Library as Infrastructure

Melvil Dewey was an early prototype of an entrepreneur who was active in “furniture business, the office-supply business, the consulting business, the publishing business, the education business, the human resources business, and what we might today call the “knowledge solutions” business”. The overlapping of all those areas meant that Dewey believed in

that intellectual and material systems and labor practices are mutually constructed and mutually reinforcing.

This is still true, although the techno-material basis has changed quite drastically (as in Apple computers instead of hanging files). Shannon Mattern therefore suggests to think of “librar[ies] as a network of integrated, mutually reinforcing, evolving infrastructures — in particular, architectural, technological, social, epistemological and ethical infrastructures”.

She goes on to think through different library configurations.

As platform

Libraries had to go along with the technological development and become a key player for media production and distribution. There are historical reason for our perception of the library as a community center or as in installment of a ruler or state.

One reason that speaks against the library as platform is that the term reduces the library to its technicalities and prioritizes “monetizable knowledge solutions”. Library as a platform also flattens away the complexity of such a place.

Libraries are infrastructures not only because they are ubiquitous and persistent, but also, and primarily, because they are made of interconnected networks that undergird all that foment, that create what Pierre Bourdieu would call “structuring structures”1 that support Weinberger’s “messy, rich networks of people and ideas.”

It’s therefore important to understand how libraries are infrastructure and are part of socio-material infrastructure ecologies.

As social infrastructure

Libraries are seen as beneficial for society as they deliver social services, such as public education, being non-commercial places where people can meet and so on, especially for marginalized people. Research has shown that libraries at very important for the local communities. But the balance of what they can deliver and how much is expected of them is often not in their favor, often they take over work that should be provided by other institutions.

The author again recommends to look at how libraries at part of infrastructural ecologies. She points out that there is a “design challenge” with how such a place is constitute physically, which is immanent in libraries recent architectures of “including everyone”.

The library is also a counter-institution to the locked knowledge of the internet, as Google and others have proven not to be that open after all. Libraries on the other hand have an ideological base-ethos of being open.

Last but not least, a library is also a mirror of the community and society at large. If you’re willing to invest money in something as a library, that’s generally a good sign, which is also expressed in the design of the library.

His designs “make of this humble municipal building an arena for social interaction, …a distinctive civic icon that helps build a sense of common identity.” This kind of social infrastructure serves a vital need for an entire community.

As techno-intellectual infrastructure

The way a library’s collection is stored and made accessible shapes the intellectual infrastructure of the institution.

The author refers to the material base of the library, not the digital.

this seemingly mundane, utilitarian consideration cultivates a character, an ambience, that reflects the library’s identity and its intellectual values.

I like the following passage as it relates infrastructure to usage

mixes diverse infrastructures to accommodate media of varying materialities: a grand reading room, a conservation department, a digitization department, and a subterranean warehouse of books retrieved by robot.

I’m wondering, what might be the equivalent in an image archive. Today’s libraries often include other infrastructures that are important for knowledge production, such as hack labs and maker spaces. Some people go as far as proposing that libraries at the perfect think tank and incubator spaces, and other entrepreneurial approaches. The authors wonders and worries if these approaches and practices really add to and add up to knowledge production.

Library staff might want to take up the critique of “innovation,” too.

Reading across the Infrastructural Ecology

In the last part Shannon Mattern goes into what she recommended along the text: reading across the infrastructural ecology. She doesn’t resolve anything but argues to stay with the infrastructural complexities that a library brings with it and refers rather poetically to libraries being a different kind of social reality, quoting Barbara Fister:

Libraries are not, or at least should not be, engines of productivity. If anything, they should slow people down and seduce them with the unexpected, the irrelevant, the odd and the unexplainable. Productivity is a destructive way to justify the individual’s value in a system that is naturally communal, not an individualistic or entrepreneurial zero-sum game to be won by the most industrious.


Mattern, S. (2014). Library as Infrastructure. Places Journal.