Public Libraries and Knowledge Politics

Author: Stuart Lawson

Abstract: [Preprint of a forthcoming book chapter] To complement contemporary discussions on open access, this chapter considers public libraries as one element of the longer history of access to scholarly knowledge. 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. Until the advent of the digital technologies which enable the open access movement, public access to the scholarly record required physical access to printed works. Public libraries helped facilitate this, fulfilling a vital role in extending access to scholarship beyond the academy. Yet the complex power dynamics at play in the dissemination of ideas are visible in the creation of public libraries, through the role of philanthropy, Enlightenment notions of self-improvement, and the class politics of the Victorian era. Examining these origins reveals that current debates around the consequences of widening public access to scholarship – and how this expansion should be paid for – are nothing new. The liberal ideals underpinning librarianship in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are still present in the digital era, and exploring the biases and contradictions contained within public libraries’ history may give us pause when considering the political context of scholarly publishing today.

Citation: Lawson, S. (2018). Public Libraries and Knowledge Politics [Preprint]. Retrieved March 20, 2018, from http://eprints.rclis.org/32361/

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