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The usual fate of the object of new historical creativity is to be mistaken for the replica of older and even obsolete forms of social life to which the new institutions may bear a certain similarity. (Marx, quoted in Lenin, The State and Revolution, 49)

John Pateman, CEO of Thunder Bay Public Library, in his article/blog-post in Open Shelf is not wrong to see the origins of the public library lie in structures of social control. But he takes this to be some kind of atomic fact, eternal and independent, bearing no relation to any other facts. Alistair Black, in his New History of the English Public Library (1996) and his work connecting public libraries to the concept of “social hygiene” (“The Library as Clinic”, 2005) has created a convincing argument against the idea of public libraries as agents of enlightenment or progress.

However, the idea that public libraries have “not changed fundamentally” in the last century and a half, while seeming to lead to a “historical analysis” of public libraries in the Western world, in fact ignores the reality of history itself. In the first place, it is patently absurd that any phenomena does not change over time, but in the second place, and more importantly, Pateman’s view of the public library sees it as somehow independent of other important changes in Western society, culture, and politics since the middle of the nineteenth century. When Pateman states that the public library is an institution of social control, he carefully avoids identifying the party which controls and the party which is controlled.

The public library became institutionally enshrined first in England, in the Public Libraries Act of 1850. The year is not accidental. The English capitalist class (bourgeoisie) was the most advanced in Europe, having demolished Feudalism 150 years before the French Revolution, in the English Civil War of the 1640s (now known as the War of the Three Kingdoms). In raising arms against the king, Cromwell and Parliament inaugurated the primacy of capital in Britain. By 1848, when the bourgeoisie consolidated power through revolution in the rest of Europe, the British capitalist class was in complete control of the country’s society, culture, and politics, a fact confirmed by the Reform Act of 1832. The period 1848-1851 saw the consolidation of power by capital across Europe (cf. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital), and it is in this context that public libraries were endowed with political legitimacy.

The Mechanics’ Institutes did provide a model for public libraries, but their social function was completely different. The bourgeoisie – which included intellectuals and specialists at the upper-end of the working class – used Mechanics’ Institutes not only for self-education, but for the creation and maintenance of a world-view and ideology that corresponded to their class. (The term “mechanic” meant more what we would call an engineer, rather than a mechanic in today’s sense). In principle, the Mechanics’ Institutes occupied a similar position to coffee houses in Central Europe – they were a forum for the representation to itself of a class readying to take political and hegemonic control. They represented, in fact, the self-consciousness of the bourgeoisie to itself. (Cf. Jurgen Habermas Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere).

With the victory of the revolutions of 1848-1851, however, the project of the bourgeoisie changed. It no longer had to represent bourgeois culture and values to itself, it had to ensure their spread to the other strata of society, the petty-bourgeoisie, the working class and, if possible, the peasantry. The raising of the public library from the position of a Mechanics’ Institute to an official state institution solidified the role of the library in instilling and maintaining the values of bourgeois society.

This was, however, a period when there were no other sectors of society through which bourgeois values could be spread. There was no “entertainment industry”, and the characteristic elements of the culture industry as a whole (bourgeois practices of concert going and reading, for example) were only just developing. I would argue that the development of the state and the culture industry have indeed changed the fundamental mission of the public library over the subsequent hundred-and-fifty years.

The capitalist state has passed through various forms since the 1850s. Initially, in the period of classical liberalism, state infrastructure was small, as the doctrine of laissez-faire allowed capitalise enterprise to manage its own affairs. The end of the 19th century, however, saw the development of finance-capital to accompany, if not to supplant, large-scale industry. Hilferding, Bukharin, and Lenin himself in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916/17), all trace the development of finance capital and the imperialist consequences of that endeavour. Imperialism, of course, led to larger state machinery, increased militarisation and, eventually the First World War. (Indeed, many historians see the First and Second World Wars as part of a single process of dealing with the fallout of the imperialist period [cf. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes]). Following the Second World War, the state remained larger than in the liberal period, but the state machinery was refocused away from militarism towards social programs: the welfare state. The public library in this period became an institution of social progress, alongside institutions of public health (like the NHS), public education, etc. Now, this is not to suggest that public institutions in this period were no longer responsible for maintaining bourgeois hegemony, but they had changed dialectically: they were also responsible for increasing the standard of living among the working classes and the poor, all of whom had been increasingly radicalised by the horrors of capitalism in the years 1914-1945.

