Public libraries as public sphere institutions. A comparative study of perceptions of the public library’s role in six European countries

Publication Date26 Sep 2019
AuthorRagnar Audunson,Svanhild Aabø,Roger Blomgren,Hans-Christoph Hobohm,Henrik Jochumsen,Mahmood Khosrowjerdi,Rudolf Mumenthaler,Karsten Schuldt,Casper Hvenegaard Rasmussen,Kerstin Rydbeck,Máté Tóth,Andreas Vårheim
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
Public libraries as public
sphere institutions
A comparative study of perceptions of the
public librarys role in six European countries
Ragnar Audunson and Svanhild Aabø
Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Archivistics,
Library and Information Science, Oslo Metropolitan University, Oslo, Norway
Roger Blomgren
School of Library and Information Science, Borås University, Borås, Sweden
Hans-Christoph Hobohm
Department of Information Sciences,
University of Applied Sciences, Potsdam, Germany
Henrik Jochumsen
Department of Information Studies,
University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Mahmood Khosrowjerdi
Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Elverum, Norway
Rudolf Mumenthaler and Karsten Schuldt
Chur University of Applied Sciences, Chur, Switzerland
Casper Hvenegaard Rasmussen
Department of Information Studies,
University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Kerstin Rydbeck
University of Uppsala, Uppsala, Sweden
Máté Tóth
National Library of Hungary, Budapest, Hungary, and
Andreas Vårheim
Department of Culture and Literature, University of Tromsø, Tromsø, Norway
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to analyze the role of public libraries as institutions underpinning a
democratic public sphere as reasons legitimizing libraries compared to reasons that are more traditional and
the actual use of libraries as public sphere arenas.
Design/methodology/approach A survey of representative samples of the adult population in six
countries Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Hungary and Switzerland was undertaken.
Findings Legitimations related to the libraries role as a meeting place and arena for public debate are
ranked as the 3 least important out of 12 possible legitimations for upholding a public library service.
Libraries are, however, used extensively by the users to access citizenship information and to participate in
public sphere relevant meetings.
Originality/value Few studies have empirically analyzed the role of libraries in upholding a democratic
and sustainable public sphere. This study contributes in filling that gap.
Keywords Public libraries, Democracy, Public sphere, Citizenship information, Community meeting place,
Social role of libraries
Paper type Research paper
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 75 No. 6, 2019
pp. 1396-1415
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-02-2019-0015
Received 1 February 2019
Revised 15 May 2019
Accepted 16 May 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
1. Introduction and research questions
A central part of the legitimacy of public libraries is rooted in their role as institutions
underpinning democracy and a rational public discourse and their role related to building
communities. This is far from a new role, but it has received increased attention in recent
years, possibly due to the challenges related to upholding a sustainable public sphere that
result from digitization and globalization. This increased attention is reflected in public
library legislation. Library legislation in Sweden and Norway was revised in 2013. In the
mission statements of the library laws in both countries, the librarys role as a meeting place
and an arena for an enlightened public discourse (Norway) and as an institution supporting
democracy and the free formation of opinion (Sweden) is stressed. Finland got a new library
act in 2016, also focusing upon citizenship and democracy.
The library lawsmay emphasize the librarys role as an institution supportingdemocracy
and public discour se, however, Jaeger et al. (2013) argue that public libraries continueto rely
upon assertions and rhetorical claims when seeking support through the political process
rather thanbringing forth evidence or data to makethe case for their democratic contributions
and for the increasing level of support granted to these contributions(p. 369).
The aim of the research on which this paper is based is to contribute in closing this gap
by providing empirical data regarding the role public libraries play as public sphere
institutions. This paper will elicit the following research questions based on survey data
from Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland:
RQ1. Which perceptions do our respondents have when it comes to the legitimacy of
keeping up a public library service in the community and how is the librarys
role as a meeting place and an arena for public discourse ranked in relation to
other legitimations?
RQ2. In Scandinavia as well as the other Nordic countries, one has had over the last
1015 years a distinct focus on public libraries as community meeting places and
arenas for democ ratic discourse . As stated above, t his focus is refl ected in recent
changes in Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish library legislation. Is the Scandinavian
focus upon libraries as meeting places and institutions underpinning democracy
reflected inthe Scandinavian publics perceptions and attitudesregarding the role of
public libraries? Do the Scandinavian respondents put a greater weight on these
dimensions of the social role of public libraries than respondents from our three
Central European countries, where the focus on the librariesrole as meeting places
and instituti ons underpinnin g democracy has b een less strong?
RQ3. Are public libraries in fact used as public sphere institutions,and, if yes, in what ways?
2. Literature review
Jaeger et al. (2013) state there is little empirical evidence that public libraries support
democracy, although their role as democratic champions are central in the fields
self-perception (Wiegand, 2015). The British sociologist Frank Webster (2014) argues in his
book Theories of the Information Society that the public library network is the closes we
come to a developed public sphere.Anne Gouldings (2009) empirical study of British
public libraries and community engagement, concluding that the public library is
positioned not just as a place to borrow or read books or even to access digital material, but
as a key community resource and facility which can act as a venue for community events
and as an access point connecting individuals with one another, connecting people with
their local communities, and connecting communities with wider society,supports
Websters argument regarding the library network as a developed public sphere (p. 47).
There are some evidence that libraries promote the generation of trust and social capital,
Public libraries
as public

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