The Shifting Social Role of Libraries

By rbron246

In his essay written as part of a Library Science graduate program in the 1970’s, Andre Cossette responds to what he sees as a theoretical weakness in the field, developing a philosophy of librarianship in an effort to separate the nature of librarianship from its technical practices and define an ultimate purpose. Inspired by ideas of another writer in the field at that time, Jesse Shera, Cossette suggests the following definition: “Librarianship is the art and science of the acquisition, preservation, organization, and retrieval of written and audio-visual records with the aim of assuring a maximum of information access for the human community” (1976, p. 33).

Since the publication of Cossette’s essay, advances in information and communication technology have greatly impacted the modern notion of information and its storage and retrieval. While some librarians and library leaders may still cling to this notion of librarian as gatekeeper, in today’s world of open access to information this perception is increasingly challenged. Libraries struggle with how to use and exchange bibliographic data in an increasingly networked, linked data environment. As they become just one of many options for information access, and arguably fall behind in terms of user experience, libraries seem to be at a crossroads and in serious need of a redefinition in terms of aim, objectives and function.

In the Fall of 2010, the editors of Library Journal organized an online summit, eBooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point, where Eli Neiburger, the IT and Production Director at Ann Arbor District Library gave a talk in which he enumerated the ways in which he sees “libraries are screwed”. Stating that the traditional value of libraries has been the local copy, Neiburger goes on to describe how this notion of a copy has lost its embodied value in an information market where there is no longer a difference between transmission and duplication. To transmit a digital object is the same as to duplicate it, and in our constantly connected culture where you can download anything from anywhere, “the idea of having a local copy only makes sense to a hoarder”. He goes on to describe digital materials already being produced that libraries cannot circulate and how little sense it makes asking the modern patron with persistent internet access to wait to receive a digital object. The very idea of owning a copy of media is something that could potentially become an alien concept to future users, and this is all happening at the same time as tax payers are forced to decide what municipal services they can do without.

Out of this belief that the circulating collection itself has become outmoded, Neiburger offers a potential look at the future, by looking to the past. The original use of libraries was not to purchase commercial content for the community but to store the content of the community. He sees the future of libraries as resting on this community data—but not just data about the community; also the creations of the community. Through access to production tools, event venues, and a permanent non-commercial online space for the patron’s creative works the library becomes a platform for the community.

One great example of what Neiburger describes may be the “4Th Floor” at the Chattanooga Public Library. Their website describes the vision as such:

The 4th floor is a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts. The 14,000 sq foot space hosts equipment, expertise, programs, events, and meetings that work within this scope. While traditional library spaces support the consumption of knowledge by offering access to media, the 4th floor is unique because it supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.

Providing technology tutorials, demonstration days, field trips, art and design lectures, and access to 3D printers: the 4th floor combines art, technology, and education in its mission to help the community re-imagine ways to “incubate, educate and create”. Perhaps this type of community space represents one possible future for libraries?

What is clear is that libraries have lost their once monopolistic role as information providers and as we head into a new digitized era, the value of the local collection will continue to be challenged. We need to reposition ourselves in this shifting environment, finding ways to provide unique experiences and content if libraries and librarians hope to remain relevant. The library as a physical community space still seems to hold a great deal of value. This becomes even more crucial in our corporate driven culture in which non-commercialized public spaces are disappearing, and venues for public political interaction are few and far between.

However, libraries need to employ a greater degree of self-awareness in order to provide these open intellectual spaces. In his essay, The Myth of the Neutral Professional, Robert Jensen discusses how the ideology of political neutrality keeps librarians and other professionals from understanding the relationship between power and the professions. Pointing to the fact that the 20th century has been defined by three developments of great political importance: democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power from democracy, Jensen states that the, “liberal, pluralist, and democratic features of the system are constantly in tension with capitalism and the state” (2008, p. 89). In a democratic society, where the state does not have direct control of the institutions where intellectual work is done, the myth of the neutral professional serves as propaganda, a way to neutralize professionals who have been “given the resources that make it easy to evaluate the consequences of that distribution of power and potentially affect its distribution” (Jensen, 2008, p. 91).

As places for people to engage in politics as participants and not simply spectators disappear, the library represents one of the last remaining public spaces for people to come together and engage ideas. Jensen points to the importance of programming within this context, explaining that while programs should not advocate a single viewpoint, the choices involved will inevitably be informed by individual politics. “In all of these situations, the question isn’t whether one is neutral, but whether one is truly independent from control and allowed to pursue free and open inquiry” (Jensen, 2008, p. 95).

In seeking out this independence, the ideas of social theorist, Herbert Marcuse seem relevant. Included in the collection of essays, Critical Theory for Library and Information Sciences, Ajit Pyati of the University of Western Ontario explores how Marcuse’s theories might apply to LIS, specifically the influence of “technological rationality”. Writing during the height of the advanced industrial society, Marcuse’s idea of a form of technological dominance serving to institute new, more effective, and more pleasant forms of social control is relevant to a discussion of how discourses of information technology are being used to perpetuate capitalist logics of consumption today. Pointing to the commodification of information and the decline of the democratic public sphere, Pyati finds Marcuse’s theoretical concerns about technology relevant in terms of bringing social justice concerns to the forefront, counteracting repression, domination, and injustice as well as also pointing out the potential liberating possibilities of the technological society.

For freedom indeed depends on technological progress, on the advancement of science. But this fact easily obscures the essential precondition: in order to become vehicles of freedom, science and technology would have to change their present direction and goals; they would have to be reconstructed in accord with a new sensibility—the demands of life instincts. Then one could speak of a technology of liberation, product of a scientific imagination free to project and design the forms of a human universe without exploitation and toil. (Pyati, 2010, p. 240)

Marcuse’s words bring to mind Chattanooga and the 4th floor, as well as Neiburger’s assertion that libraries must find ways to offer unique experiences and content. Pyati states, “As a field that bridges both the academic and professional worlds, LIS is in a unique position to train public intellectuals who can speak for issues in the public interest and advocate for socially just outcomes in the information society” (2010, p. 246). Perhaps the future will see what Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood describe as a “people-oriented library service” in their essay The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries. For this type of library to exist, there must be a clear understanding of the social forces within which the library services operate in order to develop a service that is open to all and reaches out to those that have been excluded in the past. Libraries must stop operating in isolation from outside progressive forces and join with organizations such as youth groups, unions, and political organizations. “But before libraries reach that stage, they need to liberate their minds from the social, cultural and political norms of class-divided society…we will need to see the whole picture and not just the aspects we are shown” (2008, p. 125).

More than thirty years later, Cossette’s simplistic definition of librarianship no longer seems to rings true. Although the technical aspects of library work may still mirror what he described, the absolute necessity for librarians to reinvent themselves in a new cultural, technological and political landscape will force members of the profession to confront these issues whether they are ready to do so or not.



Cossette, Andre (1976). Humanism and libraries: An essay on the philosophy of librarianship. Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.

Durrani, Shiraz, & Smallwood, Elizabeth. (2008). The professional is political: redefining the social role of public libraries. In Alison Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from progressive librarian (119-140). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.

Eli Neiburger (2010, September 29). Libraries at the tipping point: how ebooks impact libraries. Retrieved from

Jensen, Robert. (2008). The myth of the neutral professional. In Alison Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from progressive librarian (89-96). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.

Pyati, Ajit. (2010). Herbert Marcuse: liberation, utopia, and revolution. In Gloria J. Leckie & Lisa M. Given & John E. Buschman (Eds.), Critical Theory for Library and Information Science (236-247). Denver, CO: Libraries Unlimited.


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