog and when completed (not before the end of the year) I will post a link to it here. Here it is


The Hague 30 September-3 October

Arriving in The Hague by train I noticed from the window the sign for the central library building, which is part of the massive, white, town hall complex (designed by Richard Meier).  The image of the central library was a million miles removed from the branch libraries I had been visiting in Copenhagen. I started musing about all the international bureaucrats and business people who comprise the ex-pat population here (about 30,000 people out of a total population of 472,000 I discovered later), multicultural relationships and the role of public libraries in this context. Later, I also found a copy of  The Hague public library service annual report for 2006 in English, which gives an idea of the wide scope of activities taking place in different libraries across the city.

But it was Sunday, and I was determined to take a break from visiting or even thinking about libraries and had a thoroughly enjoyable wander through the city instead, taking in the Mauritshuis.

The following day, I went to the Netherlands Public Library Association, having met Lourina de Voogd earlier in the year in London and gave a presentation about Welcome To Your Library. Afterwards, Dr Marian Koren, Head of the Research and International Affairs Department, very kindly gave me a brief introduction to the way Dutch public libraries are organised. This was really useful, so I was aware that the Association is an association of institutions rather than individuals, and also that because of the history of how public libraries began, there is still a membership fee for users to join a public library in the Netherlands. I came away feeling very humbled by the work going on in relation to international exchange, advocacy and library development.

The next day, Irene de Jonge, from The Hague public library service, who had attended my presentation the previous day, took me to visit three branch libraries. At the first, in Schilderswijk, MarieAnne Hartman Kok and Thea Schellekens gave a presentation about networking with local ethnic communities and their experiences. I felt I connected with them immediately and was delighted to discover that they were not only attending the conference in Mechelen, Belgium that was also my next (and last) port of call, but they were also presenting at a workshop there. I was in effect, the audience for a personalised practice run. 

The key content and messages of their presentation were very familiar:

  • an analysis of the characteristics and attitudes needed in staff to make networking really work (open-minded, curious, interested, respectful, creative, communicative)
  • starting a network: who to contact, what to organize, how to build up internal support and motivation
  • developing a network: participation in local community meetings, being proactive and informed about what is going on, and getting involved by asking how the library can offer support
  • setting up new activities in the library (education at all levels including learning Dutch, collections in different languages, exhibitions on various cultures/themes, telematic centre, meetings, lectures and programmes in different languages and using unconventional themes and methods)
  • maintaining networks and innovation (importance of communication, offering space and facilities, cooperation and support, being proactive in seeking new groups)
  • difficulties and pitfalls (time involved, needing sensitivity and awareness of problems caused by language, cultural and religious differences or political orientation)
  • benefits: new contacts means new members and visitors, publicity, recognition for the library and opportunity to be a trendsetter; for communities it means a cosy, safe and reliable place for men, women and children from all backgrounds, with collections and activities made to measure and a real partner and supporter of community affairs.     

I should add that MarieAnne has been working with the local community for 30 years with evident passion and 101% commitment; Thea is not a librarian, but has an international development background and has been working on a very successful project facilitating emancipation activities for migrant women via the library. This is an area with 33,000 residents of whom 86% are of non-Dutch origin. It was a fascinating visit. It was also very much in contrast to the last branch library I visited in Copenhagen, in the sense that this area seemed to have so many community-based networks that the library could tap into. I have no doubt that keeping up with the constant shifting local landscape must be quite a challenge.

From here, we went on to Scheveningen, a seaside resort I hadn’t visited since I was nine years old. It was great to see the sea. We visited a library where they had run a lovely and very touching oral history project with the older fishermen of the community, talked with the project’s co-ordinator and watched a delightful film including some reminiscences . Even though I do not speak Dutch, I could hear the accents, tone and emotion in their voices. A very important part of the future heritage of the community. We wound up at the branch library in Tansvaalkwartier in Hobbemaplein, which has a very active, supervised homework club. Arriving just as school finished I was able to see this in action with young people starting to pour in to use the computers. The librarian also showed me the work he has done with young people in the school holidays and how many of them had used the library’s computers to make short clips that they posted on youtube.

I was particularly taken with a leaflet I was given by a member of staff about a forthcoming series of free cultural debates and readings he had organised in the Schilderswijk library on the theme of identity with a series of experts from different backgrounds. Once again many thanks to everyone I met and the welcome I received.

