Libraries and Democracy

The public has always needed a space to gather; to disseminate ideas, to voice community news, and to congregate as a group of people. Since the advent of public libraries, that has been the space chosen by people to be this “public space” and be the center of democracy. As Wayne Wiegand (2015) writes, “through the public spaces they provided, public libraries have functioned as incubators for the kind of social relationships that resulted in personal happiness.” These democratic spaces were useful as both a social space and a knowledge space. As the world has changed, the need for the democratic space has also changed and with that the function of the library. The rise of consumerism, digital spaces, and lack of need for a public gathering space has begun to threaten the democratic ideals of the library and as such those ideals have started to disappear. These changes will highly affect the role of the public library in the future of communities and the role of the “public sphere” itself. The library is declining as the epitome of the democratic public space, but its role has not completely disappeared and there remains the power to keep them both if changes are made to the library itself as well as how the public uses it.

The “public sphere” and democracy have always been interconnected and it is in these interconnected spaces that “something approaching public opinion can be formed” (Habermas, 1964). This democratic public space allows the citizenry to speak freely and voice opinions separate from the state and it existed long before libraries were a space to hold these gatherings. To be democratic means that it is on paper involving all the people of a community, that everyone has access to the gatherings and the opinions shared within them. The public sphere exists in a limbo “mediat[ing] between society and state” (Habermas, 1964) and because of that there is the allowance for control of either. Whichever side is able to exert their control more evidently gains the power over the space, whether it is the private sector or the people coming together to influence the public sphere. With the advent of mass media and a more connected society the public sphere has begun to be institutionalized, controlled by higher levels of government and less about the opinions being shared by the citizens, but rather the information communicated by the one in control.

Although democratic public spaces have existed before libraries, public libraries were created to be a democratic public space. The public library was built to “both nourish our intellectual lives as individuals and citizens and foster a sense of community in whatever locale or institution those library spaces were being created” (Leckie, 2004) in a sense, to be that mediator between the public and the private sphere. By allowing for the discussion and debate of opinions, from literary to political and everything in between, the public library cemented itself as the face of the democratic public space within the 20th century and was the center of many communities. It was important to designate this physical space as one rooted in the public sphere as it provided both a center for the community as well as a center for the discussion. When public libraries were created and set up as this public space, news and discussion happened in vastly different ways from today. Media and news were slow, people relied on others to let them know what was happening in the world and public forums such as these were a way for everyone to gain access to information. Creating an informed community is one of the goals of a public library and by allowing discussion and debate within people were able to gain knowledge of the world and issues contained within as well as create a social bond with those also within the public space.

Libraries are losing their sense of democracy and their grip on the public sphere. This comes from the changing of technology and the way people interact with media and information. However, libraries have not always been as democratic as they believe themselves to be. Access to this public space has not always been allowed for all members of a community, based on race, class, and other factors. It has been argued that the public library only exists to serve the middle class, leaving many people without that public space. In a study done of rural libraries in Ontario there was evidence that “while the free public library may be open to all, the library as an organization is capable of closing doors of other kinds to those who fall outside the profile of the average library user” (Griffis & Johnson, 2013). A library cannot expect to be a true democratic public space if they do not allow certain groups to participate in the communication of ideas and information. Currently these groups that are not being served by the public libraries include “the homeless, the poor, the working mother, the unemployed, the illiterate, the mentally ill, and the minorities” (Giffis & Johnson, 2013) and this lack of inclusion creates a public space that does not truly serve the public and doesn’t represent the community.

The trend of a “New Public Philosophy” is destroying the democratic public sphere that libraries have strived to create throughout their history by shifting the focus from users and knowledge to customers and entertainment. This is written about in great detail in John Buschman’s “Libraries and the Decline of Public Purposes” where he states,

We have rhetorically transformed library users into ‘customers’ and then adopted the corollary business practices of marketing and public relations, adopted the market model of ‘competition’ with each other and our bookstore imitators, and utilized an entrepreneurial approach to funding shortages and library practices (2005).

By changing the libraries aims from ones of discourse and freedom of information to ones of consumerism and economics we have taken away the lifeblood of their roles in the democratic public space. This in part comes from the lack of funding available for libraries and thus needing to change the way that they are run in order to continue existing, but this comes at a cost to the patrons and the community. “Collections and popular services are cut to move libraries towards networked resources” (2005) Buschman writes and with that we see the decline of the public space that the library has provided for generations. Can democracy still exist within this New Public Philosophy? The more that a library strains to provide a space as well as the technological innovations that are changing the landscape of information the more that they are failing to be the democratic public space that they once were.

Much of the onus of the changing role of the library and its decline as a provider of the democratic public space also falls in the hands of the user. Although the public library is loved by many in the community (though as we saw it is mainly used by the middle class), they are not using it as a public space for discourse as much as for technological services as well as the books. What the public is using the library for is what the library will provide for the user. Information is attained through the internet, cell phones, social media, and other individual endeavours rather than the coming together of a community in a public space such as a library. There are certain demographics that this is not the case for however, young families and the elderly, especially for those in rural communities. “Rural libraries are sometimes the only local source of materials and social interaction for small children” (2013) Griffis and Johnson write and this holds true for the older members of a community as well. However, “concern is raised that the library’s increasing emphasis on entertainment and marketing is resulting in a civic space that does not allow for public assembly and discourse but has been downgraded into a place only for leisure” (Leckie, 2004). If the programs offered in the library only serve a surface purpose we once again have lack of democracy and lack of the true nature of the “public sphere”.

Although libraries have drifted away from their democratic nature, there is still opportunity to regain that spot as defender of the public space. The fact that libraries are a physical space in almost every community is a huge asset to creating the public sphere again and as Buschman writes, “libraries embody an essential element of democracy: a place where the ideal of unfettered communication and investigation exists in rudimentary form” (2005). The availability of the space and the members of the community are there, it is the connection that needs to be made between the two of them. Wiegand (2015) writes about a “participatory culture” that can be achieved through the public space of the library and when the community comes together in a space such as the library the discourse and information sharing that has been lost can be revived. Instead of focussing on the entertainment libraries can provide and looking at the user as a customer efforts must be made to foster discussion and the sharing of ideas. Only then can society return to the library as a democratic public space.

“Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion” (Habermas, 1964), but the spaces in which to create that public body are disappearing. Through the advent of technology libraries have lost their way from their original purposes and no longer provide the space for the democratic public sphere. Most people love their library and see it as an asset to the community but for reasons separate from their intended purposes. To maintain the relationship between libraries, democracy, and information going into the future libraries have to be prepared to change their path, to move away from entertainment and consumerism and towards a public space for community discussion. It is then that this public space will created an informed citizenry through information and the freedom of information that comes from democracy.



Works Cited

Buschman, J. (2006). Libraries and the Decline of Public Purposes. Public Library Quarterly, 24 (1) 1-12.

Griffis, M.R. and Johnson, C.A. (2014). Social capital and inclusion in rural public libraries: a qualitative approach. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 46(2): 96-109

Habermas, J. (1974). The public sphere: An encyclopedia article. (S. Lennox & F. Lennox, Trans.). New German Critique, 3, 49-55.

Leckie, G.J. (2004). Three perspectives on libraries as public space. Feliciter 50(6): 233-236.

Wiegand, W.A (2016). Tunnel vision and blind spots reconsidered: Part of our lives (2015) as a test case. Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 85(4): 347-0370.