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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 078-155(WS)-E
Division Number: III.
Professional Group: Library Services to Multicultural Populations (Workshop)
Joint Meeting with: Library Theory and Research: Workshop
Meeting Number: 155.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

From Libraries to Citizenship: Study on Young Users in Low-Income Neighborhoods of French Cities

Michèle Petit
National Center for Scientific Research
Université de Paris
Paris, France


How can libraries contribute to the fight against exclusion ? A study published in France in 1997 tries to answer this question, based on interviews with young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds whose lives were changed to varying degrees by their use of public libraries.

Based on the analysis of their individual life paths, attentive to the movements that these routes can exert in different domains, this study called for a qualitative methodology. The analysis brought out the multiplicity of ways in which a library can be used. Among these, the uses pertaining to the construction of the self are not well known. And yet they are essential : while elaborating their subjectivity, these youngsters distance themselves from stereotypes and stigmatizing images, they leave the places assigned to them and find room of maneuver in the societal checkerboard. Thanks to the discoveries they make in libraries, those who come from immigrant backgrounds in particular are able to reconcile their two cultures and build themselves an open and plural identity.


First of all, let me thank very warmly Lis Byberg and Christine Girard, who have given me the opportunity of being here with you, as well as the CORI (the association for the French participation to IFLA), which helped me come here. Lis Byberg invited me in order to present a research project I coordinated and the results of which were published last year in France under the title De la bibliothèque au droit de cité (From Libraries to Citizenship (1)) This study was aimed at investigating how libraries contribute to a fight against the processes that result in the exclusion and relegation from society. It was based on interviews with young people from socially disadvantaged groups whose lives were changed, to varying degrees, by their use of public libraries. The work was carried out by five researchers of the laboratory where I work, at the request of the French Ministry of Culture and of the Bibliothèque Publique d'Information, the huge library situated in the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, which some of you may know.

I will start by briefly describing the problematic we have set out, the methodology that goes with it, and some of the results.

Individual life paths

As an introduction, I will quote one of the youngsters we met. His name is Daoud, he is originally from Senegal and he is 24 years old. «When you're in the suburbs, you're supposed to do badly at school and get a lousy job, everything pushes you in that direction. I was able to dodge and avoid that path, to be different, to go somewhere else, that is where I belong. Those who just hang out, they do what society expects them to do, that's all. They're violent, they're vulgar, they're uneducated. They say : "I live in the suburbs, and this is what I am." I was just like them. Going to libraries like this one enabled me to have an access and to meet other people. That's what libraries are for. I chose my life and they didn't.» <> Even before we started this study, I had a feeling that for these youngsters who live in underprivileged neighborhoods, that was exactly the question: to dodge, as Daoud put it, a series of preordained routes that only lead to a dead end. For instance, dodging means escaping the well-trodden path that starts with education and training that yield minimal qualifications to unemployment and failure. It means shedding xenophobic stereotypes that stick to your skin ; escaping from those who control the streets (be they drug dealers or religious fundamentalists); not becoming the prey of imitation and mutual surveillance that characterize spaces where one lives among those of one's kind, which can lead young girls to confinement or even to forced marriages, etc.

Thus the concept of movement that I placed at the heart of the problematic. «To integrate», in my sense, presupposed a set of movements, real or symbolic : movement along educational and professionals paths, going further than the limits set by educational and social programming ; movement in one's relationships with family, group and ethnic culture ; movement away from what is allotted to you because you were born a boy or a girl ; movement towards other forms of sociability with people your own age ; and eventually, movement in the way one lives in and perceives the neighborhood, the city, the country where he lives.

At the heart of the study were all the enabling aspects of going to a library, which make that you can «choose your life» as Daoud put it ; everything that contributes to making you more of a subject and less of an object of your destiny, a mere recipient of discourse, be it repressive or moralizing ; everything that helps build a critical distance, that allows you to pry open your own doors in the social labyrinth, to go not where you are expected to go.

Indeed, if heavy determinism is the common lot of the denizens of these neighborhoods, each individual destiny is a singular story, made of memory and its blanks, of events, meetings, movements. And the slow, time-consuming process that is social integration is punctuated by key moments in which meetings, even when they are fleeting, help crack open the realm of the possible. Humans always constitute themselves in intersubjectivity, it is through meetings that personal paths can veer.

Now, a library is precisely a space which can be situated in different time frames : long, as in the library that is a constant companion along the successive steps of life, or short, as in the meetings and interactions that regular attendance yields : meetings with librarians, with other users, with visiting writers ; with the words, scholarly or poetic, that are found in books, and even with the sentences written by other readers in the margins of these books.