On 3 October, I went to Leiden for the day to celebrate the Leidens Ontzet.  It’s very much a local festival and I was lucky to have the chance to be invited by Conny Reijngoudt (who had visited me earlier in the year in London and who works as an adviser to an organisation called ProBiblio that supports public libraries) and to be welcomed like one of the family.  A memorable day….and a town to go back to for sure.

Copenhagen 25-30 September

I’d never been to Denmark before. I found Copenhagen was buzzing in the city centre when I arrived and everything felt easy to navigate and very much at human scale. Just for comparison, Denmark has a total population of about 5.5 million compared with 9 million in Sweden, but Sweden is something like 10 times as large. Copenhagen and the surrounding area accounts for approximately a third of the country’s total population; the city itself has a population of about 500,000 . Like Malmö it is also a very walkable and bike-able place, with bike users in evidence everywhere.

I very much had a sense of a city in transition, in all sorts of ways. Firstly, there appears to have been an explosion of new building in the last decade or so, and this is still in progress, from housing and offices, major regeneration programmes and high profile public buildings. Some of these I was able to enjoy as a casual visitor, for example the Black Diamond, which is a stunning extension to the Royal Library, the new Opera House (where I was lucky to be able to go to a performance), the Danish Design Centre and the addition to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek by Henning Larsen.  (I also thoroughly recommend a visit to Louisiana Museum of Modern Art though this isn’t new as it first opened in 1958).

Another reason for this feeling of transition may be connected to political shifts. I certainly picked up during my visit a big emphasis on integration of immigrants and also structural changes in local government. I was given a copy in English of the City of Copenhagen’s Integration Policy, published in 2006. In the section on culture and leisure activities it states “immigrants use libraries to a greater extent than Danes, even though in Copenhagen they do not borrow books more often.” It goes on to say that “the libraries’ success in attracting immigrant users is to be exploited, so that, in future, libraries can be a central source of support for language acquisition and cultural participation.” One of its four priorities in culture and leisure is “libraries as learning centres.”

It was clear during my visit that the library service in Copenhagen is also in a period of  structural change. The Consultant for Ethnic Affairs, Kambiz Kalantar Harmoozi (who was my convivial and very helpful guide during my stay), was not the only person who was new in post, as quite a few of the many other staff I met had been appointed to their current position in the course of the last year or less.

The library policy document for 2007-2010 sets out a focus four specific target groups: children, youth, students and non-ethnic Danes. In relation to non-ethnic Danes, the policy states “Copenhagen Libraries should focus on activities, which support the development of language and contribute to knowledge of Danish society.”

With this by way of background, I visited six library branches around the city in very different neighbourhoods, as well as meeting with the head of the service, one of the chief librarians for the branch libraries, and (separately) the Danish Library Centre for Integration, a centralised operation which is not open to the public, but which lends resources in many languages to libraries all over Denmark. 

It is impossible to describe in detail each of my visits here, but it was a fascinating  and intense experience, that gave me some insight into areas of Copenhagen I would never otherwise have seen.   Here are some impressions in brief:

