Space, Public Discourse, and Public Libraries
Colleen is a part-time teacher-librarian,
a student librarian in both an academic and a public library, and an MLIS
candidate at the University of British Columbia. She ardently supports
intellectual freedom, cultural heterogeneity, and an activist role for
Dr. Ann Curry
Ann was a reference librarian
and administrator in Canadian and Australian public libraries from 1972
to 1988. She is now an associate professor at the UBC School of Library,
Archival and Information Studies, teaching research methods, collection
management, library architecture, and a special course on intellectual
freedom and censorship.
Space, Public Discourse, and Public Libraries
The traditional mission of the public library—supporting the self-education
of the citizenry in order that they may become fully participating members
in a democratic society—has been devalued of late in favour of popularizing
the library to attract more users. This shift has led to an emphasis on
entertainment and marketing, and an abandonment of what many feel is the
true purpose of a library. Loss of democratic tradition has simultaneously
occurred on another front: civic space which allows for public assembly
and discourse has disappeared or been downgraded into places for leisure
and recreation rather than politics, with a concomitant decline in the
quality of public discourse as citizens increasingly depend on profit-driven
mass media for their “opinions.” This paper contends that
the public library is an ideal physical and psychological space for public
discourse. By supporting public discourse, the public library can begin
to reinvigorate both the quality of public discourse and its traditional
commitment to democratic ideals.
Most library professionals
feel the tug of two fundamentally different approaches to public librarianship.
One is based on the marketing principles of the private sector, and the
other adheres to the traditional concept of the public library as a community
record, storehouse of knowledge, and cornerstone of democracy. Examination
of public library mission statements confirms that, while most libraries
function somewhere in between these two extremes, few agree on the precise
purpose of the public library.
Typically, mission statements mention the friendly and responsive environments
of their libraries, the easy access to information, their support of recreational,
educational, and cultural needs of their users and community. They sound
pleasant, positive, and service-oriented. However, most exclude any reference
to the traditional goal of the public library: a commitment to advancing
democracy through an informed citizenry. This omission contradicts the
expressed wish of many library organizations and professionals to revive
the democratic ideal. Nancy Kranich, 2001-02 American Library Association
(ALA) president, chose as her theme for the year “Libraries &
Democracy: The Cornerstones of Liberty” and published a book with
the same title. At the 2001 Canadian Library Association (CLA) conference,
former cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy delivered his keynote address on
“Public Space, Public Good, Public Purpose,” in which he stressed
the public library’s importance to a “thriving community and
working democracy” (Axworthy 2001). The title of IFLA’s 2002
conference was “Libraries for Life: Democracy, Diversity, and Delivery.”
Clearly, many continue to regard the public library as a pillar of democracy
even though this purpose is not reflected in the majority of mission statements.
Another forum for free expression of ideas—urban public space—has
had its democratic nature challenged by the steady encroachment of private
interests in formerly public arenas and by the desire of the public for
controlled and secure spaces. Staeheli defines public space as “a
setting for debate, the exercise of rights as citizens, and a place where
people of diverse backgrounds can meet as a community” (Staeheli
and Thompson 1997). True public space also has a high degree of user control
and is unmitigated by corporate or government interference. The decline
of public space can be traced to such worldwide trends as government downsizing,
growth of corporate power, and the information and communication technology
revolution. Financially strapped cities cannot afford to maintain public
amenities such as parks, and come to depend on the private sector to fill
the gap. Corporate plazas and shopping malls are ostensibly public spaces,
yet they belong to the private realm. Owners have the right to exclude
certain members of the public. People are welcome as long as they are
working, shopping, or eating there, but use of this type of space is not
a right, but a privilege. The requirement that these spaces be both profitable
and safe has led to a demand for total management and controlled behaviour,
which precludes political activity and undermines the public dimension
of the space (Madanipour 1999). It also alienates and discourages a sense
of belonging and community for large segments of society. Our increasing
preference for privacy and security “diminishes social interaction
and diversity, if only because strangers of differing ages, classes, ethnicities,
genders, and religions have less opportunity to mingle in the same physical
space” (Leckie and Hopkins 2002).
The loss of civic space and the resultant lack of unmediated social interaction
is damaging to a democracy. How can we develop tolerance and acceptance
of difference in an increasingly diverse society without provision of
space for democratic intermingling? How will the public intellectual realm
be sustained and developed if there are no physical spaces to support
it? These are critical issues in an age of rapid changes in electronic
communication, powerful pressures towards consumer individualism, and
increasing disparities in wealth and access to information (Greenhalgh
and Worpole 1995).
