published quarterly by the university of borås, sweden

vol. 27 no. Special issue, October, 2022

Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Oslo Metropolitan University, May 29 - June 1, 2022

Arenas for conflict or cohesion? Rethinking public libraries as potentially democratic spheres

Lisa Engström

Introduction. In policies and research, public libraries are often put forth as public spheres promoting inclusion and shared values. This article investigates possible implications of replacing the idea of the library as public sphere with a plurality of public spheres, thereby acknowledging existing inequalities and conflicts between adversaries.
Method. The paper is conceptual, focusing on deepening the theoretical analysis.Analysis. Fraser’s elaboration on the concept public sphere is utilized alongside Chantal Mouffe’s concept agonism to critically discuss the perception of libraries as public spheres, and to explore the library as a place enabling multiple public spheres where different groups can strengthen their social identity and make claims of power.
Results. Two main risks with a consensus-oriented starting point are identified: Firstly, marginalized groups may be silenced when inclusion and shared values are emphasized rather than plurality. Secondly, when cultural and social hierarchies are ignored, the ‘others’ are turned into enemies and antagonism replace agonism.
Conclusion. If the notion of libraries as promoters of democracy and inclusion shall not result in upholding the status quo, we must go beyond what we know and make room for pluralistic communities and agonistic conflicts.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.47989/colis2220


Public libraries are open for all. This is a fundamental feature of public libraries, and it is highlighted in library policies. The accessibility and low thresholds at public libraries are also essential aspects emphasized by the rich flora of library research utilizing Habermas concept of public sphere (see e.g. Audunson et al.; 2020, Buschman, 2005 ; Lankes, 2016 ; Stillwell, 2018 ). This research points to how libraries enable interpersonal meetings between people with different lifestyles and background and thereby promote democracy, participation and inclusion (Aabø et al., 2010 ). In this conceptual paper, I explore the assumptions of openness and participation underlying analyses of the library as public sphere and I reflect on adverse effects of promoting inclusion. In addition, I investigate possible implications of replacing the idea of the library as public sphere with a plurality of public spheres, thereby acknowledging existing inequalities and conflicts between adversaries.

Accessibility and participation are core concepts when libraries are analysed as public spheres. However, the meanings of these concepts are seldom defined, neither in research nor in policies. In an ongoing research project, I therefore investigate how the concepts accessibility and participation are used in Swedish library policies and the implications thereof (Engström, 2021 ). My research shows that some policies portray the library as already accessible to all, while other policies point at the need for certain measures to construct a more accessible library.

When libraries are referred to as already accessible to all, excluding practices and arrangements are disguised, and marginalized groups risks being silenced. Therefore, researchers and networks (see e.g. Lundberg & Dahlquist 2018 ; Olsson Dahlquist 2019; Rivano Eckerdal, Olsson Dahlquist & Engström 2020), highlights that the question ‘who is included?’ needs to be addressed when libraries are put forth as ‘palaces for the people’ (cf. Klinenberg, 2018). This question also reaches beyond the borders of the library; it is a question of who is included in the democratic discourse. Nancy Fraser (2010) critiques Habermas notion of public sphere since it put disparities in brackets, as if participants in a discourse are social equals when factors such as gender, disabilities and socio-economic status have always excluded persons from the public sphere. In addition, Fraser emphasizes that the public sphere neither historically nor today consist of a single unified sphere, but many. This relates to how Chantal Mouffe (2009, p. 549) emphasizes the need to acknowledge the ‘ever present potentiality of antagonism’, originating from real conflicts of interests in society. Mouffe proposes the concept agonism to enable a pluralistic democracy with adversaries in this context of potential antagonism. In my analysis, I utilize Fraser’s critique alongside Chantal Mouffe’s concept agonism to elaborate, explore and discuss how to understand public libraries and its democratic potential in society today.

