A contested public space – the case of the public library

A contested public space – the case of the public library

Katherine Robinson (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Since 2010, 337 public libraries have closed, and others have been turned over to volunteers or to private companies to run.(1) Over the past five years, protests against public library closures and outsourcing have emphasised the library as a democratic space. Prominent authors have rallied around the cause; Zadie Smith arguing that the public library encourages equality of opportunity through access to learning, and Philip Pullman articulating his scepticism at the culture of community bidding and voluntarism proposed as a cost-saving solution to the funding crisis. The public library in its municipal form, funded by the local authority, and staffed by council employees, is seen as an embodiment of local democracy and accessibility; it is open to all.

In early May, a group of people camping in St Peter’s public square in Manchester city centre in protest at the city’s housing policies were refused entry to the nearby public library after complaints that they had caused a disruption. Members of the group were described as ‘storming’ the building in an attempt to occupy it; the police were called, and security staff installed on the door. This confrontation challenges the idea of the public library as being uncomplicatedly, a space for ‘everyone’.(2) It presents an opportunity to think carefully about how claims to public space are made, and where the limits to these claims lie.(3) Moreover, rather than illustrating a break with the habitual peaceful accommodation of ‘everyone’ in the public library, I argue that the events in Manchester can help us to think about the inherent difficulties of places and services that are aimed at everyone.

Attempting to accommodate the multiple needs and interests of people in the public library is inevitably a fraught process. While the tension inherent to public space can be seen as part of the ‘engaged struggle’ of democratic agonism (Young 2000), and confrontation and argument as sign of a lively democratic space (Sennett 1970), in this period of severe funding withdrawals, the stakes are even higher. At a time when municipal public services are being stripped of their funding, the complexities, negotiations and conflicts always present in public libraries, are sharpened. For librarians, the daily stress of accommodating people in the library is exacerbated by anxiety around ever-shrinking budgets and job insecurity.

Drawing on examples from my research in public libraries, I look at the daily conflicts and compromises which constitute the complex openness of the public library, observing how these are bound up both with institutional rules and informal understandings of acceptable behaviour. While the openness of the library is conditional, based on rules and expectations, these are negotiated and interpreted by library users and staff. In the busy, urban libraries where I carried out research, I observed how rule breaking was occasionally overlooked, or special allowances were made to accommodate users in particularly difficult situations. Librarians found themselves soaking up the impact of cuts to other public services; helping library users write letters regarding their benefits claims, signposting, and providing a space for those who had nowhere else to go.

Sometimes people were ‘let off’ large fines that had built up, or paid them in instalments. The head librarian of one library in south London said that she felt it was better to encourage people to continue to have a relationship with the library, rather than to carry out the letter of the law and pursue fines:

“With some families you see the fines stacking up and they haven’t returned the books, and we say: ‘Ok, let’s start again. Bring back everything that you can find at home, and let’s wipe the slate clean. Let’s start again.’ And so you try to remind them and encourage them, rather than scaring them off.”

Librarians become skilled at mediating and interpreting people’s circumstances and needs, often through subtle and inferential work. However, negotiating and applying the rules is also uneven work; it sometimes means that special accommodations and exceptions are made to some, and not to others. Commenting on the relative noise levels in the library, a frequent source of conflict, one librarian observed that while teenagers doing their homework together were louder than other users, and were sometimes considered disruptive, she was not prepared to immediately tell them off, saying: ‘That has something to do with democracy, and with tolerance, and with all those things that we’re always trying to promote, and it’s happening here, in a small way, all the time.’

In this case, other users of the library are expected to extend tolerance to others whose use of the space might be different from their own. Offering respect and understanding to users, and asking that they extend these amongst each other is a demonstration of the daily negotiations and affordances seen in the library. At the same time, the ways in which the rules shift according to the staff who are on shift and their interpretation and capacity, means that negotiations in the public library are always uneasy and potentially exclusionary, reflecting the everyday tensions, struggles and exclusions at work in public spaces (Deutsche 1998).

Librarians demonstrate that they are prepared to make pragmatic compromises on certain library principles (the timely return of books and other material; the idea that the library should be a quiet space) in order to reinforce others (openness, outreach and engagement with vulnerable groups; respecting the needs of teenagers doing their homework together) that they feel are contextually more important. However, the work of compromise, interpretation and negotiation requires invested emotional labour and it can become a daily stress point, for instance in the highly public and somewhat embarrassing discussions about fines that took place at the issue desk.

My research shows that the accommodation of ‘everyone’ in the public library is always negotiated, often compromised, and may shift from day to day. The valued openness of the public library depends on the capacity of librarians to be generous in their understanding of the complexities and difficulties of peoples’ lives, and to have the competency to override the rules or overlook small infringements. When both those who use the library and those who work there struggle with stress and insecurity, their capacity for forbearance and generosity is reduced, and the openness of this public place can become limited, and even policed. As the case of the Manchester public library shows, the everyday compromises and conflicts inherent to the daily public life of the library are amplified into moments of confrontation and contestation by cuts to municipal public services.

(1) These figures are from Public Library News, a blog on which librarian Ian Anstice records public library news and statistics.
(2) The development of the public library’s institutional response to an increasingly multicultural and socially diverse public is illustrative of the complexities of trying to offer a service for ‘everyone’.
(3) An example of these claims may be seen in this press release by Manchester City Council about the incident.

Deutsche, Rosalyn (1998) Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics Cambridge: MIT Press
Sennett, Richard (1970) The Uses of Disorder New York: Knopf
Young, Iris Marion (2000) Inclusion and Democracy Oxford: Oxford University Press


Katherine Robinson is a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Image: Outside Canterbury public library (Katherine Robinson, 2013)