Hearing the opinions of others, listening to well-informed, articulate
speakers on various social and political issues, airing our own views
in a public forum … this face-to-face interaction forces us not
only to take responsibility for our opinions, but to adhere to standards
of civil behaviour. By participating fully in these activities, we prepare
our minds to make informed choices about who we elect, what we support,
and how we contribute to public deliberation. “Public life is produced
and reproduced by social practices that transpire in specific places—public
places—and the library is certainly one of those enduring and successful
public places” (Leckie and Hopkins 2002). It has special meaning
to its users, who hold “a deep sense of place attachment: such places
are part of their community, part of their social and cultural fabric”
(Leckie and Hopkins 2002). Libraries provide safe space for unfettered
public dialogue; they “disseminate information so the public can
participate in the processes of governance … they serve as gathering
places for the community to share interests and concerns … Ultimately,
discourse among informed citizens assures civil society. … [L]ibraries
ensure the freedom to read, to view, speak, and to participate”
Public discourse can enrich rather than simply distract us from life.
As governments shirk their democratic responsibility to provide the spaces
that make a true public realm and as changes in technology and information
delivery both fragment the public realm and limit public discourse, public
libraries—equitable, accessible, positive, nurturing—can step
in to provide the place for community interaction that thinking people
yearn for. A commitment by public libraries to serve this essential aspect
of democratic life will necessitate an activist, rather than neutral,
political stance and a rethinking of the library’s mission.
and “The Public” in Public Space
An effective democracy is
rooted in good citizenship. Citizenship entitles one to participate in
public affairs and decide the fate of the community, and it presumes access
to the public arena where these political and social issues are discussed
and resolved (Staeheli and Thompson 1997). In ancient Greek society, politics
was concerned not just with administration but “with educating the
citizen as a public being who developed the competence to act in the public
interest” (Bookchin 1987). Citizenship required a creative integration
of the individual into his environment, demanding a critical mind and
a strong sense of duty. The Athenians believed that excellence in public
life was as crucial to one’s character development as excellence
in private life, and a citizen should be an asset to his society, his
community, and his family and friends (Always “his,” unfortunately;
Athenian citizenship excluded women.) (Bookchin 1987).
Contrast the ancient Greek ideal with another (extreme) modern day version.
Mike Davis, in City of Quartz—a frightening (and perhaps accurate)
vision of modern day Los Angeles – describes the L.A. Police Department’s
perception of citizenship: good citizens are off the streets, “enclaved
in their high-security private consumption spheres”; bad citizens
are on the streets and therefore not engaged in legitimate business (Davis
However, on the streets, in public, was precisely where Athenians turned
citizenship from an abstract ideal into an everyday living practice. The
agora—“gathering place”—was the physical space
where this practice occurred. Athenians assembled to mutually educate
each other and expand their civic ideals of right and wrong. Emphasis
on direct contact, full participation, and delight in variety and diversity,
enabled this gestation of education, ethics, and politics (Bookchin 1987).
In modern-day North America, however, current municipal policy seems intent
on prohibiting traditional civic activity. In L.A., it aims to “ensure
a seamless continuum of middle-class work, consumption, and recreation”
and “eliminate [the] democratic admixture on the pavements and in
the parks” (Davis 1992). In Berkeley, public space has been “jeopardized
by countervailing social, political, and economic trends” (Mitchell
1995). Planners create spaces for recreation rather than politics, and
discursive political interaction has been “effectively banned.”
All that’s left are the dead public spaces of office tower plazas
and spaces with a “festive” theme promoting entertainment
and consumption. Mitchell succinctly defines the two opposing visions
of public space: one, a politicized space marked by free interaction and
absence of coercion by powerful institutions; the other, a planned, orderly
open space for recreation and entertainment, subject to usage by an appropriately-behaved
public (Mitchell 1995). Modern-day public spaces are no longer places
of assembly and debate; they have ceased to function as forums for political
interaction. The purpose of public spaces, like the mission of the public
library, has shifted from politics to entertainment and commerce.
Habermas conceptualized two separate worlds in modern society and hypothesized
that the system—based on the demands of material production—increasingly
interferes with and distorts the communicative activity in which the pursuit
of knowledge and ethical understanding takes place (the lifeworld) (Braaten
1991). His theory is borne out as public sphere activities are banned
from commercialized public spaces. In shopping malls, any sign of political
activity—passing out leaflets, political discussions and speeches,
voter registration—can lead to the eviction of the people involved.