To sum up; In this conceptual paper I draw on my previous empirical research about the meaning given to the concepts accessibility and participation, as well as related critical library studies, to reflect on the consequences of portraying the library as a unitary public sphere promoting inclusion. Furthermore, I explore the library as a place enabling multiple public spheres where different groups can strengthen their social identity and make claims of power.

Background – libraries and democracy

The ‘publicness’ and accessibility of public libraries are fundamental features of the comprehension of libraries, in Sweden and elsewhere, for example manifested in the so-called library faith (Barniskis, 2017 ). This is evident both in policy documents and library and information studies. For example, the overarching aim of the Swedish Library Act states:

‘Library activities shall be available to everyone’ (Swedish Library Association, 2015 ). Similar formulations are prevalent in the US Library Bill of Rights (ALA, 1996 ) and in the International Federation of Library Associations’ fundamental core values (IFLA, n.d.).

Likewise, research strongly advocates libraries’ role for democracy as open public spheres and community builders (see e.g. Goulding, 2006 ; Lankes, 2016 ; Scott, 2011 ; Webster, 2014 ).

However, during the last decade scholars in library and information studies have identified a lack of research on how public libraries support democracy (see e.g. Audunson et al., 2020 ; Buschman, 2018 , 2019; Jaeger et al., 2013 ; Wiegand, 2015 ). These scholars call for more thorough empirical investigations on who uses the library, and what they are using it for. They request ‘empirical evidence’ for ‘the relationship between libraries and democracy’ (Audunson et al., 2020 , p. 4). As a result of this perceived gap, research has been conducted to provide empirical data, including not least surveys (see e.g. Aabø, Audunson & Vårheim, 2010; Byrne, 2018 ; Johnston, 2016 ; Vårheim et al., 2020 ). Even though the mentioned research partly utilizes different theoretical frameworks, Habermas concept public sphere strongly influences both the questions posed and the analyses. One eloquent example of this is the influential research project ‘The ALM-field, Digitalization and the Public Sphere’ (Almpub), involving researchers from several European countries, in which the impact of the concept is evident in the project title. The starting point of important LIS research thus still implicates the possibility of defining and framing the public sphere (in singular), and it manifests an urge to measure and evaluate if libraries function as one.

In this paper, I shift perspective and take another route, inspired by ongoing discussions in the research network Lund Critical Library Studies (Rivano Eckerdal, Olsson Dahlquist & Engström 2020). Research is not a solitary process, and my theoretical reflections are rooted and nurtured in this collaborative environment. Instead of investigating if public libraries actually do contribute to realizing presumed ideals of democratic public spheres, I therefore start from the assumption that democracy is ‘de-realized rather than un-realized’ (Bhabha, 2004 , p. 29). Thus, the need to investigate how public libraries function as public spheres promoting democracy is twisted. I acknowledge internal and fundamental conflicts of segregation and discrimination in liberal democracy (Bhabha, 2003 ; Mouffe, 2008 ), and I hold this true for public libraries as well as they are an integral part of society (Lundberg & Dahlquist 2018; Rivano Eckerdal 2018). In so doing, the conception of the library is put into another light, since aspects of marginalization and exclusion are starting points in my research. In the next section, I elaborate on the key concept and theories I utilize in my analysis.

The library as public place

The concepts of place and public place are embedded in the backdrop to this reflection since they are prerequisites to the concept public sphere. Both concepts are elusive, partly due to the hard fetched character of the concept ‘place’ and partly due to the paradoxical nature of the concept ‘public’. I consider the library as place to be a material sphere in which library users and staff construct meaning by conducting everyday practices (cf. Massey, 2005 ). An important aspect informing this place is its publicness. Even if all citizens formally are allowed to enter the public library, no places are totally open (Listerborn, 2005 ). The accessibility of the library – and its limits – therefore shapes it as public sphere (Lundberg & Dahlquist 2018). Rodríguez ( 2020 ) characterizes the public sphere as consisting of three senses, and the space in which the discourse is situated is one of these (the other two are the discursive and the individual). This accentuates the importance of spatiality and how the library is organized in relation to the public sphere. Also, the spatial aspect is often in focus when the concept of public sphere is utilized in library and information studies, as this research often accentuate the library as a meeting place for the public (Audunson et al., 2020 , p. 3).

