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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Last chapter for iconic ‘book boat’

Politicians in the newly-merged Vestland county in western Norway have decided that a unique floating library known as Epos will never again bring books, plays and other fun to children in remote coastal areas. The bitterly criticized decision to shut it down mirrors the complexities of Norway’s controversial regional reform.

The floating library known as Epos, has most likely had its final voyage around fjords and islands along Norway’s west coast. Its hotly contested docking is a result of budget cutbacks and shifting priorities in the new Vestland region. PHOTO: Wikipedia/Andreas Vartdal.

“This is a scandalous cultural policy, a lousy rural policy and poor policy regarding children’s issues,” fumed crime author Gunnar Staalesen on Wednesday to state broadcaster NRK.  “It raises a flag of shame over the politicians and the parties that decided this.”

The closure reportedly will save NOK 2.4 million (USD 260,000), comparable to a couple of public-sector executive salaries in Norway. The news also broke the same week as Oslo unveiled its glittering new multi-billion-kroner city library, known as Deichman Bjørvika.

Books to the backwaters
The service was launched in 1959 as a local project in Hordaland, with a vessel called Abdulla. The Epos took over in 1964. It’s an 80-foot vessel built in 1963 at the Fjellstrand shipyard in Strandebarm.

The vessel is owned by a sea-shuttle service called Vinnsnes, which uses it for sightseeing in the tourist season and rents it out as a library at other times of the year. It’s been a free service in remote places that lack a library and cultural offerings geared towards children.

It has catered to communities on remote islands for more than 60 years, as well as villages along the fjords in the autumn and winter. Upon the arrival of what’s also affectionately called Bokbåten, a few hundred books and audiobooks would be unloaded and kept locally until the next call by Epos. During calls, cultural events for children, like author lectures, concerts and puppet plays – would often be held on board. In the words of author and features writer Cecilie Enger, “the Epos is a unique boat sailing under a literary flag.”

“It has stayed afloat despite ever more bridges tunnels and roads, and even though grownups and children along its route can now download e-books, order books on the Internet or watch movies on Netflix – and despite the threats of closure and budget cuts,” Enger wrote in a 2017 article for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).

Controversial vote in Vestland
All that ended this week, when politicians of the newly created regional government (Vestland fylkesting) voted to discontinue the service. They promised instead to help fund other efforts like bus libraries.  The decision was made with a solid majority for the ruling regional coalition of six parties, all of which had pledged to further develop the book-boat service in the future, and some of which have been keen to rescue it in the past. It’s not their problem anyway, since libraries in Norway are the responsibility of each local municipality, not the region.

“The key thing here is to spread books and promote the desire for reading,” Alexander Øren Heen, regional head of the rural-oriented Center Party, told state broadcaster NRK this week. “A book boat would be nice to have, but we have to realize that the time has passed for books to be freighted around on boats.” Heen’s Center Party did not support the book boat, despite all its claims of supporting outlying areas, and was abandoned by at least one party member who did. Other parties also faced internal dissent on the matter. Vestland is ruled by a large coalition of Labour, Conservatives, Liberals, Center Party, Christian Democrats and the Socialist Left (SV).

Echo of the bureaucrats
The book boat has been a shifting collaboration among the counties in western Norway, with participants coming and going. Lately it mostly served the former Hordaland county (which merged with Sogn og Fjordane to form Vestland) after others pulled out. Sogn og Fjordane pulled out in 2014, while the still-independent county of Møre og Romsdal waved goodbye to Epos last year.

After the newly merged county of Vestland was formed, its new regional government no longer wants to spend money on a service that only benefits half of the new county. Huge revenue shortfalls among the regional transport operators tied to the Corona crisis haven’t helped. The Epos itself saw its 51-stop spring schedule this year cancelled because of the Corona crisis.

Story continues below the photo.

The floating library Epos has survived many closure threats and cutbacks over the years. It seems it will not survive Norway’s regional reform. PHOTO: Bokbåten Epos

Then it got worse. The fate of Epos is a parody of sorts on the complexities of Norway’s so-called Regionsreformen, an ambitious reshaping of local administrations led by determined state government politicians.  It’s often been little understood and even scorned in some of the counties involved, not least in Northern Norway

When the reform took effect, Epos was almost purely a Hordaland service, with only one stop scheduled this spring in Sogn og Fjordane, which decided years ago it didn’t want the service anymore. But after the merger of the two counties , logic has changed. The Vestland fylkesting voted, bizarrely, to scrap the entire service on the grounds that it can’t justify the cost of extending it to the part of the new region that pulled out years ago.

Angry authors
News reports of the decision in local media released a choir of mournful reader comments, and also angry reaction from well-known book authors from the West country. “The book boat is a floating house of culture, irreplaceable for thousands of children in typical remote communities that lack a good library offering,” author Stig Holmås wrote angrily on his Facebook page. Holmås has been at the forefront of the fight to rescue the book boat. “It has large numbers of visits and lendings and it’s a superb advertisement for Norway,” Holmås wrote. “What a shame!”

Author Henning Bergsvåg, meanwhile, wrote on his Facebook page that he had resigned as a member of the Socialist Left Party (SV), which also voted to get rid of the book boat.

“This is so empty-minded and against all principles dear to me that I can hardly  believe it,” Bergsvåg wrote. “While the cities are teeming with cultural offerings and expensive cultural centers, children in rural areas are denied this boat. I really hope an alternative solution will be found when these shameless politicians are gone.” Møst



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