Legal challenges to these actions of mall owners have rarely been successful
Many so-called “public” spaces such as shopping malls challenge
the definition of who constitutes “the public.” These places
are often contrived environments that “create an illusion of public
space, from which the risks and uncertainties of everyday life are carefully
edited out” (Banerjee). The “risks” may include people
such as panhandlers, the urban poor, the homeless, youth, and non-conformists
of various stripes. In People’s Park in Berkeley, on “The
Hill” in Boulder, in Los Angeles, in Vancouver, and in Manhattan’s
South Street Seaport, particular groups have been targeted for exclusion
from a public space. These actions represented an attempt to redefine
citizenship based on the moral requirement that members of these groups
must participate appropriately and thereby “earn” their civic
The struggle in People’s Park has been between the university (who
owned the land) and the park’s homeless population. Since a student
protest in 1969, the park had functioned as a true public space, free
from corporate or state control, and an important symbol of political
power. Then, in 1991, the university decided to put volleyball courts
in the Park to serve its students and other members of the public; unfortunately,
the site they chose to convert into a recreational area was the traditional
place for concerts and political organizing and the place where many homeless
people slept. This central area, which included the Free Speech stage,
was “a political space that encouraged unmediated interaction,”
a place where homeless people could make themselves visible and heard,
could claim some public space, and therefore become a legitimate part
of the public sphere. The Park “provided the space for representing
the legitimacy of homeless people within ‘the public’”
South Street Seaport in Manhattan, a privately-owned commercial space,
tries to uphold the “publicness” of its former occupant, a
museum, yet is purposefully exclusive. It keeps out the homeless population
that occupies the nearby Bowery district partly by its design but primarily
by the employ of a private police force. Although it is not stated explicitly
that homeless people are not welcome, armed police are a sufficiently
intimidating presence to keep them away (Defilippis 1997). In L.A., homeless
people are denied not only a public space but also places to sit—identified
by William Whyte as the most essential ingredient for a successful public
space—public toilets, and even public drinking fountains (Davis
Even restrictions on panhandlers redefine citizenship and the use of public
space. Nathalie Des Rosiers points out the irony of Vancouver’s
panhandling bylaws “in a new-liberal state that emphasizes minimal
interference in private financial transactions.” The reason for
these restrictions has to do with the privatizing of public space and
the “moral anxieties over poor people’s money, assuming that
poor people spend money on alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.”
By creating bylaws based on negative stereotypes, we are reinforcing “an
exclusionary form of citizenship rooted in cultural concerns about public
space” (Des Rosiers 2002).
Staeheli describes the extent to which the business community of “The
Hill,” a university district in Boulder, went to limit access to
a group of “counterculture youth” after a particularly violent
incident. Various groups tried to solve the problem without including
the youth in their discussions. The merchants, she says, had wanted to
capitalize on the bohemian atmosphere of the neighbourhood without having
to face the bohemians. They attempted to delineate a part of the public
space, i.e., the sidewalk, to which these youth would not have access
and, in doing so, “attempted to create a new public to which countercultural
groups do not belong” (Staeheli and Thompson 1997).
Denying access to public spaces “both renders invisible those that
are not included and reinforces that invisibility by allowing those included
to feel that they make up the entire public” (Defilippis 1997).
This denial contributes to the increasing marginalization of the poor
and the homeless, and alienates those people, such as political activists,
who do not conform to the homogenized corporate ideal of consumers from
within specific targeted lifestyles. Exclusion of particular groups is
rooted in the assumption that they will behave in an illegal, threatening
or otherwise inappropriate manner, thereby driving away customers and
limiting opportunities for business.
Although we should be cautious about acting on the expectation of inappropriate
conduct rather than actual bad behaviour, we must respect people’s
concern for their security. The presence of truly threatening individuals
will limit public participation of the more vulnerable members of society
such as women and the elderly. Paradoxically, their withdrawal weakens
the community, diminishes quality of life, and strengthens the potential
for disorder (Des Rosiers 2002).
Kirsten Day discusses concerns women have with public spaces and suggests
that the oft-criticized characteristics of privatized spaces like malls—with
their emphasis on consumption, leisure, security, and controlled behaviour
and design—may be considered as favourable when examining women’s
experiences. She illustrates how the qualities of a true public forum—universal
access, democratic mixing among strangers, and free exchange of views
and information—do not necessarily facilitate women’s participation.