  • Sundby: great example of a public library co-located with other facilities in a sensitively converted and extended industrial space by the architect Dorte Mandrup (Kvarterhuset Jemtelandsgade). This included a school,  supplementary classes, a place for young people to make radio programmes, the home of a free community newspaper, offices for a sports employee, an office for volunteer work that also helps young people with educational and work support, a cultural consultant, a cafe, an Agenda 21 centre, a girls’ club, a bilingual playgroup and a wonderful hall for events raised upon stilts. The site was part of a much larger regeneration area and it felt like a place on the up. I was very taken with the librarian’s remarks about how they are involved in local democratic processes (committee of tenants and employees/users of the Kvarterhuset for example). She said that the library is proactive and staff are seen as collaborators by other organisations in a way that didn’t happen before. I took away with me her final comment “There’s no way back to the old way of doing things.”
  • Solvang: an entirely different setting. A neighbourhood library also co-located with a school with an adjacent church and lots of housing, all built in a 1960/70s style, that made me think of some new towns in the UK. It felt as if the whole area needed an injection of investment and energy as the original shopping centre had all but faded away. Very welcoming and enthusiastic librarians, and a touching story from one of them about how she was personally affected and broadened her own understanding through an event in the library that she had organised. This event involved a reading and interpretation of the Koran by a local (female) resident who had translated the Koran into Danish.
  • Vesterbro library is in a dynamic neighbourhood, with a long history of immigrant settlement but now with a definite sense of urban chic – mixed but also fashionable. I bet property prices have shot up here. This library was an old building, with  substantial resources in different languages, and clearly heavily used.
  • Nørrebro was definitely a case of inner-city working-class and immigrant area mixed with cutting edge arty feel. I could immediately sense that the library integrates its activities into all sorts of local networks and community life. The children’s librarian sped along the long floor area in the open library space on roller skates, and the manager had a background in media and communications. I could have spent much longer here asking questions but there wasn’t enough time. Just one example of the kind of work they are doing is a project called Language – gate to an open society which involves one of the staff making visits over several years from new-born babies to childen’s first day at school to introduce them and their parents to books, reading and the library in an imaginative and very personal way.
  • By the time I reached Ørnevej library I was beginning to run out of steam, but I liked the touch of having fresh flowers on the library tables. I received a warm welcome and then it was straight off to lunch in a Turkish cafe/restaurant. Again I felt as if I could have been in London!
  • My last stop was an altogether different experience. Tingbjerg is further from the centre of Copenhagen. As the terminus of a bus route and physically very self-contained, it doesn’t really get anyone going through it and it shows. Despite physical regeneration, my first impressions were of a very poor neighbourhood, but where the word “poor” doesn’t only apply economically, but also, for example, to the extent of community infrastructure. This begs a question about how far public libraries in this type of environment should go in helping to build community capacity. The librarian was very informative and showed me a wonderful resource that his staff had created: in a formerly thoroughly dingy basement, with minimal resources, they had made an intimate parlour-like space with a special throne for telling stories for small groups. Adjacent was a fantastic dressing up room…it wasn’t in use while I was there, but I was told it was much used and it reinforced for me that imagination and a small amount of money can go a long way.      

Malmö 23-25 September

First, some background to put my perceptions from my all too brief visit to Malmö into context:

  • Malmö is the third largest city in Sweden with a population of about 270,000
  • It has the fastest growing population in Sweden and a young demographic profile
  • 26% of the population was born in other countries
  • The city has made considerable efforts to reinvent itself after the decline of traditional industries, such as shipbuilding. Nonetheless, I was interested to note that by far the largest single employer today seems to be the City of Malmö
  • With the Öresund Bridge, the motorway and railway link, it now takes only 35 minutes by train from Malmö city centre to the city centre of Copenhagen, Denmark and 22 minutes to Copenhagen Airport. I think a train from Malmö to Stockholm takes about 5 hours.

After a late Sunday evening arrival, I headed straight for the main public library first thing Monday morning. I certainly experienced an architectural “wow” factor as Eva Olson, one of a number of librarians I had met previously in London, took me on a tour.  The extension to the original Municipal Library (1899) is known as the Calendar of Light and on a bright autumn day it was certainly wonderfully light-filled with views out onto the adjacent park. The new building is designed by the Danish architect Henning Larsen. It opened in 1997 after he won an architectural competition in 1992. 

While there was plenty to admire and I would have loved to spend longer in the building, I was told (and realised for myself later, when I had a chance to explore the centre as a tourist) that it is somewhat separate from the major flows of people in the city centre, by virtue of standing in the park. I suspect this means working twice as hard to bring many residents into the building, and particularly immigrants, some of whom may never have used a public library before. 

It made me reflect on the different emphasis regarding multicultural relationships that might be adopted in different types of public library settings. Iconic buildings such as this one have the power to act as destination locations on international cultural circuits (by hosting major authors from around the world at events debating or discussing their work for example), whereas small, modest and intimate local public branch libraries cannot perform this role, although they can do the equivalent in a local context. It’s precisely these very unassuming spaces, however, that potentially have a different kind of power in community-building and inter-action, leading local people to the wealth of resources available in the librarynear their homes. The success of these smaller libraries in this task depends very much on the skills and proactive attitudes of the staff. I was interested to learn that the library service had had a temporary library in a shipping container by a skate park over the summer months which had proved to be very successful in reaching new audiences. And when I asked the head of the library service what she dreamt of doing, she talked about having a whole fleet of Bokbussen (ie mobile libraries).  If I understood correctly, they already have Somali, Albanian and Arabic speakers on their mobile library.

