Library lessons from transition countries – a personal reflection

National Library of Latvia

Transition countries are those which are moving from a centrally planned economy to free markets, and include many countries of the former Soviet Union, and its satellite states.  They have suffered – and in many cases - are still suffering - from major economic challenges and financial uncertainty.  

Transition countries often place a high importance on their newly found independence, with culture and language – which may have been previously suppressed – rising in importance as major elements of national identity.  There is also a recognition that the transition to democracy is not always a smooth with the need to address enormous social and political issues.

As Chair of IFLA’s Committee for Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) I have been fortunate to visit a number of transition countries and it seems to me that the way libraries in these countries are addressing the challenges they face is relevant to the current UK context.

UK, a country in transition

The UK, I would suggest, is a country in transition, although for rather different reasons.  The  high level of uncertainty arising from two major referendums  and the devolution of powers to Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland , mean that the UK is facing a number of challenges as it changes – or transitions in response to these.
The Scottish Independence Referendum galvanised political debate at all levels in Scotland.  Although the vote resulted in a majority for Scotland remaining within the UK, support for the Scottish National Party remained at a high level resulting in a near clean sweep of MPs in the 2015 election.  This reflects the fact that national identity and self-determination  remain a significant issue in Scotland with devolution now extending to major tax raising powers and social security and reshaping the country’s relationship with the rest of the UK.

The result of the EU Referendum was even closer, and has proven to be much more divisive than the Scottish independence referendum. Six months after the referendum there is a continuing uncertainty about what leaving the European Union will mean economically, legally and societally.  For example there may well be specific issues in Northern Ireland concerning both the land border with the Irish Republic and some of the cross border institutions.  Scotland’s majority vote to stay  within the EU in the referendum on the other hand may trigger demands for a further referendum on independence in Scotland.

So as the UK faces uncertainty and transition on a major scale, are there any lessons that we can identify from those countries which are formally in transition?

What can we learn from transition countries?

As always, comparisons are not absolute, but I believe there are two areas where there may be lessons for us - sense of identity, and the role that libraries can play within society.

National identity is an issue for transition countries which have only become independent in the past 25 years.  In many cases libraries – especially national libraries are providing a new focus for national culture and literature.  Indeed, a number of countries such as Latvia have built new or extended national libraries as symbols of their independence and identity.  Whilst the position in the UK is different, national identity is certainly an issue where arguments about the EU have had a strong focus on “regaining control”, and different results in each of the four countries that makeup the UK are re-inforcing the differences as much as the similarities between the four countries that make up the UK.

The role of libraries in community development and social cohesion is well understood.  However, in the transition countries, there is a strong focus on libraries supporting human rights, particularly freedom of access to information and freedom of expression reflecting the shift in society in a post Soviet era.  There is also a strong emphasis on the role that libraries can play in supporting the democratic process.  

To support this, many transition countries develop clear strategies for their public and other libraries, and whilst funding may be short, there is government recognition and clear support for their work.  This has enabled strong optimism  in their library services with what seems to me to be a sense that everyone is pulling in the same direction.
For me the lesson for libraries in the UK is clear.  Public and other libraries have a vital role to play in freedom of access to information and freedom of expression. This is particularly important in a time when search engines are being manipulated to provide incorrect and misleading content, and the boundary between opinion and fact is ever narrowing.  This role is part of developing an informed and active society, and deserves clear and strong Government support.

With this support, even in financially difficult times it is possible for libraries in all sectors to maintain a sense of optimism, enthusiasm and innovation.

Missing a trick

My view is that our government in England is missing a real trick here.  It does not seem to have a  a clear understanding or appreciation of the role that libraries can play in society, and where it expresses its support, there is little evidence that its actions actually have a significant impact or make much difference.  Unfortunately without effective support it is difficult to maintain a sense of optimism that libraries can achieve anything close to their full potential in coming years.

We know that times are difficult and uncertain.  However, if the new democracies that make up the transition countries can see the vital value of libraries, let’s hope that the government in England will soon realises that effective libraries are essential in a country that works for everyone. 


Image reference: The National Library of Latvia photographed by Bjørn Erik Pedersen via Wikimedia under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

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