An Engaged and Critical Library | kulturpunkt

English Essay

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An Engaged and Critical Library

The public library and its issues only occasionally find their way to the media space – the public sphere.

by: Petra Dolanjski

Stockholm Public Library / Stockholms stadsbibliotek; PHOTO: Samantha Marx

Apart from the occasional announcements of book events or author talks and free workshops of various kinds, an approach that would systematically and critically explore the role of libraries, systematize previous efforts or perhaps detect the libraries’ future development and place them within our current social, political and economic context appears not to be interesting enough. News of exhibitions, guests, round tables and free services, whose aim is to react to the present social situation, offer possible solutions and act for the greater social good, seem to pass us by. So we read about engaged/critical art, theatre and literature, but libraries that can/are/should be engaged, fair and progressive are the last thing on our mind. Therefore, we have every right to ask: what is their role today?

From its very beginnings, the idea of a public library implied that the democratic society is a society of enlightened citizens and should, as such, offer everyone the conditions for free intellectual development. With time, this grew into the concept of a library as a neutral third place, the community’s living room, a space beyond time – a cosy, intimate, romanticised space filled with books, silent librarians. It is precisely because of the turn that is happening and going on unnoticed, lingering on the margin of cultural actualities, that it is interesting to think about the library through Foucault’s definition, as a heterotopia. In his text Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias, utopias and heterotopias appear as places that are connected and related to all the other places, but at the same time contradict them, since they invert the sets of relations in which they appear. Libraries, as heterotopias, infinitely collect and record time. They are immobile places where time never stops accumulating its own achievements: they realize the idea of "establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs (…)" while simultaneously being placed outside time and impervious to its effects. Designating library as a heterotopia of this kind only partially corresponds to the current situation; its space has, for a while now, been more porous than separate and traits of other heterotopias have thus seeped into it. In other words, from spaces of contemplation and silent work, through their added functions and roles, libraries have come to be written into and related to real time and space.

However, it seems that the new roles, functions and meanings of the library are still invisible beneath layers of conceptions of what it is and what it should be. A group of New York librarians reacted to the prevailing vision of the library as a neutral and apolitical space back in 1990, forming the Progressive Librarians Guild with the goal of repoliticising the library. Concerned with the profession's "dubious alliances with business and the information industry" and complacent acceptance of services resulting from these connections, all without questioning their political, economic and cultural neutrality, they opposed the current trends in librarianship. This was their position: critical, progressive librarianship versus conservative, traditional and, above all, neutral one. They were not the first nor last to fight for that: reducing the library to a neutral institutional mediator in the information marketplace and a facilitator of an information society which disseminates information to its consumers proved to be untenable.

Today it may be more important than ever to emphasize the social mission of librarianship and information science, whose duty is to represent the public sphere and defend the common good, to champion human rights, freedom, democracy and culture, and concentrate on the necessity of a criticality which aims to "develop strategies of countercultural resistance and an alternative vision of globalisation through a promotion of social activism within the library profession", and taking a stand against "the perception of librarianship as an instrument of the capitalist ideology of servitude" (Mario Hibert, Librarianship Wants to Be… Free?, 2014). The future of libraries and their sustainability lie not in the turnover of books, buildings and committees, but in studying, knowledge and socially engaged activity in the context of social justice. It is from this perspective that the concept of a neutral third place becomes inadequate, and the idea of a community isn’t used in its totality and complexity, as it should be, but one-dimensionally. It is employed as desirable in various systems (political, religious, cultural, economic, pedagogical…) because it points to homogeneity and loyalty, and prevents disintegration. Used in such a way, it presupposes a symmetry of relationships and is realized as a projection of horizontal solidarity, although the relations in the community are, in fact, hierarchical, asymmetrical and marked by power relations. Another trait of the community is that its members don’t know each other; they inhabit the spatial, but not the actual continuum. Therefore libraries, as spaces of temporary and occasional encounters within local community, act with the intention of raising awareness and including the differences of its targeted users, as well as gathering them around questions of common interest and inspiring feelings of solidarity and connection, all with the aim of rethinking and activating the library’s role in its social and political context. Changing the paradigm to its current constellation, with user in the centre, hasn’t ended our perception of the library as a cosy neutral space for spending free time, so its subversive action against the dangers of its own commodification is more than necessary. The imperative of social justice, as a central tenet of activist librarianship, is the public libraries’ task, which they undertake through their programs and services directed against the deepening inequality. Therefore, "the librarians are not," as Hibert writes, "merely institutional officials, but also the citizens whose progressive ethos should surpass the myths of neutrality."

Like Alberto Manguel writes in his book The Library at Night, every library, despite its aspirations of to be all-inclusive, establishes a hierarchy based on the exclusion of books it leaves out: "Every library is exclusionary," since, despite the vastness of its selection, "[e]very library conjures up its own dark ghost; every ordering sets up, in its wake, a shadow library of absences." A possible response to what is left out is offered by the project Public Library by Marcell Mars and Tomislav Medak, through the creation of digitalised repositories which act as a response to the restrictive concept of copyright and a direct criticism of intellectual property, aspiring "to eradicate the very idea of universal access to knowledge for every member of the society." As they say, the project is "a case for the institution of public library and its principle of universal access to knowledge", implying that, if content is freely available on the web, everyone can access and use it. But can such guerrilla initiatives of creating digital public libraries satisfy the needs of all users, or is someone still excluded? And what is the point of librarianship then, as a profession and occupation, when everyone is a librarian? If the conditions for accessing these contents are internet access, knowledge of the English language, proficiency in computer and information literacy, but also (prior) knowledge as a tool for orientation and understanding, then using such public libraries is still not available to everyone, and generates power relations that it is trying to abolish. By using only this approach we can hardly avoid creating new polarizations and stratifications. On the other hand, library, as a space of the independent public sphere, advocates for civil society and enforces it, which is not a neutral position. On the contrary, this position implicitly includes the library’s commitment to enabling an ethical information society within the global social justice framework. Expert jobs – cataloguing, indexing, offering referential services, as well as the ordering politics, collections development, library automatization library management, and customer work, presume certain political and economic choices but, as any profession, also require expert knowledge and skills. The solution might lie in collectively fighting, as a platform for the plural articulation of resistance through the creation of collective knowledges and ideas, because, after all, the public library should not disappear in either of its forms.

At one of the Public readings, the gallery-library program based on the economy of exchanging energy, companionship and good will, visual artist Sandra Sterle read excerpts from Miranda July’s book No One Belongs Here More Than You. In a strategy that is missing from public libraries, and that would unite their particular efforts and actions and give them systematic support in achieving their goals, as well as visibility in the public space, perhaps that title is a good starting point.

Translated from Croatian by Lana Pukanić.
Objavio/la vatroslav [at] kulturpunkt.hr 27.04.2016