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The Identity of the Contemporary Public Library

Margarita Pérez Pulido
Maurizio Vivarelli

3. Complexity Challenges

The Role of Libraries Between Fragmentation and Complexity of Knowledge

Giovanni Solimine

Texte intégral

  • 1Marshall McLuhan, Technology and Environment, «Arts Canada», 205, Feb. 1967, p. 5-6, available on (...)

1We can start this reflection taking a prophetic statement made almost fifty years ago by Marshall McLuhan: «The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind»1. Rereading his speech, McLuhan appears to have imagined YouTube, a new way of circulating the motion pictures, and has also foreshadowed Google and its search engine, Wikipedia and its ability to mobilize the collective expertise. The Canadian sociologist, interpreting the effects that technological applications in the field of communication have had on society and individuals, had therefore identified as the technologies would quickly grow old all that existed until then.

  • 2Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Chicago (IL), The University of Chicago Pr (...)

2What is this? This is a “paradigm shift”. A “paradigm shift” (or “revolutionary science”) is, according to Thomas Kuhn, in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolution (1962)2, a change in the basic assumptions, or paradigms within the ruling theory of science. Kuhn used the term ‘paradigm’ to denote a set of theories and methodologies universally accepted by a scientific community, the practices that define a scientific discipline at a certain point in time, until “scientific revolutions” emerges. Following Kuhn’s approach, we can say that Italian librarianship is living a “paradigm shift”.

3Now we are within a paradigm shift for Library and Information Science (LIS) in Italy. We call the new step of discipline “Social Librarianship”, that deals with the library as a complex social system made by people for people, a natural development of the previous visions of librarianship understood as service management and document management. Social Librarianship provides useful tools to preserve and, at the same time, reinterpret the specific role of libraries, enhancing their vision while accepting the possibility of institutional mission’s development, coherently with the present social transformations. In this way libraries reflect the spirit of our present time. This can be a schematic presentation of evolution of contents and terminological choices in Italian LIS.

4These are the different stages of Italian studies in the last half century:

    • 1st step: Library focused on documents (1970’ and 1980’). The discipline essentially perceived the library as a system which selects, preserves and makes documents accessible, and uses methods of transmission and of use of the same. Its field of investigation ranged from the acquisition of the documents to their cataloguing, indexing and conservation; the key instruments of this kind of library science were related mainly to collections development.
    • 2nd step. Library focused on services (1990’). From “Documents Management” to “Services Management”: Library Science combined with management and marketing cultures: the so-called “library management”. Putting the spotlight on the issue of service and management enriched the librarian’s professional expertise with new tools: total quality management, new tools for assessing library services, the evaluation of user satisfaction, and the monitoring of effectiveness and efficiency.
    • 3rd Step. Library focused on users, on citizens, on people (2000). The obvious consequences of the culture of assessment in libraries and of the practices of measurement and evaluation. In the present-day scenario, it seems imperative to ask what social impact libraries have on communities, and how they can help improve the quality of people’s lives.

5Fig. 1 graphically represents this evolution:

Fig. 1 - Schematic evolution of Italian studies in LIS

Fig. 1 - Schematic evolution of Italian studies in LIS
  • 3R. David Lankes, The Atlas of New Librarianship, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT, 2011.

6Social Librarianship is a “paradigm shift”: David Lankes states states that librarians must have a vision of the world that is not focused on “artifacts”, but on people: « [...] a library where people are learning and building their knowledge may have no books, no computers, no DVDs, and no building. What it will have is a librarian facilitating the process»3.

7Our age is characterized by the enormous opportunities thanks to which – at least in the so-called “advanced” countries – we can enjoy an easy, quick, complete access with huge amounts of data and information. This should not make us ignore, however, that a large difference remains between atomic units of information, data in their specific contexts and documents as carriers of information. I mean, this ability to access large amounts of information does not necessarily produces new knowledge: there is in fact a real contrast, very clear, between smaltering and “culture”, between the fragments of knowledge and complexity and the nature of a real knowledge, including a new form of learning we can get through the Internet and especially basics or rudiments through the use of a conscious approach to knowledge. The following picture (Fig. 2) seems to represent well the two different scenarios that we face.

Fig. 2 - Schematic model of information and of knowledge

Fig. 2 - Schematic model of information and of knowledge

8What is core business for libraries? Information or knowledge? Library is a knowledge organization? My point of view is centered on the educational function of libraries. Contemporary society has shown its capacity for producing and accumulating an enormous quantity of knowledge, sometimes leading to such a overabundance that it is possible to characterise it as an information overload. The Internet promises to give everything to everyone with a minimum of effort, and tends to generate an intoxicating sense of informational omnipotence. At least apparently it is easy to have a direct, unmediated contact between supply and demand of information and documents, bypassing or totally neglecting the functions of analysing the request, selecting documents, validating contents, directing and orienting the user, guiding access, all of which are proper to the work of mediation historically performed by libraries. There is a concrete risk that this could end in a kind of total disintermediation, without considering that the hazards that this mode of working could lead to.

