A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life
This year cultural institutions including libraries honoured the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth with various events and exhibitions, including Karl and Eleanor Marx - Life in the Reading Room at The British Library. Of course the Round Reading at the British Museum is where Marx famously worked on Das Kapital a first edition of which alongside the Communist Manifesto feature. Two hundred years after Marx we find ourselves living in an age when virtually all aspects of civic life is coming under attack, from library funding to the very concept of truth. Such exhibitions that situate Marx within the library offer an opportune moment to pause, and reflect. Not on Karl Marx the icon as a selling point, but on his work and more specifically on the potential of Marxist theory within the concept and function of Libraries per se.
The Library and Capital
Marx’s critique of economics held the commodity as the core around which the alienation of labour relations are dictated. Nothing is inescapable from this process in capitalism including knowledge which we have witnessed also being transformed into a product. For instance publishing vendors have commodified information to develop and market pay to view platforms. Arguably a precursor to this was early lending libraries that began as fee paying businesses. Historically libraries were attached to temples to shelter sacred scripts and it was not until the renaissance that the library was freed from religion to become a democratic space for learning and research. Libraries then started as spaces for the privileged. The current epoch is a turbulent one and more than ever access to information must remain democratic so it is libraries in their role as custodians which must endeavour to maintain free access.
The foundation of libraries should have an egalitarian mechanism at their heart to open up equality to sharing and accessing information. This lending and sharing of books and knowledge for free corresponds to Marxist ideas based on solidarity, trust and equality which are vital principles that the library should strive to uphold. At a time when public libraries are closing and facing funding challenges it is important to recognise that while libraries may have varying mandates be it an academic or public library, they all share a powerful civic role in this fight by remaining open to the public free of charge. Such purposes are not in dispute and indeed are a continuation of the principles that Marx valued.
The custodian aspect of libraries encompasses expanding and preserving collections alongside the responsibility to open up access to all citizens and researchers aided by the librarian’s expertise. In this digital era access should be simplified, and yet day after day we encounter readers with Library anxiety. Libraries can be an intimidating space to enter. The traditional Dewey system in itself can be confusing for readers, while others may not be familiar with or have access to digital devices, Even library confident readers can struggle and need assistance to navigate the library space from registering for a pass to interrogating catalogues, accessing information and don’t even start on copyright.
In Ken Loach’s awarding winning film I, Daniel Blake there is a scene in Daniels’ local library where he struggles to access information via the PC. This is symptomatic of a technocratic schema and without the skills and support of librarians some readers fail in utilising the library. Librarians then function as intermediary guardians facilitating access to knowledge we are there to help; but not everyone asks.
The Digital Age
Libraries have faced changes since the industrial revolution onwards from typewriters, eLearning to libraries becoming publishers. If libraries then have outgrown their traditional concept in this era of everything digitally instantaneously accessible we could ask what their relevance is. Yet excessive information is not always a positive, if it cannot be analysed, critiqued and for Marx at least, ultimately used for change. The library is at the centre of sociocultural space and in these post -truth times in which the media informs us we live there is a need to re-establish trust. Libraries and their librarians can play a valuable part within the information society by maintaining a human interaction. What remains is libraries role to provide a service to society and readers.
The definition of a library is shifting beyond the psychical space as digital technology extends the constellation of functions transforming the library into a pathfinder to discover further information. Advances have opened up new forms of communication enabling data to be transferred instantly around the globe. For example most libraries now offer online support and reference services. Pay to view databases platforms mentioned earlier are profit driven businesses yet permit instant access to material. Most libraries offer free access to such digital resources. The Library then is an active agent by democratically affording access to these type of resources, while also functioning as an educational tool to change and transform user’s research and learning practices. For Marx this learning would be applied to develop equality and challenge the injustices within the world we live. However, freedom is a culturally conditioned concept. It is not possible to contemplate Marx without considering class, and he would be disappointed that we still live in a class divided society with exclusions. While diversity is a hot topic within the discourse around libraries and librarianship, class is often omitted.
It’s been argued by practitioners in the profession that academic libraries are instruments of ideology, or in Marxist terms ideological state apparatuses. That is to say reproducing social conditions. Yet libraries can and should be the gateway to freedom. And yet, librarians can only facilitate access, the means of production- to continue with Marxist language is still owned by governments, directors and the mediation of knowledge in what is becoming an information economy. Though Marx for sure would have seen freedom to information and the guidance on how to access it as a step towards confronting the hegemony. Maybe the effects of the library, its collections and access are yet to be seen?
The ‘Occupy the Library’ movement that began in the US, spread across the globe and proved people do care about access to books and saw everyone from pop stars to librarians volunteering their time to catalogue and run the spaces.
Libraries and librarians can and do aid change. If Marx wrote Capital with the help of the library, imagine what all our readers could do with a joint effort…
Headline image photograph Marx in Winter from fhwrdh Flickr feed, Cropped and re-sized. (CC BY 2.0)