These are the multiple interactions that we wanted to distinguish, the habits that libraries impel as well as those that the users themselves invent. And we wanted to pay close attention to the socializing aspects, such as learning the rules needed to share a public space, often raised by the professionals. We also wanted to identify all the aspects of individualization, which allows everyone to build himself. Because in these neighborhoods, decay does not only affect buildings or social links. It can also mean, for many of those who live there, difficulties in their capacity to symbolize, to imagine, and therefore to act and think for themselves.

A qualitative methodology

So what we had to do was to analyze those movements along individual life paths. To see how they occur, and when, and based on what appropriations or dialogues. We had to analyze the representations of the book, of the library, of those who inhabit it and the meaning given to the ways of doing things. All this called for a qualitative methodology. Therefore we listened to these youngsters, one after the other, telling us how their life at some point had changed in one way or another thanks to a library.

We wanted these interviews to be very open, because the essential function of the interview is to be as open as possible, even to the unexpected. When digressions appeared, often without any apparent link with the subject matter, we interpreted them as free associations redolent with meaning. And it is based on what our interlocutors said, based on what seemed to be organizing their speech, that we had to improvise ways to stimulate the conversation, according to hypotheses that arise in situ and that include a part of intuition. It is better to forget a subject on the interviewer's checklist than to miss the unexpected. And in fact I think that the checklist needs to be set aside at the beginning of the interview, otherwise one is at risk of not learning anything new. An interview is not a questionnaire.

And the interviewees weren't fools, anyway. If at the beginning you stated the subject matter of your research project, they would hear it, and what they would say would have a link, to a varying degree, with the subject matter. They had a knowledge of themselves, of their experiences, and the researcher drew his or her knowledge from them. Which doesn't mean that we took everything they said for granted. But I reject the postulate of systematic suspicion that has characterized social sciences for so long. Just as I think that we have to pay attention to individuality to ensure that we are not reducing the other to a walking example, a «representative sample» in flesh and blood.

Besides, the young people we met during our research weren't very «representative». Among them, we found quite a few good students or strong personalities, youngsters nurtured by their parents' ambition, by the value given to knowledge that the parents transmitted to their children, or by their own sensitivity or their uncommonly strong will. There were also others who never passed through the doors of a library, or if they did once, who never came back. All these books reminded them too much of school, of failure, of humiliation. Some, fully immersed in their rage or incensed by unrequited love for knowledge and language, even set books on fire or threw stones at libraries. What we studied, then, is only one aspect of the relationship the youngsters of these neighborhoods have with libraries ; deliberately, we chose the most positive aspect. But it is far from being the exception. Indeed, in those places where librarians have been reflecting since many years on their role towards this «public», it is an increasing proportion of the population that is taking over the libraries and their contents in order to outsmart the laws of «social reproduction» and resist exclusion, thus building their participation in a civil society.

A total of 90 subjects 15 to 30 years old shared with us their stories, their experiences, their findings. They live in six towns, located in different economic, social and spatial contexts. Three are suburbs of big cities : Bobigny is outside Paris, Bron is near Lyon, Hérouville-Saint-Clair is in the outskirts of Caen, in Normandy. Mulhouse, in the Alsacian region, had a bright industrial past but is going through a darker period of difficult economic conversion. Auxerre, in Burgundy, and Nyons, in the southern Alps, are set in a rural environment. How did we meet these young people ? We approached some of them directly in the libraries, but to a great degree time constraints led us to prefer following the leads given to us by the librarians. They knew or remembered some of the users whom we were able to track down; or they enabled us to follow other approaches, for instance putting us into contact with intercultural mediators. In this way we were able to obtain a satisfying diversity of profiles and life histories for our interviews : 45% male, 55% female; 33% between 15 and 19 years old, 40% from 20 to 24, 27% over 25. In nearly half of all cases, the youngsters we met, or their parents, were born in one of three countries of the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco). Around 20% came from southern European countries, sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey or the Far East and a third had French parents. The native French did not have the same relationship with libraries as the children of immigrants, for whom they often represented a real lifesaver.

The interviews generally lasted between one and a half and two hours. We recorded them, then transcribed them entirely, which gave us 1,500 single-spaced pages of material to be analyzed. This analysis was first done through a «floating reading», somewhat akin to the psychoanalyst's floating attention, which allowed us to identify unexpected themes or surprising words, and to spot certain connections. Another reading, more systematic, was based on different data : tables with a nominative entry and several thematic entries which summarize a certain number of characteristics and which bring out the relationships between them; a list of quotes by themes.

Furthermore, these interviews were completed by an examination of all the libraries focusing on their physical layout, their book collections and the users' individual practices. We spoke extensively with the librarians and with people who play a specific role in these neighborhoods because of their function, their profession or their involvement in local associations. And we also studied the economic, social, cultural and political history of each of the towns.

