Viewpoint: A point of view

When invited by libraries to give talks, many react strongly when I suggest that users are currently the most overrated players at public libraries. In addition, I also suggest that the focus placed on users at public libraries is misplaced. What do I mean by that? Is it even possible to make such a claim – without the users, the very raison d’être of a public library would be swept away?

There is no doubt that users are crucial to public libraries. Most policy makers base their assessments on the value of activities related to how many people actually visit libraries. Much of a librarian’s profession revolves around user reception issues. The buildings are designed to be used as such. So what’s the problem?

The shift in library relationships to its users occurs concurrently as the understanding of people as social beings changes.When public libraries were created over a hundred years ago, they established their position in relation to people as responsible citizens, who in a critical- minded and independent manner arrived at their own conclusions and took on board the education which they felt to be appropriate in order to take an active part in the democratic process. In this setting, libraries found a role that was made both clear and necessary for the implementation of a democratic political system. Libraries managed to establish themselves as one of our society’s most important and beloved public institutions.

Libraries are still popular, but their role in society is constantly being challenged. Ideals and players other than those actively taking part in the democratic process are gaining an increasing amount of influence. Libraries take them on by finding new ways to approach users. Where people were once considered as citizens, they are today seen as relatively predictable consumers. For these consumers, the librariesprovide a service. As libraries are increasingly adopting such an approach, they are also abandoning their right to interpret their societal mission.

The primary symptom of this lies today in the way that many librarians and those in power willingly legitimize libraries from a user perspective: libraries should supply users “with what they want” and without the users, libraries cease to exist. I believe this to be a grave misconception. Today the users, through different social media and ‘social tagging’, are allowed to venture into what was previously and by tradition, the professions’ core area of competence – to select, arrange, classify and clear out holdings. And yet there is no evidence that this progression is being asked for by users. So who is applying the pressure?

Anyone who has seen social tagging in practice knows that the public’s ability to index is annoyingly dim-witted. Yet this is perceived in many quarters as an appealing way to entice people to involve themselves in some sort of dialogue with library catalogues. The question is why – most people (thankfully) do not do it. Nor do they communicate via library blogs. The needs are presumed to exist, yet nothing indicates that they actually do exist. Players from the communications industry have succeeded in getting libraries to ‘create’ user needs that may look great, but de facto, do actually not exist.

Other ways libraries are adapting to the user, showing that libraries now view users as consumers rather than as independent citizens, is the control over holdings that has become a direct consequence of the publishing industry’s increasing grip over libraries.

When libraries allow Sweden’s largest online bookstore to contribute to the selection of new books it weakens a library’s grip over its holdings and with it, its ability to operate as an alternative to a streamlined and conformist range supplied by mass cultural standards and the enter- tainment industry. This is nothing strange. Libraries have painted themselves into a corner, from which it will be very difficult to get out. In the hands of ignorant politicians, powerful commercial interests, both inthe publishing and communicationssector, they contribute today to diminishing citizens to mere consumers. By grovelling before the users and offeringthem even more light entertainmentwhile simultaneously allowing theminto the catalogues through socialtagging – which they are not suited for – the professional integrity of the librarian is yet further diluted.

So how is this development to be intercepted? One way is, to stop glancing nervously at the ‘customers’ and instead choose to engage in serious social analysis that place the libraries in a context that goes way beyond the perceived needs of the individual users.

Libraries exist for a reason. And the reason is not to accommodate consumers, but to contribute to a strong, democratic, local community. To analyze how this should be achievedrequires strength and energy – and will-power – to stand up against theforces that today are increasingly usingthe libraries for their own economicpurposes. Let us hope that the willpoweris there – for the benefit of users.

Joacim Hansson
The Document Academy and the Department of
Library and Information Science
Linnaeus University, Sweden
Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Professor The Document Academy and the Department of Library and Information Science Linnaeus University, Sweden