28 January 2023, 12:00
Often you miss something only when it is gone, the importance becomes visible upon breakdown. For many libraries, this was certainly true during the corona crisis. Their function of providing information could largely be accommodated online. After all, many books and magazines are available digitally and what could not be found online could be reserved and collected by appointment. It was precisely the important social function of libraries that was sorely missed. The pandemic showed that the library is not only a lieux du livre (place for books), but also an indispensable lieux du vivre (a living environment).
In mid-2022, we launched an international study on the daily practices of library staff, visitors, policymakers and other stakeholders to make public libraries function as important meeting places. The three-year project is entitled Infrastructuring Libraries in Transformation (ILIT) and is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Radboud University (Nijmegen), the universities of Lund (Sweden) and Vienna (Austria) and several practice partners including EBLIDA (European Bureau of Library Information and Documentation Association).
American sociologist Klinenberg calls libraries palaces for the people and argues for more appreciation of so-called social infrastructure; places where social life takes place. Think of libraries, community centres, playgrounds, schoolyards and other public spaces where people can meet. These are as important to the functioning of society as infrastructural facilities such as (rail) roads and gas pipelines. In our project, we look at the library as a social infrastructure that can make a difference. The library itself is constantly transforming, but it can also transform communities struggling with social problems such as unemployment, loneliness and segregation. Hence the name of our website, which can be explained in two ways: transforming libraries.
However, the library does not automatically function as social infrastructure, but only becomes so through all the practices of stakeholders. We call this infrastructuring; an active form of infrastructure. In other words, we look at the library not as a noun (the library), but as a verb (to librarise/librarising). Libraries respond to changes in society and listen to the needs of their users. Many libraries want to be a third place, where users feel comfortable next to their home (first place) and work or school (second place). Thus, the traditional role of the library as a place of information is expanding into a place of care. That this transition is accompanied by developments in terms of policy, organisational structure, activities and even architecture, you readers will know better than anyone else. The need for a third place is also related to political changes, such as budget cuts and the shrunken welfare state.
In our project, we walk along with library staff and talk to policymakers, visitors and local residents in Rotterdam, Malmö and Vienna. With this new column, we want to update you on our main findings. After this joint first column, we will take turns writing; one month Rianne will wield the pen, the next column will be Jamea's. We find it exciting to write for an audience that has much more experience in the library world itself, although Rianne has been a library volunteer for almost 20 years. With our backgrounds in human geography (Rianne) and anthropology (Jamea), we don't see ourselves as library experts, but library researchers. We want to be a fly on the wall; to observe, question and - if necessary - criticise. That is also the added value of international cooperation; it can open our eyes to things that seem normal but may not be. For instance, our foreign colleagues were very surprised by the lack of library training at university level and free membership for adults in the Netherlands. Quite normal for us, perhaps, but worth reconsidering? We hope to excite you with such questions and observations in the near future!
This article was originally published in Dutch as a column in the Dutch Bibliotheekblad (2023-1). Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)