The defining feature of a public sphere, according to Jürgen Habermas (1991, p. 27), is a sphere in which ‘private people come together as a public’. Here they discuss common matters with rational critical arguments. In this debate, the quality of the argument, and not the identity of the speaker, is decisive, and the aim is to achieve consensus. As Rodríguez (2020) points out, this could be contrasted with Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic approach: ‘the public space is where conflicting points of view are confronted without any possibility of a final reconciliation’ (Mouffe, 2003 , cited in Rodríguez, 2020, p. 21). Instead of striving towards ‘a consensus reached without exclusion’ and an elimination of conflict, Mouffe (2009, p. 551) advocates a distinction between us and them in which:

…the others are not seen as enemies to be destroyed but as adversaries whose ideas can be fought against, even fiercely, but whose right to defend those ideas will never be put into question. To put it in another way, what is important is that conflict does not take the form of an ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies) but the form of an ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries).

In my analysis, I am inspired by how Rivano Eckerdal (2018) in library studies utilize Mouffe’s concepts agonism and antagonism and I reflect on how libraries can be seen as places open for a diversity of users and a plurality of social identities, rather than focusing on libraries role to promote shared values and identity.

In addition, I apply Nancy Frasers critique of Habermas theory of the public sphere. Fraser elaborated her critique in a time when liberal democracy appeared as unthreatened. Despite this, Fraser (2010, p. 127) stresses the need to critically examine the borders of democracy. More than a decade later, in a society coloured by the backwash of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, the advancement of right wing and populist movements in Europe, and a decreased trust in democracy, this ambition seems urgent (Buschman, 2019 ; Foa & Mounk, 2017 ; Rivano Eckerdal, 2017 ). Relating to Habermas definition of public sphere, briefly outlined above, Fraser (2010, p. 128) defines a public sphere as ‘…a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk’. She emphasizes that this arena is separate from the state, the market, and democratic organizations, and thereby the public sphere is something other than the opposite of private. A crucial argument in Fraser’s critique of Habermas concept is that Habermas give prominence to a conception of the public sphere grounded on exclusions based on gender and social class (Fraser, 2003 , pp. 139-140). In addition, she emphasizes that the public sphere has never existed as one single public sphere – it has always been numerous public spheres, for example for women and for people of colour (Fraser, 2003 , p. 142). This relates to Mouffe’s (2009, p. 552) statement that the construction of an ‘us’ always relates to the construction of a ‘them’, which implicates the need for a pluralist democracy – and a pluralistic library, acknowledging the diversity of identities and political projects (Olsson Dahlquist, 2019 ).

Before we go further into the text, I need to clarify the premise of my research, not least because of the political turbulent times of today. In this paper I utilize concepts from Fraser and Mouffe to reflect on and discuss the strive for consensus in democratic processes. This does not implicate an ethical relativism. To the contrary, Mouffe (2009, p. 552) states that there must be consensus on the institutions constitutive of liberal democracy, and on ethico- political values informing those, such as liberty and equality for all, ‘but there will always be disagreement concerning the meaning of those values and the way they should be implemented’. Likewise, Fraser (2010, pp. 41-49) emphasize the need for normative dimensions (see also Olsson Dahlquist, 2019, p. 91). Thus, I argue that we need to be aware of inequalities and power asymmetries underlying hierarchies of values and norms and critically examine taken for granted assumptions regarding democratic processes. But at the same time, we need to agree on a frame of institutions and values – the rules of the game – even though we may debate on how to interpret them.

Libraries open for all?

