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The Identity of the Contemporary Public Library

Margarita Pérez Pulido
Maurizio Vivarelli

1. History, Present and Future of the Public Library

The Public Library in Contemporary Society: Analytical Tools

Paolo Traniello
Traduction de Jennifer Cooke

Texte intégral

  • 1   «Here they do not have any public libraries» [TN]. See in the national edition of his works (Fire (...)
  • 2   This definition can be found in the dissertation Sino a qual punto le produzioni scientifiche e l (...)

1On 3rd March 1818 Ugo Foscolo exiled in England wrote to Quirina Mocenni: «Qui non hanno pubbliche biblioteche»1. His complaint, voiced in what would be the birthplace of public libraries in Europe, was justified because at the time in London there was no institute as such, aside from the largely incomplete (and at any rate differently aimed) British Museum. On the other hand, though it is not so well documented, Foscolo was familiar with the Italian libraries created between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, the same libraries that still today make up the majority of the so-called group of “public state libraries”. Libraries that had originated from scholars’ bequests or sovereigns’ grants, all created with clear purposes of public service even if the actual extent of this offer to the public is yet to be studied. Foscolo himself, but he surely was not the only one, witnessed during his English sojourn the growing inclination of that society, already dragged into the irresistible process of industrialisation, to make a more and more widespread use of written communication until it took the shape of “a nation of readers”, according to an expression Giuseppe Pecchio used in the 20th century2, which is echoed, albeit with no depended relationship, in the title of a seminal study by William St Clair: The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press. Reading was experienced both in family gatherings as well as in such social forms, like coffee-houses, books clubs or library societies, but not in libraries freely open to the public (nor, after all, a public education system until 1870). Yet that nation of readers would have seen the institution of public libraries only over thirty years later when 1850 Act was passed.

  • 3   I shall refer to chapter IV (La nascita della “public library”) of my La biblioteca pubblica. Sto (...)
  • 4   Paradoxically, this key aspect was clearly understood, even if he argued e contrario, by one of t (...)

2The legislative definition of the institution was actually preceded and followed by a recognition of the existing situation and a debate on the goals to achieve and the means towards their fulfilment, which was one of the most intense moments in the political discussion on libraries in the contemporary world. It was prompted by such qualified representatives of English political élite, like Joseph Brotherton, George Hamilton and namely the promoter of the Act, whose name is invariably tied to, William Ewart, to name just a few, with the help of the librarians called to testify during the committees’ work: first of all, the very active Edward Edwards, who had authored a comparative statistic study between European and British libraries and was a qualified witness of 1849 Select Committee, and Antonio Panizzi who, though from a very different standpoint from the idea of public library, would be able to provide a key-input to the definition of libraries as a public service, both in 1836 Parliamentary Commission on the British Museum and in 1850 Select Committee. On the content of these debates we shall not here analytically linger on3. However, we may assert that throughout this very complex, even if ultimately rather rapid, process of institutional elaboration a type of action clearly stands out, which belongs to the category Weber defined as «goal-oriented rational actions» also supported by what – again in Weber’s terms – is called «formal rationality», presiding over the assessment of the means to use with regard to the set purpose or purposes. For the public library these means basically consisted in the citizens’ financial participation with a local tax; a certainly insufficient measure in its early provision that was rapidly and considerably changed, but that succeeded in placing the library amongst the local public services from the start, thus planting a seed of profound transformation in its own core4.

3It is important to remark that the actually achieved purpose, pro-ving undoubtedly fruitful in the industrial age, that is the institution of libraries as a public service, factually took on a different form from those variously introduced in the debate, often bearing reasons we may call ‘superstructural’, like the ones aimed at improving behaviours on the moral level or the progress of working classes. Such goals proved more or less alien to the actual potential of libraries, whereas what was really cogent, that is public service – or if one wills libraries as a public good, was not only realised, but it deeply marked the cultural development of those societies who had embraced it. The definition of this goal, i.e. the institution of public libraries, did not solely depend on the individual will of its promoters, but it was the result of a process where the historical background of British society had an instrumental part. On the other hand, when the institution took place in a context where the available resources were invested in infrastructures other than those devoted to free access to reading, then the various proposed goals, even though driven by high purposes and posited as models to pursue, were impossible to attain because they were not supported by an assessment of the necessary means.