9Social Librarianship provides useful tools to preserve and, at the same time, reinterpret the specific aim of libraries, enhancing their vision while embracing the possibility of the development of the institutional mission in line with present-day social transformations. In this way, libraries can reflect the spirit of our present time. Social Librarianship gives more importance to human relationships than the transaction; it considers the concept of “quality service” as socially and historically determined, and, for this reason, as an in-progress concept. Social Librarianship has as its primary objective the users’ welfare, and user satisfaction becomes the vehicle with which to reach that goal.

10The changes we are seeing in the world of libraries are only an effect of broader changes. IFLA wondered whether libraries are riding the waves or caught in the tide4. This important document identifies high level trends shaping: it describes the changes (in the global information environment, time moves quickly) and with which libraries will have to deal (Digital trends on course for collision; The algorithm has all the answers - so what’s a library?). These are the five “trends” identified by IFLA:

  • NEW TECHNOLOGIES WILL BOTH EXPAND AND LIMIT WHO HAS ACCESS TO INFORMATION. An ever-expanding digital universe will bring a higher value to information literacy skills such as basic reading and competence with digital tools. People who lack these skills will face barriers to inclusion in a growing range of areas. The nature of new online business models will heavily influence who can successfully own, profit from, share or access information in the future.
  • ONLINE EDUCATION WILL DEMOCRATISE AND DISRUPT GLOBAL LEARNING. The rapid global expansion in online education resources will make learning opportunities more abundant, cheaper and more accessible. There will be increased value on lifelong learning and more recognition of non-formal and informal learning.
  • THE BOUNDARIES OF PRIVACY AND DATA PROTECTION WILL BE REDEFINED. Expanding data sets held by governments and companies will support the advanced profiling of individuals, while sophisticated methods of monitoring and filtering communications data will make tracking those individuals cheaper and easier. Serious consequences for individual privacy and trust in the online world could be experienced.
  • HYPER-CONNECTED SOCIETIES WILL LISTEN TO AND EMPOWER NEW VOICES AND GROUPS. More opportunities for collective action are realised in hyper-connected societies – enabling the rise of new voices and promoting the growth of single-issue movements at the expense of traditional political parties. Open government initiatives and access to public sector data will lead to more transparency and citizen-focused public services.
  • THE GLOBAL INFORMATION ECONOMY WILL BE TRANSFORMED BY NEW TECHNOLOGIES. Proliferation of hyper-connected mobile devices, networked sensors in appliances and infrastructure, 3D printing and language-translation technologies will transform the global information economy. Existing business models across many industries will experience creative disruption spurred by innovative devices that help people remain economically active later in life from any location.

11It will not be easy for libraries to be able to exercise a decisive role within this framework. What may be their specific function? To help build knowledge, I think.

12Under what conditions the information can be translated into knowledge? This process can only happen if we mature capacity for critical acquisition, to establish relationships, to grasp the complexity of knowledge; if we “read”, understand, interpret the information to which we access. This capability, this new literacy is called ‘Information Literacy’. «Information Literacy – as stated in the Prague Declaration issued by UNESCO in 2003 – encompasses knowledge of one’s information concerns and needs, and the ability to identify, locate, evaluate, organize and effectively create, use and communicate information to address issues or problems at hand; it is a prerequisite for participating effectively in the Information Society, and is part of the basic human right of life long learning»5.

13I do not think that the school and the universities do everything in their power to provide students with these skills, these tools of knowledge. We can say that the effectiveness of a school or university library is measured by the contribution that it is able to make to its institution in achieving its objectives. In fact, a library is not only a service in support of activities of teaching and research, with a role that is merely ancillary, but also one of the components of the educational process that is performed in these institutions, a laboratory in which we learn to learn, where we work with the sources, we use contemporaneously primary and secondary instruments, specialised instruments and more general auxiliary instruments.

14University and research libraries as basic infrastructures for the creation, dissemination and conservation of scientific research and for the construction of services to support and enhance educational activity: sharing of knowledge, diffusion of open access, research assessment, user education and training.


1Marshall McLuhan, Technology and Environment, «Arts Canada», 205, Feb. 1967, p. 5-6, available on Google Books.

2Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Chicago (IL), The University of Chicago Press, 1962.

3R. David Lankes, The Atlas of New Librarianship, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT, 2011.

4IFLA Trend Report <>.

5UNESCO, The Prague Declaration. Toward an Information Literate Society, <>.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 - Schematic evolution of Italian studies in LIS
Fichier image/jpeg, 85k
Titre Fig. 2 - Schematic model of information and of knowledge
Fichier image/jpeg, 202k


Dipartimento di Scienze documentarie, linguistico-filologiche e geografiche, Università di Roma La Sapienza. Email address giovanni.solimine[at]


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