Over the last years I have researched Swedish library policies to investigate the meanings given to the concepts accessibility and participation and to analyse how these meanings informs the role of the library user as well as the interpretation of democracy. The result is presented in the article ‘Libraries for all? An investigation of accessibility and participation in library policies’ [Bibliotek för alla? En studie om tillgänglighet och delaktighet I biblioteksplaner] (Engström, 2021 ). In this present article, there is no empirical material added, instead the analytical and theoretical reflection is in focus. Thus, the above-mentioned article function as steppingstone when I utilize the theoretical framework to explore public libraries approach to accessibility and participation and illuminate and discuss taken for granted assumptions underlying these. Thereby a higher level of theoretical abstraction and a deeper analysis is enabled.

The concepts accessibility and participation are closely related, also in the policy documents included in my research: To participate, you need to be able to access the resources of the library. Some policy documents also propose the opposite causation when they claim that digital participation is a requirement for accessing information online (Engström, 2021 ).

Although the concepts partly intertwine, they hold different subject positions. Accessibility refers to the quality of being accessible. Thus, a library could be organized to be accessible. Participation, on the other hand, refers to the action of taking part in something. Thus, participation cannot be fulfilled without the library users’ efforts.

In my analysis below, I firstly reflect on the concept accessibility and the implications of the use of it in library policies. Secondly, I reflect on the concept participation, and the meanings and problematizations related to it in these policies. Thereafter, in the third and last section, I summarize the analysis and make some final conclusions on potential adverse effects of promoting inclusion and consensus.

Accessibility as process or fact

Some library policies portray public libraries as actually accessible to all, for example by claiming libraries to be ‘the only public place open for all’ (Engström, 2021 ). In this paper, I characterize this as conceptualizing the library as in fact accessible. However, other policies describe accessibility as a goal to strive towards, and consequently these policies discuss measures needed in order to reach this goal (for example to reorganize the library space or implement assisting tools). I characterize this as conceptualizing the library as potentially accessible. These two conceptualizations, and their relation to respectively stability or process, are the building blocks in the discussion in this section.

When accessibility is put forth as a fact, the physical room, the resources, and the activities of the library are framed as open and available for all. Thus, an idealized situation is stipulated, in which social and economic differences as well as personal qualities are put into brackets. This idealized situation is decontextualized from time and space, and it is this stabilization and abstraction that enbles the bracketing. If we instead encounter the library in time and space – in the continuous process of everyday practices – hierarchies related to different groups of users (such as elderly, children, persons with disabilities, persons speaking other languages, and so on) are at play. When the library is conceptualized as in fact accessible, the lived experience in the actual socio-political situation is thereby ignored.

When the library is narrated as accessible and informal differences and inequalities are not accounted for, structures of power and control tends to remain hidden or unnoticed. Fraser (2010, p. 134) states:

Insofar as the bracketing of social inequalities in deliberation means proceeding as if they don’t exist when they do, this does not foster participatory parity. On the contrary, such bracketing usually works to the advantage of dominant groups in society and to the disadvantage of subordinates.

Thus, if the library is conceptualized as in fact accessible, marginalized groups and users risk being silenced, and excluding practices not questioned. This relates to the importance of perceiving democracy as process and citizenship as doings or practices, as previously highlighted by Olsson Dahlquist ( 2019 ; see also Lundberg & Dahlquist, 2018 ). For example, several policies included in my empirical research emphasize the implementation of staff-less opening hours as a means to increase the library users’ access to the library room and its resources, since users of staff-less libraries can enter the library in early mornings, late evenings or at weekends even though staff is not present (Engström, 2019 ; Engström, 2021 ). However, persons under a certain age limit, persons with physical disabilities, and persons who cannot manage the visit by themselves, may be unable to utilize this service (Engström, 2019 ). If there is no discussion on how to organize staff-less opening hours to increase accessibility for these ‘other’ users, and if there is a lack of acknowledgment that staff-less opening hours will never increase accessibility for all, some users will be losers in the equation. However, if staff-less opening hours are seen as a tool that potentially increases the accessibility, the library staff is urged to consider barriers and obstacles to this accessibility and to reflect on how the library can be arranged to cater for all users. In this case, the staff- less opening hours are encountered as a process involving the physical organization of the library, the activities provided, the technologies, the staff, etcetera. If enacted carefully and thoughtfully, this process has the potential to strengthen groups of users and increase accessibility. For example, a re-arrangement of the library to enable persons with physical disabilities to manage by themselves during staff-less opening hours could result in a more accessible library service in general (Pionke, 2017 ).

