Top of Page

Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 9. The State, Communities and Public Libraries: their role in tackling social exclusion

by John Pateman

This paper uses Miller's (1998) models of communities and the role of the state to analyse four different approaches to tackling social exclusion :

1. Emerging capitalist countries (in transition from planned to market economies) such as the ex-Soviet Union and former socialist countries in eastern Europe base their approach to social exclusion on exclusive diversity. This requires self-sufficient communities in which the state intervenes only in extremes. In these countries the standard of living is falling and the previously well developed library infrastructure has deteriorated.

2. Developed capitalist countries (market economies) such as those in the UK and western Europe base their approach to social exclusion on voluntary inclusion. This requires universalistic services in which the state seeks to avoid dependency and remove threats to mainstream society. Public services, including public libraries, are being encouraged to become less dependent on the state. This has lead to the development of public-private initiatives, growing commercialism and the extension of charging.

3. Socialist countries (planned economies) such as those in China and Vietnam base their approach to social exclusion on required inclusion. This requires universal and tailored services and a shared moral code in which the state uses compulsion if necessary. Education and libraries are viewed as basic requirements in building socialism, although the introduction of foreign capital may affect these developments.

4. Communist countries (working towards communism) such as Cuba and North Korea base their approach to social exclusion on universal and tailored services and arbitration in which the state encourages political engagement. Education and library provision is comprehensive and free, despite years of economic blockade.

We have used two sets of performance indicators to measure social exclusion around the world : New Labour's official indicators, "Monitoring poverty and social exclusion", developed by the New Policy Institute (1998) ; and a set of alternative indicators, "The World Guide", developed by the Third World Institute (1999).

Education, Literacy and Libraries

Exclusive Diversity

In the ex-Soviet Union and the former socialist states of eastern Europe, the education system has deteriorated with fewer children attending school and gaining qualifications. Fewer young people are gaining basic qualifications or entering higher or further education.

As Vallely (1999) has pointed out : "Democracy depends on an educated electorate. It is likely to degenerate as a growing proportion of the population cannot read or understand arguments about budgets...Because education helps social cohesion, the prospects for inter-ethnic conflict is likely to dramatically increase". There is already evidence of this happening in parts of the former Soviet Union, such as Chechnya.

The ex-Soviet Union was amongst the world's greatest producers of books (nearly 4 million each year). It possessed the largest number of libraries in the world (330,000). The country's information collection was one of the world's largest (over three billion volumes in total). Approximately seven titles per head of population were printed annually. UNESCO, for many years, referred to these Soviet achievements in the production and dissemination of information to the majority of its society, as a model to be emulated by other countries. Today that model is in ruins. Libraries have closed, staff have been sacked and book budgets have been cut. The status and pay of library staff have been reduced. Book publishing is at an all-time low and book prices are out of the reach of most ordinary people (Pateman, 1995).

A similar picture can be found in the former socialist countries of eastern Europe. Yugoslavia has witnessed the destruction of libraries in many of its constituent provinces (in Croatia alone over 200 libraries have either been put out of action or destroyed). Economic sanctions have made it difficult to rebuild the library infrastructure. In the Ukraine library staff earn the equivalent of 20 dollars a month. Many Romanian libraries have been closed or privatised and rely on international donations. Inflation has ruined many publishers in Czechoslovakia, and East German libraries have suffered the imposition of western content and organisational structures. Polish libraries are desperately short of resources and library subscriptions are being introduced in Hungary. In the capital of Albania, all but two branch libraries have been closed (Pateman, 1995).

Voluntary inclusion

In the UK Black children are more than three times as likely to be permanently excluded from schools as white children. School achievement levels are of concern, with a large number of failing schools. Educational standards are also being reviewed with the introduction of initiatives such as a literacy hour in schools to increase the number of people who leave school with basic reading skills. Access to higher education is now partly based on ability to pay tuition fees. While the percentage without qualifications has declined, nearly a third of 19 year olds still lack a recognised basic qualification, such as an NVQ level 2 or five GCSEs.

Libraries in the UK are under threat from reductions in funding. This has lead to library closures, staff reductions, fewer opening hours and cuts to the bookfund. In their study of access to public libraries Proctor, Lee and Reilly (1998) show that at least 179 building-based libraries in 56 authorities have closed over the last ten years. Although not all of these closures were finance driven, it is significant that the number of decisions made for financial reasons appears to be increasing.

Of the libraries that remain, there is evidence that few library authorities have a strategy, structure and culture in place that is aimed at tackling exclusion. As part of their assessment of Annual Library Plans, consultants were given a guidance question on social inclusion : "How far does the service meet the needs of all sections of the community ? Is it combating social exclusion ?" (IPF, 1999). In answering this question the consultants reported that :

"Social inclusion was scored poorly by our readers. It was well below average in a large number of plans....We have found many individual initiatives which are clearly directed at one or more minority groups, but what seems to be lacking is a comprehensive review of social inclusion (from a library service standpoint) and a co-ordinated response to this particular challenge" (IPF, 1999).

