Expanding Perspectives: Why Libraries Still Matter

Renan Simao | 8 April 2019

Modern History | South American History | Cultural History | Global History | Media History

Dozens of files of digitalised articles and books probably float in every scholar cloud service nowadays. On many days, it could then save you a trip to the library. So, why exactly do public libraries still matter?

We might acknowledge that this question has been asked recently and some of the answers given have caused controversy [1]. However, certainly there are at least two more ways to address the debate on why libraries still matter. They bear on historical and sociological frameworks.

As a space for production of knowledge, the arguably world’s first library that ambitioned to collect “all the books of all the peoples of the world” also served as a comprehensive learning centre for some distinctive readers [2]. This is a reference to The Library of Alexandria (Egypt; end of the 3rd century B.C.) group of scholars, among them the mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes, that were commissioned by the Ptolemaic kings to delve into an immense book collection in order “to record everything that had been and could be recorded” and produce “critical digests for future generations”.

As written in “The Library at Night”, a compendium about the history and essential aspects of libraries made by the anthologist Alberto Manguel, the bibliotheca reader’s craft (not the immense book storage) was “the great practice established by the Library of Alexandria” [3]. The act of reading, rewriting and summarising records tells us about how “they [Alexandrians] knew it to be the source of an ever-shifting present in which new readers engaged with old books which became new in the reading process”, says Manguel.

Manguel, also essayist and former director of The National Library of Argentina, reckons the past as a required deference to understand the present. “To write history is to cite it”, declared Walter Benjamin, quoted by the Argentinian. To the author, this practice does not correlate with the Internet’s “precluded” sense of the past.

One could argue that anyone could investigate François Rabelais’ 1653 complete “Gargantua and Pantagruel” (perhaps the first invention of an “imaginary library” in literature, asserts Manguel) just by googling it at home but, being realistic, algorithms, clickbait articles and social pressure may push people away from literary records of the past like this.

With regard to foster attention to the past and read a contextualized present, we might as well reiterate that public libraries are for everyone — and it was not always like this. In Brazil, my country, African-Brazilians built public libraries, but these libraries were inaccessible to them, women and the poor. “In the American South, libraries were not open to the black population until the early twentieth century”, the South American adds.

Provided that offering a culturally diverse set of books is a contemporary challenge to any public library, welcoming each and every person in a library should still be taken as reparation for minority communities for the sake of not forgetting the institutional exclusion once performed. The account of the African-American author James Baldwin’s about being at the New York Public Library in the 1950’s rings true for some today: “Everyone, all the white people inside, would know that he [young Baldwin] was not used to great buildings, or to so many books, and they would look at him with pity.”

Hence, if minding about the past and, altogether, accessing diverse life experiences are intrinsic to the public worth of a library, how could they at least carry out a role in widening the access to information?

French sociologist Bruno Latour argues that spaces like laboratories, museums and libraries should be regarded more like hubs of informational networks, rather than guardians of knowledge. As presented in the article “Networks that the reason ignores: laboratories, libraries and collections” [4],these hubs, which he calls “centres of calculation” mediate, produce and transform information. Rather than only affect everything else in the networks (its users and other institutions), these hubs could also receive inputs in this continuous process. A public library, for example, cannot serve as an isolated storage of accumulated information, in a “maniac, erudite and literate” way, says Latour.

Latour’s ideal metaphor for the centres of calculation is a giant particle accelerator. It serves as a triage centre, a representation to many other networks that also localize, collect and amplify inscriptions (information in movement). These spaces share and expose networks of information, and for the series of transformation that occur within it (reducing and amplifying it), they prove their existence. The more justaxpositions, comparisons and relativity between the networks, more transformations.

Along with this briefly depicted conceptual background, there are many illustrative examples in Manguel’s book.

When the Queens Borough Public Library, one of the biggest in the United States, makes available millions of books and audiovisual content in many languages to reach a majoritarian non-native English speaking community, naturally a knowledge network is produced on behalf of a needed service.

Yet, when it is known that the library offers from English classes to tax return filing assistance, passing through programs of pedagogical activities to months-old toddlers and an aging health program for the elderly, those same operations to build up knowledge based on books and people could be amplified while implemented along with an engaged community — possibly being a catalyser of varied and contrasted samples of information.

Itinerary libraries could exert similar expansive influence. As well as a borderless safe territory, a thoughtful connection between user and librarian, digital literacy initiatives and many more examples could do it as well. Multiple perspectives feed the networks. The opposite — restricted information — isolates them to just giving access to books.

Perhaps, there is something in common between the readers of the vanished Alexandria library — whose literary assistance allowed other “readers to recognize (...) a description of the universe at large, and of their own triumphs and tribulations”, as Manguel articulates — and the readers of today in Queens, São Paulo or Sheffield libraries.

What makes this parallel possible appears to be a collective informational network called public library space and people’s vital disposition to learn from the time gone by. Maybe libraries still matter because of a shareable nature of reading, for “it tells readers”, states Manguel once again, “that their craft consists of the power to remember, actively, through the prompt of the page, selected moments of the human experience.”

Renan Simão is a Masters researcher at the University of Sheffield’s School of Languages and Cultures (Erasmus Mundus programme Crossways in Cultural Narratives), investigating public institutions and documentaries about them.


[1] After a Forbes opinion piece argued that “[libraries] don’t have the same value they used to”, due to the fact that web-connected technology, along with physical spaces like cafes, offer better services to people. Within no time, librarians and public libraries went on Twitter to contest such reasoning. Besides being public and offering wi-fi and free books to citizens, many other advantages were put forward for public libraries: they can offer conferences, workshops, lectures, language classes and translation services, computers, newspapers, housing forms and driving license services, visa forms, warmth or cool, shelter, physical space for gathering and socialization for every citizen.

[2] Luciano Canfora, La biblioteca scomparsa (Palermo: Sellerio Editore, 1987).

[3] Manguel, Alberto. The Library at Night. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. Print. Related quotes not referenced here appear in the book.

[4] My translation. Redes que a razão desconhece: laboratórios, bibliotecas, coleções, in Tramas da Rede Sulina, André Parente (editor), Porto Alegre Brazil, pp. 39-63, 2004.