Democracy and Openness Overshadowed by Technology

Map Location
F,G, 6
Thread Location
Page 126

Andrea Phelps

Agreement Description

In this Thread, Lankes (2009) compares the idea of participatory librarianship to that of liberal (or participatory) democracy. “Liberal democracy” is defined by Encarta as “a political system that has free elections, a multiplicity of political parties, political decisions made through an independent legislature, and an independent judiciary, with a state monopoly on law enforcement.” A similar definition for participatory democracy can be found on Two excellent and well-known quotes from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison highlight in particular the importance of knowledge and access to information to a liberal democracy. The potential for library involvement, then, should be fairly obvious.

The biggest problem, Buschman argues, is that librarians aren’t really doing anything to capitalize on this opportunity. Librarians are generally calling on the grand ideals of Jefferson and Madison to show their importance in a democratic nation but not actually concerning themselves with ways to bring the idea into action (Buschman, 2007, p. 1484). To start librarians thinking more about how they can bolster democracy, Buschman presents a few ideas put forth by scholars in a number of fields that can help guide librarians to doing more for democracy than just providing access to information.

The first idea is heavily tied to the Atlas’s focus on conversation and is also the easiest concept to incorporate into a library setting. Buschman claims that Jürgen Habermas presents democracy as rooted in conversation, and that public places are where these important discussions happened and continue to happen. Further, he claims that some of these previously existing places for discussion, namely mass media, are no longer the freely public forums they once were (Buschman, 2007, p. 1487). The other big concept presented by Buschman is that “an institution cannot foster democracy without practicing it” (p. 1493), which echoes the Atlas’ discussion of the importance of community interaction and decisions in libraries.

As Michael Buckland (2008) points out in response to Buschman’s article, libraries aren’t important just for developing a democracy but also other political structures and beliefs (p. 1534). Does a library need to practice all modes of government in some way to appropriately foster those methods? Not to do so is another form of bias on the librarians’ part, and there are plenty of people who feel there are better forms of government out there than democracy.

It is not only impossible to be completely unbiased as a librarian; it may be harmful in building trust with library members. Jill Hurst-Wahl (2009) recently wrote about how the key to earning trust in a social network setting is to behave normally and be yourself; it makes sense that the same thing may be true for in-person interactions. Yet the same is certainly true for the other extreme. If we let ourselves get too involved or become too fanatic in our jobs, we may lose that hardearned respect and trust.

There are ways in which librarians can encourage democracy and debate without getting too deeply involved, and the Progressive Librarians Guild can be a great resource for ideas. Michele Sipley (2003) presents a number of ways to covertly encourage discussion in a school library setting, including working with teachers to set up debates by students, holding question-and- answer sessions, teaching critical thinking, and more. These ideas can be translated to other settings, such as public libraries, where there can be space for local politicians or groups to debate topics.

There are also ways for librarians to actively take a stand, the best examples of which are tied to the PATRIOT Act. Emily Drabinski (2006) looks at a number of ways in which librarians were affected by the PATRIOT Act and what they did to fight back. For more aggressive activism for democracy, Chris Gaunt (2004) describes her personal experiences with nonviolent dissent outside of the librarian setting.

Conversation Starters

  1. How should librarians move beyond the idea that libraries support a democracy by supplying information? What else can we do to create a democratic space?
  2. What shouldn’t we do (or what is too much and too biased and should be avoided)? How far can we go before it is considered not our place or that we are opening an unnecessary can of worms that is making things worse? Can we ethically do more than provide a place for a discussion by participating heavily in the conversations?
  3. Is activism such as Gaunt’s appropriate within a library setting? Or is that something only to be pursued as an individual? Can your personal activism really be separated from you as a librarian? Too much activism may have a negative effect on trust and respect from the community and could seriously impact a library’s role in the community.
  4. What should be the role of technology in promoting democratic environments in libraries? Is technology in this instance any different than it is normally? The same sorts of downfalls mentioned here are common in any instructive use of technology: too much focus on the tool rather than the material and ideas behind it, not using the right tool for the purpose, not marketing it appropriately to the audience, and so on.

Related Artifacts

Buckland, M. K. (2008). Democratic theory in library information science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 59(9), 1534. doi:10.1002/asi.20846.

Buschman, J. (2007). Democratic theory in library information science: Toward an emendation. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(10), 1483–1496. doi:10.1002/asi.20634.

Definition of participatory democracy. (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2009, from

Drabinski, E. (2006). Librarians and the Patriot Act. Radical Teacher, 77, 12–14. Retrieved from Omni File Full Text Mega database.

Gaunt, C. (2004). Jailed for dissent “in these times.” Progressive Librarian, 24, 41–49.

Hurst-Wahl, J. (2009, October 31). Lose control & gain credibility. Message posted to

Liberal democracy definition. (n.d.). MSN Encarta Dictionary. Retrieved November 8, 2009, from html

Sipley, M. (2003). Operation–Patriots Act: The role of school libraries in promoting a free and informed society. Progressive Librarian, 22, 52–62.