On Public Libraries

By Andrea Bonfanti

In our society, the term public has lost a lot of its potential positive meaning. Public should be of everyone as needed, without the burden of single custody. However, the current system of value is one of obsessive possession rather than actual usefulness. If we were to quote Marx, the slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” does not apply anymore because, it seems, people do not need, people want. For this reason, public libraries are often depicted as obsolete buildings with inefficient staff and dusty books. This short essay aims to show that public libraries are in fact beneficial spaces to our contemporary society for two reasons. First, these public institutions represent a counter-space to capitalist production due to the opportunity they offer: sharing goods. Second, public libraries are places for research of personal interests, therefore individual achievement, and for the production of new and common knowledge. In that, they oppose the capitalist ideology, which based on an illusionary principle of individualism (alienation).

Libraries have played a major role in humans’ societies since ancient times. The destruction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria was felt by its contemporaries as a major loss for the whole of humanity. Later, what is now called “The Renaissance” sparkled when a building-less library, made out of thousands of books and manuscripts, was fled from the Byzantine Empire into Western Europe after the “fall of Constantinople”, in 1453. More recently, Lenin, in a short work titled ‘What can be done for public education’, compared sarcastically the state of American libraries, with millions of books and open access to virtually anyone, to that of Russian libraries or, rather, their quasi-total absence. Libraries then, have always been a point of reference for society.
Public libraries’ role as places of sharable knowledge is of primary importance in opposing to capitalist system of production. In order to survive, capitalism needs a market in a constant state of hunger for new commodities. In this viscous circle, on one side capitalism production fills the market with a huge variety of constant new products while the market, on the other side, sustains capitalism through profit. The maintenance of this market has terrible effects, such as labourers’ exploitation, dramatic climate changes and constant humans’ alienation. Public libraries hit the very core of capitalist production, namely the market, because they stimulate the active principle of sharing goods, knowledge, and consequently of non-production. Individuals use the product for the duration of their need and, once they are done with it, put it back in the circle, for the benefit of others. The market request of a product is then weakened, if not cancelled completely. These institutions’ service to share goods puts on the spot how unnecessary the capitalist production actually is and weakens its frantic race. More than that, libraries also represent a place where individuals can grow personal passions.

Public libraries are places for the growth of individuals and for the sequential production of new and, possibly common, knowledge. The current capitalist ideological system spreads the illusionary idea that capitalist production can provide personal fulfilment through a variety of individualised commodities. In reality however, individuals become but mere consumers of whatever product is offered within a limited range of possible choices. We then find ourselves arbitrarily lost in choices such as in which colour to buy our new cell-phone or tablet. We need to have “our music”, “our mac” and “our kindle” when studying, travelling, living. Surrounded by such an abundance of commodities we do not question, for example, when, why or how that certain product had already become a need for us. Without engaging here with the difference between technology for the common good and capitalist technology, it is nevertheless important to pay attention on how individuals lose their own individuality and the response that public libraries offer. In this respect, these public institutions offer the same product as the market, knowledge, but in a sharable way. Through libraries individuals can research topics of personal interest and conduct private research without the necessity to purchase goods and, therefore, dwelling outside the capitalist ideology of the “must be mine”. Furthermore, public libraries, because they are public and based on the principle of common use, stimulate the free exchange of ideas. They then become forums for discussion and for the production of communal and new knowledge for the improvement of common conditions.

In conclusion, this essay has tried to engage primarily with the importance of public libraries in an anti-capitalist approach to knowledge. These institutions have been a communal good since the ancient times, from ancient Egypt to modern times. In our era, an epoch characterised by capitalist system of production and ideology, public libraries are important more than ever before. They represent a challenge to capitalism because they undermine the market request and consequently, the production itself. They also offer a genuine approach towards learning without the addiction of possession- the “must be mine” ideology. Furthermore, due to their public feature, these institutions stimulate communal discussion and knowledge production.

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