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On the Reopening: Some Initial Ideas on Libraries as Spaces of Commoning

Boullée, Etienne-Louis - Project for a library
Boullée, Etienne-Louis - Project for a library | © BNF I Public Domain

As spaces, libraries are the product of those social relations that play out inside them. How can we think of libraries as spaces that conceive of knowledge as a freely and openly accessible common good, that is, a commons? Here are some initial ideas from the library of the Goethe-Institut in Athens.

By Dimitris Soudias

Libraries are spaces, where knowledge is collected, shared, constructed, and mediated. As such, they describe a relation between the things and services they provide, the idea(l)s they share, and the people that use and produce them. Spaces are therefore inherently social.

These processes do not occur in a vacuum. They are embedded in specific historical, cultural, political, economic, and social settings. Historically, libraries have been associated with a certain authority as regards the trustworthiness and legitimacy of knowledge. As such, libraries serve a vital societal function of keeping the social fabric together, while mediating values that go beyond mere knowledge dissemination: democracy, collectivity, and solidarity may all be values that in one way or another mediate what we do in the library.

These considerations are all the more pertinent against the backdrop of the creeping privatisation and commercialisation of everyday life: consumer culture, the concept of intellectual property, and the trademarking of words (think Nokia’s slogan “Connecting People”) have turned much of what used to be common knowledge that belonged to everybody into marketing devices that now belong to private companies.

As non-commercial spaces, libraries do not have to submit to such market logics. They are spaces that keep knowledge public. They can contribute to our thinking of ourselves as social beings, as people with needs and desires, rather than merely as consumers wanting to buy (and sell) things.

Ray Oldenburg’s idea of “third place” can be translated in line with these considerations. Libraries are not our private homes nor are they strictly places of work. They are places that assert self-worth: where we can be, where we can contemplate, where we connect with people (not in the Nokia sense!), and where we learn for learning’s sake.

Yet, Oldenburg does not specifically talk about libraries as third spaces. Using coffee shops, beer gardens, and bars as examples of third places, Oldenburg considers the joyfulness of being together but falls short of considering that to be there, you need to consume.

In libraries, you may be lucky enough to find a café. But you are not required to buy a latte in order to use the Wi-Fi or read a magazine. Therefore, it may be useful to take Oldenburg’s non-work and non-private home ideas and fuse them with the inherent openness (think access) of libraries and knowledge. Libraries are not just third places. They are public third spaces of knowledge. And they may well become commons third spaces of open knowledge.

On The Commons

Now what are the commons? They mean more than togetherness. They mean much more than interacting. They are a logic of doing things that seems strangely unfamiliar when compared to how we usually go about our everyday routines. Defining the commons requires us to think about a process, a result, and the relationship between them in a single word. That can be a little frustrating, but language can only do so much…

Commons are resources that serve the needs of the common good. Think of environmental commons, such as water, air, or the forests. But think also of information commons, such as ideas, knowledge, or code. Yes, today we can buy all these things. But isn’t that frustrating to know? Fresh water and forests are limited. If we are not careful, they will disappear (and they do!). But knowledge and ideas? In the words of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw:

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.

George Bernard Shaw

In the digital age, we can reproduce knowledges (think digital media) infinitely (as long as there is server capacity). So wouldn’t it be great not only to make this knowledge openly accessible for as many people as possible but also to produce it and care for it collectively?

This process is what commoning refers to: the collective, self-organized production, appropriation, and caring for commons. In the digital sphere, Wikipedia is an eminent example. We can all partake in writing articles (at the same time even). We can all use this knowledge to produce further knowledge. We can add photographs and videos to their database. And others can access them freely, and remix them for different uses.

There need to be rules though: values we can all agree upon. Direct democratic decision-making and equality, non-discriminatory and non-violent actions, trust and mutual respect, solidarity for each other, and a concern for maintaining the commons  – the openly accessible good or service – are a good starting point. These inclusive, ideally non-hierarchical, and non-authoritarian values may well secure the openness of the commons. And if we consider the scarcity of water and other natural commons? Commoning helps us set guidelines for how to regulate things so that they don’t disappear or become polluted. The commons movement would argue that water, for example, does not “belong” to Coca-Cola. It does not “belong” to the state. Instead, commoners would argue that water is inalienable, and we are equally responsible for its maintenance.

However, water has been turned into a private commodity we can, buy, sell, and exploit. But this hasn’t always been the case (the commons are far from a new idea), and it doesn’t have to be like that.

