The text below was prepared for the Danish Ministry of Culture’s Book and Literature Panel. On 3 May 2016, I was invited to Copenhagen to give a presentation about the state of e-book lending through public libraries in the Netherlands. After the meeting I wrote the text with some updated information. The text was finalized on 26 August 2016 and has been translated into Danish for a publication of the Danish Ministry of Culture. The original English and Danish language versions of the publication in which it was included can be downloaded from this site.
1. The public library landscape in the Netherlands
Since the turn of the millennium, the number of public library organizations in the Netherlands has declined considerably, from 544 in 1999 to 156 in 2015 (Statistics Netherlands, 2016). A policy program called Library Renewal (‘Bibliotheekvernieuwing’, 2000-2008) succeeded in arriving at a limited number of larger organizations through mergers of local libraries. Library organizations are providing public library services in multiple municipalities. The 156 organizations are currently operating
- 782 branches with a minimum of 15 opening hours per week
- 215 service points, opened 4-15 hours per week
- 55 mini service points, opened less than 4 hours per week
- 67 delivery points
- 11 self-service libraries without staff
- 10 book mobiles with 141 stops
(Netherlands Public Library Association, 2016).
Public library membership in the Netherlands is a paid membership, at least for adults. Most library organizations offer free memberships for children and youngsters, but for those aged 16-17 it is common they have to pay a fee. From the age of 18 (19 in Amsterdam), a full membership fee is due, the height of which varies between library organizations and is also dependent on the service level. Typically, libraries offer a choice between three membership options: a regular membership, a cheaper reduced version for incidental borrowers, and a more expensive top version for library aficionados. As an example, in the public library of Amsterdam the corresponding rates are € 35 (€ 25 for 19-22 years and over 65s), € 20, and € 55 (€ 45 for 19-22 and over 65s). What is included in each of the membership versions is dependent on local conditions.
Only one in every eight euros of the total public library budget is paid by registered members.
It is important, however, to stress that the Dutch public library system, as elsewhere, is financed largely by the local, regional and national governments. In 2015, subsidies constituted over 82 per cent of the total budget of public libraries (519.4 million euros), whereas 12 per cent derived from membership fees (the remainder of the budget coming from provinces, other grants and contributions, and on-charged costs; the budget for the national e-book portal is not included in this sum). In other words, only one in every eight euros is paid by registered members.
No other place in the community is better equipped and motivated to help people of all ages find information, develop knowledge and explore their creative talents, than the public library. At least, that is the impression one gets when reading policy documents and manifestos. The UNESCO Public Library Manifesto, first adopted in 1949 and last amended in 1994, states: “The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups.”
Bron: Brooklyn Public Library (http://www.bklynlibrary.org)
Support under scrutiny
There is certainly a case to be made that with their balanced collections of non-fiction as well as fiction books open to all who walk in, public libraries provide ample resources for those engaged in self-education, be it out of leisure pursuits or for professional purposes.
Yet it seems to me that since the turn of the century European public libraries have shifted away from special programs geared at lifelong learners. True, in many communities across Europe adults can follow courses in their libraries, with a focus on computer, Internet and social media skills. Also, second language learners are welcomed and introduced to collections of easy reading materials.
But amidst doubts about their continued relevance in the digital era, many libraries have had to bow their heads for pressure from local authorities to focus on what most policy makers now see as the library’s core business: lending out as many books as possible, and supporting primary and (to a lesser extent) secondary schools in language and reading development. One gets the impression that lifelong learning has been falling off both the educational and social policy agenda in the last decade, and hence off the library agenda as well.
Volksbibliotheken and beyond
It has not always been like that. Pioneers of the idea of a public library in the 19th century criticised the then prominent ‘people’s libraries’ (‘Volksbibliotheken’ in German and Dutch). These libraries, in the words of one proponent, erect a fatal schism between ‘the people’ and ‘the more developed’, forcing the former on a ‘barren island’ of popular reading material and hindering them in taking note of what else there is to learn.
Librarians are more than willing to support people of all ages, but they need support from policy makers. Perhaps they even deserve it.
Public libraries, in contrast, would offer books and periodicals for self-study and self-development to those who did not find themselves in a financial position to access these otherwise. The struggle lasted roughly from the 1830s to World War II before public libraries had at last been firmly established and secured sufficient and structural public funding.
Shifting away from lifelong learning
After the war, the focus of public libraries gradually shifted away from self-learning and personal development. With the establishment of the human rights, public libraries were seen as guarantors of fundamental information rights: freedom of access, freedom of expression and protection of the private sphere.
In the second half of the 20th century, other functions gained in political prominence: securing and maintaining the (local) cultural heritage; the promotion of a ‘culture of reading’ and stimulating literary climate; and most recently stimulating cognitive development of preschoolers and learners in primary school. Especially this last function is currently in vogue since research has recommended that language and reading disadvantages be tackled as early as possible. In times of economical backlash, public money should be put where social benefits can be maximised, new public management reasons.
Bridging formal and informal learning
Nobody will doubt that giving kids a solid start in life is a good thing. However, we also know that what we learn in the first 15-25 years of our lives will all but outlast us. Both privately and professionally, we need to continue to learn and educate ourselves. Public libraries can be a bridge between formal education and more informal schooling and development after we have left the school system. In spite of a widespread misconception, public libraries have the potential to prosper in the digital era, provided that they succeed in making their physical and digital services complement each other.
Librarians are more than willing to support people of all ages, especially those in deprived social circumstances, in their learning efforts with specialized programs for e.g. low literate, employment seekers, immigrants, elderly people, and persons with visual or other impairments. But they also support reading circles, family historians and local heritage groups. But in supporting their communities, they in turn need support from policy makers. Perhaps they even deserve it.
This column was written for the European Commission’s Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe (EPALE) and first appeared on its blog, 21 July 2015