I was thrilled to be invited to speak about my doctoral research on the cultural politics of public and alternative libraries at the Stuart Hall Research Library Network in April. Having been a member of the audience at previous network events I enjoyed presenting in a familiar, engaging and intimate space and thinking through my work with others in a cross-disciplinary and grounded way. It felt particularly resonant to be talking about libraries in this library, as the life and purpose of the room in which we talked seemed to speak back to the group, which was made up of individuals who have unique and special relationships to this library and others through their engagements with library work, study, art and pleasure.
I made use of the site-specificity of my talk by starting with a quotation from Stuart Hall himself, who said in a 2009 interview with Les Back that he was pleased that this library which has been named after him exists like a “subversive thing … quietly throbbing away”. I took this as a cue to introduce my interest in the way in which libraries are peculiarly living forces in society, which operate in vital and dynamic ways that are not always obvious.
My research is concerned with reading and re-imagining the cultural fabric of libraries in contemporary society. I focus on libraries that define themselves as ‘public’ and interrogate the nature of these ‘publics’ – how they are fabricated, mediated and co-constituted by libraries as unstable cultural institutions, in the present conjuncture of economic crisis and technological change. I divide these libraries into two groups: mainstream, state-run public libraries on the one hand, and alternative libraries that are formed by and for ‘counterpublics’ (as explicit alternatives or challenges to wider publics) on the other. In both cases I examine the intersections of the political with the public and the personal through tuning into the material, affective and discursive currencies of the library, and use Stuart Hall’s method of conjunctural analysis as a critical lens through which to relocate libraries in the social and political imagination.
The main geographical focus of my research is the UK, specifically London, looking at public and community libraries in Lewisham, as well as the Feminist Library in Southwark. The location of my research recently extended its boundaries, however, as a result of recent fieldwork undertaken in India as an AHRC research fellow at Sarai. Here I investigated public and counter public libraries in both Delhi and Kolkata, the two erstwhile capitals of the British Empire in India. Hence the title of my talk ‘Storying the Postcolonial Library’, since my encounters with these libraries and the stories that circulate around them spoke volumes about the relation between power and knowledge; nationalism and culture, and caused me to rethink the dominant narratives associated with libraries in the UK. The Stuart Hall Library Research Network was an ideal sounding board to think through the current predicament of my work.
I provided a brief visual tour through some of these experiences using photographs and notes from my fieldwork and also spoke about the work and legacy of ‘Father of Library Science’ S.R. Ranganathan, who is a key figure in the story of how library theory, practice and development in India is historically connected to the UK where Ranganathan trained professionally in the 1920s. My research on Ranganathan was greatly informed by an article written by George Roe, who is one of the few researchers to have placed his work in the critical context of colonialism. I was therefore delighted when the member of the audience who responded enthusiastically to my discussion of this topic turned out to be the selfsame George Roe – a great example of the serendipity of a research network in action!
Having Maxine Miller as the formal respondent to my talk was a great pleasure, as she gently opened up points of curiosity, such as questioning how shifts in local and global media representations affect how we understand what is ‘radical’ and/or fictional about libraries and librarianship. Maxine certainly enriched the discussion in the room, as we listened to her stories of a diverse career in libraries, which has included both developing the Stuart Hall Library and Tate Library and Archives, as well as working with the National Library of Jamaica: a vibrant female-led institution that has retained the strength of an oral and musical culture within and beyond its library walls. This contrasted strongly with my impression of a very patriarchal and textual-based library culture in the National and public libraries of India.
It was great to hear the responses of another member of the audience who had been a volunteer in the Feminist Library in London some years ago, which she described as being like a place of refuge as well as a place of knowledge for women, in addition to her experience of a community regeneration project in Jamaica, which informed her view that libraries are places where people can meet and grow. This chimed well with Ranganathan’s principle that “a library is a growing organism”, a principle that my research on public libraries in India found to be rather compromised, leading me to question the growth of libraries when they are planted in colonised and ruptured grounds.
Library Animateur (a job title I am rather envious of!) Roshini Kempadoo offered me food for thought on these issues, as she posed the question of the time-bound and conjunctural relevance of libraries to culture in to the context of historical forces of nationalism, independence and postcoloniality. My next challenge is to sift through the research material I gathered in India to try to make some sense of this. Roshini also alerted us to the issue of the present pressure on libraries to be more active and performative spaces, which has a paradoxical effect of both fostering more social engagement, while at the same time curtailing spaces for deep thought and reflection.
Other engaging responses included the idea of the sacred elements of library space, which might take on a new meaning when nourished in the hands of user-led library communities. This led to the closing remark from another audience member that a library is as good as the people who work and use it, as much as the books and media that make up its contents, which reinforced the defining point of my talk, that is, we ‘story’ libraries as much as they ‘story’ us. I am grateful to the Stuart Hall Library for allowing such fertile ground for such stories to grow and intersect in this budding research network.