Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Library & Information Science


Adler, Melissa

2nd Supervisor

Rothbauer, Paulette



I use Walter Benjamin’s historical materialism in The Arcades Project to critique contemporary notions related to the understanding of the public library as a place. My critical theoretical approach, grounded in historical research and Benjamin’s theories of modernity, highlights contemporary aspects of the public library and broadens and deepens our understanding of the library’s physical role, both within and outside its walls. My research is based on the concurrent yet divergent social and cultural development of modern public libraries and Benjamin’s symbolic shopping arcades. Like Benjamin with the arcade, I believe that the public library contains innovative potentiality, in its spaces, collections, and modes of circulation. While I work within the library and information science research area of “library as place”, my critical method stands in contrast to other library as place research, which often simply describes the physical and historical characteristics of library spaces or treats the presence of any library as beneficial. I contribute to library as place research by considering how the public library, like the arcade, is “a past become space” (Benjamin [1927] 1999a, 871). Individual chapters consider the suitability of The Arcades Project as a theoretical framework for library as place research, the parallel histories of the arcade and the public library as projects of modernity, the display of the public library and its items, the library as a site to experience empathy—bad or true—with objects, the public library as the living room of the community, and how library workers and patrons alike can experience true empathy with the library as place. Original findings include a reframing of the modern public library movement, a comprehensive praxis of library display, a unique synthesis of Benjamin’s writing on empathy, and a demonstration of the effectiveness of a Benjaminian literary montage.

Summary for Lay Audience

In a time of rapid technological change, unstable funding sources, and shifting social conditions, particularly in urban centres, the public library must constantly reevaluate itself, its services, and its physical spaces. Public librarians are quick to promote the library as a welcoming space, yet, concerned as they are with annual budget cycles, they rarely have an opportunity to consider critically broader theoretical and historical concerns. This dissertation examines the history of the public library to understand its present role as a community space. My work is part of the library and information science (LIS) research area of “library as place”, which is concerned with meanings and functions of the physical library. I use the writing of the critical theorist Walter Benjamin, particularly The Arcades Project, to understand the social, economic, and cultural forces at play during the age of modernity. These forces affected the modern public library movement—the effort to establish public libraries throughout the world—and still affect public libraries to this day. After establishing the appropriateness validity of my Benjaminian approach in theoretical and historical studies, I turn my attention to three present-day issues in public libraries: displays, circulation, and the library as the living room of the community. I argue that the public library is and has always been a place affected by the forces of modern capitalism while also containing the potential to help the world past limited forms of social and cultural exchange. Perhaps my most novel research contribution is an entire chapter constructed as a literary montage following the model established by Benjamin in The Arcades Project. In addition to the field of LIS, my research has relevance to cultural history, urban studies, book history, print culture, critical theory, and museum studies.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License.