In Denmark, there is an old and deep-rooted tradition of library service for all citizens. Therefore, the Danish public libraries are often seen as the core of civic education. This may be changing, for during the period 1988-2008, the number of libraries was more than halved. This development has been reinforced by a municipal reform in 2007, reducing 271 municipalities to 98. The vast majority of closures have taken place in sparsely populated, rural areas. It is therefore pertinent to ask: How should a future library service be conducted in these areas? Despite considerable debate in the media, there is little factual knowledge about this issue. This may partly explain why the public debate often becomes very emotional.
On this background, the purpose of this study – entitled ‘Library service in rural areas: Experiences, models, perspectives’ – is to provide more knowledge about library service in rural Denmark. Hence, the study seeks to answer the following questions: How widespread are the various models? How do they work in practice? What advantages and disadvantages do they involve?
First, a literature study shows that the small parish libraries have become less popular over the last eight to ten years. Where supporters of small libraries have emphasized local needs for meeting places, easy access and long opening hours, the supporters of book mobile service have emphasized the need for cheap and efficient service to the rural population, modern collections of materials and strengthening of the main library in the municipality. However, there are still proponents of parish libraries, albeit in revised form – such as libraries integrated in cultural centres, self-service libraries, combined libraries/citizen service, etc.
Next, a questionnaire survey from spring 2009, including library leaders from 62 municipalities in rural Denmark, sheds light on the advantages and disadvantages that each model holds in practice, and how successful library service is considered to be in the single municipalities. It turned out that 90% of the municipalities served rural areas by use of parish libraries. Besides traditional library service, these libraries also arrange cultural events and have important social functions. Moreover, 40% of the municipalities use book mobile service, especially the most sparsely populated municipalities. 40% of the library leaders found that their library service has been improved, 15% that it has deteriorated, while the rest felt that their library service in rural areas has remained unchanged. Improved service was explained by improved collections of materials, economies of scale, improved access to materials, more uniform service, expanded opening hours and new book mobile service; while deteriorated service was said to be due to reduced opening hours and closure of parish libraries. Furthermore, over 90% of the library leaders found that citizens were satisfied with the service, primarily due to improved collections of materials and a good librarian staff. Dissatisfaction was mostly explained by library closures. Finally, asked about the biggest disadvantages of library service in rural areas, 30% of the total number of responses indicated lack of resources and 20% that it is difficult to cover the whole area. In addition, short opening hours and disadvantages in connection with book mobile service were also mentioned.
An analysis of the responses showed that parish libraries driven by volunteers, self-service libraries and, not least, libraries integrated in cultural centres were considered good alternatives to more traditional service in the form of small parish libraries and book mobile service. The obvious advantage of integrating libraries into cultural centres is that such large meeting places provide a much larger part of the municipality’s population with public services. Hence, culture house libraries are apt to serve the interests of the local community as well as the whole municipality. This by combining socio-cultural meeting place functions and easy access to library service (local interests) with a high number of lending and, hence, cheap and efficient library service (municipal interests).