UK public libraries have also been criticised for their failure to engage with ethnic communities. Roach and Morrison (1998) found that "a social distance exists between the public library and ethnic minority communities which tends to exclude ethnic minority citizens whilst preserving professional autonomy." A similar picture has emerged with regard to social class (Pateman, 1996). The failure of UK public libraries to address social exclusion in other areas (such as lesbians, gays, women and children) are covered by Working Papers in this series.

The picture across the rest of western Europe is patchy, with excellent provision in countries such as Finland, Denmark and Sweden, while in Italy, Portugal and Spain the library infrastructure is not so well developed.

Finland has, like all Nordic countries, public libraries of a high quality standard, frequently used (60-80%) by the public and well supported by government policy. According to legislation and policies, public libraries are considered to be amongst the basic public services. In 1994 the Ministry of Finance prepared a national information management strategy "Towards a Finnish Information Society" (EC, 1997). All Finnish libraries offer access to the Internet free of charge. Helsinki City Library was the first public library in the world to offer public access to the Internet. The state provides financial support to help public libraries gain access to the Internet.

In 1994 the Danish government published the report "Info-Society 2000" which included the statement : "Public libraries have a central role in order to ensure that the Danes will not become divided into an A-team and a B-team in terms of information technology" (EC, 1997). The Danish Public Libraries Act (1994) states that all basic services, including Internet access, must be free. State funding is available to enable all public libraries to gain Internet access.

In Sweden public libraries are the most widespread and well-visited cultural institutions. The task of the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs is to support and stimulate library activities, among other things to increase the libraries' chances of reaching new groups of library visitors. Proposed library legislation, covering the entire public library system, has been submitted to the Swedish parliament. The bill prescribes that all citizens shall have access to a public library. The bill also specifies that the public libraries shall make computer based information available to all citizens : "IT at the public library has an aspect of social justice - differences due to geographical distance and private finance can be evened out" (EC,1997).

The development of public libraries in Italy has been hampered by administrative and institutional problems, shortage and discontinuity of financial resources, lack of professional up-dating, and problems with buildings and structures. Portugal has only 46 access points to the Internet, many municipalities do not have a public library, and "traditionally, libraries do not co-operate with each other" (EC, 1997). Spain has 51 State Public Libraries which face a number of economic, technical, professional and social barriers : "The effort made in the last years to improve public library services has not been accompanied by an improvement of the poor social image that public libraries have in Spain. The idea of libraries as information centres to serve a community is a recent idea due to historical reasons. At present there is the risk that some other institutions play the role of general information providers to citizens" (EC, 1997).

Required inclusion

Access to education and qualifications is improving in China and Vietnam.

Oxfam's Education Performance Index (Vallely, 1999) measures how many children enrol in school, how many complete the course, and how many girls that includes. The Index is predictable, with Bahrain and Singapore at the top and Niger and Ethiopia at the bottom. It also shows that good policy can partially counteract problems of low incomes. China punches educationally well above its economic weight. So does Vietnam, as a result of increased investments, reduced costs and a strong political commitment to education. China has an average income similar to that of Pakistan, but its children are three times more likely to enrol in school and twice as likely to finish.

89% of children in China receive what UNESCO defines as a basic education. This compares favourably with other developing countries such as Bangladesh (51%), Brazil (50%), India (68%), Indonesia (88%), Mexico (82%) and Nigeria (71%). One in every three Chinese families has a child attending a primary or junior high school. About 70% of the schools are in rural areas.

Basic education expenditure in China has increased from 44 million yuan (270 yuan per student) in 1991 to a projected 191.6 billion yuan (610 yuan per student) by 2001. This represents 4% of the GNP. Basic education takes 65% of China's total education budget. A nine year compulsory education programme has been implemented and China's illiteracy rate dropped from 80% in 1949 to 15% in 1990.

Vietnam also has a very high rate of literacy, compared to its neighbours. It is estimated that over 95% of the people of school age can read and write. This is the reversal of the position at the declaration of independence in 1945 when 95% of the population was considered illiterate (Aldis, 1996).

In 1945 Vietnam had only 300 university graduates. In the academic year 1992/93 (just 15 years after the end of the Vietnam war with America) Vietnam had almost 162,000 university and college students. A similar picture has emerged in China since the Revolution in 1949.

