Library innovation for the knowledge society

As we move from a concept of the information society on to a concept of a knowledge society, the role of public libraries must undergo similar changes of priority. What should be the role of public libraries when most people have ample access to a plethora of information and entertainment? How may librarians define their professional role when users themselves perform many of the functions formerly left to the professionals?

The main contentions of the article are, first, that libraries must move from defining their professional role in terms of providers of information literacy on to a role as multimodal knowledge centres encompassing information as well as entertainment, retrieval as well as production. Second, librarians need to redefine their role in the physical library as facilitators of multimodal literacy and do so in close cooperation with other partners advancing civic society.

From scarcity to overflow
As is well-known, public libraries have developed historically in tandem with the industrial society, and their formation is mostly based on enlightenment ideals of freedom of expression and of universal access to information and works of imagination. Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 is an eloquent and unique expression of these ideals stating that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

As is equally well-known, in industrial societies information is often hard to come by, and many communicative technologies are developed in order to remedy this scarcity and speed up the reliablility and efficiency of distanced communication. One may just think of the immediate success of the telegraph and the telephone whose respective take-up in public and private life was centrally dependent upon their almost instant communication of data, an efficiency and immediacy that in turn fed into a development of more universal, temporal demarcations such as time zones.

Not only is information scarce in industrial society, also works of entertainment offer sought-after pastimes. Numerous autobiographies until the mid- 1970s describe how people would bike a long way to watch their favourite film at a local cinema; and public libraries were ransacked by avid users craving ‘a good read’ so that librarians often had to limit weekly loans for particular ‘heavy users’.

Libraries in industrial societies serve to remedy the scarcity of information and (quality) entertainment and to secure universal access. The definition of information and fiction is clear, since these concepts have a physical materiality: they are books, journals, records, and films. And the role of the librarian is equally clear, if not always easy to fulfil: Librarians make explicit choices and selections amongst a known repertoire of artefacts.

Since the 1980s, a number of fundamental developments have served to change a situation of scarcity into a situation of overflow. In the early 1980s, satellite television and the VCR are introduced in many parts of the world. Notably news and entertainment go global, and this transformation is accompanied by a large-scale commodification of mediatized communication.

The commodification is mostly felt in Europe and other countries and regions that have a long tradition of public-service media, i.e. radio, television and film that serve the public good, not the interests of investors and advertisers; and media that are accountable to a diversity of output, not just popular fare that attracts the largest possible audience. Not only can people now timeshift their viewing patterns, they also come to associate entertainment with commercial output, since public-service broadcasters tend to cut down on the most costly productions, i.e. entertainment including fiction.

This diversification and commodification is accompanied by a changing definition of the librarian’s role. He or she is increasingly (self)defined as a ‘consumer guide’ assisting the individual user in making relevant choices amongst a plethora of seemingly equal cultural ‘products’. This is a time when librarians begin to question received professional notions of taste and established cultural divides between art and pop even if they still prioritise their cultural function. The user becomes the focus of attention and individual service provision a hallmark of professional competence.

From information society to knowledge society
Of more immediate impact than the globalization and commodification of mass media is the introduction from the late 1980s on of computers and later the Internet and mobile media. In the 1980s, ‘the information society’ becomes a synonym of societal development. In such a society, the levers of development are information processing, i.e. efficient and reliable generation, transfer and retrieval of data, whose appropriation is often closely tied to formal sites of labour or education.

The competences necessary to advance such a society is information literacy. In its simplest form, the concept denotes the individual’s ability to access, retrieve and process data of relevance to concrete problem-solving and decision- making, while in its more advanced versions, information literacy is contextualised and related to actual learning sites and wider societal and personal crieria of relevance and reflection (Kuhlthau 1993, Bruce 1997). Still, the concept of information literacy is closely tied to the technologies of computing and Internet access, and knowledge is defined in terms of reflexive and responsible use of information.

The definitions of libraries and of librarians change accordingly. The enormous increase in Internet-based communication serves to shift attention to the virtual, rather than the physical, library. Digital reference services, free access to large-scale data banks and secure retrieval become vital areas of professional development, and there is certainly more to come in this decisive domain of innovation.

Also, the astronomical increase in the amount of information makes the librarian’s explicit choices amongst a known quantity of entities a thing of the past. Instead, explicit choices are left to the users. The many discussions on ‘netiquette’, Internet filters and reflexive evaluation of web information are examples of a seeming ‘empowerment’ of the virtual library user and his or her individual choices. Still, librarians – or rather a select group of data processing experts – make ‘structural’ choices as to access, storage, and retrieval – only these are not visible, and accountable, to the end user: today, librarians make selections in the first instance, not the last instance.

The librarian’s traditional role as ‘cultural custodian’ or, in the 1980s as ‘cultural guide’, is downplayed in favour of the librarian’s function as effective information disseminator assisting in the user’s development of information literacy. Focus is on developing userfriendly information searches that gradually become more and more attuned to actual problems and activities rather than stand-alone tools.

Multimodal literacy
From the mid-1990s on, ‘the knowledge society’ (Stehr 1994) begins to compete with ‘the information society’ as a pervasive term in public discourse. While the term information society focuses on the raw materials so to speak (‘information’), the term knowledge society serves to emphasise the various menus (‘knowledge’) that may result from people’s handling of the raw materials. The change in concepts thus reflects a transformation in societal definitions of the fundamental levers of social development and of the competences necessary to bring about such developments.

In a knowledge society, the levers of development is the creation, circulation and appropriation of knowledge, i.e. non-material processes that in principle may take place anywhere and at any time. The creation of knowledge is no longer the prerogative of formal settings such as schools and work places; and hence the introduction of the term knowledge society is parallelled by a shifting emphasis from education (whose entry point is a teacher in an institutional setting) to learning (whose entry point is the learner in any given spatio-temporal context).