It was appropriate then, that I spent some of the afternoon in Rosengård, an area with a population of about 22,000, east of the centre, and where about 85% have a foreign background. Of these, 59% of these are born abroad and the other 26% have parents born abroad. About 50 languages are spoken from 111 countries.  The area is one of those places whose reputation goes before it…here, for example is an item I found on the BBC website.

The library here is a very important community space, in a district built as part of the 1970s “Million homes” programme (see also my entry on Stockholm). In conversation with Ewa Lindblad and Cecilia Kristiansson I learnt that the shopping complex in which it is located, has now effectively been split into two. This means that the one large supermarket to which people from outside the immediate area come in their cars, is now completely isolated, effectively giving the rest of the complex ghetto-like characteristics.

Ewa talked about her involvement in a programme called IDA (this link is in Swedish) in conjunction with the main library, an adult learning programme and resources which has evolved from a lot of contact with teachers. It aims to fill the gap for those who haven’t integrated because they have not been able to acquire a sufficient command of Swedish after completing the obligatory Swedish for immigrants’ courses. The programme will provide supplementary support for activities that the schools are not dealing with – for example how to use a computer, pay bills, fill in forms etc. Making a start with reading and learning about essential matters which are immediately relevant and appropriate to people’s lives seems to me to be the way in to introducing, in a very individualised way, the richness of the rest of what the library has to offer. 

I’m conscious that I cannot describe here the many other programmes in which the library service is involved, but I will single out the Living Library activities as the idea of borrowing a person has been in action in the city on a regular basis since 2005. I haven’t yet met anyone during this trip who shares my unease that the very stereotypes that the scheme aims to tackle may in fact be reinforced by singling out one aspect of who people are in this way, but we have had some very interesting discussions about it. There is no question that everyone who has participated has been happy to do so and all sorts of positive things have come out of the inter-actions that have occurred on this 1:1 basis. Maybe we will talk more about this at this event on 24 October in London?

On Tuesday I gave a presentation to an audience of about 30 people about Welcome To Your Library. This took place in a venue where I’d been taken to for lunch the previous day when the weather was sunny and clear. This doesn’t do the views justice, but it gives some idea.

I’d very much like to go back to Malmö and if I do, I’d certainly go back to the restaurant where I was taken for supper on Monday evening. Warmest thanks to everyone I met for your welcome and hospitality…you all know who you are!

Stockholm 19-23 September

The first thing I saw on landing at Arlanda airport was an Ethiopian Airways plane, which somehow set an appropriate tone for the second stage of my travels. As I expected, getting around was easy and straightforward. There was someone helpful on hand to assist with an unfamiliar ticket machine, the bus driver announced in Swedish and in English how long the journey would take to get to the city centre and the name of each stop was read out and visible on a screen beforehand. Always interesting to note what feels welcoming if you don’t know how a place or system works.

My accommodation, a flat in Södermalm (an island that forms the southern part of central Stockholm and which is where many of the fashionable restaurants and bars are located), turned out to be superb, so I commend the agency through which I booked it.

Armed with a map and public transport ticket, over the next two days I visited several  libraries in various municipalities around Stockholm, to find out more about the role of public libraries here in multicultural relationships. Quite apart from any other reason this has been interesting to get a sense of scale. Sweden’s total population is 9 million. Stockholm itself has a population of roughly 750,000 and Greater Stockholm, including the areas I visited, more like 1.5 million. Nowhere I visited was more than 40 minutes away from the centre of Stockholm by train, and most were about half that. Everywhere seemed green and leafy and near beautiful stretches of water.

But these neighbourhoods were a world apart from the centre of town and from my conversations, it was clear that many people do not move very far from their immediate locality in their daily life, for all sorts of reasons. In these areas, the percentage of immigrants is very high – I couldn’t help feeling that I was experiencing a Stockholm that is usually completely hidden from the casual visitor and which residents of areas such as the one I was staying in, might well only ever perceive via the media, rather than in person, unless they had a very specific reason to go there. 

Travelling with me was my excellent guide, Nick Jones, who was able to fill me in on some of the political and other background. Apart from shifts in national politics after the last election in 2006, there have also been shifts locally, and Nacka, a municipality to the south-east of Stockholm is one such place. Nick has recently been appointed head of the library in Forum Nacka, a shopping centre, which is currently undergoing major work so that it will double in size by next year, as will the library. 

