User interests as the rationale of library operations: a critique

…the catch phrase within the library and information field – “Information and knowledge are resources” – needs more depth and substance…
The long tradition of user orientation
The library field,and its research, relies on a long tradition of user-orientation to justify and develop library operations. I call this ‘userism’.

Particularly in the last decades of the 20th century, research has explicitly brought forth the ‘user-orientated paradigm’, although this has its critics (see e.g. Ingwersen 1992). Similarly, in work on information search and acquisition one can identify ‘moves towards user-orientation’ during these same decades (e.g. Dervin & Nilan 1986). However, I refer here to a deeper undercurrent, which these recognisable doctrinal ambitions do manifest, but which on no account is confined to them. On a doctrinal level we can find expressions of more classical user orientation, for example from Ranganathan’s well-known Five Laws of Library Science: Books are for use, Every book its reader, Every reader his book, Save the time of the user, Library is a growing organism. The first four of these reflect the way of thinking that I call userism. According to these laws, the library’s raison d’etre lies in its relationship with users and use. (See e.g. Kuronen 1996, 17-23, also as an example of a quite user-orientated interpretation.)

So, there is a long tradition of userism in how the library field perceives itself. This has grown stronger in recent decades, and reflects the development of a more general cultural and societal perception. As I see it, the growth of userism in recent library thinking can be understood partly in relation to the prevailing neo-liberalistic view of society. When human beings are reduced to customers, consumers or users, society can be reduced to a market. A critique of userism is thus seriously topical.

Ideological and naive userism
At the outset let me distinguish between good and valuable user-orientation on the one hand, and naive, biased and ideological userism on the other. One can speak of the latter when users’ interests are assumed,self-evidently, as the only possible rationale for library operations, to the extent that no other rationales are even considered. This can be illustrated by a simple example. There is something particularly convincing in the claim that

  1. libraries exist for users. Therefore the interests of users must be the basis of library operations.

Nevertheless, on good grounds one can also take the stand that

  1. libraries exist for writers, so the interests of writers should be central in library policies.

This second argument relates,among other things, to the position of freedom of speech in the societal and ideological environment where public libraries were born. Libraries are part of that “bourgeois public sphere”, where citizens participate in the political debate (see e.g. Emerik & Orum 1997, Westheim 1997 and Kuronen 2000). Or one might claim that

  1. libraries exist for society/the State, and they should serve the interests of society and the State.

It can be argued that these three assertions are not mutually exclusive, for surely the interests of society and the State are those of the citizens, so claims 1 and 2 are included in claim 3. Furthermore, one might assume that these interests are united through their histories of origin. One could, for instance, think that individual interests reduce to collective interests by way of the collective culture contributing to the creation of individuals, “culture speaks in us”. This kind of assumption of reduction is reckless and might be based on a very unrealistic and naive idea of the State. Here I assume, without further discussing their mutual relationships that, of the interests relating to the above three claims, none of them reduces to another without problems.

In view of present societal trends, claim 3 might seem a bit strange, though one could justify it in many ways. In a society where individualistic trends are strongly associated with an emphasis on economic efficiency, education or culture is in fact never based solely on the interests of the individual, the citizen or ‘user’. In addition to this blunt justification, claim 3 can be argued from more idealistic starting points that refer to mankind’s culture and community, its societal and collective character. Culture cannot arise purely from the interests of individuals, and so be manifest as an entity through society and the State, even if understood via Hegel’s “objective morality”. One can reasonably defend the view that a common history overrides the interests, wishes and desires of the consumer, the user or any other individual.

Our actual attitude to the arguments for claims 2 and 3 is not important to my thesis. The potential naivety and ideology of userism arise from the fact that the possible existence and potential sense of such alternative views are not even considered. That being the case, then certain perceptions of human culture and man’s cultural being are taken for granted; as self-evident truths they need no justification because, naturally, there is no alternative to the self-evident. However, truisms based on assumptions can be very strong, and therefore potentially controversial. There lies a certain naivety, even ignorance, in neither recognising that different ways of looking at culture and society exist, nor acknowledging that other ways might be possible or potentially sensible.

First steps towards a societal and cultural philosophy of librarianship
One conclusion from the above is that library theory cannot exist separate from cultural and societal theories. In fact,it must be seen as essentially subordinate to cultural and societal ideas. If this is so, no serious library theory can be formulated on assumed perceptions of culture, superficially and without reflection. Consequently, ideas about the information society adopted from political manifestos cannot become the basis for serious library theory, though they cannot be totally ignored either, as they are social and political facts.

While asserting that our ideas about society and culture, on which our views about libraries are based, must not be naive, we face the problem that there can never be an ultimate t ruth about cultural and societal philosophy. Avoiding naivety here means mainly that we must base our library theory on a perception of culture and society that takes into account the serious debate about culture and society without limiting itself to the current trends. Perhaps any concept of culture and society is essentially open-ended, so it is natural and justifiable for the library field to have its own view, to speak up for those elements that it is linked to most closely, and thus to enrich the overall picture. This is something I myself have tried to do in my publication A little library philosophy: the concept and professional, disciplinary and politico-cultural practice of librarianship (Suominen 2001, in Finnish).

Documents are essentially messages with considerable permanence, and they are central to library operations. Almost inevitably, therefore,culture’s long history and community are emphasised in the cultural and societal philosophy of librarianship. This connects with Hans Georg Gadamer’s (1960/1986, 277 -) theme of “the rehabilitation of tradition and authority”. The document, a message with considerable permanence,shows itself, so to speak, as an authority essential to cultural history and community, and also as representing authority. Perhaps we should not abandon the catch phrase within the library and information field – “information and knowledge are resources” – but instead give it more depth and substance.

As one who looks at society somewhat through the eyes of a liberal socialist, I am forced to ponder the relevance and significance of a certain conservative vein in society and culture, with reference to Birdsall (1994, 110), combining conservative, liberal and socialist elements when considering the concept ‘politics of librarianship’. Similarly, ideological and naive userism, with biased over-emphasis on user interests, poses problems.

None of this is to say that users’ interests should not be taken seriously. It implies neither library political standpoints, for instance regarding policies on collections,nor politically conservative standpoints in favour of authority. Nevertheless, my views could form a framework for a necessary debate. In fact, for a critique to be taken seriously, I see it as a prerequisite that the authority of culture be recognised.

Brief reference was made above to my own library philosophy. This was merely to show that theories founded on meaningful concepts of culture and society can be developed to test the often implicit concepts of culture and society found in naively useristic library thinking. Readers may have their opinions on my way of developing library theory and philosophy; they should not, however, let those opinions colour their judgement of this critique of ideological and naive userism.

Translated by Britt and Philip Gaut

Lecturer, University of Oulu, Department of Information Studies, Finland.