In relation to these reflections on existing (or non-existing) totally accessible places, it is illuminating to note that Habermas (1991, p. 36) points to the fact that ‘the authority of the better argument’ and the ‘disregarded status’ it presupposes, was never fully realized in the 18th century coffee houses he analysed when outlining his theory on the bourgeois public sphere. However, Habermas (1991, p. 36) claims that ‘as an idea it [the bourgeois public sphere] had become institutionalized’. As previously mentioned, this institutionalized idea of a public sphere is that private people come together to discuss common concerns in a setting where social hierarchy and status are disregarded, the better argument gets authority, and rational consensus can be reached. The conceptualization of the library as in fact accessible could therefore be interpreted as a continuation of the institutionalized idea Habermas refer to.

Some could argue that when the public sphere is understood as an institutionalized idea rather than reality, the line between conceptualizing the library as in fact accessible versus potentially accessible is blurred, since the public sphere thereby is interpreted as an idea to strive for, in a similar manner as the conceptualization of the library as potentially accessible depict accessibility as a goal (to strive for). However, I consider it to be fundamental differences between the two conceptualizations, relating to problematical implications of narrating the library as in fact accessible. In addition, I argue that these problems relate to the consensus-oriented character of the public sphere, as the concept is often understood and used. I develop my arguments below.

As previously stated, the conceptualization of the library as in fact accessible conceals differences, inequalities, and hierarchies and implies the possibility of understanding libraries detached from this context. Thereby a narrative of public libraries as open and accessible for all is created, and aspects of inaccessibility, of differences in use, or of discrimination, is put forth as exceptions from the main story. This relates to how liberal democracy is often defined based on ideals of democratic procedures, such as ‘…free and competitive elections, alternative sources of information, freedom of expression, and freedom to form or join organizations’ (Asara, 2020 , 79). However, these formal democratic procedures do not touch on important areas of power, such as the economy, and when scrutinized, they are affected by discrimination and exclusion (Asara, 2020 ).

In a similar manner as the conceptualization of libraries as accessible for all are based on formalities (for example Library Acts) describing public libraries as open for all, procedural perspectives on democracy are based on the formal dimensions of democracy. Failures such as democratic flaws or instances of lacking accessibility are not denied in these discourses, but the formal dimensions of democracy and public libraries are called upon as unrealized ideals (cf. Bhabha, 2003 ). Bhabha ( 2003 ) illuminates how these failures are part of the narrative of promise, and we are supposed to strive for the fulfilment of these promises. Thus, the narrative of unrealized ideals neither acknowledge that exclusion and inequality are integral to liberal democracy, nor that public libraries have never been totally open and accessible to all. For example, Lundberg and Dahlquist (2018) show that asylum seekers and irregular immigrants are at risk of being denied access to public libraries. Instead of perceiving discrimination and exclusion as failures, Bhabha ( 2003 ) proposes us to recognize the frailty of democracy and approach it as de-realized instead of unrealized. Drawing from this approach of de-realizing democracy, a starting point acknowledging both the library’s frailty and its potential enables an exploration of the limits of openness and inclusion.