All the libraries we visited in three different municipalities were either in a shopping/transport complex or co-located with cultural facilities, such as a theatre. In each case I was very struck with the degree of visibility and profile of the library as a component of the local landscape and all were clearly signposted. Some, in particular the library at Hallunda in the municipality of Botkyrka , had an emphasis on a substantial and impressive range of stock in different languages.

One library in Nacka, Fisksätra library, stood out amongst the visits I made however, because of the strong emphasis on the library as the hub of community life. This neighbourhood largely comprises housing developed in the 1970s as part of the “Million-Programme” which was intended to solve an acute housing shortage. This housing is now owned by Stena (yes, the same company that runs ferries).  It is an area surrounded by richer neighbours but whose own population reflects upheavals around the world, with residents from about 80 countries speaking 50 or more languages.  I met with Barbro Bolonassos, the head of the library, and her colleagues. That very morning they had received a visit from the Minister of Culture who had chosen this library to present her culture budget. We could have talked for hours…it was clear that Barbro is both inspired and a person with a mission, and despite setbacks and struggles, she has a very firm vision of the library as an “arena for democracy.” There is more about this in a recent article in the Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly. Walking around this small library was an uplifting experience because everyone using it, from tutors from the Red Cross to individual adults using computers to children choosing books, interacted with us and with each other in ways that suggested it was very much a community living room. But Barbro is clearly a key driving force behind it all.

I have also shared with about 20 staff from public libraries in Greater Stockholm a presentation about Welcome To Your Library in the UK, and I’m very grateful to Ali Reza Afshari, whom I had already met when he visited London a year or so ago, for setting this up and accompanying me. This took place in a building right next to the famous Gunnar Asplund library in central Stockholm, so I took the opportunity to go back later and visit both this building and the superb International Library next door. There are very big plans for a new library complex here in the next five or six years.

To my surprise, after my presentation, and in continuing discussion with Nick as we travelled around,  I discovered that there isn’t a framework or policy document along the lines, say of Framework for the Future, in Sweden. This means that so far as I understand it, there isn’t a national statement about the importance or role of public libraries in relation to social justice or social inclusion.  I have started to wonder about the differences between countries I have visited previously as part of this trip, and countries such as Sweden, where immigration and cohesion issues are a much more recent phenonomenon. My superficial impression is that public libraries are perceived very much as part of the cultural and leisure fabric of communities. The range of books, newspapers and other media available in different languages is highly impressive, but considering how libraries might contribute in a more proactive way to enabling people to feel part of society is newer terrain. As Barbro said in the article referred to above “Different kinds of local communities place different demands on their library.”  

New York 27 June- 4 July

Having visited New York before I already had a feel for its geography and wasn’t as overwhelmed as I might otherwise have been on arrival. With extremely hot and humid weather for the first day or so I decided not to rush round all the obvious “must-see” tourist sights before my scheduled library visits. So I got myself a Metrocard, took the (free) Staten Island Ferry, and instead of turning round and coming straight back to Manhattan, as most visitors do for the stunning views, I continued by bus to Snug Harbour Cultural Center and the adjacent Staten Island Botanical Gardens, home to the lovely New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden. Not only was this relaxing, enjoyable and completely unexpected, it also meant I fortuitously avoided being caught up in a major blackout that affected much of the east side of Manhattan and Queens that day.

I didn’t avoid drama altogether, however. A few days later, an apartment in a high-rise block only a few yards from where I was staying, went up in flames and the whole neighbourhood was full of wailing sirens and fire engines. I have never seen such long extending ladders and hoses. Standing on the street corner the whole scene felt like something out of a film. Thankfully, so far as I was aware, nobody was hurt, but the damage was considerable.

Otherwise, my touristic activities were without incident. I’d definitely single out a tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum as something thoroughly worthwhile for anyone interested in multicultural relationships in New York.

Knowing something of New York’s geography was also helpful in understanding how New York’s public libraries are organised. New York Public Libraries cover Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, with separate services in Queens and in Brooklyn (although I didn’t get to Brooklyn on this occasion).

My two days with library staff in Queens and two with staff in Manhattan and the Bronx involved fascinating discussions and visits and I give my warmest thanks to everyone I met for their hospitality.

In Queens, my visit included speaking with members of the long-established New Americans Program (NAP) team. This covers an extensive spectrum of activity, from collections, public programmes (cultural programmes and coping skills programmes), production of various resource guides (including one member of staff who spends much of her time on demographic studies to provide the necessary community analysis to inform planning and development of the services and collections offered) and a range of other services. I was very impressed with the Adult Literacy and ESOL classes offered, one of which I was able to sit in on.

