Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Libraries as Structures, Libraries as Agents, Late Capitalism Edition

The "their" in question above is libraries, which are a creation of the above socio-political economic system, often termed neoliberalism, "an ideology that rests on the assumption that individualized, arms-length market exchange can serve as a metaphor for all forms of human interaction," (source). How complicit are libraries in this system? Plenty, argues Nina De Jesus, convincingly. To wit:
when libraries were shifting from private institutions to institutions designed for the ‘public good,’ the notion of who, exactly, was considered part of the ‘public’ was radically different than today. Indeed, when you look into the rhetoric of why public libraries became a thing, it was a middle-to-upper class initiative enrich and ‘better’ the working class, so that they’d have something to do with their free time other than realize just how crappy this new economic system was for them. (Source)
The offset excerpt above illustrates a Gramscian take on how this is the case; libraries co-opt lower classes, staving off class consciousness. In Gramscian thought a socio-political economic system exerts influence unconsciously. The fact that it goes unnoticed, assumed, and taken for granted by most is proof of its effectiveness. The first step to challenging a hegemonic superstructure such as this is realizing that it exists.
Further, De Jesus writes that, "And I've seen very few people take a critical and sincere approach to analysing how the library, as institution, is actually oppressive and designed to create and perpetuate inequity."

That is, the public library as we know it was designed in no small part to prevent revolution and class revolt. Can we measure the "success" of the library by the lack of open class warfare? Or, do libraries exist to give people a lottery ticket, a way out; and is that the best we can hope for given that we are all products of the socio-political and economic system, and even strengthen it by our participation?
However, the critiques of libraries as neoliberalist institutions implicate everything, thus said critiques run the the risk of losing any explanatory power and effectiveness. They cannot be directionless, as Fredrik deBoer points out. Are libraries any more, or less, implicated that other structures, agents, and organizations, and if so, why? And and where do we librarians, archivists, and other information professionals go from here? The library, as always, is a good place to start. Chris Bourg, an Associate University Librarian at Stanford, has compiled a list of resources, with more on the way. Her twitter timeline is also a good place to start.

Critical Library Instruction
Love this press
Information Literacy and Social Justice (cover image)
Really, love this press
Per Barbara Fister, libraries, and librarianship, are both radical and conservative; simultaneously perpetuating and undermining neoliberalism. We librarians should be conscious of this, and try to do more of the latter and less of the former when and where possible.
Mostly baffled that a profession that constructs knowledge + has so little critical to say about the construction of knowledge. - Emily Drabinski, on twitter ( and
Some ways that libraries can combat neoliberalism, and offer an alternative, come to mind.

First, library and information science programs can offer courses that make future LIS professionals aware of neoliberal issues they'll encounter in the workplace. As the state has abdicated and markets have failed to provide shelter, child care, and job application centers, these tasks, and others, have fallen to public libraries. LIS curricula should spend some time discussing these challenges for LIS staff. Courses on academic librarianship should discuss the political economies of higher education and publishing, and how they influences libraries and library management.

Second, the relevant bodies, comprised of LIS professionals, can rework assessment regimes, changing the conversation from return on investment and measurements of efficiency to those of values. Both Bourg and Fister are excellent resources here.

Third, when librarians are in the classroom, they can foster awareness of these issues. The same is true of the library website. More about that here.

And yet neoliberalism cannot be a deus ex machina or scapegoat for libraries, museums, and archives. Neoliberalism is not a "thing," it is not static. It is a process, an evolving and moving target that is a product of a particular place and time. Locating neoliberalism in the Enlightenment throws a very important baby out with the bathwater, though no doubt the seeds of the former are found in the latter.

Beyond the links above, the following are good reads on the effects of neoliberalism and neoliberalist practices on and in education:
On Precarity  
Vulnerability, Contingency, Advocacy 
The Neoliberal Library: Resistance is Not Futile - Bourg's talk at Duke University. (Update, 1/16/14) 
Teachers in Lee, MA Return Merit Pay - This is what resistance looks like in practice. 

Related, elsewhere on this site:
Libraries and Postmodernity: A Review of Radical Cataloging
Toward of Unifying Field Theory of Librarianship
Exit, Voice, and Loyalty in Academic Librarianship
The Adjunctification of Academic Librarianship
More Thoughts on New Librarianship
Data and the Surveillance State


  1. If you go down the road of looking at social institutions as ways of appeasing the poor, eventually you realize public education, social security, 40 hour work week and any number of other things we like are, in fact, a manner of appeasement. But saying this, to me, is a slap to the people who fought and gave their lives to get these small victories. Saying that libraries are bad because they are designed to prevent class revolt is an *obvious* genetic fallacy (so is saying they are good because they came from a particular set of values). Social Security comes from the same place, so do labor unions and child labor laws. Are they bad? I think looking at how libraries are facilitators of oppression today is a great project, and looking at history to find an etiology of our current situation is also fine. But let's keep it focused on where we are, where we fail, and how to change.

  2. Excellent piece. I'm in the process of warping a short piece which argues that we should consider rethinking library research using key theories of Cultural Studies. This piece falls within that same context.

    Let me share 2 things. First, since you bring up Gramsci, there is a wonderful piece by Douglas Raber, Librarians as Organic Intellectuals. In this piece he convincingly make similar claims and suggests that it is only by becoming aware of how library reproduce the dominate ideological hegemony can we begin to think beyond the tunnel visions and blind spots that Wayne Wiegand explores in his 1999 piece.

    I wounder if we have the theoretical framework to tackle larger questions of race, gender, power, knowledge, etc. as they pertain to the library. This brings me to my second point. Instead of seeking a philosophy of librarianship, we need to look to other highly interdisciplinary fields. from them we can explore theoretical models and antithetical tools that can present opportunities to rethink the library and its social cultural place in western civilization.