Thursday, March 20, 2014

Libraries as ideological institutions?

While I've been absent from the blogosphere, I've been thinking deeply about the library as an institution. I have attended a talk at my faculty, been reading a critical perspective author and have read recent articles in the news mentioning perspectives of what the library has become today. In this blog post, I want to discuss these ideas that I have been grappling with and raise certain questions at the end.

To begin, I must mention that I attended a talk by John Buschman  entitled "Neoliberalism in democratic-educative institutions". This talk was put on by Faculty of Information and Media Studies. University of Western Ontario through the funding of Jean Tague-Sutcliffe for a visiting scholar to present a lecture at the faculty. While this lecture is deserving of its own blog post, for the purposes of this blog post, I just want to mention that the main idea that Buschman communicated to me in this lecture was that neoliberalism has infiltrated the institution of libraries. Buscham also called for librarians to resist neoliberal ideology from changing how the institutions of libraries operate (personal communication, March 12, 2014).

Buschman's conclusion is also echoed by Dilevko (2009). Dilveko also calls for librarianship to become progressive and reject the neoliberal project for the library as an institution. Yet, Dilevko (2009) does acknowledge that the library does have a neoliberal heritage. This is mainly due to the contributions of industrialist and entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie. In Dilveko (2009), one can read how Carnegie set up a non-profit foundation to not only fund the establishment of public libraries, but also to fund library education. However, both Buschman and Dilevko's conclusions seem ironic, as in my interpretation, Carnegie could very well, through his interest, be playing the capitalist role of funding an institution that would conceal class tensions and relations. Isn't it a capitalist strategy to justify inequalities by making it seem that anyone who accesses and uses information rightly can become successful in the capitalist meritocratic society?

This brings me to my final analysis of trends in libraries today, where they are moving to become "community centres". Take for instance Wilkins (2014) words 'foolish me for still thinking that public libraries were establishments where silence always reigned supreme'. He continues:

In the last decade or so, I have been a regular user of Concordia’s downtown Webster Library. There, I have had the opportunity to see that the bad habits developed in high school are finding a second life in the university. “Silence” signs have been replaced with the more gentle “in this part of the library students can expect” notices. Indeed, many libraries, including the Webster, have been divided into various zones where library users “can expect” differing levels of noise.
In certain areas, cellphone use is not tolerated, at least in theory. The same can be said about food and drink. Then, of course, there is the socializing.
It seems that libraries, particularly the new “mega-libraries” like Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque, Seattle’s Central Library and England’s Library of Birmingham, are becoming more community centres than anything else. In a recent BBC interview, Tony Durcan, director of culture in the Northumberland City of Newcastle, referred to the 21st-century library “as a quality public square, with a roof on top.”
As such, Wilkins makes observations that libraries are becoming community centres, with a de-emphasis on the individual consumption of information and media to a place where there are greater social and community interaction and consumption of technology, information and media. No longer are we emphasizing the library as an institution that supports an individual's quest or thirst for knowledge, but rather are redesigning our spaces to facilitate social learning and group interaction. (However, the irony is that some of these changes in libraries have come about in order to make libraries more "customer-friendly").

In another article, McCambridge (2014) discusses that library visits have increased. While librarians have pointed to several factors for the increased visits, including recession and technology, in her title, McCambridge suggests that this increase has been due mainly to libraries "madly innovating". And what are these innovations? 
Beyond redesigns of spaces designed to create more room for collaborative and creative intellectual activity, some augmentations to function have been added, making libraries more attractive and “sticky” community centers. For instance, the Chicago Public Library offers a free “Maker Lab” with access to 3-D printers, laser cutters, and milling machines. Washington State’s Lopez Island Library lets people borrow musical instruments. The Library Farm in Cicero, New York, even lets patrons interested in organic gardening borrow plots of land.
If you notice from both quotes, both Wilkins and McCambridge mention that libraries are playing the roles of community centres. Again, like Wilkins, McCambridge mentions the shifting emphasis from accessing information and media to a more social role of the institution of libraries, one where the is more provision of social services and programming. In one regard, libraries are beginning to look more like YMCAs, and are placing more emphasis on entertainment to attract users and visits. This is an interesting conundrum regarding the library as either a neoliberal ideological institution or as a progressive community-based/community-owned institution. In one sense, libraries in responding to neoliberal and public sector management pressures to quantify their value, are using neoliberal marketing strategies to attract higher numbers of users and visits. At the same time, libraries are acting as progressive and de-emphasizing the individual while giving more attention to the social and communal role of libraries.

So I end with several questions. Can the library as an institution be neutral? Can we balance two conflicting ideologies and contradictions? Can we both be a progressive social institution that seeks to eliminate "alienation" and bring about class solidarity, community and equality? Can we also be an institution that provides resources to launch new enterprises and entrepreneurs into success within the current neoliberal capitalist economy? Which ideology is in fact more dominating the institution of libraries today?


Dilevko, J. (2009). The politics of professionalism: A retro-progressive proposal for librarianship.  Duluth, MN : Library Juice Press.

McCambridge, R. (2014, March 10). Library usage soars as libraries get madly innovative. NPQ: Nonprofit Quarterly. Retrieved from

Wilkins, R. N. (2014, February 25). Silence in libraries seems to be a thing of the past. Montreal Gazette. Retrieved from libraries seems thing past/9544828/story.html

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