In times of crisis, arts and culture have an even higher importance

Dea Brøvig
Opinion - Libraries Wednesday, 12th February 2014

In the wake of National Libraries Day, which coincided with the announcement of swingeing cuts to budgets in Birmingham and Liverpool, Dea Brøvig suggests we take a leaf from her native Norway.


In the past weeks, the UK press has picked up on a scheme that has been under way in Norway for some years: the country's National Library is digitising books - many of them still under copyright - and offering them free online. To date, 135,000 titles have been made available to people within Norway. By 2017, the National Library aims to expand its digital collection to include 250,000 books.

As a half-Norwegian writer who grew up in Oslo and moved to the UK when I was 17, I've been following the story with interest. One aspect that seems to have captured people's attention is that the authors of all of those books are getting paid. The National Library pays 36 øre (about 4p) per digitised page to Kopinor, a group acting on behalf of authors and publishers, which is in charge of divvying up the pot between its members. Copyright-holders have the right to opt out of the programme, but few have. The books chosen have all been published before 2000. Most are by Norwegians, although you'll find the odd translation of John Steinbeck and Stephen King among the Knut Hamsuns and Jo Nesbøs.

Norway and the UK: a stark contrast
It is a noteworthy example of a state supporting its readers and writers, and it stands out in stark contrast to how things are done in the UK, where, contrary to investing in libraries and their resources, local councils with diminished funding have been awfully busy closing them down. Last July, the Library Campaign predicted more than 1,000 library closures between 2009 and 2016. With hundreds of libraries already lost, an everyday entitlement like free access to books seems suddenly a noble idea - and a scheme such as Norway's feels very foreign indeed.

The closing down of libraries is one of many injuries that British culture has had to endure since Cameron's coalition government came into power. It kicked off with a war cry when, in 2010, George Osborne slashed Art Council England's budget by 30%. Subsequent years have seen a steady decline in funding, with the latest spending review cutting the budget for Arts Council England and national museums by a further 5%.

Now consider that, in Norway in 2005, Jens Stoltenberg's coalition government got to work on what they called Kulturløftet ("The Promise for Culture"). The first of the 15 points set out in this pledge stated their ambition that, by 2014, 1% of the state's budget would be devoted to culture. 2014 has arrived and that goal has been realised. According to the Danish newspaper Politiken, expenditure on culture has more than doubled in the past nine years. Perhaps 1% doesn't sound like a lot (2% does have a nicer ring to it) but at least state sponsorship is going the right way.

Norway prides itself on its patronage of the arts. As far back as 1965, it established what is known as Innkjøpsordningene for litteratur, a state-backed purchasing arrangement managed by Arts Council Norway for Norwegian books (although in 2012 it was extended to include a small number of books in translation), in which 1,000 copies of most new fiction releases are bought and distributed to libraries around the country. With this, publishers are guaranteed a minimum sale of 1,000 books for adult fiction titles - the number rises to 1,550 for children's books - which means larger print runs and, crucially, that books of merit get a look-in, even if they're not expected to make much of a return. To top it off, authors receive a higher royalty on copies of their books bought under this scheme.

I don't mean to suggest that Norway has it all figured out. It is a country that, in September last year, voted the right-wing Progress party into a coalition government - whose first initiative with Arts Council Norway, incidentally, was to cut the budget for literature by NOK10 million, a decision which will see funds for Innkjøpsordningene for litteratur shrink by NOK5.3 million. We must hope that this is not a sign of things to come. With its oil wealth, Norway has no excuse but to invest in culture, which touches on another glaring difference between it and the UK. While Britain languishes under austerity, Norway's coffers are overflowing. Some might feel it is a luxury to be able to spend money on the arts. It seems David Cameron's Government would agree. "When times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture's economic impact." In her first keynote speech at the British Museum last April, Culture Secretary Maria Miller gave a clear message: ask not what the economy can do for culture, but what culture can do for the economy. I understand the argument. On the other hand, surely it is during times of crisis that our hearts and minds are most in need of nurture?

Refuge and treasure trove
I have always found the National Library in Oslo to be something of a refuge. I used to love studying there when I was at secondary school, when it was still the University Library and when the reading room, with its green linoleum floors, low lamps and high windows, would inspire in me the kind of calm and focus that is so conducive to good work. It affected me in much the same way when I returned in the summer of 2010 to write and research my novel, The Last Boat Home. The story is set in a small seaside town on the southern coast of Norway in the mid-1970s, for the most part, and follows the trials of 16-year-old Else, who dreams of escaping the pietistic community in which she has grown up, of leaving her father to his moonshine and her mother to her prayers. While I know that area of the country well, both it and the rest of Norway have changed beyond recognition in the 40-odd years since the discovery of oil in the North Sea.

Every day I spent in both the National Library and the Deichmanske Bibliotek in Majorstuen - then my parents' local library - was a day that turned up new books I would never otherwise have found, and which proved invaluable in helping me to imagine Else's time and circumstances. Being there also gave me the chance to dip in and out of Norwegian books like Alexander Kielland's Skipper Worse and Tarjei Vesaas's The Ice Palace. These are books I'd heard about but, to my shame, would probably not have got round to buying. I'd venture a guess that they'll be in the National Library's digital collection by 2017, and that is a heartening thought.

Dea Brøvig's debut novel The Last Boat Home will be published by Hutchinson on 13 March.

For more information visit www.nationallibrariesday.org.uk/