Access is often limited by a woman’s responsibilities for home and
children. “Mixing” frequently means men are observers, women
are observed; women are also discouraged from approaching strangers for
safety reasons. And women may be pressured to moderate their views and
behaviour to conform to a feminine ideal. Interestingly, of the top five
“public” places where women said they felt comfortable, the
only true public space was the public library (Day 1999). The commonly-held
perception of the library as a safe and respectable place was confirmed
by Leckie and Hopkins in their study of major libraries in Toronto and
Vancouver. They found that “given the high volume and diversity
of library users every day, it would appear that these two libraries are
among the safest public places in their respective cities.” This
feeling of safety did not depend on the presence of security staff and
surveillance cameras as much as on the patrons themselves: “the
users are largely self-policing: they keep each other in check.”
The public library, therefore, qualifies as a “successful”
public space (Leckie and Hopkins 2002).
III. The Public
Sphere and the Quality of Public Discourse
||The development of libraries
has been central to the development of the public realm. Habermas’
original conception of the public realm, or public sphere, as a “place”
of rational public discussion on which democratic political development
is based (Habermas 1989), derived from his study of the emergence of new
democracies in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the
twentieth century, however, the nature of the public sphere changed. New
technologies in communication have had two significant effects. The first
is the “virtualization” of the public sphere that is best exemplified
by online discussion groups but also occurs on radio and television. The
second is the manipulation of public discourse by mass media and its reconfiguration
as an entertainment commodity.
a) The Virtual Public Sphere
Participation in public debate no longer requires access to a common physical
space, and it is clear that the technology that facilitates remote communication
changes the nature and content of discourse, and the value of information.
Each new technology both limits and insists upon certain content and structures.
The telegraph, for example, allowed us to talk to people on the other
side of the continent even though, perhaps, we didn’t really have
anything to say. But just for the sake of using the new technology, we
communicated anyway. Consequently, these communications—especially
when a new technology is introduced—tend to be about incredibly
trivial topics. One of the most damaging results of inventions such as
the telegraph was the validity given to context-free information. The
value of information used to be that it could lead to meaningful action
(Postman 1985). Beginning with the telegraph and continuing with modern
media, much of the information we receive—news stories about suicide
in China, the love life of a Calgary millionaire, an E.coli death in New
Brunswick, a lawsuit against a dead billionaire’s family—is
not directly connected with our lives. It gives us something to talk about,
but it also makes us acutely aware of our own impotence in that it rarely
leads to any meaningful action. The daily newspaper, Proust once observed,
contains “all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over
the last twenty-four hours … transformed for us, who don’t
even care, into a morning treat” (de Botton 1997). Information has
become commodified, valued merely for its novelty and curiosity (Postman
While the Internet alters and limits our style of discourse, it has also
expanded our range of communication. Many users have attempted to create
genuine political forums using this technology. An illustrative example
of public discourse via the Internet is “Minnesota E-Democracy,”
an online discussion list with over four hundred subscribers. Discussion
is limited to state-based political issues and, unlike many online forums,
contributors must observe certain standards of civility and rational debate.
(For a discussion of another online forum—Slashdot—and an
intelligent summary of Habermas’ “public sphere” theory,
see “Slashdot and the Public Sphere” at http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue5_9/baoill/.)
In his study of online deliberation in general, Dahlberg used Habermas’
conditions of the public sphere as a template and found that most online
discussion did not meet these conditions. In brief, these conditions are:
- Autonomy from state and
corporate control (commercial interests have colonized much of cyberspace)
- Reflexivity – participants
must scrutinize their own moral and cultural assumptions (minimal in
- Positions must be supported
by reason rather than debate, and therefore open to exchange and critique
- Respectful listening and
an attempt to understand the other’s position (a general lack
of this in many forums)
- Sincerity about identity
and information (difficult to verify)
Discursive inclusion and equality
(many forums exhibit exclusion based on social inequality; domination
by certain individuals or groups)
Dahlberg concluded that Minnesota E-Democracy successfully met the first
five conditions but, despite efforts to encourage diversity, it fell short
for the last. Discussion tended to be dominated by well-educated, white
males in the information professions. Their authoritative, adversarial
style intimidated many women on the list whose contributions were often
ignored, belittled, or silenced. Males generally did not have the patience
to accommodate other styles of discourse. Some women fled to women-only
discussion lists rather than put up with frequently uncivil behaviour
(Dahlberg 2001). Although Minnesota E-Democracy has made great strides
towards replicating the public sphere online, the traditionally powerful
groups continue to dominate. Perhaps this particular group of users is
well-versed in effective communication via this technology; hence, the
technology itself may limit communication by limiting its democratic extent.