In the Bronx Library Center a few days later, I also spoke with the head of the Center for Reading & Writing and with staff in other branches where ESOL and literacy classes take place. Yes, these are all about giving people the confidence to improve their spoken and written English at one level. At the same time, they also:

  • enable sharing of experiences and information that has a practical value and immediate relevance to people’s lives, for example on topics such as health or family issues
  • create bridges between people who may be neighbours but come from very different parts of the world, bringing with them different cultures and backgrounds. Suddenly they realise, through inter-action at the library, that they are all grappling with the same life problems and challenges
  • introduce notions of rights and responsibilities, sometimes in a very subtle way. For example, seeing people from their own background or living in their own block of flats working in a voluntary capacity to provide English language support to others, is one way that students have then decided to offer to volunteer themselves to help others after they have reached a certain level.

In Queens, the library service consciously sets a target for its cultural programmes of getting 50% of their audience from the culture that is celebrated in the programme and 50% from other backgrounds. All of the programmes are geared towards building trust so that those attending feel comfortable with accessing other services that the public library offers. This is particularly important for those who may not be familiar with the concept of a public library in their country of origin and feel it is “not for them, only for academics and scholars” or whose experience of a library (eg because of censorship) is so different, that they need an informal introduction and orientation before they are likely to take advantage of what’s on offer.

At present, they are also embarking on the Queens Library Health Link programme, a five-year Federally-funded research and partnership programme exploring how the library service, with relevant health agencies, can be a partner in community outreach to increase access to cancer screening and care among medically underserved communities in the area. Another example of reaching out in a way that is likely to have real long-term consequences for literacy in relation to health.

What these visits and discussions did, was to crystallise thoughts I have had for some time about the particular nature of the role public libraries play as places where positive, non-judgmental and life enhancing exchanges take place informally. Traditionally, public libraries are viewed more as places of consumption of knowledge on an individual basis, where the library as a a civic space provides an unthreatening environment for individuals to borrow or use materials for study or leisure purposes or find out information. At best, the inter-action is between one individual and a member of library staff, but it it may involve no inter-action at all.

I believe we need more of a balance between public libraries as places of consumption and as places of exchange, using the exchanges that take place to develop further how the resources held in public libraries are made accessible to and used by everyone.

Perhaps a rather passive approach in many public libraries in the UK, combined with the notion of impartiality, is how the word “neutral” has come to be used so frequently in relation to public libraries by librarians themselves. Public libraries are not neutral. When they are run well, they are welcoming places that provide both opportunities for individuals to pursue their own appetites for reading, learning and information, but also can facilitate informal opportunities to inter-act and give or get support from others that wouldn’t happen in the same way anywhere else.

As one of the staff members in the Bronx Library Center pointed out, classes in most other institutions involve either attending at a set time each week, and/or having to pay. Given that many who attend have several, usually low-paid part-time jobs, which often involve shifts, and have childcare or other family responsibilities, they are not in a position to sign up to more formal learning. In addition, it’s possible some people who may be interested may not be documented, in which case there would be every reason for them to be reticent about formal registration. The flexible, drop-in arrangements at the public libraries I visited clearly open doors that would otherwise be closed. Reading some of the work produced immediately provides an insight into how such activities enable people’s skills, self-esteem and confidence to develop.

Migration as a phenomenon is here to stay. Public libraries are in a strong position to provide the welcome, the orientation, the understanding of life in the UK that will make it a lot easier for everyone to feel connected and part of a local community. This work does not necessarily have to be led by library staff, but they do need to acknowledge and articulate their role effectively, not just as places where knowledge can be consumed, but as facilitators of positive exchange between people from very different backgrounds, so that everyone is better equipped to access the resources public libraries hold. What follows from an acknowledgment of this role involves some real challenges in terms of management, attitudes and skills required to make this a core part of the future of public libraries and what they are all about and how library staff work with people from different sectors.

The nature of the way public libraries are organised in the UK means that there is a danger of fragmentation. There needs to be more co-ordination and sharing of demographic intelligence, action-learning, good practice as well as effective advocacy on behalf of all those already engaged in excellent work on the ground. It wouldn’t cost a lot, but it could make a very big difference to practitioners and to policy makers in positioning public libraries at the forefront of community-building.

