I found Michael Warner’s characterization of public participation as elective to be especially compelling. He suggests that when we refer to “the public,” we are really referring to a group of people with the potential to join publics. This implies that the constellation of services, organizations, and resources we think of as belonging to the public—public libraries, public schools, public information—are limited to those who actively join or seek them out.
Warner thus redirects our attention to the factors that circumscribe any given public (which includes all kinds of things, such as class, politics, culture, mobility, and time). Attending to these factors opens the possibility for people who seek to share public services to go beyond simply granting the public access to actually widening the publics they serve.
I wonder though, if Warner would support this kind of rethinking. Warner suggests that the most authentic publics are “self-organizing.” He writes, “Externally organized frameworks of activity, such as voting, are and are perceived to be a poor substitute.” If that is the case, is a library-going public—welcomed and marketed to by a government staff—as strong, in Warner’s terms, as the people who frequent a neighborhood Little Free Library?
Should the goal for institutions like museums and universities be to facilitate self-organizing publics? How is that possible?