Failures of a library

November 14, 2018

Libraries are based on the idea to provide, convey and store information and knowledge. A failure of a library would then be to not be able to provide, convey or store its contents.  This fault can take on several different forms. First of all, it can come down to a spatial failure to host information, that is a physical building can only retain so many objects i.e. it runs out of space. That requires libraries to continually get rid of older, outdated, books and make space for new ones. That can create another fault, when do books become outdated, and how can the librarians foretell what the future will deem valuable and become historic.

Then it’s also the banning and selections of materials, it should not be the role of libraries to decide what viewpoints are “correct” and what information, or even which authors, is wrong or offensive, dangerous or unsuitable. How to set a rule for what belongs in the library and what to keep out of sight, if anything, is a line that can be and is easily overstepped. Communities, politics and other social influences often have a say in the censorship and what the libraries ban and keep of their shelves. On the bright side there is always awareness and fight against this sort of censorship which often goes hand in hand of the fights against social injustice in society. One example is the Banned books week in the US which celebrates banned books and fights for their unbanning.

A part of the informational failures can also be seen in the biases in the libraries classification systems and catalogues. These knowledge systems are, like many other social systems, created by the ones with power and reflect their values and perception of society. There have been notions to reform and adapt these systems to reflect modern society, like queer intervention on the queering of the catalogue which Emily Drabinski [2] suggest, or other reformative suggestions to change the systems or make the biases they have obvious and apparent that they represent a particular point of view.

Libraries are more than just buildings filled with books, they are also a social infrastructure, a communal space for the public. The social role of the library is an ever-changing and develops with time and its community. Different times call for different social infrastructure and with time the library has become more and more an informative community center which requires more and diverse spaces for social gatherings. The failure to spatially accommodate the different social infrastructure demands of the society is a crucial failure of a modern library.

The architecture might not have taken these social infrastructure workings into account which might make it difficult for some libraries to adapt and change and might be the point of breakdown for them.

The libraries disregard to social accommodate the social infrastructure can also be a critical failure. Through history, libraries have often been rather exclusive and have banned certain minority groups from accessing and/or working at libraries. These have been different groups at different times in history, women, black people, people of a certain religion etc. which reflect the social context at each time and comes back to reflect the values of the ones with power.

The profession of librarians is also noteworthy in this context, when libraries were beginning to emerge there were only male librarians but now it has turned into a profession, like many others, with a female majority. It is interesting to reflect upon this change, in relation to how with more social infrastructure implemented in a library it moves from a profession of power to a profession of caring. The libraries have developed with society through the times and hopefully, they will continue to do so and overcome and deal with these failures in the future.



Line drawing of a Read banned books week poster from

The American library association


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One Response to “Failures of a library”

  1. Aditya Pawar Says:

    Reblogged this on CO-LIBRARY.

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