Tuesday, December 11, 2007

THE “POLITICS” OF PUBLIC LIBRARIES AGAIN

Earlier this year I posted an article by A.S. Popowich, “The Politics of Public Library History,” Dalhousie Journal of Information and Management, v. 3, no. 1 (Winter 2007), to Libraries Today website. The author discusses a number of interesting theories about the early development of public libraries and their fundamental societal mission and value. Web 2.0 gets mention too, for after all perhaps ideas circulating in the virtual world could be related to those in print culture.
There are a few points I would like to investigate, but first a couple of corrections. The article ranges “far and wide” on the critical theory side and might attract or repel library historians of various persuasions on this score. But what got my attention were two points where the author misconstrues things.
First, in summarizing Robert V. Williams’ 1981 article in the Journal of Library History 16 (2) 1981, 327-36 on “The Public Library as Dependent Variable” (JLH is now re-titled Libraries & the Cultural Record) Popowich highlights three variables that are often discussed in the library literature devoted to the rise of public libraries in the 19th c, namely the social conditions theory, the democratic traditions theory, and the social control theory. All of these are covered and debated in our historical accounts of early library development. But, the fourth variable Williams identified, people – “Libraries and Librarians” – gets no mention. Strangely, Popowich, who leans to the political left, ignores the idea that people and groups have the power to create and change institutional arrangements. In this case, the well documented “public library movement” of the 19th c. played much the same role as did English workers in E.P. Thompson’s classic work Making of the English Working Class (1963) – here we find the vital agency of individuals at work people creating their own class consciousness as they interact with other classes/groups during a historical period. Thompson, a notable leftist, actually decried the traditional, rigid concept of structure underlying class and influenced a generation of social historians to use Marxist ideas and theories more freely in their research. Thompson's lasting legacy is that people do "make their history."
Why is this fourth (missing) variable so important for Canadian libraries? In Ontario, the public library movement was actively involved in promoting and creating libraries across the province for a period of three-quarters of a century after 1850: it’s a reminder that people can be fundamental “makers of history” and that structural models (e.g., “democratic tradition”), various societal factors, and theories such as social control are not necessarily the primary historical factors in library history. In fact, I think that social control is not particularly effective as an explanatory tool in historical work due to various limitations in definition and inappropriate use. When it comes to the politics of public libraries in 19th c. Canada, from my standpoint it was a matter of farmers, businessmen, women, tradesmen, local politicians, educators, ministers, etc. trying to establish provincial legislation, local political administration, and promotion of services to unserved municipalities that proves to be the central focus for creating a public entity know as the free public library and for describing it historically.
Second, the author (perhaps accidentally) misquotes what I wrote a decade ago in my review of Alistair Black’s 1996 New History of the English Public Library. In writing about Black’s application of Idealism to the development of English libraries at the turn of the 20th c. in his cultural history, I mentioned that this was a weaker section than his chapters on the Utilitarian model he used for the 19th c. I wrote that applying Black’s Utilitarian-Idealist model to public libraries in Canada would “be quite a challenge” : I did not state that it “might not be difficult” as the Popowich indicates; and his citation should be to page 31 of my article in Epilogue (1996) not page 80 as it appears in this online version. Further, Popowich interprets my position on the societal influence of Idealism (e.g., equality of opportunity or state action) to be one that would concentrate on the library as a liberal, democratic, or capitalist institution and that in so doing I would ignore power relationships or other political alternatives to the “liberal-capitalist” state that emerged in Canada after 1850. My longer comments about state activism and the changing nature of liberal thought in the context of social history (unlike cultural history) were not referenced and it appeared my approach would be an uncritical one.
Quite the contrary, it is not my intention to meander in a blinkered fashion across the Canadian historical landscape occupied by libraries! It is entirely possible to theorize and write about libraries in a historical “liberal setting" and demonstrate why liberal values and ideas were dominant, without ignoring other history-as-account theories or history-as-event political options. Ian MacKay’s fascinating “The liberal order framework: a prospectus for a reconnaissance of Canadian history,” Canadian Historical Review v. 81 (Dec. 2000) pp. 641ff proposes the model of liberalism as an overarching political structure to help explain change in Canadian life generally. It could also be used in the case of public libraries because recent research has shown that liberal ideas at the local level of government where libraries were created and maintained in various forms are very useful in accounting for the development of an institution that valued reading and the dissemination of information. Of course, the influence of liberalism fluctuated over time and was often contradictory – on the face of things liberalism valued dissent but public discourse/debates often meant that minority opinions or contrarian ideas were suppressed. Also, for a thought provoking, postmodern view of liberalism and public libraries in England Patrick Joyce’s Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London, Verso, 2003) pp. 128-137 is a must. Joyce applies Michael Foucault’s idea of “governmentality” – intellectually organized ways (e.g., ideas or techniques) by which people are regulated and governed – to public libraries in Victorian Britain (actually Joyce published an article with the same content previously in 1999 as “The Politics of the Liberal Archive,” History of the Human Sciences, v. 12, no. 2, 1999, pp. 35-49). Unlike Alistair Black, who prefers to employ Foucault’s “power/knowledge” theory to library development, Joyce explores the “governmental-liberal” aspects of social space, bibliographic control, and public discourse regarding the value of libraries and touches on different historical ideas. I think these examples, which appeared after I wrote my review of Black's New History in 1996, indicate lines of historical narrative and explanation that I could pursue profitably, if I wanted, without being “tunnelistic” or uncritical. Awareness of different models, theories, interpretations, and publications in library history is crucial and I can’t really understand, for example, why Joyce’s work hasn’t drawn any attention in the library literature to date.
Having said all this, I liked the ideas in Popowich’s article – where have our Marxist-leaning library historians been all these years? It is not such a bad stance; Marx has had an incredible influence on the writing of history for more than century-and-a-half. And I must admit, I prefer a dash of Habermas rather than Foucault on my library history plate.