Changing people for the better: A literature review of “the civilising mission” in cultural policy research and library studies 2008-2022

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In this short paper we focus on the civilising mission of literature and libraries in Scandinavia. “The civilising mission” is generally acknowledged as one of the main underlying logics of cultural policies (Bennett 1995). In Scandinavia, this mission is connected to the tradition of bildung (bildning/dannelse) (Harding 2015; Hylland & Bjurström 2018), and public libraries and literature are essential tools for bildung. When libraries were established in the beginning of the 20th century in Scandinavia it was with the aim of cultivating citizens to be active participants in a democratic society. In the 1960s and 1970s several policy actions on literature were instigated in Denmark and Sweden with the aim of guaranteeing the production and distribution of quality literature, with the more or less implicit goal to civilise citizens and the very explicit goal of including literature production in the welfare state (Lindsköld 2013; Mai 2013). Today, the welfare state has transformed in both countries, changing the grounds for legitimacy of literature and library policies.
However, cultural policies in the Nordic countries have been described as stagnated (Frenander 2014) and sedimented (Henningsen 2015), rather than transformed. Even so, the rationale of the civilising mission seems to be used in different ways. Studies show how the transforming potential of the arts are highlighted in Norway compared to more instrumental cultural policies in countries such as Great Britain (Bjørnsen 2012). The Bildung tradition today is connected to cognitive and intellectual capacities (Røyseng 2021), as well as to cultural heritage and unmeasurable values (Lindsköld & Hedemark forthcoming).
How the concept of the civilising mission and its related terms such as cultivation, fostering, enlightenment, education and transformation is used as a goal for cultural policy need to be systematically analysed in order to investigate where and how cultural policies are sedimented or transforming.
This short paper is part of a larger project where we aim to investigate how policy aims related to public libraries and literature have developed up until today in Sweden and Denmark. Our hypothesis is that the civilising mission is alive and well in Sweden, whereas it is no longer predominant as a goal for Danish literature and library policies. Such a comparison has not been undertaken before. The aim of this short paper is to develop an operationalisation of the concept of the civilising mission, in order to develop a framework for systematic analysis of the hypothesis stated above. This will be done through a literature review of research on cultural policy and public education
Original languageEnglish
Publication date25 Aug 2023
Publication statusPublished - 25 Aug 2023
EventNCCPR 2023: Cultural democracy between policy & politics - Københavns Universitet, København, Denmark
Duration: 23 Aug 202325 Aug 2023
Conference number: 11


ConferenceNCCPR 2023
LocationKøbenhavns Universitet

ID: 345411887