The reflection above concerns the ideal of public libraries as totally open places. This ideal is connected to the interpretation of public libraries democratic role. When Habermas’ concept of the public sphere is used as an analytical tool in library and information studies, the democratic role of the library is to overcome potential conflicts and segregation by forming a public sphere in which persons of different lifestyles can interact with each other and foster mutual understanding and tolerance (see e.g. Aabø et al., 2010 ; Wiegand, 2005 ). The aim of reaching a rational consensus is the underlaying rational in this discourse. Even though existing segregation and a diversity of culture, values and interests are considered in this research, it does not discuss the often-prevalent hierarchies of culture and social groups that exist in stratified societies (Fraser, 2010 , p. 134). Furthermore, in an unequal society, where different cultural expressions and norms are hierarchically structured, the aim of developing tolerance and shared values tends to individualize a structural problem and enhance the binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’, contrary to its proclaimed goal (Edenheim, 2020 ). When inclusion and consensus are propagated in a simplified manner in today’s context of socio-economic gaps, it therefore risks to reinforce hegemonic power and stand in the way of agonistic discourse.

Participation as responsibility

The concept participation is portrayed as closely associated to reading ability and digital participation in library policies (Engström, 2021 ). In addition, the meaning given to participation in this context is minimalist (cf. Carpentier, 2015 ). For example, users are categorized as digitally participating when they have the technological tools and competence needed to take part of digital information published online, but the policies do not touch upon how library users could discuss or reflect on the digitalization itself or how it is implemented. Digitalization is thereby seen as naturalized and beyond human control (Rahm & Fejes, 2017), simultaneously as digital inclusion is put forth as vital to democracy. In library policies, reading ability is similarly considered essential to be able to participate in the democratic discourse and be part of society (Engström, 2021 ). In this context, the non- participating – the illiterate or the digitally excluded – is portrayed as an individual that lacks vital competences, skills, and knowledge, as well as technologies. The problematization of the non-participating citizen is focused on promoting and encouraging the individual to make the needed adjustment – to improve skills and competences and engage in relevant activities. The desire to be included and to make the effort is taken for granted and participation is thereby promoted as a responsibility for the citizen (Engström & Olsson Dahlquist 2020; Rose, 1999 ).

Individuals that do not answer to this responsibility and refuses or do not manage to be digitally included, can be ascribed the term ‘traditionalists’. Mouffe ( 2008 ) uses the term when she criticizes Beck and Giddens for eradicating the legitimate opponent – the adversary. Beck’s and Giddens’ respective conceptions of society as reflexive and post-traditional stipulate that differences of opinions are not based on actual conflicts of interests between groups in society, but merely disagreements that can be resolved by new forms of dialogue and corporation (Mouffe, 2008 , pp. 49-54). Simultaneously, radical opposition to changes in society, such as the digitalization, is not related to existing injustices. Instead, as mentioned above, in a societal context these opponents are seen as ‘traditionalists’ who simply reacts against the post-traditional society. Thereby, they are excluded from the discourse and turned into antagonists.

Accordingly, lacking willingness to read and to be digitally included is problematized in library policies. Reading promotion is therefore suggested, and measures are taken to make the citizens more willing to use internet (Engström, 2021 ). This mirrors how national policies in Sweden celebrate the virtues of reading and promotes strategies to construct reading citizens (Lindsköld et al., 2020 ), simultaneously as educational initiatives target the digitally excluded, encouraging them to join the presumed one-way forward (Rahm & Fejes, 2017, p. 32). Even if these outsiders, the presumed non-participants, are seen as potential insiders, since the strategies proposed clearly aims at inclusion, the ‘participation’ on offer does not implicate any redistribution of power and it does not involve any possibilities of questioning or influencing the development. When participation in this manner is separated from power, it tends to be reduced to a means to construct free and active citizens, who take responsibility for improving themselves and their surroundings (cf. Mouffe, 2008 , p. 61; Rose, 1999 , p. 169).

I consider this to be an important reminder of the societal context libraries always are part of. If we, library researchers or professionals, do not take this under consideration, aims of including marginalized individuals and promoting participation, will have no or limited impact on power relations in society. In fact, if inclusion into the public sphere is reduced to making room for marginalized groups within institutions such as libraries, they might play another role than the one anticipated, since libraries then might function as ‘a hegemonic instrument of including the marginalised in “safe” fields such as the cultural sphere, while keeping the social and economic divides in the rest of society’ (Edquist, 2021 , p. 65). Thus, libraries run the risk of being uniform places formally open for all, but implicitly begging for homogeneity.

