Tuesday, April 12, 2016

National Library Week Musings: Patron Agency


Warning: this is another post where I'm doing the blog post version of throwing spaghetti at a wall to see if it sticks. 

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of agency lately, and I'm still noodling things about (pun intended). People write about having agency, about giving agency, about teaching other people to use theirs, and so on. Since it's National Library Week, I thought it'd be a good time to talk about the role that libraries play in patron/community agency.

Before I get into the body of what I want to say, let me give you a definition of "agency" that fits, mostly, with what I've been thinking. This is from "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy":
In very general terms, an agent is a being with the capacity to act, and ‘agency’ denotes the exercise or manifestation of this capacity. The philosophy of action provides us with a standard conception and a standard theory of action. The former construes action in terms of intentionality, the latter explains the intentionality of action in terms of causation by the agent’s mental states and events. From this, we obtain a standard conception and a standard theory of agency. There are alternative conceptions of agency, and it has been argued that the standard theory fails to capture agency (or distinctively human agency). Further, it seems that genuine agency can be exhibited by beings that are not capable of intentional action, and it has been argued that agency can and should be explained without reference to causally efficacious mental states and events. (source)
So agency is both the ability to form an intention and the ability to take an action. And whenever I read something about libraries and agency, whether it's an academic library talking about information literacy or a public library talking about computer skills, I think about the power dynamic implied when someone says they are giving agency. Libraries are intended to be a democratizing kind of institution, and that's how many of us still see them - or at least that's how we want to see them. We see ourselves as lifting up the members of our communities. But more and more lately, I see that traditional vision of libraries as patronizing and paternalistic claptrap.

We don't give people agency. We give them tools to exercise the agency they already had. We give them a vehicle for its expression. Libraries can and should be a nexus for agency, but you've got to stop thinking of it as a gift we give to our patrons. The day I'm publishing this post is National Library Workers Day, so I feel the need to remind you all that our community members are our partners and they deserve our respect, not our paternalism.

Or, in the words of one of my favorite Twitter accounts...


  1. I agree with your thesis, but I don’t recall seeing anyone say or imply that libraries give people agency.

    1. I didn't want to call people out, so I didn't link to the posts, but I have seen it - both stated flat out "giving agency" and implied.

    2. Good enough for me. I must have missed those.