China has 388,900 libraries in all (not counting those run by military units) including the new Shanghai Public Library, the largest in China and one of the ten largest in the world. It has over 10 million holdings, including two million items for circulation and over 1000 Chinese-language newspapers. Housed in a new 900,000 square feet facility equipped with advanced technlogy, it is open at least 12 hours per day, 7 days a week (Ladizesky, 1996).

Inclusive diversity

Access to education and the number of students gaining qualifications has improved in North Korea where universal 11 year compulsory education was introduced in 1975. The literacy rate is 99%.

Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the Americas and one of the highest in the world, with 98% of the population having received at least an 8th grade education, according to UNESCO endorsed figures. It has achieved the highest index of teachers per capita in the world, with one teacher per 37 inhabitants (Tovar, 1997)

Cuba has a ninth grade minimum educational level. It has more than one million technicians and university graduates. Practically the whole infant population that needs special education for those with disabilities is provided with it. Schooling for elementary and junior high school levels is universal. The educational budget is high and, regardless of the critical economic situation the country is facing, there is not a single pupil or student that has not had the teachers and minimum material resources to continue studying. Cuba has the world's lowest index in the student teacher ratio (Ruiz, 1998).

The Cuban model has produced over 500,000 university graduates and hundreds of thousands of technical students. It has 200,000 teachers and professors (many of whom have university degrees and postgraduate studies). It has 11,000 scientists, the vast majority of whom are young. The educational budget for 1994 was in excess of 1.3 billion pesos. Free education has been maintained for 40 years. The per capita of students is the highest in the world (Tovar, 1997).

Cuba occupies one of the first places in the world in the per capita of postgraduates that hold scientific degrees. Although, from the qualitative point of view there are still some inefficiencies to be overcome in the teaching and educational process, Cuba ranks in these parameters among the richest nations of the world (Ruiz, 1998).

Before liberation there were no universities in the northern half of Korea. In 1946 the first university was established. By 1970 there were 129 universities and today there are over 200. Nearly 1.5 million students have graduated. Students in Korea do not have to pay tuition fees, which are paid by the state, and their living expenses are also borne by the state. Students are provided with free uniforms. Education at all levels in the DPRK is free (Hudson, 1999).

Millions of volumes are stored in Cuban libraries, spread throughout every city and town. Travelling libraries have also been established to transport culture to the country's remotest areas. In 1997 Cuba published 1,858 titles with a print run of 45 million copies. There are 338 public libraries used by 6 million people who borrow 8 million books (Tovar, 1997).

Before Liberation there were only seven libraries in North Korea. Now there is the Grand People's Study House in the centre and the well organised State library system at the provincial, city and county levels in the country. By 1947 the number of libraries had increased to 102 and book rooms to 1253. Today libraries and book rooms total over 15,000. In every district there are regional libraries and students and pupils libraries. Reading rooms for newspapers and books are everywhere. There are libraries for science research, university libraries, factory and enterprise libraries and countryside libraries (Rip, 1996).


1. that there is a shift from the current approach towards tackling social exclusion in the UK on the basis of voluntary inclusion, towards approaches that are based on required inclusion and inclusive diversity.

2. that UK libraries adopt appropriate strategies, structures and cultures for tackling social exclusion, based on required inclusion and inclusive diversity.

3. that UK libraries study the features of library systems in countries which base their approach on required inclusion and inclusive diversity.

4. that UK libraries learn from the lessons of people's struggles, as documented in part one of this working paper

5. that UK libraries develop a wide range of performance indicators for measuring their success in tackling social exclusion


Aldis, L : Education and Literacy in Vietnam, Link Up, March 1996

European Commission : Public Libraries and the information society, EC, 1997

Hudson, D : Celebrating the 50th anniversarry of the DPRK, Korea Bulletin, Spring quarter, 1999

IPF : Annual Library Plan Analysis 1998, DCMS, 1999

Ladizesky, K : Library Services in China since 1949, Link Up, March 1996

Miller, C : Managing for social cohesion, Office for Public Management, 1998

New Policy Institute : Monitoring poverty and social exclusion, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1998

Pateman, J : Libraries under Communism and Capitalism, Focus, 26 (1), 1995

Pateman, J : A question of breeding, LAR, July 1996

Proctor, R et al : Access to public libraries, Sheffield University, 1998

Rip, L : Scientific and technical information activities in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Link Up, March 1996

Roach, P & Morrison, M : Public libraries, ethnic diversity and citizenship, University of Warwick, 1998

Ruiz, E : Cuba - socialist economic reform and modernisation, Jose Marti, 1998

Tovar, C : Democracy in Cuba, Jose Marti, 1997

Vallely, P : Read between the battle lines, Independent, 27 March 1999

World Guide : An alternative reference to the countries of our planet, Third World Institute, 1999


For enquiries contact   isc-journalat

All articles, reviews or other works are the copyright of the respective author(s) as shown.