b) The Mass Media and
the “Dumbing Down” of Public Discourse
Despite the limitations of the Internet for meaningful public deliberation,
it appears to be wildly successful compared to what passes for public
discourse on television. On daytime talk shows, guests reveal sordid personal
experiences, ostensibly to reach some moral lesson but really just to
titillate. In news reports and interviews, challenging questions are not
asked, interpretations are not made, speakers are cut off from expanding
on complex points. The media seems intent on exploiting the emotional
aspect of a story—the anger, the blame, the tears, the happy ending—rather
than exploring its intellectual content. In this way, the media contribute
to deepening the tendency toward anti-intellectualism that, says Hafner,
is omnipresent in North American life (Hafner and Sterling-Folker 1993).
People are opting out of serious knowledge-seeking in favour of lightweight
recreational information and entertainment. Habermas accuses the media
industry of increasing profits by fostering this trend. Instead of guiding
the public to an elevated culture and discourse, they are “adapting
to the need for relaxation and entertainment on the part of the consumer
strata with relatively little education” (Habermas 1989).
The media now value the speed of delivery of news more than its quality
or utility. Television relies on fast-paced delivery and attention-getting
images. The pace demands a reductive approach to complex issues and excludes
discussion of consequences, moral questions, and interpretation. The detached
and authoritative style of delivery implies that this is all there is
to political debate, effectively eliminating communication (Postman 1985).
To fill the vacuum left by the end of mass citizen participation in democratic
discourse, people turn to convenient sources of information like talk
radio shows where they are confronted by conservative hosts like Rush
Limbaugh presenting simplistic interpretations of current events and instructing
them how to think about complicated social and political issues.
By stressing currency, drama, and fast-paced presentation over relevance,
the media has abdicated its social responsibility for elevating public
discourse. They address people as spectators or victims rather than as
citizens. Instead of suggesting ways society can act upon its problems,
the media merely inform; instead of improving the climate for public discussion,
the presentation in the media debases it (McCabe 2001) and creates mistrust
and fear. It deprives us of the possibility of meaningful participation.
What was a public, Phelan says, has become an audience. In his early studies
on communication and technology, and his more recent ones on cyberspace,
Phelan noted that the public is deluded into thinking they are effective
agents in the real world. Because we can move and change images on a screen,
because we can “call in” to radio and television shows, we
feel we are participating and interacting even though we are physically
absent, alone and, “in any true political sense, impotent.”
We feel falsely empowered when, in fact, what we have just participated
in is a poor substitute for a real social and political life (Phelan 1996).
Postman accuses television of having “made entertainment itself
the natural format for the representation of all experience.” TV
does not allow people to be seen in the act of thinking, which alters
the flow of discourse to the point where it is not discourse, only fragmented
presentations. There is little time for reflection, analysis, rehashing,
stops and starts or anything that is not scripted. Any news or debate
is soon followed by a series of commercials that defuse its impact and
render it banal. Such juxtapositions show no respect for the subject or
for the intelligence of the viewer, and “do great danger to our
sense of the world as a serious place.” Television specializes in
“information” that is superficial, irrelevant, fragmented
and misleading which, Postman asserts, “creates the illusion of
knowing but is in fact leading one away from knowing.” This is the
inevitable result of packaging news as entertainment. In addition to losing
our capacity to think, and our social and political potency, we lose our
sense of what it means to be knowledgeable and well-informed (Postman
IV. Does Anyone
Banerjee asks the obvious
question: Is the typical consumer completely co-opted by the public life
of themed experiences and places dedicated to consumption (Banerjee 2001)?
And, one could add, by television’s version of public participation?
He answers that recent events, such as protests against the World Trade
Organization (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings, reflect
frustration over powerlessness against global corporate interests and
lack of local control. Indeed, the growth of community activism, revitalization
by immigrant communities, development of neighbourhood councils as mandated
recently in Los Angeles, and growth in neighbourhood-based nonprofit groups,
may reflect the early stages of a movement to “reclaim the public
realm at a community level” (Banerjee 2001).
