From participation to mobilization:  new roles in French public libraries

In 2016 Raphaëlle Bats contributed an article to an issue of Library trends (vol. 65, no. 2) discussing the responses of French librarians to the terrorist attacks on Charlie hebdo and a Kosher supermarket on 15 January 2015. The LT issue dealt with the theme, “Libraries in the political process and in conflict situations”, and it carried quite diverse contributions from librarians in five countries.  In her article (Bats 2016), Raphaëlle, who is an instructor responsible for international relations at the École nationale supérieure des sciences de l’information et des bibliothèques (enssib), the French national library school, examined the tension between the traditional neutral stance of librarians and their desire to take part (which they did, on a large scale) in the highly political response to the terrorist act, and asked whether the library profession needs to rekindle its activist vocation.

She followed up the theme of librarians’ participation in political activity in her doctoral dissertation, “De la participation à la mobilisation collective, la bibliothèque à la recherche de sa vocation démocratique” (From participation to collective mobilization, the library looking for its own political vocation), which she successfully defended in October 2019, and which was recently published online (Bats 2019). In it she reflected on the trend toward participatory democracy and on the role French public libraries (bibliothèques municipales) might play, pointing to the risks inherent in institutionalizing participation and examining the possible renewal of libraries and the library profession. Library neutrality has been much discussed in American library literature (see for example Branum 2008; Buschman 2018; Farkas 2017; Jaeger et al. 2013; Keer and Bussman 2019). Raphaëlle’s dissertation approaches the topic from a distinctly French political and cultural perspective.  It is worth reading, not least for purposes of international comparative librarianship.

Raphaelle blogs at I reproduce her English abstract below:

Abstract : The development of participatory practices in public institutions reflects both a tendency of citizens of 21st century democracies to find the system of representative democracy unsatisfactory, and a tendency of elected representatives to seek legitimacy through hyper local politics. Institutionalizing participation limits it to the development of tools and procedures, or to pre-defined spaces or on pre-ordained projects. Institutionalized participation is therefore subject to two risks: being useless for participants or turning participants into puppets of the institution. How can an institution negate these risks and be a place in which or through which citizens can gain the power to act, in the democracy and on their democracy? This dissertation examines participatory practices in municipal libraries. First, by conducting research on the librarians’ intentions in the development of participatory practices and the contextualization of these intentions in relation to crises in society or in libraries, we can define the why and how of the increase of participatory practices in libraries. Second, an analysis of the limitations of participatory practices in terms of citizens’ political involvement allows us to investigate the effects of participation and the political role of the library. Finally, transformations within the library profession, both completed and in progress, provide insight on the links between empowerment, and experience, prescriptive professional practices, and the preservation of memory, and lead us to think in a new way about the role of the actors of cultural policies both in space and in time. Through this research, we envision the library as capable of linking institution and event, in Merleau-Ponty’s sense, and then renew in every experience of participation moments and spaces of equality and freedom, for a collective mobilization of citizens to the transformation of democracy.

Keywords :  Democracy; Participation; Libraries; Public Policies; Cultural Institutions; Empowerment


Bats, Raphaëlle. 2016. ‘Libraries after Charlie: From Neutrality to Action’. Library Trends 65 (2): 128–42. doi:10.1353/lib.2016.0026.

Bats, Raphaëlle. 2019. ‘De La Participation à La Mobilisation Collective, La Bibliothèque à La Recherche de Sa Vocation Démocratique [From Participation to Collective Mobilization, the Library Looking for Its Own Political Vocation]’. Thesis, Paris: Université Paris Diderot.

Branum, Candise. 2008. ‘The Myth of Library Neutrality’. Candisebranum. WordPress.Com.

Buschman, John. 2018. ‘The Politics of Academic Libraries: Fake News, Neutrality and ALA’. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 44 (3): 430–31. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2018.04.013.

Farkas, Meredith. 2017. ‘Never Neutral’. American Libraries Magazine. January 3.

Jaeger, Paul T., Ursula Gorham, John Carlo Bertot, and Lindsay C. Sarin. 2013. ‘Democracy, Neutrality, and Value Demonstration in the Age of Austerity’. The Library Quarterly 83 (4): 368–82. doi:10.1086/671910.

Keer, Gr, and Jeffra Diane Bussman. 2019. ‘A Case for a Critical Information Ethics’. Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 2 (1). doi:10.24242/jclis.v2i1.57.



About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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