The role of the public library in opening the decision-making to public scrutiny

Opening doors for democracy in Europe" * Conference on transparency and access to documents, Brussels 26.4.1999.
Workshop "I Pillar: Internal Market". Summary of introduction on: "The role of libraries in public access to documents"
Transparency must be structural. More open decision-making implies a change in our political institutions and in the present division of power in the society.

What I should like to discuss here is the possibility of transferring power to the public library. The information society should trust political power to the librarians, I think, and it should also allocate greater economical resources to the library than it does today.

It would be very unfortunate, on the other hand, if the public library would gradually become replaced by commercial and bureaucratic structures. That could also happen in a society which treats information primarily as an economic commodity.

In this discussion, internet is a keyword, but library is, in turn, a keyword when it comes to organising, presenting and publishing information on the Net. Library is one of the strongest metaphors of the net and, therefore, of the information society itself.

I should like to summarize my introduction in a number of questions. I find this to be appropriate, because, as I must admit, I am not ready to present a series of theses. So here are my questions:

  1. Situated as it is between the state and the civil society, is not the public library particularly well placed to organise intelligently and to present objectively all the information which should be governed by the principle of public access?
  2. Why not let the public library take care of the register, i.e. the ordering and the presentation to the public of the documents of the institutions of the European Union?
    Why not let the library make the content of the documents available as well?
    Why not let the public librarians keep the files of the ministers and the legislators and put them at the disposal of us all?
  3. Are we giving enough thought to the reception and the interpretation of official documents and other records of the decision-making process? For instance, how to penetrate bureaucratic language, and how to fight against it? The library concept is much broader than the governmental and administrative approach to information. In the library, the public records are bound to co-exist with literary and scientific works, i.e. the public documents are placed in the general cultrural context where they belong. After all, where else can the public records be critically received and interpreted?
  4. It can be objected that the public library is unequally developed in the different member countries of the EU. By consequence, the idea of enhancing the role of the library would only be realistic in a limited number of countries. But then, to build the adequate European public library system for the European information society, isn't that a necessary step towards European openness and transparency? And could a strong public library not become one of the most important common European objectives of the years ahead?
  5. Journalistic media abound. The media push increasing amounts of information to us whenever and wherever we like. Yet it is doubtful whether the media of today really help to keep us informed and whether they can be trusted to tell us the truth. Have the journalistic media failed to inform about the commercialisation and commodification of information itself? (While reading the new book by Ignacio Ramonet, La tyrannie de la communication I am inspired to ask these media-critical questions.) How could the library in its envisaged new role support the journalistic media as well as the public?
  6. To invest political power into the public library -- would that mean, among other things, that the office of the Information Commissioner or Ombudsman would be integrated in the public library? Yes, and thereby the power to order disclosure of information that an official or a government wants to withold from the public would be held by the library. Please try to imagine Jacob Söderman and his staff working as employees of (and within) the public library, if not precisely like librarians!
  7. Finally, why has the Green Paper on Public Sector Information, recently published by the European Commission, not been discussed at this conference? Would its economism perhaps be worth a word of critique? Does the Commission think that information is first and foremost an economic good? Is not the very choice of terminology, i.e. 'public sector' instead of 'government', most revealing?
    By the way, guess how many times the public library is mentioned in the Green Paper on Public Sector Information?
Mikael Böök

Note: MB is the director of the cooperative society "Katto-Meny", Internet Service Provider for authors, journalists, civic associations, EBLIDA (the European Bureau of Library and Documentation Associations) etc. "Library is a Keyword" and other essays by MB are found at