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Public libraries as agents of communication: A semiotic analysis

Wagner, Gulten S. (1990) Public libraries as agents of communication: A semiotic analysis. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis examines communication processes in public libraries. Public libraries present an interesting dilemma: they are considered as agents of communication in society by the profession of librarianship, but they also function as formal institutions of the State. The duality of their role presents a complex communication model, because these institutions have a professional ideology of community service but are obliged to communicate within the context of a set of power bases. As previous semiotic studies indicate (Goffman, 1961; Foucault, 1980) when power is an issue there will be dysfunctional acts of communication. Thus it becomes useful to ask whether there are any dysfunctional communication processes in public libraries as institutions of the State. This thesis is primarily concerned with one factor that affects communication: the possible systemic dysfunctional acts of communication in public libraries.

The research problem focused on the questions of: What forces construct this possible dysfunctional communication? What forms does it take? How does possible dysfunctional communication prevent public libraries from achieving their professional objectives as agents of communication in society? This universal problem was examined by taking the Perth metropolitan region public library system in Western Australia as an example. In resolving the research problem three primary communication nodes were identified: (1) the "public face" of these institutions; (2) the agents of communication: staff and users (including non-users); and (3) the State Library, represented by its headquarters, the Alexander Library Building, as an exemplary site where the State's power is most strongly expressed.

Semiotics, the discipline whose central point is the study of meaning, is applied to the examination of the possible communication dysfunction in public libraries. The resolution of any communication problems in these institutions was studied against two semiotic dimensions : space and time. The grounded theory method has provided the necessary research strategy for formulating theories from data systematically obtained for this semiotic analysis. As both of these approaches to research are based on inductive methods, data were collected by three surveys: (1) a staff questionnaire involving all executive librarians or their deputies in the Perth metropolitan region; (2) a user survey based on interviews with 112 users; and (3) telephone interviews with 56 non-users. Differences of meaning stemming from differences in codes of users are important in semiotic research, thus an analysis of four public libraries located in higher and lower income suburbs added a comparative dimension to the study. In addition to questionnaire surveys and various interviews, data were collected through observations during the field research. Various sign generating "texts" created by these institutions, such as architectural briefs and floor plans, job descriptions and various other official documents were also examined.

The sustaining functionality of dysfunctional communication was disclosed as a complex dimension of communication processes in these institutions. The implications of this first study of semiotics of public libraries is that it demonstrates a way to recognise unwanted dysfunctional and systemic communication acts, i.e., alienating functions of signifiers of power, in these institutions. It also points out the crucial need to balance any possibly negative meanings by incorporating into their communication systems the ideology of public libraries, which aim to disseminate the recorded culture of a society as widely as possible.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Humanities
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Hodge, Bob
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