Answer from Germany by Frauke Mahrt-Thomsen
How do you, from your personal perspective, value the situation of the public library in your country?
We have no library laws which oblige local communities to establish public libraries and the existing laws in some of the federal states don’t guarantee financial support. Public libraries in Germany are voluntary tasks of the local communities. In many communities with 5000 inhabitants or more you will not find a public library with professional staff, a lot of existing libraries in small communities or quite a number of branch libraries in bigger towns are run by volunteers or by the churches. Medium sized or bigger towns mostly have a well established public library system, but due to restricted budgets many of them started already 25-30 years ago to charge their patrons for booklending. Due to the financial crisis the public libraries are suffering from severe budget cuts, in cities with more than 100 000 inhabitants two third of the public libraries have budget cuts up to 50 %. Staff reduction forces many libraries to reduce their programmes and their opening hours, to mainstream their collection building through ‘standing order’ and ‘bestseller-services’, to close branch libraries or to render them to volunteers. The thinning out of the library net has been extremely strong in cities like Berlin, where after the opening of the wall we had about 220 public libraries and now there are around 75, so only one third of the places is left where the citizens used to find their next library. The public libraries in Berlin are run by the districts which are more or less independent communities with low budgets left for voluntary tasks. On the upper level the Senate is in charge for the central library and the legal and administrative framework. In the last time they discovered that the library system is an ideal field to test new technologies like RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) on a broad scale. If they want it or not, the patrons have to accept the new technology with its risks and follow-ups like self-checking and further staff reduction. Another example for the decision making in this town: Berlins central library, the ZLB (Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin) consists of two houses and several magazines and urgently needs a new building. The mayor discovered the topic in pre-election time and put the new central library on his agenda. But than he didn’t start a dialogue with the patrons, colleagues and public, where they want their new central library but decided once and for ever: the new library has to be built in the southwest corner of the Tempelhofer Feld (former airport of Berlin), quite a way out from the city. The reason: he wants to construct a new industrial quarter there, with a few apartment houses, and this needs some vitalization. What is better making people to come to this isolated quarter? The new library! But the people who really use and love their central library they want it in the middle of the town. Just opposite the town hall is a wonderful open space called Marx-Engels-Forum. Why does the mayor not want to see the big new central library when he looks out of his window?
Would you say that the support of public libraries is strong among the people/in your community/society?
Though the service of the public libraries in Germany is suffering from restrictions like it was indicated above the people still love their libraries, visit their libraries (almost 700 000 a day, 200 million a year), fight with a lot of activities against the closing of their libraries, organize ‘friends’ and other support groups, and in a growing number keep their libraries open through voluntary work. In the last years there has been more support for libraries through politicians, for example in the Enquète Commission ‘Culture in Germany’, and through state parliaments who voted for library laws in Thüringen, Saxony-Anhalt, Hessen. But up to now these laws are ‘toothless tigers’ as long as they are mainly friendly declarations about the importance of libraries, with no financial obligations. In Berlin, the leading Social Democrats even when they were in government together with the Left Party, they were not ready to make any kind of library law and substantial support for the district libraries. I don’t think they will do it in this legislative era, together with the Christian Democrats.
23.12.2011 Frauke Mahrt-Thomsen / Berlin