organizational diversity in information infrastructure

Providing network infrastructure need not be limited to a choice between the model of public roads and the model of selling soap. The provision of public roads depends on market transactions for a variety of goods (construction worker services, trucks, asphalt, etc). Selling soap depends on a variety of public services (money supply provision, law enforcement, public right-of-ways, etc.). Whether in India, Ireland, or Silicon Valley, initiatives to provide network infrastructure are making interconnections between different organizational forms more complex. Revenue models are expanding from taxes, subscription, and advertising to include a variety of public and private sponsorships, in-kind contributions, and special benefits for anchor users.

Impurity is a traditional human concern. In some circumstances, another name for public-private partnership is bribery and corruption. Failed and wasteful network infrastructure projects that involve governmental entities undoubtedly exist. For-profit network providers, who cannot fail without serious public effects, have made dire business mistakes and squandered huge amounts of money. Government entities’ judgments about the services that users value are not likely to be better than those that for-profit network providers have made.

Table 1
Libraries Founded in the American
Colonies and U.S. Prior to 1876
Organization Founding Library Num. of
% of
non-commercial civic library
organizations (social libraries)
3296 33%
non-commercial civic non-library org.
(churches, medical societies, etc.)
2327 23%
mixed form service organizations
(e.g. colleges, hospitals, asylums)
1081 11%
governmental and quasi-governmental
organizations (public libraries)
2423 24%
commercial organizations
(inc. commercial circulating libraries)
663 7%
misc., other hybrid,
and unknown organizations
242 2%
Source: McMullen (2000), p. 59

The history of libraries in the U.S. suggests that organizational diversity can have enduring value in information infrastructure. In the American colonies and the United States prior to 1876, most organizations that founded libraries were neither government bodies nor commercial organizations. A wide variety of organizations established libraries (see Table 1). The most commonly created form of library was a social library:

a library owned by an association formed to establish and operate a library intended for its members’ use. Usually, the members subscribed for stock in order to purchase the initial collection, which was general in subject matter. Then they were assessed a smaller sum (a “tax”) each year to keep up the collection.[1]

Public libraries, meaning libraries that government bodies owned and made open to all or most citizens without a specific-purpose charge, began to grow only from the mid nineteenth-century. As late as 1900, about as many social libraries existed in the U.S. as did public libraries (see Table 2).

Table 2
Number of Functioning
Social and Public Libraries
Type Year
1850 1875 1900
social libraries 508 1154 944
public libraries 51 404 963
Source: McMullen (1985) p. 215.

Public libraries had different characteristics than social libraries. Smaller populations and more recently settled areas favored social libraries, while larger populations in cities with a longer history favored public libraries. Social libraries had typical lifespans about thirty-five years, with considerable variance.[2] Public libraries tended to be more permanent organizations that endured in organizational form through jurisdictional consolidations. Public libraries had a more secure base of funding and grew in size relatively rapidly. Across the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, public libraries came to predominate among the largest libraries (see Table 3). These historical facts are consistent with general comparative organizational characteristics: compared to social organizations, government organizations are more difficult to establish and require more developed government administrative capabilities, government organizations are more enduring, and government organizations are more favorable for organizational growth. Shifts in library organizational forms were in part a response to changing demographic and political circumstances.

Table 3
Top-1% Libraries By Size:
Social and Public Libraries
Type Year
1850 1875 1900
Number of Top-1% Libraries
social libraries 4 10 4
public libraries 0 7 14
Books in Top-1% Libraries (in 1000s)
social libraries 162 783 844
public libraries 0 716 3,229
Source: McMullen (1985) p. 215.

Different organizational forms, however, interacted significantly. Social libraries and public libraries coexisted as important forms of library organization for more than half a century. Through at least 1875 and possibly into the beginning of the twentieth century, social libraries were widely regarded as a valuable form of library organization.[3] Some public libraries evolved from the buildings and collections that social libraries established. In the 1930s, more than a sixth of all “public” libraries in cities with population 30,000 or greater were libraries for which “the library society and the town government shared control in a manner that makes it difficult to know how power was divided between the two bodies.”[4]

selling books in public library

In a long-run international historical perspective, the U.S. has had a relatively highly developed information economy. New organizational forms for book sharing, network infrastructure, and telephone service are not just necessary entrepreneurial experiments in rapidly changing technological circumstances. Diversity in the organizational forms of its information infrastructure has been an enduring characteristic of the U.S. information economy. Organizational diversity may be a key to growth of the information economy.

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[1] From “Definition of Types,” American Libraries Before 1876, Davies Project.

[2] McMullen (1985) p. 214.

[3] Id. pp. 218-20.

[4] Id. p. 223.


McMullen, Haynes (1985), “The Very Slow Decline of the American Social Library,” Library Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 2, pp. 207-225.

McMullen, Haynes (2000), American Libraries Before 1876 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press).

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