4In Italian society, as well as in many other European countries, similar goals to the ones of public libraries had been introduced in popular libraries back in the 19th century. But since no-one went ahead identifying the necessary means to actually reach the key purpose, that is creating a public service where all the resources necessary to develop in an industrial society could be directed, it was only very recently that it was partially achieved, and its stated ends, adding to that goal, mostly remained on an abstract or one might even say ideological level. This phenomenon is all the more clear in republican Italy, where the constitutional principle conferring regions the authority on local libraries, oblivious of the relation between public libraries and local services that was well established in other parts of Europe, even when it was finally effective along with the creation of a regional system, it did not lead however to the actual institution of public libraries. This is indeed what can be inferred from some formal aspects that may only seem secondary, such as the persisting denomination of ‘local library’ instead of ‘public library’, a term that in our legislation is solely used for state libraries, with a terminological chaos that did not fail to yield a poor outcome in the most recent history.

5If we then move from a mainly institutional analysis to the field examination of the actual behaviours of public library goers, we must admit to a fact that is hard to deny: i.e. libraries are amongst cultural institutions the ones where the recipients’ actions less directly correspond to the goals assigned through normative instruments (for instance, regional laws) or also resulting from the proposals of renowned associations (for example AIB, or IFLA) or from academic elaborations.

  • 5   For further information of the Weberian notion of «community acting» refer to: Über einige Katego (...)

6While the use of an archive is unlikely to go beyond the consultation of preserved documents, at least in its main aspects, and that of a museum is mainly aimed at observing the objects on display (in spite of all the cultural and educational activities that it may offer), the possible use of a library, especially of a public library in a contemporary sense, is very diverse and difficult to narrow down to one way alone. Since also in our country, or at least in part of it, several architecturally impressive libraries have been created, alongside – or even as a consequence of – the reform of local administration in the 1990s, one can easily observe a large increase in public library attendance, as the most permanently frequented public places in local communities. On this matter, it was justly remarked that where new public libraries were created, they became primarily places to socialise, where events tend to naturally develop into different kinds of projects. These behaviours, even if quite fluid and hard to ascribe to specific types, that have led to think of public libraries in terms of forums, would deserve to be more closely studied than what has heretofore been done, insofar as both empirical analysis and sociological reflection. Another Weberian category may fit the case, again referred to the analysis of social action: community acting, intended as a kind of action supported by an orientation with a view to one’s own or other people’s interests, however without corresponding to an institutional shelter for such interests. Community acting does not merely consist in a united action, driven by sheer collective conditioning (like opening an umbrella when it rains) or by simple imitation, but it must encompass a conscious reference to other people’s actions without this reference being previously regulated or established5.

7However, in order to further delve into our topic, we need to take a closer and unbiased look at the real and prospective public’s behaviours in a library to try and analyse the uses that can be made of this facility in relation to its space. This issue, at the heart of any reflection on libraries, is today posited quite strongly in our country, where we have witnessed the creation of new public libraries in aesthetically and functionally remarkable buildings, sometimes as a result of the recovery of previous historical buildings, at times resorting to industrial archaeology, and the impetuous development of information and online technologies that brought along services automation, thus directly including libraries within web resources. I believe such behaviours can be organised in a typology ranging from a minus to a plus with regard to the use of the library as a space, comprising within the library space also its collections. On a lower level, there is the purely external use of the library. This is indeed how libraries are used online, from browsing their catalogues to utilising information services or social networks, up to consulting digitalised online documents. We shall note in passing that this more advanced technological use of the library is also what more directly questions its purposes and its very existence as a physical facility. On a second level, there is a way of using the library from the outside to the inside, accessing its inner physical space but not its collections. Indeed, it mostly concerns the different types of activities and events (talks, debates, concerts, screenings) the public library commendably undertakes. Then there is a use from the inside to the outside. This includes loan services, one of the most frequently targeted uses to assess the efficiency of the service provided by the inside space as a group of collections. Finally, there is a purely inside use of the library space. Except for the children’s case, which ought to be addressed separately, this kind of usage is first of all that of the user who consults catalogues and online resources, classifications and reference services to find documents within the collections and read them in the library, if need be comparing them with one another. What can be considered as the proper use of a library, however, comes with, and is by far outnumbered by, the use that is perceived as a less appropriate, or even inadequate, though even more directly involving the inside space, that is when people read and study material not coming from the library collections. Not taking this behaviour, so blatant and significant, into sufficient consideration means overlooking what is by far the prevailing use of the public library seen from the inside, as a space. If indeed the library as an equipped space is predominantly utilised for studying, it is all the more true that studying mostly does not require its material, that is to say that the behaviour we may observe in the library (unlike, as said, archives and museums) does not correspond to that suggested by the institution and pursued by assigning resources to form its collections. The library is a meta-communication facility and is used as a place for independently organised learning, instead.

