Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Working with Space to Secure Social Legitimacy in Libraries

Space can be thought of in several ways. There is outer space, personal space, living space—even being a space cadet. But the definition of space that I would like to talk about is as follows: “the unlimited or incalculably great three-dimensional realm or expanse in which all material objects are located and all events occur” (Dictionary.com, 2006). Within the context of two organizational theories, Organizational Aesthetics and Symbolic-Interpretivist, the idea of library space becomes more that just a practical use of a physical area, but a representation of that area’s social existence. In short, the purpose of this article is to examine how organization theory can be used to support basic managerial decisions that appear to be “simple” environmental changes; but instead, are a key strategy towards embedding library services into the mainstream culture’s lifestyle.

First, I turn to Organizational Aesthetics theory, an insight that assumes “human senses and perceptions play a major role in constructing and appreciating organizations” (Hatch, 2006, p.338). Antonio Strati, an Italian organizational theorist and artist, believed there were several ways to approach the study of organizations aesthetically. Specifically, Strati looked at “(a) images relating to organizational identity, (b) the physical space of organizations, (c) physical artifacts, (d) aesthetic understandings such as the manager as artist, or the beauty, comedy, etc., of social organizations and (e) how management can learn from artistic form and content by using, for example, music, dance storytelling, drawing, painting or sculpture (Hatch, 2006, p.339). Though Strati mentions five different approaches to the aesthetic, it is fair to assume that in general, all of them relate to the construction, interpretation, and study of space and how it affects its audience.

Acting hand-in-hand with Organizational Aesthetics is the Symbolic-Interpretive’s perspective, in which American sociologists Paul DiMaggio and Woody Powell argue that “organizations compete not just for resources and customers, but for power and institutional legitimacy, for social as well as economic fitness” (Hatch, p. 85-86). When considering what the different aspects of “space” truly are (objects in a specific area comprised of size, shape, and location—where content is continually creating and effecting events), you realize that those aspects are relentlessly working towards creating an identity. As cliché as it may sound, libraries are working to create an identity as well; one that will resonate with and become indispensible to its stakeholders.

In fact, Henri Lefebvre’s notion of spatial practice focuses on the “active and dialectical nature” of “socially produced” space (Lloyd, 2007, p.26). While patron behavior (check-outs, reference questions, etc.) are certainly legitimate and necessary concerns for libraries, the onus is on LIS professionals to create an environment that stimulates energy and awareness so that said activities can occur. There is a responsibility to create spaces in libraries that are both accessible and usable; the same way there is a responsibility to be approachable and amenable to patron needs. When push comes to shove, “experience of the real is first and foremost sensory experience of a physical reality” (Hatch, 2006, p.338) .Or basically, what you think doesn’t matter. It is how the audience you serve experiences your library that creates what the library is and decides if the library is socially legitimate or not.

So, now what? The next time you enter your library, think about how your library might look to its audience. Is it an open and flowing space? Or is it closed and cluttered? Is there a space where everyone can feel comfortable? The reality of the situation is that more and more members of our communities are looking toward the library for structure and guidance. In the quest for social legitimacy, it would be wise for libraries to carefully examine their organizations through an aesthetic lens to determine who it is best serving and how it can acclimate to meeting the needs of others. But it is also important to remember that creating and maintaining valid and useful social space is an ongoing process. “Practice is conditioned by spatial configurations, and space is produced through practice” (Lloyd, 2007, p.28). In other words, library employees cannot share their craft without adequate space; just the same as that said space is further refined as it is utilized. Through this ongoing discourse, libraries can begin to build a solid foundation of service that extends beyond immediate social approval and into long-term social legitimacy.


Booth, H. (2007). Serving teens through readers’ advisory. American Library Association: Chicago.

Hatch, M.J. (2006). Organization theory: Modern, symbolic, and postmodern
perspectives (2nd Ed.).Oxford University Press: Oxford, England.

Jones, P., Gorman, M., Suellentrop, T. (2004). Connecting young adults and
libraries (3rd Ed.). New York, London: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Space. (2006). In Random House Unabridged Dictionary online.
Retrieved June 27, 2008, from http://www.dictionary.com.


slcbek said...

Ah, but the real problem of space, like any other art, is that what one person loves might me anathema to another and taste can change with need.
I find smaller, older libraries, such as the Sprague, much more comfortable for browsing and reading and the big open space at the Salt Lake City main branch better for getting work done.

slcbek said...

That should be "...be anathema..." Pardon my inability to type today.