This post is by Simon Cobb, Repositories Assistant in the Research Support Team based in the Research Hub on Level 13 of the Edward Boyle Library.

The first ever Libraries Week will begin on Monday and it is an ideal opportunity to reflect on the function and value of the library in a democratic society. All libraries are cultural institutions that collect and store knowledge to further human understanding and preserve cultural outputs. Whilst public libraries were, however, founded for the public good, with a mission to promote literacy, education and culture by providing information that is enshrined in a UNESCO Manifesto, the impact of academic libraries beyond campus is rather opaque.

The value of libraries

Libraries, generally, do not receive much news coverage as they quietly go about their business. But, when disaster strikes and a library is destroyed by fire, articles appear that describe the damage to cultural memory and loss of irreplaceable documentary heritage. As flames engulfed the Mackintosh library at the Glasgow School of Art in 2014 there was a “prevailing sense of horror” amongst the assembled crowd. Witnessing this conflagration was described as “desperate, like watching an old friend dying.” Such lamentations indicate that libraries are important and highly valued institutions.

Similarly, campaigns to save libraries threatened with closure because of austerity policies attract the support of bestselling authors and invoke the value of libraries to communities and a healthy, functioning democratic society.

Protest in March 2013 to save Stow Hill Library from closure. Available via Flickr ( under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.

Libraries and democracy

Since their foundation in the mid-nineteenth century public libraries have been considered to be arsenals of a democratic culture. But the ways in which public libraries contribute to society are also found in academic libraries. Libraries of all types provide:

Libraries empower people to make informed decisions and participate in society by providing guidance to help them find and use the information they need. Library collections contain a plurality of information, including a multitude of contrasting viewpoints, to reflect the diversity of society. A good library should be capable of offering everyone something they will find offensive to “guard against the tyrannies of ignorance and conformity, and its existence indicates the extent to which a democratic society values knowledge, truth, justice, books, and culture.”

Undemocratic libraries

Nevertheless, assertions that libraries are a buttress to democratic ideals often overlook the deployment of libraries for undemocratic purposes by authoritarian political regimes. The Soviet Union developed an extensive library network to disseminate ideological material for the education of good Marxist/Leninist citizens. Soviet librarianship was guided by party mindedness, which manifested as censored library collections and closed repositories of restricted material. Such activities are not indicative of a democratic institution and the library appears to be part of the ideological state apparatus. Indeed, a library that provides inadequate and misleading information can undermine democracy.

Digital information

The ubiquity of information on the internet has led some commentators to declare the library redundant in the digital age. Although the internet can deliver a huge amount of information, it also includes unreliable sources and misleading or false information. The fake news phenomenon exemplifies how misinformation can be disseminated online – see this infographic from IFLA to help identify fake news.

Commercial biases in search engine results complicate the retrieval of reliable information from the internet. Internet users generally trust search engines to give a prominent ranking to search results that are well suited to their needs. Knowledge access is, however, compromised by the manipulation of search results to generate advertising revenue from companies seeking to enhance their visibility. Although search engines are free to use, they are debased by commercialisation which can, potentially, impede access to the most useful material.

Libraries can signpost good quality, reliable resources amongst the abundance of online information. Training library users in the necessary skills to find information and evaluate sources will help to minimise the impact of commercial biases, prevent the spread of misinformation and maintain a well-informed society. The values of democracy and social justice are encapsulated in the Alexandria Proclamation on Information Literacy:

Information Literacy lies at the core of lifelong learning. It empowers people in all walks of life to seek, evaluate, use and create information effectively to achieve their personal, social, occupational and educational goals. It is a basic human right in a digital world and promotes social inclusion of all nations.

Information literacy for researchers

Academic libraries provide information literacy (IL) training for researchers to help them navigate a complex and evolving information landscape. The core elements are strategies and techniques for literature searching and abilities to critically evaluate the information retrieved, manage it appropriately and use it in an ethical manner. Digital literacies can be embedded to ensure that researchers can utilise digital technologies in social and professional contexts that enhance their research activities. Advocacy during IL training can highlight the importance of equal access to information for social progress, encourage sharing of research to create a fairer knowledge society and promote library services that support open access publication.