  • 6Marc Augé, Non-lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Paris, éditions du Seui (...)

8Facing such a relevant social phenomenon, the question we must find an answer to is therefore precisely outlined: why do students study in libraries since they do not – or very little – use their collections? The most immediate answer cannot but be: «Because libraries are study places». Then, another question immediately arises: «What does a ‘study place’ mean, what is the relation between studying and a place?». An answer can be found considering how anthropological places are described in a recent and very popular hypothesis by French anthropologist Marc Augé, i.e. as opposed to «non-places»6. He qualifies them as identity-making, relational and historical spaces, such characteristics that libraries, especially Italian ones, more or less tend to match. But how do these characteristics affect the studying? These topics must be addressed and analysed, also from a philosophical and psychological standpoint, as far as the general issue of the relation between human actions and the surrounding space is concerned. But also from a purely empirical perspective we may note, for instance with regard to relations, that students for the most part do not go to libraries on their own but with someone else or in small groups, and these relationships persist, despite not being straightforwardly expressed, during their activity in the library. The students who attend libraries recognise themselves as members of the locally-based community the library as a study place belongs to. Thus the public library study place as part of the local community is prompted to become a kind of forum, albeit considerably reducing its scope compared to a claimed general sociality.

9Is the use of its inside space alone, though including all the other events the public library hosts, enough to economically and politically justify the existence of a facility that clearly cannot only be preserved but that also requires multiple and constant adequate investments? Or do we have to resign to the idea that the growing digital revolution will end up cannibalising the library itself? Or yet does the preservation of a local community-oriented physical space where people can study bear in itself a value worth defending? They are crunch questions I personally cannot give certain answers to; on the contrary, I believe that there is no straightforward and ultimate answer, but it rather depends on the sure rapid development of the cultural situation within today’s complexity.


1   «Here they do not have any public libraries» [TN]. See in the national edition of his works (Firenze, Le Monnier, 1949-1994) letter no. 2240 in the Epistolario (v. 7, 1816-1818).

2   This definition can be found in the dissertation Sino a qual punto le produzioni scientifiche e letterarie seguano le leggi economiche della produzione in generale, published by Pecchio in Lugano with Ruggia in 1832.

3   I shall refer to chapter IV (La nascita della “public library”) of my La biblioteca pubblica. Storia di un istituto nell’Europa contemporanea (Bologna, Il Mulino, 1997), with the references to sources therein contained.

4   Paradoxically, this key aspect was clearly understood, even if he argued e contrario, by one of the most fiery and picturesque representatives of the conser- vative benches in the House of Commons. In a session on 13th March 1850 du-ring the debate on the law on free libraries, colonel Charles Sibthorp, a Member of Parliament for Lincoln constituency known for his radically anti-progressive positions, after a reckless statement of hate towards reading, declared that he was willing to offer his “mite” for the more disadvantaged classes regardless, but that he could absolutely not understand «how one halfpenny in the pound would be enough to enable town councils to carry into effect the immense powers they were to have by this bill» (Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, 1850, March 13, col. 839). Aside from the matter of the issue, one cannot help noticing that his observation on the method was correct and in fact the amount of the tax burden was almost immediately increased. Not such a regressive attitude, although a more realistic one and at any rate responsive to economical calculation would have perhaps benefited the proponents of people’s libraries in continental Europe, exponents for the most part of politically progressive stands.

5   For further information of the Weberian notion of «community acting» refer to: Über einige Kategorien der verstehenden Soziologie, in: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 1985; Italian translation Alcune categorie della sociologia comprendente, in Il metodo delle scienze storico-sociali, a cura di Pietro Rossi, Torino, Einaudi, 2003, p. 181-239 (201 ff.).

6Marc Augé, Non-lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Paris, éditions du Seuil, 1992.


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