Why I am studying public libraries

My journey to studying libraries was unexpected. For my doctorate I was exploring young people’s experiences of antisocial behaviour. Within the housing estate where my research was based, I was drawn to the public library, described locally as a hotspot for youth-related crime. It was a contested space in which young people’s behaviour was controlled – but it was also a place where young people choose to be. “It gives the young people a safe space to be” I was told by one librarian. “there are so few spaces where they can just be. They can’t seem to escape [the area’s] problems”. Since then I have worked on two further projects: one on sharing books with children, and another on homelessness. Very different studies, but both showed how public libraries can promote civic and community participation. Families described the library as a space for both their children’s, and their own, learning, socialisation and creativity; while libraries provided homeless people with education, safety and shelter.

My future - poster
My future? Poster produced by Young Mum’s Group as part of doctoral research.

Public libraries do far more than lend books. They are one of the remaining freely accessible civil society institutions and, in their local form, provide a public sphere for civil engagement; from being a social arena, to providing opportunities for the participation in local events. Yet there are challenges: advances in technology have prompted questions about libraries contemporary role and their capacity for modernisation.

Austerity measures served a further blow, placing the relationship between libraries and state under strain. Budget cuts have resulted in libraries limiting opening hours, depleted stocks, reduced staff and a growing reliance on volunteers. Others are fighting, or have succumb to, closure. Yet there are many examples of public libraries mobilising against these pressures. Digital initiatives have been matched by civil society activities (partnerships with cancer care nurses; ‘dementia friendly’ services; food banks; and the transformation of libraries into ‘community hubs’) aimed at re-establishing libraries’ place within neighbourhoods.

During the course of my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, I will undertake a series of case studies to unpack the challenges faced by public libraries under austerity. Working with libraries, and the neighbourhoods in which they are based, I will explore the everyday social world of the public library, giving particular focus to those groups excluded, less able or disenfranchised from local processes of participation, and for whom the library might offer a source of ‘community’ or inclusion.

Using the case of the public library, I aim to provoke a broader enquiry into the state of civil society in the UK. What do practices of local civic engagement look like under austerity, and how are they supported by civil society institutions? What part do civil society organisations play in shaping and cohering the UK’s social fabric? In this unprecedented period of economic, political and social instability, these questions have now become ever more relevant.

A space for all, a space between: the ‘public’ space of the public library

Next week I am lucky enough to be visiting the University of Lund as part of the Nordic Network for Research on Family and Personal Life. The workshops are a response to the conceptual and methodological developments in research on informal social relations, with the aim of developing co-ordinated collaborations. This workshop is the second of three, and I feel privileged in contributing from a research environment outwith Nordic societies. Preparations for the workshop have given me an opportunity to reflect on why studying relationships, in the context of a library space, is so important.

Books, and our relationships with them, is arguably one of the things that sets a public library apart from other social institutions and civic spaces. In the quote below Biddy Fisher (former president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) reflects on the evolution of the library and its modern form:

“To be a library in the modern sense, there needs to be a collection of books, clear access to the study material and a well-designed arrangement of seats and tables for readers. This last requirement implies a satisfactory level of light, a functional plan with a logical structure of bookstore, bookshelves, study space and corridors, and a level of control over the use and management of the space. A library, therefore, is a controlled environment designed for the benefit of both book and reader” (Fisher, 2013)

In this description, books are given a central place, with the library described as a controlled place designed for private study and education. The primary relationship conceived is the one taking place between the reader and the book. The identity of the public library evolved beyond this. They provide free, equal access to ideas, knowledge and information, but the central role of the physcial book has lessened. As well as the impact of new technologies on how we learn, the library space has evolved to become a more social, more egalitarian and more community focused space. Conducting qualitative enquiry into everyday social interactions in public libraries can afford us a richer understanding of how the ‘public’ part of the library is constituted, understood and experienced and, in turn, how libraries can better “fulfil the potential of individuals and communities” (as set out in the national library strategy for Scotland, ‘Ambition and Opportunity’). But it can also broaden sociological studies into personal lives, illuminating the role that ‘significant others’ play in individual and community identity, belonging and ‘place’ in civil society.

In both Scotland and Nordic countries, libraries provide an extensive network of public spaces connected to the localities in which they are based. And while the core offering of public libraries is still as a resource of education, learning and development, the means through which to achieve this is increasingly focused on the incorporation of sociality and communal processes into the library space. Thus, in addition to book lending, public libraries are updating their physical layouts to better accommodate meeting or talking; making spaces and support available to community interest groups; and hosting arts and cultural activities. Unlike commercial leisure and cultural activities (many of which tend to be experienced sporadically and / or within pre-defined family or peer groups, and cost money) the public library is freely accessed, open to all and provides dedicated staff who are available to engage with, and support, a diverse range of users (and needs). But while libraries have the potential to create the conditions for communality and sociality, such a space is not straightforward to deliver: attempts to be a neutral space which is ‘all things to all people’ can produce contested social and spatial boundaries (for example, a public space trying to manage noisy teenagers playing games and older people seeking a quiet space to read the paper) or the exclusion or marginalisation of particular groups or individuals (some of whom, by virtue of class, status, education, experience and knowledge, are less willing or able to access library services).

