ISC Summer 2017 Special Issue preview/ announcement – Marx Meets Maslow: the needs based public library

Marx Meets Maslow: the needs based public library 

Edited by John Pateman and Joe Pateman

Most public libraries (80%) conform to the dominant paradigm of the Traditional Public Library, which can only meet the needs of around 20% of the community. These active library users – who tend to be white, middle class, female and over 55 years of age – use the library the most but need it the least.

As Open to All? The Public Library and Social Exclusion (2000) identified and the Working Together Project (2004-2008) demonstrated, the Traditional Library model must be replaced by a new paradigm – the Community Led Library – if the needs of most of the local community are to be met.

This proposal suggests that it is necessary to go beyond the Community Led model and develop Needs Based Libraries which are able to identify, prioritize and meet community needs.  This asymptote will focus on those who use the library the least but need it the most, particularly those who have been oppressed because of their race, social class, gender, sexual orientation, age or ability.

Marx is critical to an understanding of the Needs Based Library because in Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the Base (or substructure) and Superstructure.

The Base comprises the forces and relations of production into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. These relations determine society’s other relationships and ideas, which are described as its Superstructure.

The Superstructure of a society includes its culture and ideology. The Base determines (shapes) the Superstructure, yet their relation is not strictly causal, because the Superstructure often influences (maintains) the Base; the influence of the Base, however, predominates.

If this concept is applied to the public library the Superstructure can be interpreted as the organizational Culture,  and the Base as the Strategy, Structures and Systems. In this model the Base (Strategy, Structure, Systems) determines (conditions) the Superstructure (Culture). But their relation is not strictly causal, because the Superstructure (Culture) often influences the Base (Strategy, Structure, Systems); the influence of the Base (Strategy, Structure, Systems), however, predominates.

Maslow is also critical to an understanding of the Needs Based Library because he described human needs as ordered in a hierarchy from the most Basic or Physiological needs, right up to the need for Self Actualization. A lower level need would have to be mostly satisfied before someone would give their attention to the next highest need.

If this concept is applied to the public library it is clear that the  library has historically focused on meeting the higher level needs – the Cognitive, Aesthetic and Self Actualization needs.  The public library has not been so interested or involved in meeting the lower level needs – the Basic, Safety, Belonging and Esteem needs. Yet, as Maslow pointed out, until these needs are met, people cannot move up the hierarchy to meet their higher level needs. This helps to explain why public libraries are only actively used by 20% of the community. And this is where Marx meets Maslow.

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