If you associate The Hague only with crime and justice, then think again. “It's the library capital of the world,” says Vincent Bonnet, who works there as director of the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations (EBLIDA).
Based in the National Library of the Netherlands, Bonnet rubs shoulders with people from the digital library project Europeana, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, and specialist associations for European national and research libraries. “We are all under the same roof, so we can share a lot of common issues.”
He may not have the advantage of bumping into European policymakers on every corner, but Brussels is not so far away. “Being in The Hague allows us to choose when we need to be in Brussels, what we need to do there and how best to achieve it,” he says.
EBLIDA's 116 members, from 37 countries, are mainly national library associations, although individual institutions such as the national libraries of France and the Netherlands also belong. Through these members, the association represents around 70,000 individual libraries, from national institutions to specialist research libraries and public libraries. “It is very important to have this mix of different organisations together, speaking with one voice,” Bonnet says.
Their common interests lie in enhancing access to information, and in promoting reading and literacy. A high priority at the European level is copyright, in particular the ability of libraries to provide access to e-books. “The shift to digital content is difficult, not for technical reasons but because there are questions of rights and ownership over the content,” Bonnet says.
In the run-up to the European elections, EBLIDA will launch a campaign on the right to e-read. “We want the same rights to lend out e-books as we have in the printed world.”
Bonnet is entirely at home in the digital age. He studied art history, beginning his career as a research librarian at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valenciennes. But then he took a job as a trainer with a company producing software for public libraries.
For three years this took him all over France. “I was in contact with a lot of public libraries, from very small rural areas to very big cities,” he recalls. “This is where I discovered the job of public librarian.”
He joined this world with a move to Marseilles public library. “It's a big city, so I had different positions in the libraries there. The last was in an underprivileged area, so it was also a very challenging job.” This involved opening the library up to the neighbourhood and organising workshops to help local people develop digital skills and find the information they needed through the library.
He joined EBLIDA in 2010, attracted by a job that combined his love for libraries with his interest in European affairs, copyright and information law. “I was also very much attracted by the Netherlands, which was seen as a paradise for public libraries.”
Austerity has taken the shine off this notion, as it has across Europe, but the news is not all bad. “There may be threats to some libraries where there is not enough support from the state or local governments, but there is also real investment,” Bonnet says. As an example, he cites the recently opened Library of Birmingham in the UK, which is estimated to have cost more than €220 million.
“While there is this shift towards the digital world, there is also a shift in the role of libraries,” he says. Instead of buildings full of books, they are becoming civic meeting places where people can access information and learn new skills. “The old model of a library may be under threat, but the new models are doing well.”
Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.