Multiple uses

To briefly mention the results, what struck us when we were listening to these young people was the multiplicity of uses, of forms of appropriation of the libraries, which help them in different ways to resist social exclusion. Some of these uses are very well known and visible. For instance, extracurricular uses : for all those whose strategy is to stay in school, the library is something essential they can lean on and that allows them to compensate their social handicaps. There, they can find documents, even guidance by professionals, and a study-friendly atmosphere, an enabling structure where they can support each other.

Self-taught users were also very frequent. Some had already left school, but others were simply seeking knowledge for practical, everyday motives or for professional ones. For some, the research was utilitarian, whereas for others knowledge was perceived as a way of not appearing «dumb», of keeping up with one's time, of being knowledgeable in conversation. It was also a way of connecting to the world, to find one's place by studying astronomy, history or biology.

There is another very rich theme and a very familiar one too, that of the library as a space for socializing. For many of these youngsters, it was a space that gave a sense of belonging, of being a participant, a place where everyone is granted respect and dignity by the others. It was a key alternative to the involvement with gangs for boys who seek to avoid the traps of street machismo. For girls, it provided an escape from family and community control, particularly for those from Moslem families, who must fight to avoid being confined. For all, it was an example of hospitality, of tolerance and of openness towards others.

All these aspects have been analyzed in the book, but unfortunately, due to the lack of time, I cannot explain them further. However, I will touch upon one lesser known function of libraries that the youngsters spoke about at length and that appears to be essential to me : the way it is used to construct the self.

For many of them, books already are companions. They often have no one with whom they can discuss their sorrows, their anguish and their hopes and they often lack the vocabulary to express these emotions. The difficulty of finding their place in society is not only economic, it is also emotional, social, sexual and existential. And as they turn the pages, they sometimes discover that their most intimate and most subjective truths have been experienced by others, who were able to articulately describe them.

But reading doesn't only contribute to the construction of the self by its powers of consolation. By reading, one elaborates a world of one's own, a time for oneself in which the capacity to dream is given a free rein. Many of our youngsters have mentioned this other notion of time that was unlocked by reading. At stake in the democratic access to books is the sharing of a way of spending time that encourages dreams and fantasies. Need I remind you that there is no thought without dreams ?

Too often, even today, readers from underprivileged backgrounds are given access only to «useful» books, works that are supposed to help them in their studies or in their search for a job. They are also granted the right to read a few easy best-sellers in order to be «distracted». Other books are set aside for «cultured reading», privilege of the rich. With such a classification, one ignores one of the most essential dimensions of reading of which these youngsters are very conscious when they mention their meetings with words that enabled them to symbolize their experience, give a meaning to their life and give them a stronger hold on what surrounds them.

It is thanks to these moments of freedom, thanks to a new sense of perspective, to this psychic work, that they can put their story into focus, have access to a diversity of opinions, to a certain relativity. They have often told us, giving us specific examples, how reading had contributed to the formation of their critical mind.

This does not mean that they spend their youth reading. Most of them are not big readers, and it is with fragments gathered here and there that they are able to rethink their way of representing things and to redraw the outlines of their selves. Thus the importance of reading cannot be measured only with numbers of books read or borrowed. Sometimes a single sentence, written out or quickly forgotten, will put in motion a thought process that seemed hopelessly frozen.

All this reminds us that language cannot be reduced to being a vehicle of information, a tool. Language has to do with the construction of the speaking subject. The more one is capable of naming what one is experiencing, the more one is able to live it, and the more one is able to change it. Conversely, when one lacks the words to express one's anger, one's hope, one's despair, when one lacks the vocabulary necessary to negotiate with others, all one has left to shout with is one's body.

When finding words during their readings, words that help them build themselves and understand that they have the right to touch language, the right to find their own way of saying things, these youngsters find comfort in self-assertion. They can distinguish themselves from their surroundings, differentiate themselves from their family and their friends. They can also get away from stereotypes, from stigmatizing images. As a result, thanks to a new subjectivity, they are less likely to depend on a gang, a sect, an ethnic group, a church, a mosque or a territory for an artificial sense of identity.

Indeed, it is not only economic exclusion that explains delinquency, the rise in fundamentalism or the growing strength of the extreme right, which is very worrying in France. It is also a fragile sense of identity. Those with the lightest cultural baggage are the most likely to be seduced by proselytizers proffering ready-to-wear identities. In order not to be reduced to defining themselves in only negative terms such as poor, jobless, living in stigmatized neighborhoods, they can be tempted to pounce on images and words that magically gather the pieces of their lives and give them a sort of narcissistic armor.

