Libraries build autonomy: a philosophical perspective on the social role of libraries and librarians.

Author:Barbakoff, Audrey


An important, overlooked moral contribution of libraries and librarians to the community is the provision of support for autonomy. Philosophers have long considered autonomy a primary moral value, essential to living a flourishing life. Although library scholarship has not often engaged deeply with the philosophical discourse surrounding autonomy, libraries and librarians are uniquely positioned to enact many of the methods for encouraging it. (A notable exception is Rosenzweig's 2004 article in Progressive Librarian.) By considering the moral significance of library services as autonomy-building activities, libraries and librarians can provide a valuable social support for their communities, individual users, and ultimately themselves.

In the first section, I will address the definitions of autonomy in the context of public libraries. Autonomy is not a synonym for independence, but is rather "the moral capacity to make one's own choices" (Verkerk, 291), formed within society and relationships. Secondly, I will demonstrate that autonomy is already an underlying if little-recognized value held by libraries, and third, explain how libraries and librarians can, and in many cases already do, support autonomy-building.

This support is primarily found in social activities, from a brief consult at the reference desk to an ongoing gaming night. Finally, I will argue that appreciating the moral significance of library services as opportunities to build autonomy will have a concrete benefit for the library: it will allow us to clearly understand and market the unique and important role libraries and librarians can and should play.

What is autonomy in the context of libraries?

At its most simplistic, autonomy is self-governance. Am I able to live my life in accordance with my own personal values, and not those thrust upon me by others? In a Western context, this question conjures up many of our deeply-held beliefs in freedom, independence, and individualism. However, as we consider library services through the lens of autonomy, it is critical that we do not confuse these concepts. Autonomy is not the same as independence or individualism.

Philosophers have engaged in much debate over the subtleties, limits, and role of autonomy in our lives, yet they agree on essentially the same definition. Instead of emphasizing independence or self-sufficiency, the incorrect idea "that a good [autonomous] life is a life in which we do not need help or support from anyone in meeting our needs and carrying out our life plan," autonomy focuses on "the moral capacity to make one's own choices" (Verkerk, 291). (See Christman for an overview of autonomy scholarship and a bibliography of important works. My definitions are rooted in the feminist tradition of relational autonomy, best exemplified through Mackenzie and Stolijar, Meyers, and Verkerk.) Thus, encouraging autonomy is not antithetical to building community and social capital, as Ronald McCabe insinuates (McCabe, 121). Interdependence is actually integral to autonomy, as we often rely on the help of others to carry out the decisions we make based on our own values. In the context of libraries, the librarian's care is therefore critical in helping patrons develop autonomy.

Consider a physically impaired patron who is able to make his own decisions about which websites to visit, but is unable to manipulate the mouse in order to access them without the librarian's aid. The librarian's helping hand increases his ability to make his own choices based on his personal values. The librarian can play a similar role in encouraging the growth of autonomy in children and teenagers, the elderly and homebound, and other dependent patrons. In short, increasing autonomy in the library setting is not about reducing a person's dependence on or exposure to the librarian in the name of self-sufficiency. It is about recognizing the ability of the librarian-as-caretaker to help a moral agent carry out his or her decisions.

Even apparently independent adults are not perfectly autonomous in every situation (Meyers, 624), so it is extremely important to remember that it is not only children and disabled patrons who can benefit from the autonomy-building support of the library and the librarian. Anybody may need encouragement and support in this realm. Yet because each person's autonomy needs are unique, there is no one-size-fits-all method for meeting them. Librarians and library services...

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