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An article by Jamea Kofi
1 July 2023, 10:50
The library as a public space: neutral or plural? (Bibliotheekblad 2023-7)

A public library is for everyone, but is it really? Discussions at conferences and conversations with librarians have made me increasingly curious about the meaning of neutrality in public libraries that aim to be there for everyone.

How can a library be a place for everyone, when visitors want different things and staff have different visions? And isn't there a particular public the library wants to reach? The idea of publicness the library wants to radiate is related to the idea of neutrality. Is it the library's job to be neutral? What do you stand for when you are neutral? What message do you want to convey and what image do you project if the choices you make are always compromises? Perhaps it is precisely these deliberate compromises that make the library public, and with these neutral-looking decisions, it tries to be there for everyone. However, I argue that it is precisely the acceptance and, above all, the embrace of customization that benefits the plurality of our society. The library is not neutral but plural. Being there for everyone is not being neutral, but instead recognizing that everyone needs something different. Being neutral is a privilege, going along with the dominant group is not possible for everyone.

Last April, several library professionals and researchers discussed what position the library can actively take in society. With its activities, the library encourages people to participate in society and provides a place to come together. The ‘active’ participation in society makes people feel more confident about democracy, one participant stated at the same conference. In addition, such participation creates democratic self-assurance, she explains to us, which is much needed in a time of increasing polarization. This means realizing that you have a voice and when you use it someone listens, or in other words, in a democracy, you are heard.

Although the contribution to society and democracy is positive, we sometimes forget that democracy is not neutral. We live in a democracy in the Netherlands, and this has been our normal for many years, but this does not make it neutral. A democracy also consists of duties, rules, and expectations. The actions of librarians and policymakers come from a frame of reference, that of a human being.

With a wide range of activities and an extensive collection, the library aims to offer all kinds of perspectives. However, at times it is visible that the library and its staff must make choices in this, and face the question: Do we really want to offer everything? For example, library management indicates that they often choose the practical solution and compromise, due to limited budgets and existing frameworks. They indicate that on the one hand, the library wants to project a certain image and has a certain vision, but on the other hand, they have to consider their subsidy provider, the municipality.

Practice shows that there is room for staff to give substance to, for example, the programming of activities and exhibitions. This always involves thinking of the visitors and potential visitors who are not yet coming to the library. Attracting visitors, trying to be there for everyone, and the implementation of employees’ ideas I saw coming together in the exhibition ‘Stories of the City’, at the Central Library in Rotterdam. Each month the focus is on the (family) history of a Rotterdam inhabitant; this year the focus is on Rotterdam’s colonial and slavery past. During a shadowing day, I attended a meeting with a guest collector who advocated for a meeting place in the library for the descendants of enslaved people in Rotterdam. The recognition of a dark chapter in the city’s history shows that the library offers a place for Rotterdammers and is open to initiatives from visitors and staff alike. During this exhibition I see that democracy works here: a Rotterdammer is heard.

By Jamea Kofi (
Translated with (free version)
Translation of Dutch column in monthly magazine Bibliotheekblad (2023-7)

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