The competences necessary to advance a knowledge society have to do with creative ways of thinking, acting and cooperating so that existing knowledge is not only preserved and stored, but so that new forms of knowledge are developed and new types of action designed.

The development of creative competences is closely related to people’s active appropriation of media and ICTs. Online interaction is a necessary means of virtual cooperation, and thus elearning becomes an important concept of the knowledge society. But so do other mediatized forms of communication such as digital storytelling, audio-visual analysis and Internet design and programming. And not only as means of virtual communication, but as important ends of mediatized learning.

Today it is possible to digitise all forms of signs (e.g. text, sound, live and still pictures). Thus, the last decade has witnessed a technological and ecomic convergence of telecommunication, mass media and ICTs. It is becoming less and less feasible to isolate ICTs as separate technologies; and it is becoming evident that the knowledge society demands more than information literacy.

The term multimodal literacy (developed from Kress & van Leeuwen 2001) is gaining currency as a term that points to the rather complex semiotic competences that citizens need to develop in order to gain a formative influence on the knowledge society.Multimodal competences encompass the ability to access, but also to use mediatized forms of communication; it denotes the ability to retrieve and receive but also to produce such forms of communication. And, most importantly, it signals that information is but one element in a multifaceted spectrum of mediatized expressions that also encompass entertainment, interaction and performance.

Knowledge for what and for whom?
If it is true that we live in a knowledge society that demands multimodal competencies most of which are mediatized, then it follows that the role of public libraries and librarians is challenged once again.

Public libraries, in their physical as well as their virtual versions, are spaces that people enter at liberty and often in their spare time. In shaping new visions for public libraries in the knowledge society, perhaps this image is their most fundamental value. For it offers public libraries a unique chance of catching on to the multi-sited nature of learning in a knowledge society.

For example, for European children and young people informal sites of media and ICT learning are more diverse and more advanced than are the formal school settings (Livingstone & Bovill, 2001; Drotner, 2001). These findings imply that part of the present library public – and most of the future public – already possess a strong, informal repertoire of multimodal learning, if not collective competences.

Public libraries can build on those trends by redefining the physical libraries as informal knowledge centres and by developing their professional competences in close collaboration with other knowledge partners both in the private and public sectors. Such a development must respect the democratic principles of free access for all, principles to which public libraries are committed as cornerstones of action.

If such knowledge centres are to facilitate the development of multimodal competences demanded by the knowledge society without forfeiting the democratic foundation of libraries, then it follows that knowledge must be defined in wider terms than is the case when we speak of information literacy. As we saw, multimodal literacy encompasses both information and fiction/ entertainment, reception and retrieval as well as production and performance.

To develop that kind of knowledge involves presence in the physical library, and it involves collective learning. While digital libraries certainly must and will further and finetune individual services in future, perhaps the most decisive library challenge in the years to come is to develop the physical libraries which harbour the possibilities of collective presence and hence collective learning. Ultimately, the vision must be how to develop a synergy between virtual and physical libraries with respect for the end users’ frames of reference.

The challenge facing the physical libraries is intensified by the fact that many traditional services performed there are taken over by users of the virtual libraries. When the majority of mundane services leave the physical library – and the librarian’s desk – then librarians in the physical library can downplay their functions in favour of virtual services; or they can redefine their role from access and individual service provision to users and facilitator of more sustained collective learning processes.

Defining the role of the librarian as knowledge facilitator is in line with the projected function of the physical library as a knowledge centre. The librarian leaves her desk and is present amongst users; she engages in sustained processes that involve groups of users offering her professional experiences and evaluations; and she interacts with partners across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.

A good many library projects, also in the Scandinavian countries, already make important insights pointing the way ahead – as is evident from e.g. the report issued by the Nordbok project Strategies on Information Literacy in Nordic Public Libraries.

In a sense, the issues involved in developing public libraries as informal knowledge centres in the manner sketched out above, takes us back to some of the old, yet recurring questions of library service: what is the role of public libraries in furthering civic society and citizenship? How should librarians be trained and how should they operate in their daily work in order to make the institutional ideals materialise? The answers to be found, however, belong to our own present and immediate future.

Table 1: Library innovation and socio-cultural conditions

Industriel society Information society Knowledge society
Aim of library use Cultural discrimination(taste)
Personal relevance of cultural choice
Universal and free access toinformation

Information literacy

Universal and free use of information and fictionMultimodal literacy
Definition of library/librarian Cultural custodianCultural guide Information disseminator Knowledge faciliator
Definition of material/content Material enity, physical artefact Non-material processEffective, reliable information processing Material artefacts and non-material processesInformation and fiction
Definition of user Receiver of choicecultural consumer Information producer and evaluator Knowledge producer, cooperator and cultural citizen

Public libraries can build on those trends by redefining the physical libraries as informal knowledge centres and by developing their professional competences in close collaboration with other knowledge partners both in the private and public sectors


Bruce, Christine (1997) The Seven Faces of Information Literacy Blackwood: Auslib Press.

Drotner, Kirsten (2001) Medier for fremtiden: børn, unge og det nye medielandskab [Media for the Future: Children, Young People and the New Media Landscape] Copenhagen: Høst & Søn.

Kress, Gunter & Theo van Leeuwen (2001) Multimodal Discourse: the Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication London: Arnold.

Kuhltau, Carol C. (1993) Seeking Meaning: a Process Approach to Library and Information Services Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.

Livingstone, Sonia & Moira Bovill (Eds) (2001) Children and their Changing Media Environment: A European Comparative Study New York: Earlbaum.

Stehr, Nico (1994) Knowledge Societies London: Sage.