For the most part, the ways in which individuals might relate to other individuals in a library space are not characterised by dense linkages (in the way that intimate relations, such as family, kin, lovers and friends would). Yet libraries can provide the physical space, and the social conditions, to bring people together. Simplistically, connections with library staff or fellow users might be classed as good manners or civility, like a welcoming smile, hello, or nod of the head. Or they could come in the form of low level help and support, such as help finding a book, support accessing a computer, or a friendly chat. Such small scale acts also provide the basis upon which relationships can develop (i.e. the teenager visiting the library with a friend might join the lego club, then become a volunteer; or the librarian might encourage an older person visiting the library to join the weekly Book Group). The emphasis on communality and social activities can in themselves support the creation of richer social interactions– in Bookbug Sessions, for example, (song and rhythm groups for parents and children) librarians learn the names of the parents and children attending, while parents and children form social bonds which can extend outside the library. Organised groups can therefore be the conduit through which deeper friendships are forged over common / shared interests.

One way of conceptualising libraries is as “third spaces” (Oldenburg, 1989; 1991), separate from the home (“first place”) and the office (“second place”) where we spend most of our time. Third places, for Ray Oldenburg, are “anchors” of community life, which establish a sense of place, facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. This notion of libraries as a civic resource and ‘creator’ of social capital has been discussed in both academic and policy literature (see Hillenbrand, 2005; Vårheim, Steinmo & Ide, 2008; Svanhild and Audunson, 2012: Ferguson, 2012; Johnson & Griffis, 2012). Rather less attention has been given to the formation and nature of everyday social relationships within the public space of the library, and the emotional, practical and social impact these relations can have on everyday life (for Anderson and Brownlie, 2015 this is about what makes everyday lives ‘liveable’; see also Johnson, 2012).

David Morgan’s work is a useful means of thinking about the form of the relationship with a public library. His work is concerned with the space between self and others, using ‘acquaintances’ as a means of thinking about relations which are between intimates and strangers. This is not a hierarchical model, whereby intimate relations have a higher status that those we have with strangers. Morgan also recognises that there is a degree of fuzziness between the boundaries of his categories: strangers can become acquaintances and acquaintances can become intimates. Morgan’s notes that the term acquaintances is rather negative, and through his book aims to show how, in the context of everyday life, acquaintances can offer “little fragments of intimacy”. Such fragments, he suggests, can include verbal exchanges, mutual recognition, knowledge of or by the other and physical intimacy. Morgan draws on Simmel and Goffman to distinguish acquaintanceship as a form of knowledge of the other, of mutuality and of reciprocity. Where Morgan’s work is useful is on emphasising the positive value of acquaintances in everyday life, and their role in building civic society and the values associated with it (variously described as trust, mutuality, civility, reciprocity, well-being and so). It also takes us to a more productive place than social models which conceptualise strong ties with close friends and family and weak ties with relationships characterized by less frequent contact, lower emotional intensity, and limited intimacy.

I have witnessed, in my previous research involving libraries, examples of the importance of everyday fragments of intimacy, particularly to those who lack the support of intimates (I think here about the older person for whom their visit to the library is their main source of company, or homelessness visitors seeking some sense of normality in everyday chaos). Julie Brownlie and Simon Anderson, and the Liveable Lives study, provides a means of thinking about these fragments sociologically through everyday ‘kindness’ (see also Zoe Ferguson, funded by Carnegie, who has taken a similar focus in her report, ‘The Place of Kindness’). Kindness , they argue, has been sociologically neglected, subsumed by weaker concepts such a civility or reciprocity, or judged to lack the gravitas of ‘solidarity’, ‘justice; or ‘community’. Kindness presented itself in their data as acts and relationships which balance “the prosaic and small-scale with the deeply significant” (Brownlie and Anderson, 2016:5). Acts of kindness, they note, involves a recognition of needs and a deliberate and voluntary response; the potential for kindness to result in a cumulative impact or ‘spilling over’ effect which results in wider benefits; and a deeper attention to the interactions that are taking place within ‘weightier’ concepts, such as belonging or solidarity. Not only can kindness help in understanding the nuances of everyday interactions with significant others, it also provides the means for thinking about the affective and embodied dimensions of space and place (Thrift, 2008).

In conclusion, my very initial thinking suggests that looking at kindness through a sociological lens presents a potentially rich theoretical tool for thinking in a more nuanced way about the micro interactions and social relationships taking place within public libraries. In turn, this will allow libraries to think more broadly about their contribution to civic society and how it might be studied and understood.  More to follow ….