Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Where do I come from?

[This post was originally published on on the 27th March 2017]
A Macrohistory of Librarianship
The great tradition of librarianship, and all that which has come before me.

As part of a lit review, as part of a Doctorate, I decided to do a short Macrohistory of librarianship. A Macrohistory is a history of ‘a really long time’ of something, where you look for patterns, themes, cycles and/or repetition. Less important is the genealogies of what happened when, or who did what to whom.
In doing this particular exercise I discovered that, as a member of the LIS profession, I come from a long line of what can only be called “culture enforcers”, with a repeating theme of the reinforcement of dominant forms of power. It has made me decidedly uncomfortable.


I do not think that word means what you think it means.

As a liberal and critical thinking library professional, I like to think of the profession as a kind of rebellious and radical information distributor; challenging the dominant paradigm and bringing about social change. Perhaps this is true for some, but the profession as a whole belongs to the powers that be.


Social, economic, military, and political power.

Throughout all civilisations, the problems with having libraries is that they are expensive. This is a problem because it means that the existence of libraries and librarians relies upon a person or organisation with a lot of money. This means that the person or organisation with a lot of money ends up having a very large say in what the library does.


I have missed lots here, as there are just too many.

  • Ashurbanipal kept a library of records of omens and methods of divination so he could stay King, and defeat his half-brother who was King of Babylon. When he conquered a land, he took their writing and put it all in his Library.
  • The Great Library of Alexandria existed to stamp Greek culture on conquered Egypt. Although considered ‘public’ it was really only accessed by the ruling class and ‘educated men’. Librarians were essentially courtiers and scholars in favour with the Royal family.
  • China: Official Imperial Library approved versions of the Confucian Classics were created, edited, destroyed, copied, distributed and preserved based on which Dynasty was justifying their rule at a particular time.
  • In Medieval Europe only the Church were allowed to look after the books, and to read, write, and distribute the teachings of the books. Then, later, they created special books to justify the torture and slaughter of innocent women accused of witchcraft.
  • During the renaissance, it was all about who had a bigger library with better staff than everyone else, because ‘whosoever has the biggest Library with the most notable librarian wins’.
  • In the nineteenth century United States, an incredibly rich steel tycoon with a known political agenda gave money to lots of cities to open public libraries. Perhaps to justify what he had done to get that money.
  • Today, public libraries serve the interests of federal and state governments and local councils in attracting residents, promoting and reinforcing endorsed narratives and celebrating mainstream cultural events.
  • Academic libraries are primarily distributors of material for major for-profit publishing corporations.

What next?

Questions from a futures researcher.

The profession is reinforcing its past, but what is next? We still have our human agency, our will, and a vision. What is your vision for librarianship? Do we need to reassess our funding models? Would a crowdfunded library be better able to create the future we want to see?

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