[iDC] Is there a future for the pubklic libraries? + epistemology vs. pedagogy

Shannon Mattern shannon at wordsinspace.net
Thu Jun 30 06:41:29 UTC 2011

What a happy coincidence that Liz Losh and John Sobol are discussing shifting epistemologies at the same time that Rolf Hapel is inquiring about the future of public libraries. Liz describes the difficulty of separating epistemology and pedagogy; I’d suggest that it’s equally difficult to think about libraries apart from epistemology. Libraries are institutional embodiments of the prevailing – and at times competing – knowledge systems of their times and places.  

There’s been an ongoing conversation, to which Anne Balsamo has made really valuable contributions, about the integration of hackerspaces or techshops into libraries. Critics tend to see these production facilities as outside, and perhaps even inimical to, the core function of a library (as if libraries were ever purely intellectual institutions – as if the rifle ranges, barber shops, and bowling alleys in Carnegie libraries supported their “knowledge-provision” functions!). But of course this judgment is based on the privileging of a particular (literate, rational?) epistemology. What if, instead, we were to privilege the integration of thinking and making, bricolage, embodied and social knowledge, etc.: what kind of an institution would represent that epistemology? Probably a library that incorporates public gathering spaces (which most public libraries do) and flexible spaces that accommodate access to and production of media in multiple formats.

Others have proposed that the library could and should be an institution that draws attention to the *politics* of knowledge, that encourages patrons to question the interests of those creating and distributing information – and those providing the infrastructure for its creation and distribution. Of course techshops, and even the media production facilities that currently exist in some public libraries, serve as sites of “democratized” media production. Digital distribution’s more tricky. Some folks – including one of my students, Rory Solomon – have been investigating how the public library might become home to a “truly public” internet.

Access will continue to be an issue, although those of us with the means and inclination to participate in a mailing list like this one tend to forget it. Libraries will continue to serve people who don’t have Internet access at home and who can’t afford books – let alone smartphones or Kindles. And even for those who do have the financial means to gain access, at home or on their own devices, to all the info their hearts desire, the library could still serve an important role in providing *context* for that information. Whether people want that context is another question. Adrian Johns, in a recent presentation at Columbia University, said that librarians advocate for themselves as professionals who perform important skills-based, critical educational roles. Of course they *should* (there seems to have always been an implied morality at the heart of the library) perform those roles, and of course people should avail themselves of these “information mediation” services. But will they?

I’ve found in my own research that publics tend to be most invested in their public libraries when they’re meaningfully involved in their operations – when they’re invited into discussions regarding design, programming, acquisitions, etc. (I know Rolf has done a good deal of this at Aarhus; I studied public involvement in Seattle.) In these cases, the “public” refers not only to the audience the institution serves, but also to the stakeholders who shape the institution into what it is.

Shannon Mattern, The New School 
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