Publications

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"Losing the library faith? The public library ethos in an era of austerity.." D. McMenemy. The Battle for Books: SHARP 2012 26-29 June, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. 2012. Visit website (BibTeX)

Abstract:
The 1950 Public Library Inquiry in the United States identified the concept of the "library faith" (Leigh, 1950). The basis of this was that public librarianship had become an almost evangelical vocation, based around a committed professional approach to the promotion of the book and its benefits to the citizen and wider society. While the notion was specifically a commentary on the professional vocation of public librarians, it is fair to say that public library supporters not part of the profession themselves share in this vision of the public library as a place able "to transform society and assist the individual reader to attain his or her full potential" (Kelly, 2003).

Since the 1980s the neoliberal doctrines of the market have gained almost universal influence in public services in Western countries; in ethos arguably the complete opposite of the values that drove the creation of publically-funded libraries, museums and other cultural institutions. Concern has been expressed at the influence of such doctrines on the mission of the public library service and the resulting alteration of ethos that has occurred (Buschman, 2003; Usherwood, 2007). Have these doctrines changed the relationship of the professionals and the public with the ethos of the library service? It could be argued that the perilous state of public libraries evidenced by the decline in usage and the swingeing cuts proposed in the UK and elsewhere suggests their value to society is now questioned.

The paper explores the concept of "library faith" espoused by Leigh and questions its efficacy in the light of the prevailing economic and political winds and the unprecedented cuts seen in public library services. The savagery of the cuts indicate on one hand that the "faith" has diminished in the political class, yet in the reaction of members of the public and committed professionals in organising effective campaigns against the cuts, we see evidence that the "faith" remains. Are campaigners harking back to a mythical golden age, or are public libraries a crucial part of the fabric of society? What future for the "faith" and is it a belief that has lost its relevance?