tisdag 25 januari 2011

Nervous change or strong stability - what do research legitimize in public libraries?

Yesterday I sneaked in at the end of a lecture held by my colleague and friend from the Royal School of Library and Information Science in Copenhagen, Dr. Jack Andersen. He was invited to my department to speak to our students about theory and theory building in library research. Just as he reached the conclusion he pointed out a few disturbing things that are important to notice in contemporary library research. I was glad to hear it, as I have noticed them before, and I will here expand a little on them here:

There is no doubt that library research is problematic, as there is no doubt that (public) librarianship is. The fact that the two are constantly legitimizing each other with the help of abstract democratic arguments and a strive to find ways to construct new user needs (as is the fact with the use of social media I libraries) that can be “met” or analyzed. Public libraries’ manic urge to be innovative is met by a legitimacy of library research painting a picture of a society changing in a way that need to take libraries in new directions. Back-scratching is intense.

What is extremely rare in library discussions and, indeed, in library research is the analysis of the fact that public libraries are extremely stable organizations. This stability shines through wherever we look – not least in user behavior. There are no signs that the fundamental behavior or needs of public library users have changed in any major way during the last fifty years or so. People go to libraries to do what they always have done, and from the user point of view we see no signs that this is regarded as any form of “crisis behavior” or whatever. Stability is what gives libraries their authority. Stability is what makes people come. Stability in library organizations and user relations is n-o-t a problem. Nervous change is.

I have been touching upon these issues on several occasions earlier, both when I have been out and about speaking to librarians all over Sweden, and in my various writings. Dr Andersen mentioned it briefly in his lecture, but it reminded me of the most pressing problem of perhaps all in contemporary librarianship - the lack of argument for the frantic changes pushed through both in terms of organizational thinking (often with help of trivial management models), and in user relations (making up new "needs").

Public libraries do not need to reach everyone in society, but should be open to all, and well aware about which groups in society are so under-privileged or dysfunctional in relation to the mainstream norm, that they need to be subjected well developed (and financed) out-reach activities.

We know what people do when they go to libraries. Basically they do what they always have done - that is a good thing. By developing a library research that do not buy the nervous rhetoric of libraries and just legitimize it, but instead critically examine it by looking at what is actually happening and what libraries really represent, there may still be hope for development of future libraries – a sound development based on stability and self-confidence.

Thanks for the inspiration, Jack.

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