Librarians, think “in terms of locality rather than users” (Denis Merklen)

ActuaLitté: The project to extend opening hours and the recent “Robert law” show significant political interest for libraries. How to interpret it?

Dennis Merkel: The Robert law, promulgated last December, and previously all the stakes relating to the extension of the opening hours of libraries follow a period when the political power wondered about the survival of the establishments. Previously, important debates had taken place on the book itself, the relevance of the printed format compared to digital, but also on the institutional status of the library. At the local level, communities were even asking themselves the question of whether or not to keep the libraries open.

I would not say that this questioning was massive or dominant, but it was there, with, opposite, many initiatives, often coming from the world of libraries, to make them evolve, whether towards the media library, the media digital, other types of practices such as video games or fablabs, its architecture, the integration of “participatory” projects… So many initiatives tending to reflect on the library as a place, sometimes as a “third place”. The library was a pioneer in this reflection aimed at its evolution and adaptation.

We have the impression, especially after the pandemic, that a page is turning. And that a conviction has taken root, on the part of cultural policy and public authorities in general, of the need to count on the library as an essential institution. However, the problems that arose before have not all been resolved. The field is open, with somewhat more assured support, it seems to me, from the public authorities.

What problems are you thinking about?

Dennis Merkel: Public libraries depend on local authorities, and budgetary and staffing issues remain open. This difficulty is always there, accompanied by that, which takes different forms, of the enlargement of the public. The threshold remains around 20% of the target population, an average on the national territory. The changes to digital are far from complete and they pose and will pose renewed challenges.

The massive closure and threat that has weighed on libraries in Great Britain for a decade, when this country and its institutions were seen as models, also makes this question of defining the orientation of institutions more topical. Again.

Does the Robert law complete a cycle, with a State that is reinvesting more broadly in the definition of establishments managed by communities?

Dennis Merkel: No, I do not think so. The library remains a facility designed in its locality. Recognition by the national state in no way takes away the decentralized dimension of the equipment. When we look, for example, at the way INSEE captures territorial diagnoses, the library is the only cultural facility designed as a very close facility. The theatre, the cinema, the museum, all the other cultural facilities are designed on a larger territorial scale, more connected to the metropolises and disconnected from the immediate daily life.

At the moment, a reflection is being carried out, beneficial in my eyes, on the way in which each library thinks of itself and is thought of in the territories. When we carried out our investigation into the fires of libraries, we noted, often, a difficulty of the public power and the institutions to equip the libraries with tools to be able to be in bond with the locality.

Does this notion of “locality” imply more decentralization?

Dennis Merkel: I would not say more decentralization, but a reflection much more linked to the social life in which the library must take part. There has always been and there still is a difficulty for the library to grasp the local life of which it is a part. Librarians think with the help of a technicality, in terms of audiences, users and other fine categorizations, diagnostic techniques and evaluation of their action essential to think about the diversity of audiences and uses. , but which makes them miss out on the life around them.

Thus, they find it difficult to grasp the local life of which they are a part, and which the library should not necessarily serve, but rather build. A social space with a library is not the same as a social space without a library. However, this local life is more difficult to grasp by statistical means and to transform into an indicator, and therefore to present to institutions, decision-makers, in a report. It is necessary to think in terms of locality, much more than in terms of users, under penalty of depriving oneself of the capacity to have an impact on local cultural and social life.

Why is this social life so important for libraries?

Dennis Merkel: The library and the library profession tend to think of the user as an individual, because they think of it in their own image. It is very good to think of the user as someone who reads. But this individual is part of a cultural and political life, of a social space whose qualities go beyond what one grasps when one thinks of a series of individuals who will approach the library for their needs. individuals of pleasure, information, knowledge, etc.

Other cultural facilities are better able to think in terms of social life and sociability. If you do a concert, you don’t think in terms of an individual, but of a crowd that shows up. If we ensure the programming of a theater, we conceive it according to local life, which we feed, in a certain way, to become a pole of attraction of a social space. This double direction of circulation is more difficult to think about today by librarians.

