Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to analyse the general reasons for the crisis in Italy's contemporary public library institution. This crisis is complicated by the historical origins of the public library in Italy and, more broadly, by the difficult relationship between the Italian culture and today's world. Design/methodology/approach – A conceptual discussion on the role of public library in Italy. Findings – The paper finds that the continuing delay in the acquisition of literacy, the tendency for points of view to become divided and to go to extremes and the development of a form of politics in the country suspended between centralised government and the claims of the local self-governments are all factors that have influenced the establishment of the public library in Italy. Originality/value – Understanding the conditions of the controversial origins of the public library in Italy can be of help when deciding which model to use in the future. A suitable model for this institution must not neglect but, on the contrary, must enhance the role of the library as a social institution of the history of a specific community.
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