Libraries as Commons Spaces of Open Knowledge

Sure, libraries buy media from commercial publishers, movie distributors, and software enterprises. And yes, the fact of libraries being in public hands is frequently accompanied by administrative procedures that are often hierarchical and funding requirements that limit potential fields of action. But libraries continue to serve the public. And despite organisational limits, they offer opportunities for producing spaces of commoning.

What if we think of libraries as institutionalised spaces – where the private (such as media content or commercial services) and the public (in terms of institutional funding) are allocated, used, and negotiated – for the furthering of the common? This figure of thought opens up a variety of fields of possibility. And this works best if we think of these possibilities through both commons (product) and commoning (process). Here are some ideas from the Goethe-Institut in Athens on how that would be possible.

"What if...?" Commoning Activities in the Library

At the heart of the work of modern libraries are media and information literacy formats. Sure, we can teach people how we optimise our searches on Google, point them to subscription-based, commercial databases, etc. But what if we start teaching information literacy around openness and the commons? What if we take into account open-source alternatives to commercial platforms and actively point to the world of open-access journals and creative commons media? What if we allocate resources and attention to the ways in which our users can think of the process of knowledge production – from the first search to the final artefact (text, image, video, audio, code, or an object) – as a process of commoning openly accessible knowledge?

Think of workshops for children and youth as well. Actively engaging youngsters in the process of learning through participatory means can be done through commoning processes. Workshops on the city, for example, as an urban common – the lived environment that we affect and that affects us – allow for creative ways to think about the commons (addressing questions like, Do we need a parking space here? Why aren’t there more benches and trees on this square? What would your ideal public square look like?), while asserting self-worth and an understanding of common responsibility in democratic ways. Now what if the final product is a map or a video or a booklet that can be shared openly? What if the documentation of the workshop, as a sort of guide for others, is made available for other institutions under a Creative Commons licence? Here we see how the production of open knowledge sometimes requires little more than for ideas and processes of idea generation and knowledge construction to be embedded within the logics of the commons.

Knowledge goes beyond the written word. Collaborating with Fab Labs, or Maker Spaces familiarises us with novel tech that we can use to create knowledge as artefacts. Creating objects of daily need, such as a chair or a table, from sustainable materials and with a logic of upcycling, has a lot of overlap with the commons. Now what if we produce these objects in a commoning process? And what if the plans of these objects were to be made available under free, non-commercial licenses? Others will benefit too! The same is true for coding and creating software applications.

In the words of architect Stavros Stavrides, these activities occur in “threshold, or in-between-spaces.” .” They exist at a particular time and in a particular space. For libraries, this line of thought may be a peculiar one. But by facilitating the establishment of such temporary spaces, the commons can be learnt and taught collectively in libraries and – in the process – commons can be created. These experiences allow our users to reconsider how we actually want to live, work, and create together. If we, as librarians, provide these spaces, we can reshape our habits together, so as to further the common good. But this, first and foremost, requires those of us who work in the library and information science professions to start with ourselves.

Library organiSation

Within our teams, we can think of commoning as a logic that informs our decisions, wherever possible, and accompanies us in our everyday work. We can take decisions more collectively, share tasks with each other – rather than delegate them – so we all feel equally included in the commons goal of furthering the commons: if, that is, we agree on it.

We can be more considerate about the purchases we make and the services we acquire. Are there open-source alternatives to our Library Information System (yes there are! Think Koha, or VuFind)? If we can make it work for our libraries, a commoning approach to using these systems would be that we not only use them but also support developers by giving feedback on bugs and being in constant exchange about the development of these systems (Think reporting and documentation). This would allow, ideally, for the very instruments we need in our everyday work to be commoned.

We don’t have to do everything on our own. We can enter strategic partnerships, say, with organiations in the field of open-source and open access. We should, moreover, consider cooperating with civil society actors so as to support their work in the field of commoning. Sometimes it’s as easy as providing server capacity or a space they can work and create in. There is a cornucopia of potential partners out there that know more about the commons than we do. Cooperation at peer level is the best way forward for libraries to reimagine themselves as spaces of commoning open knowledge.

If we conceive of libraries, together with our partners, as spaces for collectively learning the values and ideas of commoning in practice, this has consequences for our users. It allows us, in an ideal world, to reconsider our everyday habits and ideas in ways that further knowledge as a commons.