chapter  2
9 Pages

The Evolution of the Concept of the National Library

WithJosiane Roelants

The author discusses the current dilemmas facing many national libraries, particularly those in multicultural societies, as they strive to achieve a balanced representation of the country’s cultural heritage at a time when budgets are severely restricted and functions are increasingly carried out at the regional level. The changing role and purpose of national libraries is described using Belgium as a case study.

According to a law of August 8, 1980, the Belgian government decentralized the management of cultural affairs, which explicitly included museums, libraries, and other research institutions, and granted autonomy to its three communities – French-, Dutch-, and German-speaking – in preserving their cultural heritage. At the same time, the national library remained dependent on the central government and was named one of seven national research institutions guaranteed to be jointly administered by the two national ministries of education for French- and Dutch-speaking Belgium. As a result, the national library continues its responsibility of national 22coverage while the requisite budgets are increasingly allocated to regional affairs.

Other countries, including Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, and France, have decentralized some national library functions, such as legal deposit, while maintaining cohesive bibliographic coverage of the national literature, namely in the form of the national bibliography, as a national library function. The automation of library functions allows for greater decentralization; each regional deposit can enter data which is compiled and distributed by the national library. A similar solution has been advocated in Belgium, especially by the Dutch-speaking sector which has called for the establishment of a “national library of Flanders” in Antwerp.

The conflicting demands of preserving the national heritage and providing ready access to it are considered. National libraries seek to balance efficient services with their obligation to continue the tradition of preservation. To meet these costly demands, some national libraries have “privatized” certain “public” services to gain income. The author concludes that commercial solutions must not become the lifesaver for threatened budgets and that they may lead to an unbalanced “national” collection. The fate of national libraries must be determined by the political system, with consideration of the citizens’ desires, not by economic expediency.