Public Libraries as Developers of Social Capital

By Hillenbrand, Candy | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Public Libraries as Developers of Social Capital


Hillenbrand, Candy, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


The notion that public libraries have a social impact is an old one, and several studies to demonstrate this exist. These studies are reviewed in the context that social inclusion and community building have emerged as a central theme in government policy. However the literature on the role of public libraries in building social capital remains sparse. It is clear that the community, governing bodies and academics are largely unaware of their existing and potential contribution to social capital. The onus is on public libraries, and their associations, to educate, promote and advocate this role to members of the community and beyond. Edited and shortened version of chapter 2 of the author's MA thesis 'Public libraries as developers of social capital: changing roles, values and missions' University of South Australia 2004.

The June 2005 issue of Aplis will contain a complementary article by the author describing the social capital audit of the Mount Barker Community Library in South Australia

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Social capital has a long history. Its roots may be traced back to the political economy theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, who recognised the connection between social norms and economic activity. Additional sources can be found in the classical sociological tradition of the nineteenth century, embodied in the works of Durkheim, Weber and Marx. According to Portes, the idea of social capital--that the social dimension matters--is not new to sociologists and 'simply recaptures an insight present since the very beginnings of the discipline'. (1)

The first documented use of the term can be traced to a 1916 article by L J Hanifan, a US school reformer, who referred to social capital as

   those tangible substances [that] count for most in the
   daily lives of people: namely good will, fellowship,
   sympathy, and social intercourse among the
   individuals and families who make up a social
   unit ... The individual is helpless socially, if left to
   himself ... If he comes into contact with his neighbor,
   and they with other neighbors, there will be an
   accumulation of social capital, which may
   immediately satisfy his social needs and which may
   bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial
   improvement of living conditions in the whole
   community (2)

Hanifan's early account of social capital 'anticipated virtually all the crucial elements in later interpretations (3) yet the term disappeared into obscurity for a number of decades. It reemerged briefly in the 1960s and 1970s but it was in the 1980s that the concept firmly took hold due to the pioneering work of sociologists Pierre Bourdieu (4) and James Coleman. (5) In the 1990s the concept of social capital was taken up by economist Francis Fukuyama (6) and subsequently widely popularised through the writing of political scientist Robert Putnam. (7,8,9) The title of Putnam's best selling book, Bowling alone, is now used as a metaphor to describe the decline of social relationships and engagement in civic life--where once Americans bowled in groups, they now bowl alone.

In recent years the concept of social capital has burst forth into numerous academic, government, public policy and popular arenas. Cox and Caldwell have attributed the extraordinary popularity of social capital and the 'reappearance of the social' to the waning of the model of economism or economic rationalism

   Like some of the spin off concepts from quantum
   mechanics, social capital seems to explain gaps in our
   theories even before it has been definitively described.
   It meets an intuitively felt need for seeing people as
   social beings after a long period in which the dominant
   discourse defined us primarily as economic agents (10)

The literature on social capital has expanded exponentially while debates about its meanings, application and measurement have transcended its traditional bases in the academic disciplines of sociology, economics and political science to be embraced by a wide range of policy fields, including family and community studies, education, work and organisations, health and governance. …

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