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The public library as public sphere: a longitudinal analysis

Leo Appleton (Information School, The University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK)
Hazel Hall (Centre for Social Informatics, Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 9 May 2022

Issue publication date: 10 January 2023




The research was undertaken to explore the role of the UK public library as a public sphere and the ways in which this role relates to the epistemic, community and political functions of public libraries.


A longitudinal, multi-location focus group approach was developed and deployed in three phases. Data were collected from 53 active public library users in a total of 24 focus groups conducted in eight different public library services in England and Scotland in 2015–2016 (Phase 1), 2016–17 (Phase 2) and 2017–18 (Phase 3). Data collected were transcribed and coded using NVivo 10- for thematic analysis.


The public library's role as public sphere aligns closely with its epistemic functions, adding a dimension to information services provision beyond access to “traditional” print and online sources. New information and knowledge emerge through the person-to-person interactions in public library space. Through such exchanges, the community function of public libraries is made evident, notably as a platform for citizens to participate actively in society, including its democratic processes.


Unlike much extant prior work on public library value dominated with accounts of societal and/or economic impact, w hich is frequently based on the analysis of quantitative data, here the fundamental epistemic value of public library services is demonstrated. This research also adds an important perspective to the domain of Information Society Studies where, to date, the place of the public library as public sphere has been treated as peripheral.



The authors thank Dr Briony Birdi and Rachel Salzano for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. They also acknowledge their former Edinburgh Napier University colleagues Dr Robert Raeside and Dr Alistair Duff, who co-supervised the doctoral study alongside Dr Hazel Hall as Director of Studies.


Appleton, L. and Hall, H. (2023), "The public library as public sphere: a longitudinal analysis", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 79 No. 1, pp. 112-126.



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