The Public Library as Instigator of a Modern Public Sphere

On: October 30, 2009
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About Rutger van den Berg
Rutger is a 23 year old New Media student living in Amsterdam. In March of 2009 he graduated in communication science at the University of Amsterdam, During his master he specialized in Popular Culture & Media Entertainment. Currently He's deepening his knowledge of New Media, studying for his second masters degree at the University of Amsterdam


The digitalization of information has been a hot topic ever since the arrival of the computer. The internet must be the world’s biggest library by now. Never before the enormous amount of information that can be found on the web has been accessible from one spot. The biggest argument for maintaining the printed word has always been the discomfort of reading from a computer screen. With the arrival of digital reading technologies such as e-readers this problem is about to be overcome. The Kindle, the amazon E-reader was sold out in five and a half hours after it’s introduction in 2007. The e-book is definitely becoming more and more popular.

I started thinking about this topic again after reading an article in a Dutch magazine called Vrij Nederland about the new public library in Amsterdam. The article is called zoeken naar betekenis, which means: searching for meaning [1]. The article is about the role of the library in our modern age. With the above mentioned advance of the e-book and other digital information recourses the classical role of the library is becoming old fashioned and maybe even redundant. The reading-room and lending desk, the definitions of a classic library, are becoming less important to the visitors. What elements of a public library can still draw people to a library?

Adaption to the needs of the modern individual is the key. Frank Huysmans (in zoeken naar betekenis) claims libraries need to present themselves as information experts. There should be intelligent meta information systems, which include every kind of information about a subject. For example: a person is searching for music by The Doors, when searching inside the system he or she will find cd’s, but also movies, documentaries and books about The Doors. Why would this be better than searching on the internet? According to Huysmans libraries can offer more complete and better balanced information, because the information has been verified and isn’t driven by commercial interests.

This sounds promising, but people are becoming more and more accustomed to searching for information on the Internet on their personal computers, the information presented in a library might be slightly better, but is this reason enough to get you out of your house and into a library? The creators of the new public library in Amsterdam also seemed to have their doubts, because they allocated all sorts of other entertaining (and commercial) elements inside the library. Inside the library there’s a fancy Italian restaurant, a high profile coffeebar and lunchroom. Also the library organises readings, exhibitions and so on. A public library with all these elements is way more than a simple collection of information, the library is starting to become a social meeting point.

The question is: is this a bad thing? I tend to think it isn’t. Of course all of the above mentioned changes mean a decrease in the amount of books for loan. This means a loss of the classical intellectual vibe which comes to mind when thinking about a public library. The possibility to stroll trough a wood of bookshelves in complete silence is becoming history. This is a shame, but is also a necessary deficiency. There’s simply no need for such a wood of physical books anymore. Instead the library is becoming a meeting point and not just an ordinary meeting point! It’s a (to some extent) non- commercial meeting point which combines the possibility of a social get together with an enormous amount of information.

This is where the public sphere comes in. Jurgen Habermas introduced the notion of the public sphere in his book: the structural transformation of the public sphere in 1962[2].

In the culture characterized by Öffentlichkeit (public sphere), there occurred a public space outside of the control by the state. Inside this public sphere individuals exchanged views and knowledge. In Habermas’s view, the growth in newspapers, journals, reading clubs, Masonic lodges, and coffee-houses in 18th century Europe, all in different ways, marked the gradual replacement of “representational” culture with Öffentlichkeit culture. Before the emergence of the public sphere European culture had been dominated by a “representational” culture, where one party sought to represent itself on its audience by overwhelming its subjects The public sphere offered an opportunity for non restricted discussion and deliberation. As noted before the public sphere relied on physical places where people could socially encounter in the discussion of politics and knowledge.

In our modern individualistic society, the importance of the public sphere is decayed. According to Habermas this is due to the growth of commercial mass media, which turned the critical public into a passive following herd, and to the rise of the welfare state, which ‘merged the state with society so thoroughly that the public sphere was squeezed out’.

When thinking about the modern public library I keep on thinking about the 18th century coffee houses, Habermas speeks so highly about. The combination of a social meeting point and the huge amount of information on offer, sounds like a perfect combination to re-instigate the discussion of politics and knowledge as a basis for a modern public sphere. The only problem is the libraries strong ties with the government, which according to Habermas have been a public sphere killer. Still I think a modern library is a perfect starting point for instigating the public debate on a more intellectual level. I don’t now whether it can be considered a starting point for a modern public sphere, but a modern library sure sound like a perfect place for the exchange of views and knowledge.

[1] Kaan, M (2009) Zoeken naar betekenis. Vrij Nederland. Nr 31 pp 56-59

[2] Habermas, Jürgen (1962 trans 1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society, Polity, Cambridge.

Comments are closed.