People crave public discussion and a sense of community. Some of this
desire is reflected in the growth of discussion groups, salons, and philosophy
cafes. Thoughtful people who worry about the fragmentation of contemporary
life and the decline of meaningful activities that bring people together,
are looking for social moorings, for real dialogue in real space (McCabe
2001). A sense of community is often what people cite as missing when
responding to social ills. Civic dialogue helps to build community and
strengthen democracy and the public library is an ideal place to encourage
V. The Public
Library as a Place for Public Discourse
Crucial to democracy is civic
participation in a viable public space, but individuals are not coming
together to participate in social and political debate partly due to lack
of a congenial space. Citizen involvement, therefore, is being taken over
by professional politicians, further reducing civic life and replacing
community with a climate of mistrust. Halbert recommends that citizenship
“devolve” into face-to-face community building in order to
re-establish mutual trust and withstand catastrophe. She encourages rebuilding
of the public square, and reinvigorating the public sphere, or democracy
will remain superficial (Halbert 2002).
Habermas’ concept of the public sphere shares many attributes with
public libraries such as equality, accessibility (its “indispensable
ingredients”), and democratic control and participation. It is a
realm in which individuals gather to participate in open discussion; no
one enters into discourse with an advantage over another (Holub 1991).
As a physical place, the public library exemplifies the public sphere.
Prominent people from Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Oprah
Winfrey (“Getting my library card was like citizenship.”)
have linked the library to citizenship and democracy (Kranich 2001). However,
some librarians have a very different idea about the role of the public
library. Consider the following mission statement from the public library
in Aurora, Illinois:
|The mission statement
of the Library is to provide not only the best library services, material,
staff, and cost-efficient facility but to aggressively market and
promote our extensive reference collection, our adult and children's
collections and provide a diverse, educational, cultural, and recreational
resource through a variety of media to our community's changing age
and demographic patterns, limited only by available funding and other
resources supplied by residents and community organizations.
The references to recreation,
cost-efficiency, funding, and aggressive marketing, as well as the hard-sell
tone, signify what McCabe calls a “libertarian” approach,
a political term meaning emphasis on the radical autonomy of the individual.
The libertarian public library “is a specialized, demand-based materials
distribution service in the style of the private sector but with a public
subsidy” (McCabe 2001). The 2001 Canadian Library Association national
conference featured a session entitled “Marketing Public Library
Services” in which the speaker discussed the importance of “discovering
what library customers want,” understanding that “our customers’
interests [come] from learning what they buy and own,” developing
“strategy for marketing our products,” and “our competitive
edge.” This is one sign that the libertarian approach is alive and
well among library professionals.
Other, more typical, mission statements emphasize the importance of providing
access to information in addition to supporting the educational, recreational,
and leisure needs of the community. Arthur Hafner and Jennifer Sterling-Folker
call this approach the “popularization movement” and criticize
it for placing too much emphasis on entertainment and simple provision
of information rather than actively encouraging unfettered public dialogue
and disseminating information “so the public can participate in
the processes of governance” (Kranich 2001). A public library, they
argue, must “support and reinforce the democratic ideals of American
society” (Hafner and Sterling-Folker 1993).
The reason that many librarians have rejected the original purpose of
the library, according to Hafner, is rooted in the Public Library Inquiry
of the 1950s. This inquiry uncovered a number of “inconvenient facts,”
among them, that only a minority of the population uses the library, mostly
for entertainment such as popular fiction rather than serious enquiry.
Librarians, when faced with these statistics indicating that the library
did not and could not match its idealistic democratic goals, began to
believe that the library was no longer relevant to most people; at the
same time, they were under pressure from municipal administrators to justify
their funding in a tangible way, e.g., circulation and user statistics
(Hafner and Sterling-Folker 1993).
Libraries have responded by moving toward popularization in the belief
that the more people who use it, the more important the library will be
to the community, which will show its appreciation through a willingness
to support the library with tax money. Hafner argues that this response
by librarians misinterprets the behaviour of the public. Studies have
indicated that a significant majority feel that the public library is
“very important” to their community, regardless of whether
they use it or not (Hafner and Sterling-Folker 1993). The public will
willingly pay for the library because it symbolizes their highest societal
ideals, such as provision of education – not because the library
has the latest John Grisham novel (McCabe 2001). It is not use, but availability
for use, that characterizes universal, tax-paid forms of provision such
as libraries (Greenhalgh and Worpole 1995).
Do we want to become just another “information and entertainment
supplier”? asks Hafner. If so, why should we be publicly funded?
By treating the library as if it were just another commercial enterprise,
the popularization movement dismisses political, social, and moral values
in favour of economics. The amorality of the marketplace, totally indifferent
to the welfare of society, is an unlikely foundation for a social institution
(McCabe 2001), whereas the democratic purpose provides the public library
with a solid justification for continued community support.
