BOOK AND SOFTWARE REVIEWS
Helling, John. Public libraries and their national policies: international case studies. Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2012. xvi, 172 p. ISBN 9781 8433 4679 1. £47.50 (Chandos Information Professional Series).
The international case studies of libraries always interest me, since I have first travelled around 1/6th of the world that was called Soviet Union for over half a century. Even within the same uniform and centralized system the libraries were incredibly different and the central Asian library looked quite different from a Georgian one, not to speak of the libraries in the Baltics or Ukraine. So, I thook the book by John Hellling with great interest.
The book concentrates on the national policies of twelve countries. The introduction presents the idea of the author 'to take brief snapshots of the public library systems in countries... and introduce the readers to different models for service that are currently employed' (p. 6). The author does not promise any deep studies but an introductory material leading to the clarification of public library policies in the chosen countires. Each chapter for twelve countries has a standard structure that provides a good possibility to compare different policy approaches and the situation of public libraries in general among several and even all the countries. I would have liked to see some comparison of the most different features in a comparative table in the chapter concluding the book or some other visualisation of the presented differences. However, I realise that this might be a challenging task and the author anyway highlights the most important similarities and differences in the textual form.
The structure of each chapter includes the historical background of public library development, the current situation, the legal structures and documents governing the functioning or and responsibilities for public libraries and a short conclusion that summarises the most important moments of public library policies in each country. All the chapters are almost of the same size, regardless of the country, the attention their governments pay to libraries, or author’s knowledge of the situation in a particular country. I think this a very fair and welcome feature of the text.
As for the shortcomings that I see in the book, the main is related to the selection of the countries. The author explains that the main reason to select the countries was the availability of materials in English about public library policy and legislation for the countries. That does not seem to be a very solid ground for producing a book. I would prefer some other argumentation in addition – to look for the policies representing different attitudes, for the ones implementing a variety of public library systems in terms of governing principles, divided responsibilities for their functions, for representation from all the continents or maybe political systems – in fact, something more essential than just the accessibility of the materials in a particular language. The author mentions that his book presents 'different models of service that are currently being employed' (p. 6), but how important this variety was for selection of the cases is not quite clear. The language argument does not hold very well too. I have looked for some ten countries not presented in the book and found readily their library laws translated into English and a number of articles or materials on the government and library association websites on public library policies that are of the same type and quality as the ones used in the book.
However, the texts about the twelve countries that are present in the book are current and re-present the main policy issues adequately. The snapshots are up-to-date and it is interesting to read some of the cases (e.g. about Senegal, Turkmenistan, Sweden, Finland and others) looking into the link between the governmental policies and the quality of library services. The influence of the policies on the library service quality in the cases of Finnish and British libraries is simply staggering.
So, I would recommend this book as a useful teaching material and introduction to library policies to all who teach library programmes. I would treat this book more like a useful reference than record of deep scholarly case studies, but it fulfils this reference function quite successfully.