Libraries and Power

I don’t work in libraries anymore. Instead, I am doing research in public policy. I have gone from my days of community-led service development and critiques of professionalism to considering, essentially, how people come to do what they are told. Then I thought about libraries again, because somehow, libraries, public ones in particular, are places where people kind of do do what they are told. Of course public librarians have their share of war stories where they, for whatever reason, have had to kick people out for some misbehavior or another. But for the most part, people do what libraries tell them to do. Here’s a little catalogue of why:

  • Tradition

“We’ve always done it that way!” is a pretty powerful force in our societies. But unlike the critics of the phrase claim, it is not solely a source to avoid change. Instead, it is a source of what Charles Lindblom called the “science of muddling through” or what more formally has been called incrementalism. Fitting into pre-set town and city routines is a pretty important source of power.

  • Symbolism

While librarians often lament the stereotypes that get associated with them, it is still a source of considerable power. Librarians are perceived as dangerous, polyglots, subversive, inspirers of communities. Thank goodness these stereotypes are perpetuated in popular culture. Librarians have symbolic significance to their communities, even when they do nothing but sit at a desk and scowl. They represent people advancing themselves through knowledge and people feel it when the librarian scowls at them. Not because they are walking around with weapons and military power, but because they represent a measure of social authority.

  • Bureaucracy

Seen as one part of a large network of institutions that govern how and what we learn from each other, a library exemplifies the power inherent in rationalism, routines, emotional distance and hierarchies. Although a good amount of the service ethic that underlies this model has dissipated with library 2.0 and the “roving” model, consider the way we librarians suppose they should answer reference questions. A good amount of the practice involves pretending we have emotional distance away from the subject. Even when we talk about being enthusiastic about reading, the efforts are based in a somewhat precarious idea that reading is objectively beneficial, rather than just something librarians love doing and want to compel others to join in.

  • Institutions

“Pay your fines.” “Bring the books back on time.” “Don’t dog-ear the pages.” “Shhhhh!” These are all institutions that libraries to one degree or another use to compel their users to behave in one way or another. While these sorts of things seem quite minor, they also have a heavy influence on the behavior of a community. If you say that someone has three weeks to return a book, that creates a cycle of library visits that occur once every three weeks. That’s going to have an effect on everything from parking to coffee sales.

  • Networks

Watching the growth of library blogs between 2005 & 2009, there could be no doubt in my mind how librarians were quite successful in exercising power through networks. I am no longer a librarian and still feel compelled to speak to a library audience. That’s because librarians make friends with other librarians and they back each other up. This will put librarians at an advantage in comparison to others who do not have those network connections.

I suppose I’ve only partially covered this topic and I am sure there is more you can add. I’m not even sure if this is even surprising to most people. I guess the most important thing I am trying to convey is that power does not have to be overt to be important. Libraries influence the behaviors of even those who never go to libraries. It’s good to keep that in mind.