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The thesis explores how central actors in two local communities: librarians, library users, local politicians and library cooperating partners, define the library as a meeting place and as an institution contributing to a sustainable local public sphere. The study uses qualitative interviews, and is a comparative case study with two cases, Fjell public library and Voss public library, and the context of the local societies within which they operate. Different theoretical approaches are used to study the library as a meeting place; the library as a third place (Oldenburg, 1999), public realm (Lofland, 1998; Sennett, 2009), and high- or low-intensive meeting place (Audunson, 2005b). Habermas’ (1962/1991) theory on the public sphere is used to shed light on the library as an arena for conversations and debate.
Findings show that differences in local communities, related to for example demographics, history and tradition, development dynamics, and proximity to urban settings, influence how the library functions as a local public sphere. Findings indicate that as an event venue the library is mostly used by the elderly, by women and by children. Youths and immigrants are less present. Topics and timing of the events are crucial for who turns up. The events contribute to the social dimension of the library, but mainly through the informal meetings before, after, and in breaks during the events. They function partly as third places but are too organized to fully correspond to Oldenburg’s theory. They seem to constitute alternating low-intensive and high-intensive meeting places, defined by the composition of participants, and how closely related the topic is to each individuals’ life project. Public realms are defined as urban arenas by Sennett and Lofland. Findings in the present project show a need for these types of meeting places also in more rural settings.
The role of public libraries as an arena for debate is not fully exploited by the two libraries in the study, as they both host few debates. Potential challenges related to the public libraries as independent arenas and at the same time municipal institutions are uncovered, as well as challenges related to the freedom for public libraries to define who should be allowed to raise their voices in the library space. When it comes to prioritizing between tasks, an equal number of informants emphasize the library as a traditional arena, as emphasize it as both a traditional and social arena. There are fewer informants who prioritize the social arena. The value of libraries is seen in relation to both personal and communal values. The library is also valued as public amenity. The informants express a need and a wish for the library to change to remain relevant in the digital age.