Trickle-down Information: The Enlightenment Model and Information Dissemination in the Modern Library

By kraines

Note: I believe this subject has the potential for expansion and further investigation. Any feedback, criticism, and questioning would be greatly appreciated as I am considering expanding this essay into a full research topic.

The Library is an establishment intended for the dissemination of information, the modern foundation of which is historically rooted in the age of Enlightenment. As literacy and readership increased, foundations of knowledge and governing bodies began to invest in the construction and design of libraries. [1] The intellectual and wealthy elite of the enlightenment age spurred these modes of knowledge delivery, placing themselves as creators and controllers of information. The library and university were established as a means to circulate created information based on a top-down structure. At one point, this was highly restricted in terms of access, often denying women, people of color, and those in poverty. [2] Today, these are not strictly enforced laws of conduct but the established system continues to place the same types of people at a disadvantage.

Many critics note the power dynamics established in the creation and distribution of knowledge based on the Enlightenment model. The distribution of information from the creator to the consumer continues to enforce this model of dissemination and the related top-down power structure. [3] The researcher, the student, and the public library patron are only able to access the resources their institution can afford or will allow. Libraries emphasize obtaining and providing collections that will meet the needs and expectations of their community. However, the community, as consumers, is not in a position to greatly influence the collection and distribution of information.

The Digital Age is believed to provide greater opportunity for the process of disseminating information; however, most scholarly articles are only available through glass walls. The practice of open access is not a solution to inaccessibility since publishers and institutions often hold most republication rights to any scholarly production. “Library access to electronic resources is another widely acknowledged economic barrier.” [4] Classification and distribution reinforces information as a commodity available for commercialization. [5] Copyright holders limit distribution to specific journals, repositories, and databases. The biggest databases, often with the most diverse amount of publications, are only accessible through educational institutions, including libraries. The consumer is dependent on what institutions they may access and what that institution chooses to make available.

Furthermore, laws such as the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), Protect IP Act (PIPA), and the Research Works Act have often run the risk of further hindering an open access system of information. [6] Opponents to open access often view information as a risk in the wrong hands. Peter Schmidt of The Chronicle of Higher Education criticizes the potential for “the publication of inferior and unreliable journals” and “the risk that research in fields such as medicine will fall into the hands of people who might misuse it.” [7]  Although these bills have not reached the point of becoming law, their proponents echo the power structures and control of information exemplified by the Enlightenment Age.

The Library places great emphasis on obtaining and distributing materials of authority. We continue to see institutions of knowledge, universities and bodies of government, as the authority on particular forms of information. Information produced and distributed through these institutions is considered the voice of scholarly authority. Minority groups are often underrepresented in academic institutions, and sometimes banned from shelves and curriculum. [8]  The continued movements toward open access creates new opportunities for equitable information distribution. In a consumer-based society, it’s not surprising that information is treated as a commodity for trade. Publishers and institutions manage how users access information by selecting exclusive databases to allow distribution. The duty of the modern library is to move away from a neutral stance and defend accessibility, free speech, and the freedom of information. The Library as a disseminator is the door between the creator and consumer. The ethical librarian should provide open access that will benefit and improve the lives of library patrons. The Library, as an institution of authority, should be the voice of dissent toward political campaigns aimed to restrict information access. [9] The dissemination of information via a top-down power structure places those at the bottom under a significant disadvantage. The purchase and exchange of information is designed to benefit the publisher and the distributor, enforcing their authority as the all-knowing-elite. The modern Library holds an institutional responsibility to involve the consumer in the process of information dissemination, providing greater opportunity for information creation and understanding.

 

References

  1. Dahlkild, N. (2011). The Emergence and Challenge of the Modern Library Building: Ideal Types, Model Libraries, and Guidelines, from the Enlightenment to the Experience Economy. Library Trends, 60(1), 11-42.
  2. Pawley, C. (2003, October). Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling. The Library Quarterly, 73(4), 422-452.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Pribesh, S., Gavigan, K., & Dickinson, G. (2011). The Access Gap: Poverty and Characteristics of School Library Media Centers. The Library Quarterly, 81(2), 143-160.
  5. Pawley, C. (2003, October). Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling. The Library Quarterly, 73(4), 422-452.
  6. Chadwick, R. (2012, December). Protecting Open Access to Taxpayer-Funded Research: The Rise and Defeat of the Research Works Act. The Serials Librarian, 63(3-4), 296-304.
  7. Schmidt, P. (2010, February 14). New Journals, Free Online, Let Scholars Speak Out. from http://www.chronicle.com/article/open-access-journals-break/64143
  8. Reichman, H. (2012, March). Opposition grows to Tucson book removals and ethnic studies ban. Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, 61, 1-84.
  9. Rosenzweig, R. (1991). Politics and anti-politics in librarianship. Progressive Librarian, 5–8. http://www.progressivelibrariansguild.org/PL_Jnl/pdf/PL3_summer1991.pdf
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