Open Access

Research library acquisition budgets have been squeezed by inflation and an increasing proportion is taken by journal subscriptions. Consequentially, even libraries at the most affluent universities cannot afford all the journals required to support the research activity of their institution. In April 2012, Harvard University Library warned that the escalating subscription prices charged by major publishers were unsustainable and academically restrictive. But the cost of journals continued to rise.

Open Access can address a broken system of academic publishing. © Les Larue. Available via under the terms of the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license

Open access (OA) is a model for communicating research in which articles are free and accessible online. It removes the artificial financial barriers to research, which are a legacy of a print-era publishing model, and ensures that new research findings are available for use and further development. OA to research potentially has more readers, more citations, greater impact and increased return on research funding investment. Most importantly, perhaps, OA can advance human knowledge and improve our societies.

In practice, there are two strategies to achieve OA to research:

  1. Self-archiving (Green OA): an author produced version of a peer-reviewed article is uploaded to a digital archive – usually an institutional or subject repository. Access is often restricted until a specified embargo period has elapsed.
  2. Open-access publishing (Gold OA): Free and immediate access to the published article on the journal website. Article processing charges (APCs) are paid by the author and a license permitting sharing and reuse is applied.

In the fifteen years since OA was first defined by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, the field has become increasingly complex due to the competing interests of research funders, universities, publishers and libraries. Funder mandates for OA publication aim to make publicly-funded research available to all potential users and have linked OA with the eligibility of research outputs for submission to the next Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021).

It is claimed that major publishers stifle green OA, since it could be detrimental to their business, whilst promoting their own gold OA options that pursue profit. This assertion is supported by a study of publisher self-archiving policies which found a significant positive correlation between increased self-archiving restrictions and the introduction of gold OA options.

At universities, the library ensures compliance with funder mandates and publisher self-archiving policies, manages the institutional repository and APC funds, and offers advocacy, advice and services to support OA. These activities disseminate research as widely as possible, fulfilling the right of access to information, which is a necessity for human development, and facilitating the creation of new knowledge. We will revisit this topic during Open Access Week.

Academic library spaces, civic engagement and social capital

The academic library is at the heart of a university. It contributes to the academic mission by providing resources, skills and spaces that support successful learning, teaching and research. The library assumes its social responsibility to support innovation and the transfer of knowledge by making information resources available and running skills workshops whilst promoting the values of scientific methodology, open-mindedness and intellectual freedom. Library space for co-working can foster the development of interdisciplinary research communities by bring together researchers from different fields to discuss how their diverse range of knowledge and skills can be applied to a problem of mutual interest.

Civic engagement is a key part of the mission of contemporary universities. Strategic planning focuses on increasing the university’s societal relevance through the development of partnerships that engage and provide opportunities for the local community and wider society. Academic libraries are well positioned to contribute to these initiatives as their core functions encourage knowledge exchange and develop the prerequisite literacies for civic participation.

Library collaboration and outreach activities that engage different groups from both on and off campus in a shared space can make an important contribution to institutional strategic goals. Social and civic engagement activities can support educational, cultural, and economic improvements on campus. It is suggested that causal relationships between libraries and social capital can be found in three areas:

  • Collaboration with voluntary organisations in the community;
  • Library spaces for people to meet and interact informally;
  • Equitable access to information and services creates a more democratic environment for all.

Further, libraries offer safe spaces to engage in dialogue and deliberation about the significant challenges that we face in our societies. The practice of deliberative democracy creates civic space and reinforces the library’s position at the intellectual heart of the campus.

Last week, MIT Libraries adopted its new vision, mission and values statements. Access to information is recognised a social good that can facilitate knowledge advancement when information use is directed toward resolving the world’s great challenges. MIT Libraries have outlined their desire to build an organisational culture of openness and transparency that will encourage innovation, critical thinking and risk taking in pursuit of equality and social justice. One of their contributions to a better world will be defending intellectual freedom to bolster democracy.