Loraine Furter

Hidden Histories – Public Libraries

The notion and roles of the “public library” have evolved through time. If the first “semi-public” libraries are as old as the book, or even the scroll – accessible in ancient Rome’s public baths and in the Islamic Golden Age’s “Houses of Wisdom” – the first (modern) public libraries were founded in the mid-19th century in England and the United States. As its denomination suggests, the question of access to the library’s content is central. “Public” library, as a library accessible to the public, to all the people as a whole, all members of a community – as opposed to “private” library, owned and accessible to a limited number of people. But this access depends very much of gate-keeping parameters – amongst others: money, ID control, location.

Public libraries, and libraries in general, used to be bound to physical objects and spaces: books in bookshelves in buildings. Sometimes, mobile displays allowed the collections to go out of the building and reach the public in a different way. Early 20th century Swiss mobile bookshelves, for instance, allowed books to be transported to small villages in the mountains, on donkeys’ backs.

Before and Today: from private book collections to the people’s library (Bibliothèque Pour Tous / Volksbibliothek), Engraving by Paul Boesch for the BPT Feuille d’Image, 1922 (see: Wanderbibliothek)

Since the Digital Age, the notion of (public) space associated with the (public) libraries has changed a lot. Digital files, screen devices and the internet brought new ways for documents to exist and for people to access and share them. Books are copied, multiplied, rather than passed from one user to the other, from one place to another.

In this context of changes, the classical public library itself is concentrating on the space it can offer, on its social role, becoming a “third place”: social environment different and complementary to the home and the workplace, as urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg developed in the books Celebrating The Third Place and The Great Good Place.

On the web, platforms and tools for sharing books and information are multiplying. The new possibilities brought by digital tools have made movements for free access to information and knowledge for everyone, like Open Access and Free Software, grow bigger.

In this context, collective and private access are taking new meanings. Reading has always been both a collective and private act. If the book device is often used by one user at a time, the act of sharing it and the tradition of public readings have made it a collective experience. But building a physical public library isn’t in the reach of everyone. Compared to having a personal collection of books in few bookshelves at home, the creation and management of a public space to share books is somehow more involving. The distinction between a private collection of books and one that is openly shared with other people has become smaller with the internet.

Today digital tools, online and offline networks make it possible for almost anyone to be a librarian. What one needs is a computer and an internet connection. Free software advocate, cultural explorer, and social instigator Marcell Mars says “With books ready to be shared, meticulously catalogued, everyone is a librarian. When everyone is a librarian, library is everywhere.” The project Bibliotecha and the book Radical Tactics of the Offline Library by Henry Warwick promote the ability for people not only access the contents, but also to appropriate the tools to archive, organize and share these contents.

But internet has its own barriers and limits. While we are allowed to drop a book in the public space, let it on a public bench or in public bookcases (book crossing), sharing the same book in a digital format on a website can be considered as illegal. Additionally, the contents accessible on internet are very ephemeral, as Kenneth Goldsmith says:

“Don’t trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, exploit it, but don’t believe in it. Or even the web for that matter. Many people assume that the web – and its riches – will always be there waiting for you. It won’t. Don’t bookmark. Download. Hard drives are cheap. Fill them up with everything you think you might need to consult, watch, read, listen to, or cite in the future. Your local library should be more vast than anything up for offer on the web. Please understand that the web and its treasures are temporary and ephemeral; that Deleuze PDF that you bookmarked yesterday very well may not be there tomorrow.”

And it is not because something is on the web, and thus potentially accessible everywhere in the world (if there is no censorship by the governement, for instance) that it is more accessible. The public needs to find its way toward it. Multiplying alternative ways to archive and share books and documents, online and offline, building and sharing tools is thus crucial.

digital reading experiences in the public space

Back to the public space. Today, in the streets, can connected devices and big public screens extend the tradition of collective reading experiences? Can they extend the function of the public library? How can people share personal materials and make them become part of the public history? How to enable hidden histories to re-emerge?

Version 1.0, 3d August 2015, license CC-BY-SA for my materials.