Infrastructuring the Social: Public Libraries and their Transformative Capacity in Austerity Urbanism (ILIT)

Public libraries are long-acknowledged places for information provision and knowledge transmission. In recent years, another role has come to prominence: Libraries act as socio-cultural infrastructures which contribute to the everyday life in cities. However, austerity pressures heavily threaten libraries’ function as places of knowledge and encounter.

The ILIT research project examines how public libraries in Rotterdam, Malmö and Vienna address systemic challenges in rapidly transforming societies. It unpacks libraries’ transformative capacities through the lens of ‘infrastructuring’ and ‘librarising’, with a keen eye on ways to address conflict between different views and positions productively. Focussing on everyday library practices, the ILIT team is set to contribute to and develop comparative knowledge about the capacities of libraries. We look for community-oriented practices exchange  which are enhancing libraries’ resilience in austerity urbanism.

The research is organized in three themes:

  • Politics of the library aims to enhance libraries' institutional support
  • Local involvement aims to learn from and strengthen libraries' capacities as local places of community and care
  • Community librarianship aims to amplify community librarianship as a creative driver for care toward community-based developments

The interdisciplinary ILIT team uses a mix of  approaches: Besides stakeholder and critical policy analysis,we draw on ethnographic methodology by conducting interviews and engage in participant observation, including informal conversations and shadowing.

Especially, ILIT develops co-productive zine-making as a creative participatory method. We invite library staff and users, management, decision-makers and other stakeholders to simultaneously study and cultivate a sense of community and practices of social infrastructuring as performed in and through public libraries.

“How do librarians provide, practice, and perform the infrastructuring of libraries?” Besides the library as a set of buildings, collections, and devices we pay attention to practices of infrastructuring to understand how the library comes into being through everyday sayings and doings. We are interested in aspects of care in librarians’ daily work. To learn about their everyday work routines,  we accompany librarians during their workday and listen to the assessments and interpretations they offer. With this format of participant observation. In combination with a zine-making workshop, we aim to investigate and amplify the role of the community librarian as agent and driver of change towards community-based development. The groups and beneficiaries we address with this working theme are library staff and management, and the ILIT partners EBLIDA, Region Skåne, and Büchereien Wien. As a contribution to strengthening librarians’ social role, we will present a publicly accessible policy brief on the theme of community librarianship.

“How do national, regional, and local policies envision and fund libraries as socio-cultural infrastructures?” Through this research question, we set out to capture the influence of policies, politics, and the political and policy-making processes on libraries. We are especially considering the role of the library in diverse urban communities, funding landscapes, and different (self-)branding contexts. The methods we use here are stakeholder and critical policy analysis, in-depth qualitative interviews, and collaborative zine-making workshops. The group and beneficiaries we address with this working theme are policymakers, politicians, and library managers including the practice partner EBLIDA, Region Skåne, and Büchereien Wien. To enhance the library’s institutional support, we will present a publicly accessible policy brief.

"How do libraries interact with local communities, people, and institutions and vice versa?" Listening to the perspectives of local library users – and those who don’t visit yet – directs attention to the place of libraries in the urban fabric. We conduct participant observation within and around the library and its activities, including interactions on social network sites. We engage in informal conversations with locals and organise zine-making workshops with users and/or volunteers. By focusing on groups such as youth, disabled, elderly, migrant, or LGBTQ+ users in specific urban settings, ILIT aims at a better understanding of libraries' capacity to reach and serve users in and outside the library building; and to learn how these, in turn, enhance libraries’ agency with their needs, attitudes, and practices. To highlight the everyday potential of libraries as a caring infrastructure that co-produces and transforms urban space, we will present a publicly accessible policy paper on libraries’ local involvement.

Making zines is (amongst other things) a way to collectively and creatively discuss the material and everyday practices and document these reflections in small informal publications (maga-zines). ILIT develops this practice into a participatory research method and organises 15 library-themed zine workshops, five in each city. We invite librarians, managers, policy-makers, library users from a diverse demographic, and other stakeholders to produce a zine, which is a small-scale, self-published, and self-printed work of texts and images. The resulting collection of 15 zine booklets in local languages will be made available online as well as in and outside the studied library networks. A collaborative, feminist, and pedagogical methodological tool, zine-making fosters awareness, education, empowerment, and transformation. It enables social learning by recognising fellow zine-makers as assets to each other. Drawing on reflexive ethnography, the workshops make space for alternative voices within the walls of the library, offer opportunities for reflection and community development, and realises a productive and participatory research process. While many libraries already deploy zine-making programmes as a low-cost activity, ILIT uses them as a tool for both research and community-building. In this way, co-productive zine-making offers an opportunity to study and cultivate a sense of community and social infrastructuring performed in and through public libraries.