Emphasis on the economic value of libraries undervalues or ignores their
tremendous social value, which is usually excluded from assessments of
library efficiency and economic value. Social impacts that are significant
to the public sphere include the following:
- They are the entry point
into the wider culture: libraries reflect the ideals of civil society
and ensure that all citizens have access to the basic resources that
allow them to enter a public sphere, to belong to their society. They
combine the conceptual principle of the right to knowledge with the
physical rights of access to a building—a public institution.
They are inclusive and non-stigmatizing, with a low “entry threshold”,
i.e., you don’t have to speak to anyone. The sense of openness
and accessibility goes to the heart of the idea of a public sphere.
- A library is one of the
few institutions that is regularly and uniformly open to children and
young people. It provides youth with social and educational opportunities
in a place that is neither school nor home. It allows them a presence
in a place where they are neither threatened nor perceived as a threat.
- It gives access to news
and information that helps to form public opinion, so essential to the
public realm; it provides the means for individuals to take part in
political and social debate.
- Unlike many public agencies
in disadvantaged areas, the library is a positive place and supports
positive activity and growth; other places may be symbols of deprivation
and negativity (Greenhalgh and Worpole 1995).
- People can just sit quietly,
read, and reflect, “without the pressure to act as consumers that
is so pervasive in other sorts of spaces” (Leckie and Hopkins
- New immigrants often use
the library to learn English; the library is a place where they can
feel included and productive “in a way that would be almost impossible
in other public spaces, such as cafes, parks, museums,” etc. (Leckie
and Hopkins 2002).
These positive social effects
are not easily measured, however, as qualitative indicators are difficult
to apply. Ironically, the qualities that make the library most appropriate
for civic dialogue—inclusiveness, access to the wider culture, availability
of information, a positive, non-stigmatizing atmosphere—are also
the ones that are disregarded in formal assessments of library service.
VI. What Can
Public Librarians Do?
||In the first decade of the twenty-first
century, degradation of the public realm, whether it be physical or technological,
continues to diminish public life, and loss of appropriate public spaces
is leading to a further decline in civic engagement. Despite the best efforts
of virtual communities, place-based communities are still important. As
citizens continue to feel a vague sense of powerlessness and frustration,
and what passes for public discourse becomes just another source of entertainment,
the public library’s fundamental democratic function is more important
than ever. To support democracy and the public sphere, and to provide a
forum for equitable and meaningful public discourse, public librarians should
consider the following ideas:
1. Re-examine the mission statement:
Is a library just a materials distribution centre? Or, perhaps, an “information
storehouse aggressively orchestrating the coexistence of all available
technologies”? (Rem Koolhaas, Seattle Public Library architect)
We can continue to provide for the recreational needs of users without
forfeiting our commitment to the democratic ideal. To demonstrate this
commitment, librarians need to adopt a more activist stance that should
be reflected in the mission statement. Replace verbs like “maintain,”
“provide,” and “be” with “promote,”
“advocate,” and “do.”
One consideration is the adoption of the “commons” principle
advocated by the Public Library Association. Over forty U.S. public libraries
have subscribed to this concept, which states that they will “address
the needs of people to meet and interact with others in their community
and to participate in public discourse about community issues” (Public
Library Association 2001. At http://www.pla.org/conference/planning/responses.html).
In her article “Citizenship, Pluralism, and Modern Public Space,”
Debora J. Halbert recommends redefining citizenship as “face-to-face
community building” to defuse “us” versus “them”
divisions (Halbert 2002). The PLA commons initiative supports her view.
2. Promote the library as a public forum and tailor new education
programs to the public forum concept:
The 1948 recommendations of the ALA’s National Plan for Library
Service are still valid. They urge libraries to provide “lectures,
forums, and discussion groups.” Standards for public discussions
could be based on Habermas’ conditions for the public sphere as
discussed earlier, or on Richard Rorty’s qualities of reason: tolerance;
respect for the opinions of those around one; willingness to listen; reliance
on persuasion rather than force; avoidance of dogmatism, defensiveness,
and righteous indignation (Watson 2000).
Some libraries create forums for specific groups. Halifax (Nova Scotia)
Public Library holds a weekly Women’s Group featuring “conversations,
crafts, speakers and films on everyday issues affecting the lives of women”
type of activity would facilitate inclusion of reluctant citizens in the
Provide guidelines for patrons on issues such as acceptance of diversity,
techniques for effective discussion, and the value of having informed
opinions. Some of these lessons could be based on guidelines from philosophy
cafés. For example:
- One must be open to having
one's view questioned and explaining reasons for it.
- One must listen to what
each person says and reflect on it.
