Library membership and social capital

Google Alerts delivered this link to my in box this morning for a short article by George Seymour titled, ‘Library cards as the building blocks of social capital’.


The article starts with a reference to the withdrawal of all library books as a protest against the closure of Stony Stratford Library and goes on to say that while in Australia our libraries are not facing the same threat, we really should be embracing them as a ‘third’, or public, space with the potential to address declining social capital.


Seymour’s argument that libraries ‘must form part of any resurgence in social capital’ is premised on the fact that they already exist, that Australia has significant membership rates (46%), and that ‘they are attended more frequently and by more people than any other cultural and sporting venue.’ I wonder if high membership rates and frequent patronage are actually an indication of the limited potential for libraries to for the basis for a resurgence in social capital. After all I imagine supermarkets have a rather high patronage rate, but aside from the smiling faces in catalogues and TV ads I have not seem much to suggest that people think of them as a basis for community/ social capital.


I am a fan of public libraries. Just yesterday I took out a membership in the area I am focusing on for my project. As a primary school student, walking to the local library was one of the first things I was allowed to do without adult supervision. I have known quite a few people who use homelessness services who really value the library as a safe and comfortable destination, as a place to access the internet and probably as a way to get on with living an enjoyable life in some challenging circumstances.


However, are any of the things I like about libraries linked to actually holding a membership? I suppose a membership card means that you know the library exists (and the powers that be in the library administration know that you exist). I suppose taking out a membership suggests enough of an interest in the library to either fill in a form or talk with a staff member long enough to have your details recorded. Visiting a library may put you in the same space as other people and you may have to walk past a range of community notices, but does this matter?



2 Responses to “Library membership and social capital”

  1. Bryonny G-H Says:

    (Caveat: have not read the Seymour article. Will consequently now proceed to rant in an uninformed fashion.)

    I think we’d need quite minute data on how people actually use libraries to advance an argument for libraries as social capital sources. People CAN go and get books out that might offer personal improvement. They can also go and get out rubbish Jennifer Aniston films on DVD.

    [Here I become tempted to go on a long winded digression with not much point about the cultural valuing of reading, where it comes from … somehow ending up banging on about vernacular translations vs the Latin rite.]

    What is, I think, interesting as a source of social capital are different types of libraries. I read this article the other day which talks about tool libraries and bike fixing places as an argument for libraries to be about more than books.

  2. Tracey Says:

    There seems to be no shortage of people writing on libraries at the moment.

    Yes, good data on how people actually use libraries would be rather interesting. Actually, sounds like something local councils might collect [don’t mind me while I start an internet search on another tab].

    Perhaps different types of libraries could replace the need for certain types of social capital? If you do not need to have networks of people to show you how to fix a bike, to lend you a tool or recommend a Jennifer Aniston film for you then you might not maintain these networks.

    I guess the ‘sharehood’ set up gets around this. You get a service to help you borrow things but you do it through people who live nearby (and, for some reason, live in the same sort of housing density as you) and with the understanding that some social interaction might come with the exchange.

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