Public Library Politics: An International Perspective

By Smith, Kerry; Usherwood, Bob | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Public Library Politics: An International Perspective


Smith, Kerry, Usherwood, Bob, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


Public libraries are a public institution. They operate under different political conditions and are consequently subject to the political vagaries in their country. Described is an International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (Ifla) research project coordinated and managed by the principal researcher Professor Bob Usherwood. The project investigates the attitudes of governments to public libraries. This paper elaborates on a presentation at the Western Australian Local Government Librarians Association conference in March 2003. It also reports on the project and its progress

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Public libraries are a product of history. Like other public institutions the public library functions within the context of different political systems. Because of this there are many different views as to its political purpose. Public libraries worldwide are funded by governments of some description. The existence of these libraries is in a political milieu which might not be altogether favourable for them. A number of studies have been carried out in recent times assessing community perceptions of the value of public libraries eg Building books and bytes, (1) Mercer (2) and Phibbs. (3) It is now time to assess the attitude of governments to them.

The study

The aim is to provide information on national and, where possible, local or regional, governmental attitudes to public libraries in terms of their

* value for individuals and groups in society

* contribution to the democratic process

* contribution to economic development

* contribution to political priorities

This will be done through a series of in depth interviews with politicians and senior bureaucrats in a variety of government situations. Those who work in library related portfolios are targeted. However others in allied areas of responsibility will be interviewed if possible. It is also desirable to interview senior members of local professional associations to establish the relationship between them and governments.

In order to assess the topic a literature review and preliminary analysis of interviews with politicians and their public servants has been carried out. The literature review, which covered references from many global library situations, made it clear that politics and politicians have and will continue to have a considerable influence on the delivery and development of the public library service. This project is to assist the library community better understand this political process.

The draft interview schedule was pilot tested with volunteers in different parts of the world and the final interview schedule is at appendix 1. It is recognised that whilst it is important to ask the same questions of each person interviewed, there may be slight variations in wording due to local circumstances. The analysis of the questions should provide information on

* the views of those interviewed on public library and information services

* the decision making process(es) in government departments with an interest in these services

It has been made clear to all interviewed that the work is part of an international academic study and that it has no connection with any commercial or political organisation. Local coordinators have been approached to manage the interviews for their area or country. They have been requested to seek assistance from other members if their local area is large. In the case of Australia, for example, the coordinator has sought assistance from state libraries in most of the states and territories.

Interviews are underway and counties in the study now include the UK, Sri Lanka, Croatia, France, Uganda, Norway and Australia. It is expected that the final data from the interviews, which can be taped or notated, will be submitted to the principal investigator in time for preliminary reporting at the Ifla Berlin conference in August 2003.

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