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Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Libraries: Institutions or assemblages?

By Katherine Howard

Gerolami, N. (2015) The library assemblage: creative institutions in an information society.  Journal of Documentation, 71(1), pp. 165-174. doi 10.1108/JD-09-2013-0120

“Institution or assembl…. What?!”
Assemblage. Or, more specifically, the concept of assemblage as a theoretical foundation in which to view the library as a tool for social justice.

In this conceptual paper, Natasha Gerolami introduces us to Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage theory, which she uses to “develop a theory of the institution that highlights the library’s potential to resist forces of domination” (p. 165).  While that may seem a little melodramatic for this day and age, Gerolami points to moments in time where libraries have attempted to constrain individuals – the notion of class at the end of the nineteenth century, for example.  She quotes William Kite (1877) in stating that “working class men and women would remain “content with their lowly but honest occupations”” (Kite, p. 278 as cited in Gerolami, p. 170), so long as the library was stocked with literature that was appropriate for their class.  If working class individuals started thinking about new possibilities for themselves, they may very well “disrupt the status quo” (Gerolami, p. 170).

Before looking at the application of assemblage theory, Gerolami first looks at the concept of an institution, and how, through a social contract theory lens, they are seen as suppressive or oppressive.  Libraries as institutions are not exempt from this, as history (and quite likely recent events) has shown us.  Social contract theory portrays society in a negative light; the aim of the ‘contract’ is to suppress the base instincts of society. Libraries perpetuated this view through the provision of “good literature” – that somehow immoral behaviour and society’s ills would be corrected if society were only exposed to the good stuff.  

Gerolami then turns to Deleuze’s theory of institutions as an alternative to social contract theory.  Deleuze is all-encompassing in his conceptual understanding of ‘institution’:  social institutions such as marriage, and government institutions such as schools, hospitals and prisons are included.  In contrast to social contract theory that sees society negatively, Deleuze sees the potential to “conceive of institutions in a positive and inventive manner …” (Gerolami, p. 167).  In theory of institutions terms, the library as an institution “is best understood as a productive space […and …] a creative rather than repressive force [with the potential] to produce new social networks” (p. 168).

Finally, the use of assemblage theory is as a way to ground library services as tools for advocacy discussed.  In short, assemblage theory states that “different components of the assemblage [i.e. the library] are not determined or defined by the whole assemblage of which they are a part.  Parts can […] be detached and removed […] and connected to another one [i.e. another assemblage].  Furthermore, the assemblage is more than merely the sum of its parts” (p. 168).  What this means in practice is that the library (as an institution) “could be assembled with other institutions, forces or people (p. 169).

While the article is perhaps not the easiest to read, Gerolami peppers it with analogies, which helps to make it more realistic rather than merely conceptual.  She questions the continued use of potentially out-dated concepts (e.g. evaluation methods used in collection development), and uses the theoretical concepts discussed to encourage the use of “old concepts in new ways” (p. 170), 

This is pre-print version of the article published in Incite, Jan/Feb 2017

Image: Don Urban, Orrery Steam Punk

Dr Katherine Howard, AALIA 
Lecturer, Information Management, School of Business IT & Logistics | RMIT, Melbourne 

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