The Death and Life of English Public Libraries: Infrastructural practices and value in a time of crisis

Corble, Alice Rose. 2019. The Death and Life of English Public Libraries: Infrastructural practices and value in a time of crisis. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This thesis examines the changing identity, spaces and fortunes of English public libraries in the context of 21st-century austerity and neoliberal reform of local government services. It interrogates what we can understand the practices and values of public libraries to mean at a time when the very notions and forms of what is ‘public’ and what is ‘a library’ are up for grabs.

Since their inception in the mid-nineteenth century, public libraries developed with a mission to enable social change through providing free and equal access to learning resources and knowledge spaces for all. This thesis asks how far public libraries can maintain this foundational identity as institutional agents of social change, while simultaneously being forced to change their organisational forms in present conditions of crisis. It reveals what is getting both lost and gained through this double valency of change and articulates how reading library crises at the local level sheds light on a wider national condition of crisis.

Based on multi-sited ethnography and interviews in London and Birmingham between 2013-2017, it examines what kinds of publics, values, and arguments for public value are produced and contested in these different library contexts. An analysis of the social and infrastructural relations between ‘local’ and ‘central’ forms of power and (counter)publics connects the case studies. A temporal skein also threads the cases together, using a conjunctural analysis approach to trace how historical moments of social and political change are embedded within emergent organisational and cultural transformations in the unfolding present.

Scholarship on the practices of public libraries is scarce in sociology. This thesis bridges this gap and develops existing knowledge with a lively ethnographic imagination, addressing the urgent need to articulate and make visible the multi-dimensional value of these quickly-disappearing public infrastructures. By exposing the practices that make and un-make the public library, the thesis argues that the state of the country’s libraries can be read as a critical diagnostic barometer for the life and death of municipal England. It also argues that the public library’s future survival as an enabler of social change depends upon mobilising political conversations across sectors and academic disciplines with a view to bridging activist and professional practice.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

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Public libraries, crisis, austerity, publics, spatial practices, temporality, infrastructures.

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28 February 2019

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Date Deposited:

02 Apr 2019 13:41

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:14


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