Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Public Libraries : "non-places sandwiched between the launderette and motorway"

It's been a long day. I had a presentation this morning that took a surprising amount of energy and I have another tomorrow. To prepare [read procrastinate], I went to the gym. For the first time in days I feel relaxed. I'm settled behind my computer and I have some good trance tunes coming through the speakers. I'm ready to think about public libraries.

If we were to ask any child for a description of a library, they would say: "A building with books." As adults--and librarians--we learn that it's something else: it's an institution devoted to information, it's a welcome place for the entire community, and it's a temple committed to the protection of intellectual freedoms. When the doors of the library close at night, however, it's still just a building filled with books.

Public libraries had an inauspicious start. In the United States, they began in New Hampshire in 1833 and the Boston Public Library got its start in the 1850s (Shera, 1965). The founders of these early libraries were well-healed white males interested in improving themselves and engaging in that great parlour game of the Enlightenment: educating the common man (Dain, 1975; Harris, 1973). We now have all of the required elements for yet another definition of the public library: a control mechanism created by "the man". Of course, this line of discussion will bring us into discussion of hegemony, political economy, and feminism. And we still have a building filled with books.

More interesting to me than the discussions about what the library represents is how we actually use the libraries. What role do those books actually play? The public library wasn't the only building around devoted to books. There were the mercantile and machinist's libraries, the religious libraries, and the Lyceum (see discussion in Shera, 1965). These institutions don't seem to carry the same sort of discourse baggage that public libraries do--perhaps because they no longer exist. We can only assume that they no longer exist because they failed to adapt to prevailing conditions of their time. So what functions did they play? To me, it seems that the machinist's libraries were directly descended from guild lodges and served as not just a source of education but as a place of socialization. Their purpose wasn't just books. Similarly, as noted by Shera (1965) the Lyceum became places of public lecture and lively debate. In the time before cinema and radio, the Lyceum may have filled an entertainment role for audiences looking for an alternative to vaudeville.

As noted, the machinist's libraries and Lyceum are extinct courtesy of the deskilling of craft labour and "the culture industries" (Adorno, 1997 [1944]). From their fossils we can still extract some lessons for our current public libraries. These lessons can be compressed to two words: socialization and entertainment. Both of these elements seem to be missing from our modern libraries. One critic of these public buildings filled with books--John Olley--claims that:

"In the recent past, the architecture of the library has been diminished by the printing press. In turn that building type has rounded on the book for revenge, reducing it to an inert object. The sheer quantity of volumes coagulated the categorization and locational systems, convoluted the access and retrieval procedures and converted security and preservation into paranoia. Libraries are being ossified into tombs of tomes." (Olley, 1997 pg. 10)

As if "tombs of tomes" wasn't bad enough, Olley goes on to say:

"In the recent past many a library conceived the user as a machine for reading located in a factory of instruction, that given a diet of sufficient lumens for the ocular mechanism to operate and to reduce other undetectable environmental attributes�sound and thermal�to neutrality, midway between shivering and sweating, would create that numbing condition called 'comfort'. With these materials to create a building, the result is likely to join the increasing register of non-places sandwiched between the launderette and motorway." (Olley, 1997 pg. 12)

If we were to ask a child for a description of launderettes or motorways, they wouldn't likely answer either socialization or entertainment. Unless we want our public libraries to become "non-places", maybe they should.


Adorno, T. W. (1997 [1944]). Dialectic of enlightenment. London: Blackwell Verso.
Dain, P. (1975). Ambivalence and Paradox: The Social Bonds of the Public Library. Library Journal, 100(3), 261-266.
Harris, M. (1973). The Purpose of the American Public Library. A Revisionist Interpretation of History. Library Journal, 98(16), 2509-2514.
Olley, J. (1997). The Art of Reading. In M. Brawne (Ed.), Library Builders. Boston: Academy Editions.
Shera, J. H. (1965). Foundations of the public library: the origins of the public library movement in New England, 1629-1885. [Hamden, Conn.]: Shoe String Press.


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