When listening to the youngsters we met, almost all of whom avoided these traps, one realizes what reading can contribute to : the elaboration of a richer and more complex representation of themselves, which protects them and keeps them from snapping up such lures. The elaboration of a moving identity, labile, open to play and to movement. An identity that is not founded on the antagonism between «them» and «us».

Combining multiple identities

A point I thought was remarkable, in that context, is that in libraries, many of those from immigrant backgrounds find things that make them perceive that belonging to two cultures can be a source of wealth, not suffering. They try to connect the elements of their history, integrating something from their culture of origin, maybe in order not to feel, more or less consciously, in debt to it anymore, and in order to be able to appropriate the culture of the place where they are living.

Let's take a few example. Zohra, who found in a library the answers to questions she had about the Algerian war of independence, about which both her parents and her teachers remained silent. She also got acquainted with French history there and felt a new closeness toward veterans of the resistance to the German in World War II or to people who were deported and who had recalled their experiences in an event organized by the library. Another example is Guo Long, a young Laotian construction worker : through books, he became initiated with the art of bonsai (midget Japanese trees), recovering a poetic link with his Asian origins. In the library he also discovered Shakespeare on a day when his muse wasn't there to help him write song lyrics. There is also Aïché, from Turkey, who read Yachar Kemal as well as Descartes, whom she called the author who most counted for her because he made her understand how important it is to have a strongly built argumentation when the time comes to refuse, say, an arranged marriage, or to oppose those in the grip of fundamentalists.

These questionings illustrated the erroneousness of two opposite dogmas that are equally monolithic : on one hand, hard-core universalism, and on the other, cultural differentialism taken to its extreme by certain ethnologists or ethno-psychiatrists. Both camps have their fervent supporters in France. Those who claim to be universalists would want everybody to be cast in the same mold, that of a supposed «French identity», making a clean sweep of any past, any memory. The advocates of the defense of cultural specificities lock you up in the so-called traditions, going as far as to encourage ghettos and legitimize female circumcision. To all these dogmas, one can oppose the quest of these youngsters who try, with curiosity, pugnacity, and not without suffering, to find their own ways to reconcile the cultures of which they are participants. It is possible to enjoy singing the songs from Kabylia that lulled you during your childhood and to be mad about the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. It is also possible to feel curious about the history of the country where one's parents come from while being attached to French secularity and women's rights.

A culture is made up of multiple contributions, it is in constant movement, it is open to all sorts of plays, of appropriations. That is why fundamentalists, extremists, and more generally all who advocate a fixed identity cannot endure culture, and would want to exchange it for a closed code, a given set of formulas and precepts. Thus the importance of libraries, which allow individuals to resist a rigid system of reading the world, to resist identitarian conservatisms. Thus also the importance of librarians, for it is them who can build bridges and liven the book collections through creative, often-changed displays, regular events and through their capacity to listen to people and give them personalized advice. They are the ones who can give an incentive to start opening oneself to what is new, to move on from a particular category where one might have gotten stuck, to explore original linkages such as those I just mentioned. They have a key role to play every time a reader finds himself at a threshold or needs a nudge in the right direction in order to widen his or her horizon.

For many of these youngsters, what they found in libraries allows them to live in greater harmony with their origins, but without being driven back to a past-oriented identity. On the contrary, they are better able to elaborate an open, flexible identity in constant evolution. Unlike other leisure activities, reading does not contribute to confine those who practice it to their tribe and to confuse notions of self with those of home. Instead, reading, especially when it is not controlled, allows one to reach beyond one's circle of intimates. It provides openings to circles beyond those of relatives, neighbors and members of the same ethnic group. It invites other forms of social links, other ways of sharing than those where everybody closes ranks behind a leader or a church.

Just because one partakes in this wild and solitary act that is reading does not mean that one is a Narcissus only concerned with one's own slice of the pie, unable to socialize or to share a project. The construction of the self must not be taken for individualism, nor solidarity for community involvement. Youngsters who are constructing their own world are far from cutting themselves off from the rest of the world, on the contrary. The discovery of the self and the discovery of the other inside oneself often go hand in hand with an opening towards the other. They want the libraries, which they see above all as spaces favorable to exchanges, to become forums. They don't want these facilities to drift towards a use of patronage, of caretaking. Or to become supermarkets, and librarians, cashiers. What they do want is for libraries to help them become full-fledged citizens. Because citizenship is not something given, it has to be constructed : which supposes that the means of thinking are provided, it supposes also that one dares speak up and that people will listen to you. <> Thank you.

Translated from French by Silvia Mendez and Chris Pala


  1. De la bibliothèque au droit de Cité, Michèle Petit, Chantal Balley & Raymonde Ladefroux, avec la collaboration d'Isabelle Rossignol, Paris, Bibliothèque Publique d'Information-Centre Georges Pompidou , 1997, 365 p.