Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library by Ed D’Angelo, Library Juice Press, 2006 – reviewed by John Pateman

In this well argued, well written and well presented book, Ed D’Angelo seeks to demonstrate ‘how post modern consumer capitalism threatens democracy, civil education and the public good’. One key public good and vehicle for civil education is the Public Library, and D’Angelo argues that there are a number of ‘Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library.’ These include market forces, consumerism, privatisation, materialism and commodification. I would add liberal democracy to this list, and this is where I diverge from much of D’Angelo’s thinking. Some of this divergence may be due to the following three factors: I have a UK perspective; I have a Marxist analysis; and my starting point is that public goods are a product of Capitalism.

My view is that the US and UK are not liberal democracies – they are Selfish Capitalist states (what D’Angelo calls postmodern consumer capitalism). They are also one party states – it doesn’t matter if you vote Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Labour, you are voting for a capitalist party which does not seek to change the capitalist system. As Ken Livingston (Mayor off London) once ‘If voting ever changed anything, they would abolish it.’ Voting does not make any difference, but it gives the illusion of choice and control. Many people are now seeing past that illusion and refusing to vote.

By supporting democracy and civil education, Public Libraries are supporting capitalism. Education and Public Libraries were invented by capitalists (such as Andrew Carnegie) to take the pressure out of the capitalist system, to prevent revolution. Capitalism has survived so long because it is able to accommodate and reform itself to prevent social unrest and revolt. Education and Public Libraries are two prime examples of accommodation and reform. Their overt purpose was social change – to improve the lives of working people. Their real purpose was social control – to control the reading habits of working class people and to ensure they have the skills to perpetuate the capitalist economy.

I also have a problem with the concepts of ‘high’ and ‘popular culture’. To me these are just devices of the capitalist system to divide people along class lines. High culture is for rich and middle class people; popular culture is for poor and working class people. We should not go along with this device. Culture is culture, period. Democracy is not possible under capitalism. Public Libraries and Education are not Public Goods, they are tools of the capitalist state. Given that is my starting point, when I compare bookstores with Public Libraries, I am comparing one agent of the capitalist state with another. This leads me to believe that bookstores are more effective and efficient in serving capitalism than Public Libraries. Bookstores are attractive, comfortable and welcoming; there are no petty rules such as having to give proof of identify to join, or fines for keeping books overdue. Public Libraries are an inefficient and ineffective vehicle for serving capitalism objectives – in many ways they have outlive their initial purpose and that is why their existence is now threatened in the cut throat competitive world of Selfish Capitalism.

It is futile for Public Libraries to try and compete with bookstores, which are a more effective servant of capitalism; their failure to compete is evidenced by massive and long term falls in book issues and visits, while book sales continue to rise. Instead of trying to compete in what Kim and Mauborgne call a Red Ocean of cut throat competition, Public Libraries should seek to use Blue Ocean strategy and create uncontested market space which will make the competition irrelevant. A good example of this is the Idea Store in Tower Hamlets. The use of Public Libraries in Tower Hamlets was declining and unsustainable; people were voting with their feet, particularly the working class and other disadvantaged communities. Use of the Adult Learning Service was also in terminal decline. Public Libraries and Adult Learning were trying to compete in a Red Ocean with bookstores and other learning providers. Instead they developed a Blue Ocean strategy which involved closing the stand alone Public Libraries and stand alone Adult Learning Centres and combining them into Idea Stores. This Blue Ocean strategy created uncontested market space and made the competition irrelevant. Use of the Idea Stores is now much higher than the previous use of the old stand alone Public Libraries and Adult Learning Centres. Use is particularly high among working class and other disadvantaged communities.

The precursors of Public Libraries in the UK were Mechanics Institutes. These were owned and controlled by the workers. Similarly so called ‘Penny Deadfuls’ and ‘Seditious Tracts’ were being circulated and read aloud in pubs and gin houses. These were a threat to the capitalist system which invented Public Libraries to control the reading habits of the working class and steer them towards ‘healthy literature’. This is where the division between ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ began. It was a divide and rule tactic, which worked very well. Public Libraries were part of a much bigger Victorian social control movement which also encompassed museums and public parks – ways to control and police the ‘idle time’ of the masses. Working class people were rightly suspicious of these institutions – and Education – and saw them as both patronising and controlling. They did not want middle class people to tell them what to read and how to think. That is why Public Libraries have never been successful in capturing a mass working class audience. They have appealed mostly to the upper working class – those who aspire to adopt middle class attitudes, behaviours, values and lifestyles.

As D’Angelo quite rightly says, it was the development of postmodern consumer capitalism which really threatened the Public Library. There is no place for institutions like Public Libraries in what Oliver James has termed Selfish Capitalism, which is a key driver of ‘Affluenza, a contagious middle class virus causing depression, anxiety and ennui’. One vaccine for this virus is to consume what you need, rather than what you want. The parallels for Public Libraries are clear. Since the 1950’s Public Libraries have been infected by the Affluenza Virus – instead of trying to meet the needs of the working class, they have pandered to the wants of the middle class. This worked well all the time that the middle class wanted books and information and during the 1960’s and 1970’s book issues, particularly adult fiction, soared. The success of Public Libraries became equated with book issues, quantity rather than quality. The problem is, when the middle class could get their wants elsewhere – through cheap books and internet access – they stopped using Public Libraries and issues and visits plummeted. The way to reverse this trend is to stop pandering to the wants of the middle class, and start meeting the needs of the working class.