- Civility goes hand in hand
with reason. Dialogue does not involve combative argument. We do challenge
each other's opinions, but the format is collaborative inquiry.
- All views are welcome.
(Adapted from http://www.philosophicalcounseling.com/cafe.htm)
3. Be a great public
The Project for Public Spaces
has identified four key qualities in a successful public space. They are:
- It is accessible: is the
entrance easy to see from the street? Is there a transit stop nearby?
Is it accessible to people with special needs?
- People are engaged in activities:
Do activities serve people of different ages? Is there a balance between
men and women?
- It is comfortable and has
a good image: Are there enough places to sit? Is it clean? Does it feel
safe? Is the noise level appropriate to the setting?
- It is a sociable place:
Is this a place where you would choose to meet friends? Does a mix of
ages and ethnic groups that reflect the community at large come here?
4. Be wary of discrimination
in library policy:
This discrimination can be
covert or unintended but examples abound, especially with regard to the
homeless. Some public libraries are effectively limiting access to homeless
people by restricting the size of belongings patrons bring in (Seattle,
Tacoma), or by prohibiting people with body odor because they are a “nuisance
to patrons.” (Broward County, FL). These are understandable concerns,
but the library should attempt to work with other agencies so that, for
example, homeless people have a safe place to leave their belongings.
Also, library policy should not redefine “patron” to exclude
homeless people; this is the same as the merchants of Boulder redefining
the “public” to exclude a group that made them uncomfortable.
Homeless people are patrons, and the public library is one of the few
places to which they have rights of access. Staff and board member training
may be required to ensure equitable access in practice and policy.
5. Resist colonization by commercial interests:
According to Hafner and McCabe,
the public equates the library with its highest societal ideals—education,
democracy, civic participation. These are concepts not comfortably associated
with overt commercialization. Names of prominent corporate donors featured
throughout the new San Francisco Public Library led one user to accuse
the library of having “left its soul behind” (Ottawa Citizen,
8 May 2002). The move by the Vancouver Public Library to put corporate
logos on library cards caused a local journalist to complain that “the
library’s long-term health—indeed its integrity as a public
service—is being damaged” (Vancouver Sun, 3 January
1998). Others argued that “despite the civic commitment to knowledge,
education,” etc. … “the implications that such a public
service, fundamental to free thinking and democracy, is for sale is a
deplorable sign of the times” (Vancouver Sun, 3 June 1995).
The “ongoing ideological shift within libraries away from [a] neutral
status as public institutions toward that of an active agent for private
interests in the market economy” demonstrated by the presence of
gift shops, cafes, and vending machines will “tarnish the sacred
tenet upon which libraries have been founded” and threaten to transform
their fundamental nature (Leckie and Hopkins 2002).
6. Regard patrons as
McCabe dismisses the notion
that library users are customers; instead, he says, they are “co-owners
of a democratic institution that is shared by everyone” (McCabe
2001). Supporting patrons’ recreational “needs” with
henna parties and such will entertain and distract them but will not substantially
enrich their lives. And simply meeting their information needs does not
go far enough. Citizenship is an ongoing process of educational, ethical,
and political growth, and the rights and duties of a citizen are, in part,
defined in terms of freedom of assembly. In ancient Athens, citizens assembled
not just to formulate public policy, but to mutually educate one another
in the ability to act justly and to expand their civic ideals of right
and wrong (Bookchin 1987). We can encourage participation in civic dialogue
by providing opportunities for people to meet face-to-face in the only
public agency that guards against the tyrannies of ignorance and conformity
(Hafner and Sterling-Folker 1993). Treating patrons as citizens implies
providing not only access to information but also an arena for public
deliberation, and it fulfills the library’s mission “to work
as an agent and partner within the community to promote the quality of
society and the enrichment of the citizenry” (Hafner and Sterling-Folker
To combat the loss of public
space and lack of civic engagement, we need to rebuild social infrastructure
and re-establish the philosophical framework of public librarianship.
One way to do this is to provide a forum for public discourse. A public
library is free, non-judgmental, and safe. It is open evenings and weekends,
centrally located, open to all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, political
and sexual orientations, and interests. It is a true public space and
an ideal setting for expression of diverse opinions on political and social
issues. It can function as a centre from which to rebuild community and
trust, and a forum for civil and collaborative inquiry.
We need adequate civic space to maintain a civil society, says Barber.
A place that “accommodates the mutuality of ‘you and me’”
(Barber 1998) strengthens our social morality and, ultimately, our democracy.
That place is the public library.
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