I’m a librarian. So it’s pretty much a given that I love libraries, but not a tote bag/coffee mug/bumper sticker/emoji kind of love. It goes deeper than that for me and it’s a bit different than loving books or loving librarians — we’re generally a weird bunch as a profession. I love libraries because there are very few truly public spheres anymore where we can exist, as humans, without the unnerving pressure and guilt to buy something, consume something, or do something to propel the capitalist machine. Libraries ask nothing of us as humans, except to come in, be warm, browse and learn, take things (books, games, tools), and respect each other and the space and then leave, hopefully feeling better or smarter, or at least warmer.
Let me pivot for a moment — stick with me. These past few months as Roving Scholar have been incredibly rich and full. I spend a good deal of my daytime hours surrounded by new students and teachers, talking, asking questions, and generally pouring myself out in the classroom. But when school ends I walk away, and since I’m far from home and family, I don’t have kids to pick-up, dinners to make, or work to catch-up on in the late afternoon or evenings. So, I walk. And I poke around the town I’m in to get a sense of things and to clear my head. Since the winter is fully settled on Norway, I usually walk briskly and look for places to duck into out of the cold — shops, bookstores, cafes, and libraries.
In every town I’ve visited there is a library. I say this not because I think it’s important that every town has a library, but because it seems that Norwegians value their libraries and use them voraciously. The library/culture house is a hub for community and a destination instead of an errand to run or a spot to grab books and pass through. Even towns like Hamar and Sandefjord have libraries/culture houses that seem rather ostentatious for smaller Norwegian municipalities.
And the libraries are beautiful. Architectural delights with ample and cozy spaces for reading in solitude or working collaboratively in groups. Spaces designed for gamers, for children to play, teens to spread out all their crap and gossip, adults to have conference calls or sip coffee while looking out one of the large windows. Many incorporate makerspaces for 3D printing, sewing, or learning a new skill. They include cafes, theaters or cinemas attached to them. Bookshelves are often individually lit, giving a warm and inviting feeling that just begs you to pick up a book. In many towns, the library stays open, unstaffed, late into the night (some as late as midnight) and opens as early as 6:00 am; all you need to do is get a library card and sign a form saying you will respect the space to enter during off hours. Even better, any resident or citizen of Norway can get a national library card, which allows you to check-out books from any library in the country. I’ve cried in several libraries because of the beauty of it all. And I’ve cried because we can have these things in the United States, but for the most part, we don’t.
I’ve had a bit of time to think about why the reach of libraries are so pervasive in Norway and I want to toss out a few ideas here. First, the ideal of social inclusion and equality is central to Norwegian values and a library embodies this by providing access to resources and space to everyone. There is a colloquial saying that goes something like, ‘anything that can happen in the capital (Oslo) can happen anywhere in Norway,’ meaning that life outside of the major cities should not be bereft of services and culture. Therefore, a smaller city deserves to have a beautiful library and rich cultural experiences and the municipalities work diligently to provide this for their population.
Second, Norway is a wealthy country and when you’ve met the basic needs of your citizens already (housing, childcare, healthcare, education), why not spend money on beautiful monuments to culture and knowledge. Both of these ideas seem to feed into the fact that Norway wants people to be happy and content with their lives, whether they are living in a more isolated part of the country or in a city center and regardless of income. Because if people are generally happy, they will stay put. They won’t rely solely on family ties or jobs to keep them in a community and they will likely contribute to their communities by using services, shopping, putting their kids in schools, working, and buying homes — which generates tax revenue and powers the economy. I know it’s a reach, but this is how, if we must quantify it, libraries power local economies.
The final reason I think Norway invests in libraries and culture houses is a bit less rose-tinted. This is a big country with very few people (just over five million for a land mass the size of California — which has 38 million people). Communities are remote, somewhat isolated from one another, and people generally keep to themselves or socialize at home with close friends and family. The winters are dark, long, and cold. To me, these are conditions worthy of depressive, anxious, or suicidal thoughts. And while Norway doesn’t rank high as a country with serious mental health issues or suicides, it does seem ripe if conditions were right. When I’ve been on my solo walks, the library — open, lighted, free, warm — presents itself as the perfect panacea to any creeping sense of loneliness I might have. The large windows, bustle of folks coming and going, and the possibility of sipping a coffee while browsing through an art book makes me feel like all is right in the world.
When I was perusing statistics on Norway, I stumbled upon a figure that says almost 46% of the population visited a library in the last year, which is on par with US visits at around 48% of the population visiting a library (statistics are from 2016). So, it’s puzzling to me why we don’t have amazing libraries everywhere in the United States. Especially in a state like California, where tech companies build towers and ‘campuses,’ and not a single home in my neighborhood has sold for under a million dollars in the last year, where are we investing our money and why can’t we invest it in public good?
I’m not an economist or a sociologist so I can’t answer my own question, but I can guess that the US simply doesn’t not place the same value on libraries because we don’t see the return on investment. Libraries have always had a hard time making the case for their value. People love to get coffee mugs and tote bags that say they love their library, and I can’t begin to number the times people have told me, “I love librarians.” Really? I find my colleagues to be tremendously awkward and strange (including myself). But, I imagine if we asked people to subscribe to a library or pay for a membership, most people would not do it. When ranking important national issues, access to knowledge, culture, and libraries are nowhere to be seen. And why would they be? Most folks are worrying about making their mortgage payments, ensuring they can access healthcare, and having enough money to survive the month.
What’s the solution? I don’t know. But in California, what if we asked tech companies to invest in their local communities. Not through service days or donations from employees, but through large gifts to municipalities to undertake massive capital projects — like libraries, parks, and schools. I know this is contentious for many reasons, but we can’t count on our local governments at this stage to make these investments and for tech companies to ensure quality of life issues in California, we need to ask and require more of them. Our public sense of well-being counts on it.