In order to meet the needs of the working class it is necessary to engage them in the planning, design, delivery and evaluation of Public Library services. They should be involved in every aspect of Public Library operations, including book selection which should no longer be the sole preserve of middle class librarians. D’Angelo strongly defends the traditional ‘gate keeper’ role of the Public Librarian. I think that we should truly empower the working class by giving them a real stake and say in our institutions and society. This was what Old Labour called ‘transferring power and resources’ to the working class. Of course it is unlikely to happen because this would be a real threat to the status quo and to the established power structure of capitalism. For Public Librarians to resist this transfer of power is natural because Public Libraries are servants of capitalism. Among the arguments put forward for Public Librarians to maintain their gatekeeper role is that ‘they know what is best for the working class, they know what books will improve them the most.’ Such an attitude is both insulting and patronising. Working class people are able to work out what is good for them. They may not be attracted to ‘high culture’ but there is equal value in ‘popular culture’. D’Angelo poses education and entertainment as if they are mutually exclusive; they are not. The best books / films / media are both entertaining and educational. If a subject is not entertaining / enjoyable, it is less likely that people will want to learn about it. Worthy but dull does not work, as educational standards in the UK have shown. Working class children are best engaged and educated through a mixture of teaching methods which involve books and a range of other media (including visual and aural). So called ‘trashy novels’, DVDs and other media will always have a role to play, and should be stocked by Public Libraries if there is a demand for them and if they meet an identified need. Education and Entertainment are not mutually exclusive.

There are some siren voices in the UK, lead by ex book seller Tim Coates, which would have us believe that if we go back to basics and focus on books all of our problems will be solved. But trying to compete in the Red Ocean of the book retail market will not work. We need a new Blue Ocean strategy, and this will require re-inventing, rebranding and repositioning the Public Library. The Idea Store in Tower Hamlets is one example of this new approach. Discovery Centres in Hampshire are another. Combining and relocating Public Libraries with a range of other service providers (retailers, schools, Children’s Centres, Multi Use Centres) is the way forward for the Public Library. These new models of service delivery, combined with community engagement and community ownership of Public Libraries, will create a new Blue Ocean of uncontested market space which will make the competition irrelevant.

A good example of this in recent years in the UK is the People’s Network, offering free public access to the internet. It is possible that as many people visit Public Libraries today to get free internet access, as to borrow books for free. The combination of free book loans and free internet access has created a Blue Ocean of uncontested market space. Visitor figures are increasing and, if we can convert free internet users into free book borrowers, our book issues will go up as well. To make this conversion happen we need staff with the right set of skills, the most important of which is Customer Service. We should employ staff for their Customer Service skills first and foremost, and then teach them any technical skills which they require to carry out their jobs. Under capitalism the citizen is the customer, the customer is always right, and if we don’t give the customer what s/he needs, we will become irrelevant and people will stop using us.

The People’s Network was a Tipping Point which made people start using Public Libraries again. Malcolm Gladwell has described Tipping Points as ‘little things which can make a big difference.’ For Tipping Points to work, three rules need to be met: the Law of the Few says that it takes only a few people (who Gladwell characterises as Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen) to spread a good idea or product; for ideas and products to work they need to have the Stickyness Factor, which will make people want to use them; and the Power of Context is the environment in which the idea or product is located. We should identify the Connectors (people with wide social and professional networks), Mavens (people with information and expertise) and Salesmen (people who can influence and persuade) who can spread the word about how Public Libraries can meet people’s needs. We should make sure that the message about how Public Libraries can meet needs is Sticky enough to persuade people to use our services. And we should ensure that the Context of our libraries provides an attractive, welcoming and comfortable environment which people will want to visit, again and again.

We should restructure the basic operations of Public Libraries to meet customer needs. We should focus on Customer Service. We should replace our hierarchical chain of command and supervision with matrix management. We should reduce layers of management and supervision and shift power and resources to front line staff and communities. We should replace professional librarians who are ‘the gatekeepers of culture’ with staff and communities who are empowered and skilled in identifying, prioritising and meeting needs. We should replace library qualifications with management qualifications. We should remove the distinctions between ‘high and low culture’ and ‘good and bad books’. We should stop polarising ‘Education and Entertainment’. We should stop pandering to middle class wants and start meeting working class needs. We should make libraries as comfortable and popular as shopping malls and book stores. This is the route by which Public Libraries will survive and grow.

John Pateman


  1. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, Abacus, 2001
  2. Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Rennee Mauborgne, Harvard Business School Press, 2005
  3. Affluenza by Oliver James, Vermillion, 2007