Shortly before his death, Michel Foucault elaborated on a notion he'd originally advanced in a 1967 lecture, the idea of heterotopias. He described heterotopias as spaces that serve as a locus for crises, temporal disruption or artificiality and multiplicity, where the splintering of functionality creates an ideological opacity, a troubled teleology of place. Foucault lists churches, hospitals, gardens, museums, amusement parks, hotel rooms and prisons in his analysis, but I would like to spend some time analyzing public libraries through this framework.
It is approaching a point of overdetermination to discuss ways in which libraries have undergone drastic institutional changes, changes that include the burgeoning proliferation of digital media, the establishment of in-house coffee shops and cafes, the creation of entire facilities for playing videogames, the provision of library rooms as public meeting places, the emphasis on offering job placement and skills training to local populations. Increasingly, public libraries seem determined to provide functions not originally deemed necessary to their purposes as social agencies, a determination often limited more by issues of funding than philosophical reservation.
Although I would like to include studies of the impact of offering these services and facilities in libraries as empirical data, I would hope to avoid prescriptive interpretations of whether or not libraries should be moving in this direction and instead compare the public library as a heterotopic space to other hetertopias to see if there are instructive connections to be made about the ways communication, community, architecture and technology function in these places. It is largely because of what seems to me to be a conceptual stalemate between misgivings and enthusiasms among librarians for these changes that I am motivated to rework these moments of evolution and adaptation within Foucault's theoretical framework of heterotopias.
Published in Volume 8, Issue 4, pages 155-162