G17: “Promise, practice and the public library”

The next talk to the 17 Group will take place on Wednesday the 2nd of March at 7 pm in unit 6 at 20 Drury St, West End. It will be given by public librarian and business analyst Tim Mather on the topic “Promise, practice and the public library”.

Summary of the talk:
Promise, practice and the public library
Everybody loves public libraries, even those who never, or rarely use them; even as they are used less and less. A rift is opening between the promise of libraries and the place libraries actually occupy in people’s lives.

Before about 25 years ago libraries could effectively fulfil their promise by doing more or less what they’d always done – selecting, acquiring and making accessible books and other publications of some identifiable value. The nexus between the promise and practice of libraries was strong, even without the promise or its connection with practice being clearly understood and articulated. But from about 25 years ago the rise of digital publishing and distribution began to weaken that nexus. Libraries were under pressure to reinvent themselves.

Most of the time, in any context, inherited practice is adopted and perpetuated unquestioningly, without much consideration being given to its original rationale, which may in time be remembered and understood less and less perfectly. Concurrently, the original rationale may be less and less in tune with the dominant ideas of the time. Even when it is remembered and articulated it is likely to be dismissed for striking an anomalous chord. Thus remembering becomes harder and harder; more and more a risky, subversive act. In these conditions, when change weakens or breaks the nexus between practice and purpose, rebuilding it is an enormous challenge.

Around 25 years ago public libraries set out to re-invent themselves, guided only by an intensely felt promise but one that had largely become a mysterious riddle. What, exactly is the promise of the public library? When promise and practice were being dragged dangerously apart by structural change so much depended on answering this question correctly.

Views amongst library workers on the ensuing recent history of the public library differ enormously. The brash, certainties of ‘cybrary’ days have passed, and are hopefully being replaced by something more thoughtful, but perhaps not quickly enough for it to matter. A minority view is that this history has been of a long and losing struggle to remember what public libraries are for, while enormous, but not inexhaustible, reservoirs of accumulated popular goodwill towards public libraries are continuously drawn down.

It is possible that the structural changes with which libraries have been contending are of such a nature that the disconnection between promise and practice that they have caused is irrevocable. The struggle to remember goes on regardless, in however small pockets, perhaps with wider lessons about holding on to and carrying forward historical gains in uncertain times.

Various questions arise: Do public libraries continue to be necessary to the fulfillment of their own promise? Has structural change – the digital revolution and so on – irrevocably cut libraries off from their own promise? Is the promise dying? Have public libraries squandered the waning warmth of their own promise? What should public libraries be doing? Why aren’t they doing what they should be doing? Is there anything public libraries can do? What exactly is the promise anyway? Is fatalism about the promise one aspect of a more generalised, terminal despair? Are i phones the answer to everything? If not, why not?

(For a more extended treatment of the themes of Tim’s talk, consult the attachment.)

Biographical notes on Tim
Tim Mather has worked in the same big public library, for a stretch before the revolution (which began in libraries somewhere between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of the Worldwide Web) as well as for a much longer stretch afterwards. He started working there by accident and did not intend to stay very long, but in the course of a long stint shelving books became entranced with the promise of libraries and became a librarian. In the halcyon days immediately before the revolution, when everybody knew there was going to be a revolution but not which way it would go, he was lucky to work on a number of revolutionary initiatives, and, when the revolution kicked off in earnest threw himself into it whole heartedly.

For a long while he was tasked with writing revolutionary manifestos, reprising the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and so forth, but after losing his way somewhere between dreamy evocations of the promise of libraries and being able to say what libraries should actually do, opted for counting and measuring things and producing graphs. He is now a business analyst. Tim talked to the 17 group around six years ago. His talk will pick up from where the last one left off and will include updated graphs.

Leon as usual kept his options open as to actual attendance, but asked us, with his usual air of knowing a thing or two about the topic, had we googled the article about him and librarianship in the site “Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism”. We confessed our usual ignorance. “Listen and learn”, he said. “Here’s what the man says about me:”

“ ‘Leninism is the knowledge and ability to turn culture, i.e. all the knowledge and skills amassed in previous centuries, to the interests of the working masses. Therein lies the essence of Leninism.

So suggested Leon Trotsky during a remarkable speech on ‘Leninism and Library Work’ he gave to the First All-Union Congress of Librarians in 1924 (don’t look for it online – those interested will have to dig it out in the excellent collection of Trotsky’s writings – Problems of Everyday Life).”

He said he’d himself got hold of the recent new edition of this famous tome (along with his equally famous Literature and Revolution also from 1924) from Amazon, even though he thought he still had the manuscript somewhere in his files. In fact he was reading it avidly when we left and he seemed, again as usual, unconscious of our departure.
A day or two later he emailed us the photos hereunder with the caption : “Here I am, snapped by various admirers in various library settings at various times”.

“I look annoyed in this last one, because my work was being interrupted by some bawdy singing outside by Josef and his rowdy thugs.”

17 group talk – libraries.docx

2 thoughts on “G17: “Promise, practice and the public library”

  1. The next talk to the 17 Group will take place on Wednesday the 2nd of March at 7 pm in unit 6 at 20 Drury St, West End. It will be given by public librarian and business analyst Tim Mather on the topic “Promise, practice and the public library”.

  2. Trove Funding Cuts says:

    Trove is the online National Library Resource essential for any research in Australia, and so is an absolutely valuable institution – it is under threat from the Turnbull Government.

    Sign the petition and send on to your friends and contacts.


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