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The library opens its doors to refugees

Also available in Dutch

Bergen Public Library organises a language café for refugees and laptop computer classes for old age pensioners. Last autumn a number of library staff travelled abroad to learn more about inclusion and informal learning in libraries, with support from Erasmus+.

By Runo Isaksen, SiU - Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education.

– We knew that the Dutch are pioneers when it comes to using libraries as an arena for integration. And everybody knows that Malmö is a city with great expertise on adult education generally, and on social inclusion specifically. We wanted to go abroad to learn from the best, says Anne Berit Helland.

She works for Bergen Public Library as a Special Projects Librarian and heads the Erasmus+ mobility project. Last autumn four library staff travelled to the Netherlands to take part in a “job shadowing” programme at a number of libraries. Later on, another four staff members travelled to Malmö to take part in a similar programme.

Volunteers to the rescue

These days, with high rates of economic immigration and an influx of refugees, the pressure on our libraries is increasing. This is noticeable in Bergen, where the number of Syrians is currently rising. Library staff have not got the capacity to provide the level of follow-up they would have liked to give them. But there are other solutions.

– In Norway we have no tradition of volunteering in libraries. In the Netherlands, however, this is entirely common practice and there are systems in place to deal with it. Some libraries get people in from a special “pool” of volunteers, while others recruit locally and offer three days’ induction training. We have a lot to learn from how Dutch libraries organise voluntary labour, says Helland.

It proved surprisingly easy to recruit volunteers in Bergen. Many of them are recently retired teachers and educationalists.

– The current refugee crisis concerns us all. Generally, people have a positive attitude to Syria. Many would like to contribute, and consider the library to be a good place to do so, says Helland.

Two of the library’s branches are situated in the near vicinity of two recently established refugee reception centres. Helland and her colleagues are now planning how the library can and should open its doors and contribute to better integration of refugees.

Tell me a story

The language café is a weekly happening, organised by the library in partnership with the regional immigration council in Hordaland. Approximately 100 immigrants meet up for a chat in small groups, over a cup of coffee. Each group is led by a Norwegian volunteer. Approximately 25 volunteers are associated with the running of the café.

– In the Netherlands we visited libraries where immigrants can borrow a volunteer to read them a story. And you can borrow a volunteer to accompany you on a walk. We learnt a lot and got many new ideas, says Alf Kåre Blindheim who manages the language café.

In the language café six people sit around a small table, for some of the point is to be sitting close together. Some are refugees; others are economic immigrants, often from Europe. The conversation focuses on a specific topic that allows everyone to contribute. “Food” is always a popular topic, says Blindheim. Some participants have only just arrived in Norway, others have been here for a while.

– The most important thing is that everybody engages in conversation and has a good time. It is essential to give people a good welcome, create good meeting places. Feeling good makes learning easier, says Helland.

There are many “side effects” to the language café. Immigrants from different countries get to know each other, new friendships are forged. A group of Spanish-speaking participants have started organising their own Spanish language café, to give Norwegian volunteers and others with an interest an opportunity to learn Spanish.

Hammers and hand-saws

Helland and Blindheim found inspiration in Malmö, which is a multicultural city. As much as 41 per cent of its approx. 300,000 population are either first or second generation immigrants, according to Wikipedia.

The library staff excursion included a visit to an underprivileged neighbourhood where the local authorities had undertaken a survey to find out what opportunities the locals were looking for. The resultant venue was “The Garage”, which has a stage, a workshop, a cinema and a library.

– You can go to the library to borrow a hammer and hand-saw. Or a bicycle repair kit. Or a sewing machine. In addition to books, of course. The concept of “maker’s space” is on the up. We are running a knitting group at one of our branches. What if we ran a needlework group with added language training? That would enable us to reach immigrant women whom we otherwise fail to engage with, says Helland.

In Malmö’s large central library all classes run for immigrants and the elderly are held at the centre of the building.

– This is a conscious decision. The point is to arouse other people’s curiosity, thereby potentially recruiting more course participants, explains Blindheim.


The Dutch libraries also gave much attention to “ordinary” adults with poor reading and writing skills. OECD analyses suggest that 75 million adult Europeans have poor literacy skills.

– Until now, we haven’t really focused much on adult people’s problems with reading and writing. In the Netherlands they found that illiteracy was taboo. So if they advertised a course, no-one would turn up. If on the other hand you advertise a computer course for the elderly, you will also come across people with poor reading and writing skills, which gives you an opportunity to introduce incidental literacy training, says Blindheim.

Motivation found

One of the concepts that Bergen Public Library will be developing further is computer courses for the elderly. However, Blindheim, Helland and their colleagues have far from finished digesting all their impressions from last autumn’s excursions. The spring will be spent discussing what they have learnt in greater detail and how this should be put into practice.

– We will continue to develop our programmes for immigrants and the elderly. I envisage greater differentiation in terms of our range of events and the number of branches involved. And we will have to work in even closer partnership with the local authority’s various providers, to ensure that we complement one another. More cooperation and partnership, internationally as well as locally, says Helland.

She can reveal that Bergen Public Library has been nominated Library of the Year 2015, one of the reasons being the library’s programme of events.

– Our excursions to the Netherlands and Sweden have taught us a lot: the systematic work with volunteers in the Netherlands; their willingness to throw themselves in at the deep end and try out new methods. I have found great motivation to continue working with these things. It is very energising, says Anne Berit Helland.

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