The next part of my trip will be to Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium for two weeks in late September/early October 2007 so this is the last posting for now.

Washington, DC 21-26 June

My few days in Washington, DC went by in a whirl. On arrival, I was invited to dinner at Old Ebbitt Grill, a Washington eating institution, by Linda Jordan, a librarian from Oklahoma. She signed up to the Welcome To Your Library e-list a month or two ago, and I subsequently discovered we would both be in Washington for the American Libraries Association (ALA) annual conference. What a warm welcome and a pleasure to make face-to-face contact after e-mail exchange.

Next day, I met with Susan Kent, who until recently was responsible for the branch libraries in Manhattan, but is now about to move to Los Angeles. I owe her a special debt of thanks for putting me in touch by e-mail before I left the UK  with lots of the people I have met on this trip. We talked about public libraries and their future, managing change, and a host of other things besides. Somehow two hours flew by and I know we’ll stay in touch. Then it was off to meet Ginnie Cooper, who has relatively recently moved to DC to run (and transform) the public library service. It only took about ten minutes before we were deep into a conversation about public value and the book by Mark Moore on this topic. She introduced me to two of her colleagues, but soon it was time to leave, as she’d invited me to a dinner reception held by the Urban Libraries Council. This took place in an amazing venue, the Cosmos Club, which was only a few minutes walk from Dupont Circle, where I was staying and where Ginnie lives. 

I had a wonderful time and was treated as a very special guest, with public credit given to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. It was an honour I hadn’t been expecting. And that’s not to mention I was also treated as an old friend by a number of people I had already met on my travels! I was very privileged to sit next to Clement Alexander Price, who is Professor of History and Director of The Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University.  He is also a Trustee on the board of the Urban Libraries Council. The conversation was equally stimulating with Guitele Nicoleau, who is on the board of library trustees in Washington, DC. I plan to stay in touch with them both once I return to the UK.

The following day I made a beeline, in the enormous exhibition accompanying the ALA conference, to the Office of Citizenship, US Citizenship and Immigration Services stand. They have just launched a Civics and Citizenship Toolkit, with a free copy for every public library in the country that registers to ask for one. Talking to staff, I discovered they had recently met with Patrick Wintour from the Employability Forum in the UK, and had noticed he had scribbled furiously when they had talked about their work in the US with public libraries. I already know Patrick, so clearly need to give him a call when I get back! The director is due to visit the UK soon and staff on the exhibition stand were very interested in him including libraries on his visit, so I shall be on the case about that too.

Later I met with John Gehner, Co-ordinator of the Hunger, Homelessness and Poverty Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the ALA , as I was due to speak at their conference session the next morning, on Serving low-income people effectively: ideas and practices for libraries.We spent a very enjoyable evening together . The conference session went off well, with (at a guess) about 100 people in the room and a lot of interest and questions at the end. In the event there was just one other speaker, from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (very interesting for me on policy and statistical context setting).

Then it was time to party at the REFORMA reception at the Venezuelan Embassy.  REFORMA is the national association to promote library and information services to Latinos and the Spanish speaking and they certainly knew how to party. It also meant I met Loida Garcia-Febo, whom I will be meeting in Queens. Monday night was another reception, this time hosted by webjunction (see entry for Seattle) in conjunction with Ginnie Cooper (see above) and Deborah Jacobs, head of the library service in Seattle.  Yet another wonderful venue – this time the Tabard Inn.

I wasn’t going to let a conference and a few social engagements get in the way of being a first-time visitor to Washington. Writing this now I’m not too sure how I managed this, but somehow, between whiles, I walked and walked. I also followed a tour of the Library of Congress, visited the Lincoln Memorial and various monuments on the National Mall and the botanical gardens. I also visited two delightful museums, though perhaps not the most obvious ones in Washington, the Phillips Collection (I always love the feeeling of the hand of an individual collector and their tastes rather than the feeling of an institutional approach) and the Freer Gallery of Art, part of the Smithsonian, which has a fantastic collection of Whistler paintings and some beautiful Japanese screens. In the Phillips Collection I discovered for the first time the work of Jacob Lawrence and bought his book, Great Migration.

I feel exhausted just describing some of what I’ve been up to in the last few days, but though tiring, it has been very stimulating and I have made lots of new contacts and friends.

Next (and last) stop on this part of my travels: Queens and Manhattan.