It should come as no surprise that other public institutions of this period include public broadcasting (e.g. the BBC (founded 1922)) and the CBC (1936)), and the rapid development of the two most active sectors of the culture industry, the recording industry and Hollywood. The public library became only one of a number of public institutions of the welfare state, but it also increasingly found itself only one of a number of institutions of the culture industry.

After 1991 – the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – the form of the state and the bourgeois-capitalist project changed again. Seemingly victorious, bourgeois state required systems of propaganda to counter a rising tide of discontent and protest (beginning, by most accounts, to the “Battle for Seattle” in 1999). The public library has become an instrument in that propaganda battle. But in every historical progression, traces of the previous moment are always present: the imperialist state is present in the welfare state, etc. So the progressive mission of the public library that dates from the welfare state period occupies an uneasy position alongside the public library as institution of bourgeois propaganda. It is, in fact, this contradiction within the heart of the public library, as well as its relations to other social, cultural, and political, phenomena, that continues to drive its development through time. This movement through the resolution of contradictions is precisely the way in which history and the world change over time. One of the core positions of capitalist ideology is precisely to ignore this process of change, which is why the Marxist dialectic provides such a challenge to the bourgeois worldview.

The term “neoliberal” is overused today, and it often goes unaccompanied by a definition. From one perspective, neoliberalism is a form of capitalist state formation, driven by a return to small government and laissez-faire economics. This neoliberal position seeks to discredit public institutions, especially those which achieved a measure of public trust during the welfare state period, prior to dismantling them completely, in order to regain the small government of the mid-19th century. This is the neoliberal context for both the attacks on public health services and attacks on Public Libraries in Britain and North America (since Thatcher and Reagan, both regions have been on the frontline of neoliberal depradations). As a public service, the neoliberals needs to destroy the library, but as an organization with a measure of public trust, they cannot be upfront about it. They are not, however, concerned about dismantling the public library as an institution of propaganda, because laissez-faire capitalism simply outsources or privatized the function of propaganda to the other sectors of the culture industry. It seems to me that Pateman, by focusing on one particular element of the history of public libraries and ignoring the rest, is in fact contributing to the circumspect destruction of public libraries from within, rather than attempting a good-faith reconstruction of a public library mission.

In Pateman’s subsequent post, “Snuffy’s Revenge”, he discusses an abstraction (like “The Traditional Public Library”) he calls “The Community Led Library”. Again, Pateman critique of public libraries may be in good faith, though they are again based primarily on vague stereotypes and strawman. However, even if Pateman is in good faith, the promotion of “community led libraries” can lead - as we have seen recently in the UK - to reduced government funding and the staffing of libraries by volunteers, once more supporting the neoliberal agenda of “small government”. Pateman’s critiques of “the traditional public library” and his crude promotion of a “community led” abstraction in the end simply contributes to the dismantling of public library systems.

EDIT: I’ve been asked to provide some references for the idea that “community-led” libraries can be a cover for the defunding/destaffing of public libraries. Here are few links:

From the Guardian From Public Library News (UK)

UPDATE: 17/05/2016 - John Pateman has replied to a query from Jane Schmidt about the co-opting of the term “community-led” in the UK. His response implies an understanding that the term is being used in a neoliberal way, but Pateman dismisses that as an “incorrect use of the term”, rather than seeing how, even with the best intentions, public library discourse remains dominated by the requirements of the capitalist state.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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