This week for our COPIM project reading group we are turning to the forthcoming Stuart Lawson, ‘The Political Histories of UK Public Libraries and Access to Knowledge’, in Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access, ed. by Martin Paul Eve and Jonathan Gray (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020), pp. 161–72. This work is not yet published but will be openly accessible when it is, hopefully later this year. The work is also derived from Stuart’s Ph.D. thesis, which is openly accessible.
This chapter might, in some ways, be otherwise titled ‘The Mythology of Libraries’. In contemporary circles of scholarly communications it is common to speak of libraries’ missions as though they were driven by ahistorical, transcendental values. It has ‘always’ been libraries’ missions to provide access to knowledge for everyone, it is sometimes claimed. What Lawson shows in this chapter is that a ‘historical perspective reveals that access to knowledge has undergone a long, slow process of change, related to social, technical, and political developments in printing, mass literacy, universities, and libraries’ (161).
Taking a UK-based perspective, Lawson begins by noting that libraries have existed, for most of their history, to serve specific communities, rather than a general public. Early ‘public libraries’ – a term coined in the seventeenth century – were funded by philanthropic endowments, subscriptions, and institutional affiliations. It was not until the 1850s that there was any legislation that would allow the government-funded propagation of public libraries, with further acts in 1919 and 1964 (162).
Over this same time period, notes Lawson, working-class education was greatly expanded through ‘mutual improvement societies, cooperative societies, miners’ libraries and mechanics’ institutes’ (the last of which is where my university, Birkbeck, University of London, has its roots). The traditional narrative here goes that power from and in education was shifted from governing classes to workers. Lawson shows, though, that to some extent the opposite was true. The expansion of education for the working classes may have ‘began with working-class activists organizing among themselves’, but ‘it was solidified into institutions such as mechanics’ institutes that were much more heavily reliant on middle-class patronage, and finally led to state control of education’. Public libraries, Lawson notes, were part of this process. ‘The state-funded public library network’, writes Lawson, ‘did offer greatly expanded opportunities for working-class people to access books, but at the cost of removing some of the agency from the decision over what to purchase that was present in the small local libraries of a century earlier’ (163).
Further, as Lawson notes, class, colonialism, and access are fundamental axes along which we must understand UK library history. For ‘class relations were intrinsic to the public library movement that led to the original British legislation in 1850’, driven by ‘Victorian middle-class notions of social- and self-improvement’. Libraries were enacted in UK government legislation to better the working classes, in a top-down relationship of claimed benevolent patronage, but nonetheless one that was bestowed upon, rather than controlled by, those whom it supposedly served (164).
Lawson also points, though, to the fact that such liberal Enlightenment notions of the function of libraries has colonial implications. Seeing the Dutch colonial administration in Indonesia’s creation of ‘2,500 public libraries to cement its authority through instilling its values’, the British Empire followed suit, using a similar propagandist model in its African and Asian colonies. Yet there was no global pattern to whether libraries spread colonial values or were liberatory from them. As Lawson notes, the acclaimed library theorist Sirkazhi Ramamrita Ranganathan saw libraries in India in the 1930s ‘as part of an anticolonial political project’. ‘Widening access to knowledge has been viewed as both emancipatory’, shows Lawson, ‘and, conversely, as a tool for indoctrination’ (164–5).
Public libraries in the UK have, points out Lawson, ‘always had to be responsive to the political context of the time’. Under New Labour, social inclusion was a core part of the project, whereas the cuts of the 2010-2015 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition enacted devastating budget cuts upon these institutions. Lawson notes that the same is true of digital open-access policy, which is pressed into the service of many masters. This simply follows the history of libraries as they stand. For example, writes Lawson, although ‘in the late nineteenth century public libraries’ provision of technical literature was patchy, by the First World War they were seen as supporting economic activity around scientific and technical progress, leading to the development of numerous commercial and technical libraries’. Lawson also demonstrates how the ‘Access to Research’ initiative in the UK in recent years followed along these lines (166).
In all, for Lawson, ‘open access to research in the digital era is part of this longer history of access to knowledge. But if the decisions governing open-access policy are subject to whims of temporary administrations, then nothing is inevitable about the success or otherwise of open access—rights obtained after a long struggle can always be rolled back’. Open access, in other words, comes in different flavours, with different emancipatory or recuperative potential. It is only by ‘paying attention to the lessons of history’, says Lawson, ‘particularly its social and political dimensions, those of us who see open access as a progressive catalyst for social change can work toward the kind of open access we want to see’ (167).
Photo by Ivo Rainha on Unsplash