Can the addition of other public services (administrative or other) to the library serve this integration into social life?

Denis Merklen : The library does not always need to be isolated and to have a single activity around reading and culture, cut off from other centers of interest or needs of the population. So, why not, in fact, associate or connect different types of uses, to go to social centers?

But, once again, on the condition of taking part in local life and letting it enter the airlock of the library. It is another way of considering the constitution of collections, the layout of space, openness, the presence of collective agents such as associations, clubs, political parties, churches… All kinds of collective agents, who come not to bring individuals, but to bring an interest, a point of view which may or may not be shared, values, projects… This does not mean renouncing the missions of public service, plurality, openness or secularism.

What tools do librarians use to capture this local life?

Dennis Merkel: The library confuses sociology with the statistics that the sociologist uses to think about the social. When librarians think of making a sociology of the territory, they count the number of old people, young people, graduates, unemployed, executives, workers, poor, illiterate… All these data are only indicators, in fact, that allow us to reflect on social life.

Librarians have a much richer tool than information from sociology or statistics — although they remain indispensable, I insist. Their ability to speak and hear the people who live around them. The librarian’s ability to hear, to think collectively within the equipment, is a fundamental lever.

Does this need to fit into local life explain why a diversification of the documents and services of a library does not automatically lead to an increase in its attendance and its uses?

Dennis Merkel: A public institution cannot operate using the same instruments as a market study, to set up a bookstore or any business, for example. The library cannot be reduced to thinking of social life in terms of supply and demand.

Market studies are essentially based on segmentation and diversification in order to be able to find niches or the maximum extension of the service, of the product for which a clientele is sought. The investor sells what works, and abandons what does not work, he orients himself in a rather primitive way, also relying on the anticipation of market studies.

The action plan of the public institution, in this case the library, will necessarily be more propositional. A public school or theater will never do their job well if they function in terms of segmenting a demand in order to satisfy it better. This is why I insist on terms that go beyond this logic of action, such as that of local “life”, by insisting both on locality and on life.

Libraries and the profession have been marked by the health crisis and the application of a pass which has led to “sorting” users. How have you observed these phenomena and what do they say about libraries?

Dennis Merkel: Not being a doctor or epidemiologist, I would not judge whether or not it was appropriate to take such and such a measure to fight against the spread of a virus.

Nevertheless, I observe that this moment, painful for the population and many professionals, has highlighted the fact that the library can only be a space for sociability. A few years ago, the question was raised, with strong debate, about appropriate behavior in libraries. Did they have to be loud, quiet? Could we eat there, drink there? Sit on the floor or not, adapt the furniture? Is it necessary to have a collective workspace? An Internet connection ?

All these aspects concern the sociability of the place which, here too, can only be local. To define this sociability of the place, it is indeed necessary to know the population and the life which surrounds you, the type of population which comes to the library and its social “culture”.

As we know, the behavior of social agents is not identical, depending on social categories, territories, social groups. The type of libraries that we offer creates an environment, a habitat, more likely to accommodate certain behaviors than others. Behaviors will have greater positivity than others, depending on where they unfold. Four teenagers chatting while doing their homework can annoy older users, depending on the type of architecture in question or the proposals made by librarians for sharing space.

The fight against the spread of the virus, by the exchange of droplets of saliva in the spaces of sociability, by closing the library has paradoxically made it possible to become aware of the fact that libraries shelter forms of sociability and not only collections that individuals come to consult.

The suffering of the profession, solicited as a control authority at the entrance to libraries, did not surprise me. In times of epidemic, States impose restrictive behavior on an entire population, an effect of authority that can be badly experienced and that does violence to social agents. In a way that is all quite natural, in a diverse and democratic society like ours suddenly besieged by a massive threat of death and disease.

Photography: Denis Merklen at the ABF 2022 congress, in Metz (ActuaLitté, CC BY SA 2.0)

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Librarians, think “in terms of locality rather than users” (Denis Merklen)

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