Reviewed By: Beatrice Toothman, Patricia Campbell, Garrett Ingalls, and Hollie Marsolino
Link to article: http://informationr.net/ir/18-3/colis/paperC14.html
Public Libraries as Promoters of Social Sustainability?
San Jose State University
INFO 287- Library Services for Racially and Ethnically Diverse Communities
April 4, 2020
Article Synopsis and International Perspective
Authors, Lisa Engström and Johanna Rivano Eckerdal, from the University of Borås, Sweden presented their paper, “Public libraries as promoters of social sustainability?” at the Tenth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 16-19, 2019. In their discussion, the authors describe their goal as being to “critically” examine the portrayal of public libraries as contributors toward social sustainability and further explain that importantly within academia as well, the library is often considered to be a “crucial cultural institution, contributing to social cohesiveness and sustainability.” Generally speaking, community libraries are open to everyone and free to use and because of this, libraries the role of the library is emphasized as a place where the community can take an active part.
Engström and Rivano Eckerdal define social sustainability, or the challenges of the same as it could relate to the functioning of civil society and democracy, i.e. social and economic gaps and the growing mistrust of societal institutions, and between individuals or groups of people. According to the authors, in Sweden sustainability in all forms is considered as a general policy goal and can shape cultural policy and in doing so promotes social inclusion in European countries in addition and more broadly on an EU level. Thus, when society seeks to solve problems related to segregation and the lack of social sustainability, libraries are depicted or portrayed as part of the solution.
Further, Engström and Rivano Eckerdal investigate the meanings ascribed to the concept of social sustainability and how public libraries are shaped in relation to it. To achieve their goal, the authors used a selection of policy documents specifically related to Swedish public libraries for analysis. And though their research is specific to Sweden, they argue that it is relevant to a broader context in that considering public libraries and other cultural institutions who are assigned roles in which they act to strengthen social sustainability, is appropriate in other Western countries.
Core Research Questions and Methods
There are a few questions which Sweden could investigate its sustainability development but one method in which it evaluates its libraries is by examining the way the cultural institution is portrayed through policy. The main question that guided this research is posed by Carol Bacchi from 2009 which inquires, “What is the problem presented to be?”. This question is directed towards the social and political policy that encompasses public libraries and how they work towards obtaining social sustainability. This method is an alternative to the usual practice, as Engström and Eckerdal put it, “The method focuses on paying interest to how particular problems are framed and phrased rather than evaluating suggestions on how problems may or may not be solved.” This approach created six areas of focus in which to analyze the library’s social policy by attempting to uncover why issues are problematic and what alternative solutions can be.
The six formulated questions were to be applied to a sample of five library plans that were deemed suitable for the research. The library plans of the municipalities were selected based on their availability along with their geographical spread across Sweden. The five municipalities that were chosen were: Gullspång, Halmstad, Malmö, Sundsvall and Åtvidaberg. Each of their social policies were then reviewed with these six assessments in mind: a) definition of sustainability, b) origin of formulating sustainability as a goal, c) why sustainability is put forward? d) how is sustainability created? e) means to create sustainability and f) the library’s role in relation to sustainability. Sustainability was not the explicit goal of these policies, but the policy was judged on how sustainability was addressed and what role the public library was posturing to solve.
Findings and Conclusions
The authors mention using an “oblique angle” to analyze their findings, which means to come at the problem from a differing view. The library should be at the forefront of social sustainability, not the patrons of the library. The term democratic space is used frequently suggesting that public libraries are open spaces where all members of the community are welcome to engage and move forward in social practice regardless of the types of resources inhabiting the library. The authors assert that social inequality erupts from a disengaged library space. That, in all fairness, a library supports new perspectives, contributes to democratic concepts, and a multitude of ideals.
Summarily, the authors came to the understanding that social sustainability is a continuing process. Although their results were not quantified entirely, the authors note that they have leveraged enough information to rouse future studies on this topic. Their theoretical questions are what all libraries should be asking themselves to find the gaps, find possible challenges and keep the library in a place of awareness.
What American Libraries Can Learn from Global Practice About Designing Services For Diverse Populations
We feel that the most important takeaway from this article is the importance of language. We all know that words innately possess power; but the use of language within the public sphere has the power to make or break the overall perception of an institution’s usefulness, worthiness, and inclusiveness. The authors stress the importance of approaching the manner in which issues are presented rather than the overall importance of the issues themselves as the biggest indicative clue to solving ingrained internal and external sources of conflict surrounding the public library system. Of course, problems concerning diversity, inclusion, democracy in action, and social currency are all important to discuss and work to improve upon in our profession. However, the manner in which these problems are presented by our public institutions have to power to place the blame of failure (for democracy, inclusion, social performance, etc.) entirely on the shoulders of the public for not properly utilizing the last bastion of democracy that is the public library, or entirely on library services themselves for failing to properly engage the public. In other words, the language of right or wrong, blame or or approval, alienation or inclusion; is inadequate to describe the conflicts and opportunities that arise within the environment of the public library.
By utilizing flexible language, and recognizing the fluidity of social and economic issues as well as the ever changing landscape of the LIS profession itself, library professionals can better fulfill their social contract of providing diverse learning services and culturally inclusive programming. This flexibility extends not only to how services are presented to the public, but also how the institution itself frames its ongoing values and mission statement. With an institution of language reformation, failures become opportunities, inaccessibility is an issue that deserves research and inspection rather than reprimand, and diversity is an ongoing conversation with the community at large rather than a rigid set of guidelines meant to be acknowledged instead of instituted. As Americans, it’s as easy to get swept up in political correctness as is it its insidious cousin controversy. It’s easy to assign blame to one thing, person, or idea over another. As LIS professionals, remaining flexible and open to new ideas is par for the course for our jobs. If we take anything away from the ideas presented in this article, it should be the importance of being open to new ideas and new ways of looking at not just what we frame as problems, but the solutions we discover as well. In order to serve the diverse populations that make up our communities, it is vital to remain flexible in our viewpoints, fluid in our use of language, and open to discussion without the fear of blame lurking over our shoulders.