Cultural democratization via public libraries, a concern of the past ?

By Cécile Rabot, lecturer at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre

In France, public libraries were established to fulfill a cultural democratization mission, explains Cécile Rabot, sociologist and lecturer at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. With the creation of the Ministry of cultural affairs in 1958 came the desire to provide access to the classics of French literature and to reference works in different areas of study. At the start of the 1980s, libraries extended their collections to world literature, contemporary works, and various genres such as thrillers and comic books, in hopes of further expanding readership. Article 3 of the Library Charter signed in 1991 reaffirmed the definition of public libraries as a “public service necessary to promote democracy”, a mission established three decades prior. As such, public libraries must be of equal access to all French citizens, allowing the development of their “intellectual independence”, while contributing to societal progress.

Public libraries have become institutionalized and a fundamental asset to cultural democratization. However, today, we can observe that this process remains incomplete. Rabot proposes to outline specific reasons for this standstill, basing her research on a sociological study conducted in municipal libraries of Paris between 2005 and 2010. The study is composed of interviews, observations, and quantitative analyses.

To begin, Rabot details the positive progress made by public libraries in French society. In the 1970s, French public libraries grew in number, most notably in municipalities: between 1974 and 2008, the number of these libraries was multiplied by a factor of five, as was the number of public library members. This expansion was made possible by four guiding principles:

1) The proximity principle: this principle is meant to eliminate any physical distance from library collections. Consequentially, a more thorough delegation of tasks amongst libraries is organized within urban and rural regions across France. Municipal libraries are established in cities, generally accompanied by a Media Library, while departmental libraries take charge of animating rural areas.

2) The free of charge principle: this principle eliminates any financial obstacle to accessing books. Public library membership is generally free or offered at a reduced cost. Furthermore, on-site consultations and access to the various forms of cultural action enacted in public libraries are entirely free.

3) The liberty principle: this principle mandates that public library users have direct access to the collections, rather than having to go through an intermediary consultation. The goal is to transcend the teacher-student dialectic and to promote independent research and discovery of the library.

4) The diversity principle: this principle seeks to take into account the diversity of tastes and needs within the French population. Parallel to the cultural democratization mission is born the cultural democracy initiative: applied to public libraries, this endeavor advocates for an expanded range of supply (materials from different genres, registers, and backgrounds).

The application of these four principles encouraged the cultural democratization process via public libraries. The number of public library users increased beginning the 1970s, as did the diversity of socio-economic backgrounds represented in its membership. A positive outcome is the new role adopted by public libraries, namely to serve as a complement to schools, and specifically targeting children who do not benefit from a family library at home. Public libraries also play an important part in the lives of individuals moving up in social status, as they allow for autodidactic development. Fundamentally, public libraries become a fixture in individual development over the course of a lifetime. As such, these spaces are the most visited cultural institutions in contemporary France.

That being said, numerous obstacles persist, hindering the fulfillment of these public libraries’ cultural democratization mission. Namely, socio-economic categories with lower cultural capital remain the most distanced from public library initiatives. In Paris, blue-collar workers represent 2% of public library users, small business owners represent 1%, and low-level employees 10%, while each of these groups respectively constitute 7%, 4%, and 15% of Paris’ total population. Rabot finishes her presentation by outlining the various explanations for this inequality, which she claims are not addressed by current cultural policies in France:

1) Libraries are set up in a socially exclusive manner. Indeed, only readers with the necessary spelling and technical skills, used for an independent search, can understand the library’s complex classification system.

2) Library collections and events in the library space are conceived for middle and upper classes, more so than for the working class. The imperative for quality and excellence excludes any acquisition of working class literature – easy reads, replete with stereotypes, and thus deemed of mediocre quality. For example, Harlequin edition books, spy series such as SAS, and certain comic books are excluded in some public libraries. Finally, in terms of cultural action, public libraries emphasize exhibits, shows, and conferences, rather than workshops and other inclusive activities that would encourage underrepresented classes to become members.

Consequentially, Rabot notes that the increased interest in new technologies and cultural action is more rewarding and more manageable to put into motion than are cultural democratization initiatives. Indeed, welcoming and closely following wider audiences in libraries require human and financial resources, as well as an extensive examination of the definition and institutionalization of the librarian’s professional identity, as it has been historically constructed. It is these new interests that should be capitalized in the public library setting.

[Read the full text in french]

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