Guest Post: Maslow got it wrong…

Today’s post comes to us from Kathleen Smeeton, Associate Lecturer with our Foundation Technology Sponsor the Queensland University of Technology’s Information Studies Group

There’s a concept that lots of us either heard about at school, or have encountered somewhere during our lives, and most of us take it for granted. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You know the pyramid that basically says we have to fulfil our physiological needs (like food and shelter) before we can even start worrying about higher order needs like developing identify and self esteem. It seems pretty straightforward, and I am sure that lots of us have seen the funny diagram with wi-fi added to the bottom, hey I am sure I have even retweeted it.

Image: CC-BY 2.0 by Duncan Hull

Image: CC-BY 2.0 by Duncan Hull

But you know what, I think that Maslow might have got it wrong. Now seeing as I don’t want to take on someone with a reputation like Maslow’s on my own at this point I will direct you to some research from Muggleton & Ruthven (2011) that looked at the information needs of the homeless.

What they found is that far from being an afterthought, being able to stay connected to the information mainstream, such as newspapers and books, can help homeless people feel connected, as well as being a crucial means of escapism. To put it in their words they challenge Maslow’s hierarchy, contending that higher-level needs are a “fundamental part of being human and these coexist with the more physiological needs at all levels of the social spectrum” (2011, p.222).

This is where information professionals come in. There has been a lot written about how libraries can help the homeless. But it’s not just about helping find jobs, and accommodation, and other immediate needs. It’s about creating a sense of community, to make sure no-one is excluded from society, whether that is by offering people a place to surf the internet, a book to read, or just somewhere comfortable to hang out. Most importantly it’s about having someone to help them find some information that might just improve their life chances. That’s why access to information is so important. And that’s why information professionals are so important. Because we can help with every single need on that pyramid, whether you think Maslow got it right or wrong, you can help someone connect with information about every aspect. And that’s a very powerful thing.

You might have heard it before, but librarians have superpowers, and to quote Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. And that’s our responsibility, to make sure that everybody has access to information when and where they need it.


Muggleton, T. & Ruthven, I. (2011). Homelessness and access to the informational mainstream. Journal of Documentation, 68(2). doi:10.1108/00220411211209203

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  1. Academic researches knew Maslow had it wrong about a half century ago, for more than one reason: its not a scientific theory; many individuals do not follow the pattern; and more….

    However its good food for thought, but borders on pop psychology.

  2. In today’s global environment one can often find yourself switching between the levels at random, homeless or not. Or perhaps that’s part and parcel of being an expat… 😉

    I enjoyed reading this, thank you Kathleen. It reminded me of what must be vital to the masses of refugees, before shelter and security… information. Where? When? How? What? Who? 🙁 Perhaps one day there will be ‘bibliothécaires sans frontières’.

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