Libraries and the public good

just got back from a fantastic visit with the Penn State Libraries, where I had the chance to give a revised version of my Beyond measure: Valuing libraries talk. If you want to watch the Penn State version, I’m told the video will be up for a little while (I suggest fast-forwarding past me talking so you can get to the part where the Penn State folks have some great comments and questions).

In this version of the talk, I expanded a bit on the ALA Core Values I talked about by adding some stuff about Democracy and the Public Good. Here’s the new intro:

I want to start out by being very clear about where I’m coming from and who I am – this talk is motivated by a deep and abiding belief in the transformative power of higher education, both for individuals and for societies, and an equally firm conviction that in a healthy democracy, education exists outside of and separate from market forces. While I’m sure some, maybe most colleges and universities, and their libraries, could be run more efficiently, I categorically reject the argument that they should be run like a business. Businesses are run with the intent of producing profit – a private good, while education is intended to produce an educated society – a public good. The original goal of education as a social institution in this country was to produce an informed citizenry who could participate in their own governance through the democratic process. I still believe in the importance of that goal, and I likewise believe that Libraries contribute to that public good, and should be run and judged accordingly. In terms of library values, democracy is about an informed citizenry and about the rights of citizens to both free expression and to access to the free expressions of others. tells me that public good refers to “a good or service that is provided without profit for society collectively.”

So again, as we face pressure to run our libraries more like a business, it is critical that we remember the difference between public goods and private ones, and between societal motives and profit motives. If we truly believed in libraries as Public Good, I suspect we would more quickly reject the “run libraries like a business” rhetoric.

I tried to weave the themes of democracy and the public good throughout the talk, and used some Penn State examples this time, but otherwise the talk is pretty similar to the earlier version, so I’m not going to bother posting the text here. I also talked about less formal acknowledgements, using a great example from Kelly Miller at UCLA. Kelly had recently shared on Facebook a quote from a hand-written thank you note she got from a graduating senior: “You were the first person to show an interest in my research. You made me feel like my work mattered.”  That kind of note is a way better testament to the value (and values) of librarians than reference stats could ever be.

I started thinking about the public good aspect of libraries and higher education after watching Tressie McMillan Cottom talking about for profit colleges on Dan Rather and on MOOCs and For Profit Universities at UC Irvine. If you care about the future of education, you should be paying attention to what Cottom is saying.

For me, thinking about libraries and the resources and services we provide as a public good, contributing to an informed citizenry, has been very powerful. That night I sent a note to our awesome government documents librarian James Jacobs and asked him to put together a blog post that might help readers make some sense of the conflicting accounts and opinions on the NSA data gathering story. I think the resulting post on history and context to the NSA leaks provides a great example of a way libraries and librarians can actually enact those values of democracy and the public good. I think our internship program for first generation college kids is another example. Hosting a reading for the new independent journal As/Us, which highlights the work of women of color, indigenous women and other underrepresented writers, was a way of enacting our commitment to diversity.

The truth is, preparing for and giving these talks has made me much more conscious about trying to find ways to act on the values that drew me to a career in higher education and libraries in the first place. Maybe the rest of y’all do that kind of stuff all the time, but I’m finding that I need a little reminder and a little inspiration. So consider this fair warning that I’m probably going to keep on being corny and talking and thinking about values for a little while longer. I definitely need to continue to wrestle with the idea of libraries and higher education as a public good. The PSU crowd asked some very good challenging questions that have really got me thinking.


4 Responses to “Libraries and the public good”

  1. 1 Christina N June 16, 2013 at 1:07 am

    Interesting! I have recently been exploring the disconnect between intellect and practice with a focus on our own profession. Hard to discuss values when we focus on operational efficiencies and are forced to justify our existence in a ‘rational’ manner. I think the field needs a deeper and more candid discussion of value. It brings forward the uncomfortable history of education in librarianship and its conflict between epistemology and pedagogy. What is value and what is quality? What we as librarians value must be in alignment with community values but how is this weighed against the community’s increasing apathy towards intellectualism in favour of things like ‘labour market demand’? The allure of serving an ‘economy’ that is becoming ever more vague, all-encompassing and seemingly out of individual control means that public services are under pressure to justify their ‘value’ as something other than the morally responsible thing to do. Somehow, they have to be cost-effective in ways that ignore their complexities and long term effects on culture and society. So when we examine issues of the ‘public good’ we have to look deeply into the profession and changing societal values…and the root causes of those changes (I.e. education has been a mechanism of social control so how is its changing face reflective of a new form of control? What role does capitalism have in the changes we observe?)


  2. 2 sophylou June 15, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    Not corny. Necessary. With all the corporatization of higher ed going on, we need to continue to think in terms of maintaining education as a public good… not just rhetorically, which is easy to do, but in practice as well. And it’d be great to find ways to this without falling back into the library/librarian cliches you talk about. Please keep talking!


  1. 1 Curiouser and curiouser: Librarianship in Wonderland | Feral Librarian Trackback on October 17, 2013 at 2:48 pm

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