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The role of libraries in bridging the cultural gap

 To socialize society and become a centre of culture and civilisation, we need to develop educational instinct, respecting and investing in local libraries.  

Lady browsing books in library

“In this country, the village should in some respects take the place of the nobleman of Europe. It should be the patron of the fine arts. It is rich enough. It wants only the magnanimity and refinement. It can spend money enough on such things as farmers and traders value, but it is thought Utopian to propose spending money for things which more intelligent men know to be of far more worth. This town has spent seventeen thousand dollars on a townhouse, thank fortune or politics, but probably it will not spend so much on living wit, the true meat to put into that shell, in a hundred years.

The one hundred and twenty-five dollars annually subscribed for a Lyceum in the winter is better spent than any other equal sum raised in the town. If we live in the nineteenth century, why should we not enjoy the advantages which the nineteenth century offers? Why should our life be in any respect provincial?”

Henry David Thoreau; Walden or, Life in the Woods 1854

What Henry David Thoreau is raising here is as relevant today as it was in the 19th century, namely how much do we invest in developing a reading culture? 

This question is not an attempt to dissect national educational policies, curriculums, and other national educational institutions. Our interest is rather a bird’s eye view of how society interacts with education and knowledge.

How does society at large nurture the intellectual abilities for its inhabitants outside the classroom? The question seems to be banal but as we will see, the conventional classroom education may not be enough, since the said society may not have an “educational instinct”.

A cultured man cannot be a scoundrel

Henry David Thoreau critique of his fellow villagers, needs to be seen in the context of the larger American society of the time where, despite the rapid scientific and industrial progress, people had an extremely poor reading tastes preferring instead “vulgar” and sensational literature.  

It is a malaise that afflicts society even today, where the acquisition of a set of knowledge and skills has ushered in a period of massive technological innovation and progress but, something is missing.

The type of education Thoreau is proposing, consists in developing a sense of intellectual honesty and probity by improving man’s capacity for judgment, taste, empathy, sensitivity and character. 

That’s why today, there is a progressive negation of aptitudes that would produce literary giants like Homer, Shakespeare, Moliere, Victor Hugo, Miguel de Cervantes or even Confucius. 

We propose that today, the development of such kind of literature is impossible because it requires a deliberate pursuit of humanities, and the fine arts, which would bring about an overhaul of the material, social and economic and political life.

From a simple historical observation, you can deduce that for a society to become a centre of culture and civilization, it has to be accompanied by an intellectual state which acts as a big patron of the arts.

In ancient times we had cities like Athens, in the medieval period we had Persia and Baghdad, in the renaissance period we had cities like Florence, Paris, London as well as other Germanic cities. 

What you see is that in all these cities they had a public place reserved for serious intellectual debates, where the most learned men in those societies could congregate and from these fora, they have bequeathed to humanity an explosion of knowledge.

In Greece you had the Agora, In Baghdad, you had the house of wisdom, in the UK and France you had scientific societies. 

How Then Can Societies Develop This Educational Instinct And Become Centers Of Culture?

Why should cities be obsessed on spending towards vacuous projects like stadiums and recreational centers and parks, while forgetting libraries, departmental archives and museums?

What David Thoreau was attempting to convince his townsmen of Concord, Massachusetts, is the community’s need to educate its inhabitants. 

No matter how humble they were as a village,  they could still position themselves as a cultured American town that benefits from a humanist education in the same way cities like Paris, London and Berlin were doing.

So what is Thoreau getting at when he invokes the need to be cultured? What does he mean? 

To answer this, let’s go back to our contemporary societies and try to interrogate which kind of institutions that would fill this gap. 

To do this, the local municipal authorities would have to invest in public libraries not only as a complimentary vanguard institution that fights against illiteracy, but to assert a social and cultural role in bridging the ever present gap between marginalized groups and mainstream society.

If well funded and utilized to their fullest potential, libraries are uniquely positioned to work as important social actors in the reintegration of the unemployed and young people from difficult backgrounds. 

In fact, just like other municipal administrative services, a neutral institution like a library can go a long way in preventing ghettoisation, as well as preventing the emergence of closed and separate communities.

In this aspect,  the public library becomes a place of miscegenation and social integration but as we will see, once this role is accomplished it becomes a victim of its own success.

However, this argument is not in any way implying that public libraries should in anyway be seen to be an extension of social work nor should they be viewed as surrogate social workers.   

How Would Do They Achieve This Kind Of Success You May Ask? 

To start with, libraries contribute greatly to the cultural democratization of information and knowledge which is propitious to creating an informed citizenry. 

In fact, marginalisation and a feeling of exclusion from the larger mainstream society is amplified when people from these groups do not have access to cultural and civic education. 

Public libraries and other public institutions of knowledge should be seen to be an extension of the public school system, where an individual is supposed to develop such values ​​like; equality, fraternity, freedom and justice – which is a stepping stone to creating a responsible citizenry that acts in the interest of society.

In the United States for example, a study came out showing that libraries can improve services to low-income persons by helping to minimize social exclusion thus reducing the of the weight of class determinism.However, many well intentioned public initiatives like this fall into a dangerous trap which was well highlighted by (Cronin, 2002, pg.39)  where he argued that:

“A library is not a community masturbation centre. A library is not a porn parlor. A library is not a refuge for the homeless. A library is not a place in which to defecate, fornicate, or micturate. A library is not a bathing facility. A library is not a dumping ground for latch-key children… I don’t take big boxes when I visit Borders. I don’t take bulky bags into the Tate Modern. This strikes me as an eminently reasonable ordinance . . . it’s good old-fashioned common sense.”

What he is highlighting here is not to let a public library be anything to everyone, because in the end, you might end up alienating your faithful patrons. 

Indeed, the same reverence and respect we reserve to court premises, police precincts and parliament buildings, the same respect should be accorded to public libraries since they are temples of knowledge.   

In essence, therefore, to socialize society to become a centre of culture and civilisation, to develop the “educational instinct, start respecting and investing in your local libraries.  

That’s why whenever cities with well educated inhabitants are currently leading the way in innovating the very concept of a traditional library. There are mini-libraries made of makeshift carts are popping out of train and bus stops, in beaches, in parks – you will even find tree libraries.


Written by Briana Anabtawi, Head of Service & Operations, LEXIGO: As Head of Service and Operations, Briana is responsible for quality, client satisfaction and efficiency in service delivery for LEXIGO Strategic Clients and Partners. Briana's professional background in the travel and tourism industry has provided her with a unique insight into culture, language and project management.