Libraries transcending borders

Drawing on Fraser and Mouffe in my reflection on accessibility and participation above, I identify two main risks with a consensus-oriented starting point: Firstly, marginalized groups may be silenced when inclusion and shared values are emphasized rather than plurality. Secondly, when cultural and social hierarchies are ignored, the ‘others’ are turned into enemies and antagonism replace agonism. Therefore, I argue that consensus should not be seen as a self-evidently and necessarily positive outcome of democratic processes. This does not devalue neither democratic processes nor the role of libraries in these. On the contrary, it stresses the need to continue the investigation and discussion of how to facilitate a pluralistic democracy in which marginalized and discriminated groups can use the library to strengthen their voices and counteract hegemonic power. In addition, it highlights the question on how a library that facilitates agonistic conflicts and multiple public spheres can be conceptualized and practiced.

In relation to this, I would like to elaborate on one of the theoretical concepts underlying this reflection. Mouffe’s (2009, p. 550) claim that the formation of an ‘us’ always, at the same time, demarcates a ‘them’ can be interpreted from a different angle. Bhabha (2004, p. 2) encourage us to see and explore the in-between spaces that are produced in the processes creating identity and categorizations. Thus, in a context in which we understand each other from an agonistic point of view, the library can become an arena where the formulation of community interest can be negotiated, re-valued, contested, and re-invented over and over again, simultaneously as individuals and groups use the library space to formulate their common interests to claim their rights. I argue that the public library already holds such in- between qualities; the library provide access to learning and knowledge, but it is not part of formal education; the library makes information about society accessible, but it is not a social authority; the library is part of the social infrastructure, but for the individual user it can be a hide away for relaxation and imagination. This multitude of purposes and functions is a potentiality of libraries, and not a fact. Libraries must be open for continuous alterations and adjustments to grasp this potentiality.

Potentiality is a word to hold on to, and it manifests in-betweenness. I consider public libraries to be potentially accessible. I consider them to potentially promote democracy. The liquid texture of potentiality is not something to overcome, and a solid ground of shared values and norms is nothing to strive for – potentiality is a process. If accessibility shall include everyone, we need to continuously be prepared to renegotiate our interpretations, practices, and arrangements. If promoting democracy should not be interpreted as upholding the status quo, and recreate inequalities and discrimination, we must go beyond what we know and make room for pluralistic communities. This process will not be free of conflict. But by acknowledging the hierarchies and practices of power and allowing marginalized groups to form their own public spheres, a communicative discourse between adversaries can be realized. Instead of bridging the gaps by absorbing the less powerful into a unified hegemonic identity, the library may thereby contribute to the transcending of borders when diverse people come together, but also debate dissimilar views (see also Rivano Eckerdal, Olsson Dahlquist & Engström, 2020 ).


I thank the anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback. In addition, I would like to thank my colleagues who have given me valuable comments during the process.

About the author

Lisa Engström is senior lecturer at the Division of ALM and digital cultures at Lund University, Sweden. She investigates how accessibility, participation and democracy is perceived and practiced in public libraries. Engström participates in the research project Infrastructuring Libraries in Transformation, funded by Energimyndigheten, Formas and ENUTC Cofund. She can be contacted at lisa.engstrom@kultur.lu.se


How to cite this paper

Engström, L. (2022). Arenas for conflict or cohesion? Rethinking public libraries as potentially democratic spheres. In Proceedings of CoLIS, the 11th. International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Oslo, Norway, May 29 - June 1, 2022. Information Research, 27(Special issue), paper colis2220. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/27-SpIssue/CoLIS2022/colis2220.html https://doi.org/10.47989/colis2220

Check for citations, using Google Scholar