On Libraries and the Public Spehere

One of the major reasons I became interested enough in the concept of Libraries and Democracy (well, besides being a librarian and a fan of democracy), is the work of John Buschman. In particular, his book “Dismantling the Public Sphere Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy.” While I am sure that I will use that book as one of my sources for the paper I’m presenting at the Networking Democracy? New Media Innovations in Participatory Politics symposium, for those who are interesting in a short introduction into Buschman’s work in this area, should read his article, On Libraries and the Public Sphere, that appeared in Library Philosophy and Practice Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring 2005).

On Libraries and the Public Sphere is the text of an address that Buschman gave at Rider University and does a good job of introducing the role that Libraries can, and should, play in public discourse. One thing I think that should stand out to librarians from this address is:

If information and its related sets of critical skills are as important to economic and political participation as we keep insisting, then what information we produce, how we keep it, what we keep, and how it is absorbed or not are crucial questions in our culture – and libraries are important (if undervalued) institutions in this.

I think most people will recognized that in order to have a strong democracy, the electorate needs to be informed. Libraries can, and have in the past, played an important role in this. After all, we are in an information economy so information organizations should be seen as important. For those not familiar with the concept of the public sphere, Buschman explains it in terms of the philosopher Jurgen Habermas’s work. Habermas asked how and why democratic governments come out of closed political systems that were based on the divine rights of kings. Buschman explains that Habermas’s answer is that a a “sphere if non-governmental opinion making” developed from the marcantile economies of northern Europe. As people gathered in new urban places such as coffee houses political conversations took place. These were assisted, or informed, by the intellectual press of the day. This caused two crucial things happened:

  1. Opinion became communicated and recorded outside of a small group of family and friends.
  2. The principle that in order for (governmental) power to become legitimate, its proceedings need to be made public.

Buschman then goes on to relate how libraries are a part of Habermas’s definition of the public sphere:

  • Libraries house and further rational discourse through the organization of collections coupled with the principle of unfettered information access.
  • The field enacts the principle of critique and rational argumentation through the commitment to balanced collections, preserving them over time, and furthering inclusion through active attempts to make collections and resources reflect historical and current intellectual diversity.
  • By their very existence libraries potentially verify (or refute) claims to authority in making current and retrospective organized resources available to check the bases of a thesis, law, book, article, policy etc. continuing the process of debate which lies at the heart of the public sphere and democracy.
  • By policy and practice, [librarianship] has sought to reach out to those not served – or sometimes not wishing to be served! – to make access to information and education more widely and universally available.

Thus, Buschman believes that libraries have a fundamental connection to the needs of democracy and “when we debate information and communication and the future of libraries, we’re debating democracy by other means.” Librarians should keep this democratic role in mind when making decisions involving the procurement and preservation of materials. By competing with big box bookstores, libraries risk evacuating their historical polices of public purpose, broad representation, and fairness in exchange for an immediate payoff for the institution.

Buschhman says that truly informed debate “remains the essence of both education and democracy and libraries play a pivotal role in both.” Librarians and the people who run the parent organizations of libraries such as local governments and universities would do well to keep this in mind when making decisions regarding libraries. Society can afford the public mission and the democratic good that libraries can offer and we need to ensure that potential is preserved