Iceland, libraries, and reducing our gender gap

The World Gender Gap index for 2013  recently named Iceland as the country with the most narrow gap. Ireland does not fall too far behind, ranking 6th in the world, 12 places ahead of our neighbours in the UK. The index is based on four key areas: health, access to education, economic participation and political engagement.
I may be biased but I feel that libraries, and the value they bring to a community, can have an impact on all four of these areas. We know that sustainable and balanced development requires quality education, and to achieve that, library and information services play a major role. Therefore, I found myself wondering about libraries and librarianship in Iceland and what we might learn from them about reducing the gender gap in society.

Reykjavik, a UNESCO city of Literature, boasts a number of public, school and special libraries. These libraries serve the population well, playing an important role in literacy and access to information. “access to the Internet is almost universal”, a fact that surely contributes to high levels of participation.
The Women’s History Archives documents the history of Icelandic women and offers support to those carrying research in the area. It is housed within the National and University Library, a location at the centre of academic and cultural research, which is readily accessible. A resource like this is valuable to any country so that the role of women in history can be explored, and stereotypes moved past.
Women’s organisation were well motivated from an early stage in Iceland’s history to fight for rights and healthcare of women and children, the earliest having been founded in 1869. The strength and growth of women’s organisations played a prominent role in women’s suffrage. Today, similar groups are hosted in Iceland’s libraries. I particularly liked the sound of this Story Circle in Reykjavik City Library which welcomes women from different cultural backgrounds, and is held at the same time as activities for children – everyone entertained in one location!
Iceland has a single, centrally run library system, opening up access for all library users, and increasing cost effectiveness. From the point of view of a recent MLIS graduate, this seems like an excellent idea. We didn’t receive training in any particular library management system as it was felt that learning one system would not be of benefit when facing multiple different systems in the workplace. The costs that could be saved in training if all libraries in Ireland worked from the same system would be significant, and the advantages it would bring about for inter library loans and other collaborative projects would be of huge benefit to the users. It has recently been announced that Ireland’s public libraries will soon have a single Library Management System, in time, this should bring about many advantages to library users, and hopefully staff too!
Iceland’s population is little more than 300,000. A small population certainly has something to do with being better able to collaborate and implement universal systems and policies. Ireland also has a relatively small population so we should also be able to collaborate on more nationwide projects. I saw this tweet recently wondering about librarians’ willingness to collaborate vs the actual outcomes from this. I think that collaboration between libraries, certainly in my experience of academic libraries, is strong in Ireland, but it is always worth reflecting on this and examining the outputs.
The effects of the economic recession on libraries in Iceland do not sound dissimilar to those faced by Irish libraries. Unlike the UK, neither Iceland nor Ireland experienced the complete closure of public library branches. There was a negative impact on the availability of resources and opening hours. Whilst budgets were not increased at the rate needed to keep up with costs, the fact that they were not completely slashed demonstrates the good standing that libraries have in the view of the government and the public.
In the above, I did not find anything that jumps out as being of particular relevance to gender equality. However, a public well served by information services and educational supports is likely to be ahead in the four areas measured by the index. Therefore, as the whole population is better educated and included, it follows that gender equality, and equality for other marginalised groups will follow closely behind.
Please note that I started to write this on the day the index was announced. The following day the report on child poverty and Ireland’s poor ranking was announced, this is of far greater concern than our gender gap. However, they are not mutually exclusive and better inclusion of women often equates to a better standard of living for children, so perhaps there are lessons to learn in this area too.
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