Libraries, hey? That could be a dissertation topic
by Jen Li, INALJ Contributor
I begin with a confession. I claim to be a lover of books, reading, and libraries, and indeed during the course of my PhD research, I have visited over seventy libraries in several countries, amassed a number of library cards, and borrowed books on a regular basis. However, in 2011, when the PhD journey was in its embryonic stages, I had neither visited nor borrowed from a public municipal library for some years. I was one of those people who supported libraries and loved the idea of them, but did not actually use them. In 2011, that all changed.
It was January 2011, and it was the first day of fieldwork on a research project about supermarkets. As I stood outside the Sainsbury’s Local in Sandown, UK, clipboard and questionnaires in hand, a crowd of people marched past me towards the town’s library. They were protesting its proposed closure. That year, there was a noticeable amount of public debate and interest around public libraries in the UK as they were faced with budget cuts, potential closures, and questions around their relevance. The following year, I returned to Australia and began this research on public libraries in Sydney. I stopped loving libraries from afar and became an active library user again.
The thought of doing a PhD had been on my mind since I began working as a Research Project Officer at the University of Western Sydney after graduation. I loved geography, and I loved research. The idea of an academic career where I could spend my life asking questions, looking for answers and contributing to knowledge was enormously appealing. I toyed with different PhD topics, spoke with potential supervisors, applied for different programmes but the topic that felt the most ‘right’ did not appear until 2011 when that protest march in Sandown lit the spark and I thought, “Libraries, hey? That could be a topic.”
After Sandown, I began reading more about the situation of public libraries in the UK, and news from the US filtered through too. There were reports of libraries faced with shorter opening hours, fewer staff, closures of branches. Even more upsetting were the various articles and comments I read that likened libraries to dinosaurs, full of an outdated technology that was no longer relevant in a world where you could carry Google and Amazon in your pocket. I was sure that the people suggesting that libraries were no longer necessary were wrong but also recognised that my opinion was just that: an opinion. I turned my initial indignation into a research proposal and submitted an application to complete a PhD researching the library as part of the public sphere.
In January 2012, I was back home to Sydney and began the PhD. As with many PhDs, what I ended up researching and what I am currently writing in my dissertation is not quite what I initially proposed. Different foci were considered along the way and I thought about studying libraries as public spaces, community hubs, spaces of both new and old technologies, sites where different tastes and reading habits are expressed by various library users. Now, as I am in the final stages of writing, I explain my research as exploring the library as part of the reading infrastructure in a contemporary city, and a visible component of the municipal authority where broader governmental goals around reading, literacy and community are enacted.
This research has taken me to 76 libraries across Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the US. The core of my research was on three case study libraries in Sydney, Australia, and I spent many hours interviewing librarians about the ways library collections, spaces and programmes are designed and implemented, as well as interviewing library users about their reading practices and library usage patterns. I have attended storytimes and book clubs, spent hours reading and browsing in libraries, toured closed stacks, taken hundreds of photos of libraries, and have become completely convinced of the importance, relevance, and necessity of libraries. During the PhD, I was fortunate enough to attend and present at numerous conferences, visit some incredible libraries, and speak with librarians, library researchers, and library lovers in different parts of the world.
When I visit a new city now, the one place I will always seek is the library. In December last year, I was in Pittsburgh and dragged my boyfriend along to the library. It was a relatively quick visit and we walked around the entire library. I was commenting to him about the lighting, the spacing, the location of the desks, the size of the children’s library, the arrangement of fiction and noting which genres were separated out. When we left, he said it was interesting to see the library through my eyes. It turns out when you spent four years immersed in something, your perspective changes.
I see the library as a user but also as a researcher now. I see it as a place where I can spend a free afternoon, reading and relaxing with no obligation to buy anything and where I can read books for free. I see it as a place where I can attend author events and book clubs, or research and study. But I also see it as a great public institution that preserves culture and knowledge, that is open to all and accepting of everyone. It is a constantly evolving and exciting place where old technologies and new technologies co-exist and new relationships between people and knowledge are constantly formed and re-formed.
About the Author
Jen Li is a geographer and researcher from Sydney, Australia who is currently completing a PhD on public libraries and library spaces. She completed a Bachelor of Commerce (Liberal Studies) (Hons) at the University of Sydney in 2008 with majors in geography, marketing and management. Her Honours dissertation was on independent bookshops in Sydney and how they had been affected by rationalisation and consolidation in book retailing. Clearly, her research has a common theme. In the years between her undergraduate degree and undertaking the PhD, Jen has worked as a Research Project Officer at the University of Western Sydney, a Research Assistant at the University of Southampton, a researcher on various festival projects, and a tutor in geography. Since she began researching libraries, Jen has decided that when she grows up, she wants to be a librarian.