Monday, January 27, 2014

Yes, Libraries Are Oppressive. So What Now?

 Two questions:
  1. Are libraries designed to create and perpetuate inequity?
  2. Does the answer to the above question matter?
Two answers:
  1. Kind of.
  2. No, because regardless of intentions, libraries are oppressive.
I wish I knew the source for this, but I don't, so... fair use. 
"the library, as an institution, isn't that oppressive or designed to create and perpetuate inequity."
There's an out of context quote for you, taken to provoke maximum outrage, since
"the founding of a large public library could be motivated by multiple reasons, some of them perhaps contradictory."
The source for these quotes is Wayne Bivens-Tatum's "Libraries, Neoliberalism, and Oppression." In his book, Libraries and the Enlightenment (again, via Library Juice Press), he writes.
Harris and DuMont are quite critical of the admittedly stuffy movement in nineteenth century libraries to Americanize immigrants through education, arguing that Ticknor and others merely wanted to suppress dissent and the rising ideologies of socialism and communism. Even if Ticknor and other conservatives were motivated by a fear of, say, communist demagogues convincing the undemocratic masses to revolt, or whatever the fear was, this does not undercut the fact that they did indeed seek to educate people and to provide them with the means to educate themselves throughout their lives. That the founders of the Boston Public Library were not trying to educate revolutionaries does not take away from their accomplishment. We could just as easily interpret their actions as an early stage of progressivism. (p. 114)
Yet it seems there is a tension in his writings because of how he reconciles, or does not, the contradictory origins of public libraries.

The library is an institution, which has policies to define who is and is not a member, channels to resolve disputes, as well as feedback mechanisms. These structures intentionally legitimate some behaviors, and just as purposefully discriminate against others.

Many libraries deliberately practice social exclusion. Exclusion may also be an unintentional consequence, along with the illusion of community expertise where there is none.* The library is not unique or alone in this. Every institution has ways to include and exclude. Whether these actions and practices are intentional or unintentional is in many ways besides the point. Libraries, and librarianship, are implicated and often strengthen them. As I was saying: "libraries, and librarianship, are both radical and conservative; simultaneously perpetuating and undermining neoliberalism."

Indeed, Bivens-Tatum has written about this topic as well.
The best I can hope for is that we think globally and act locally, which requires understanding the larger context behind the specific challenges to the public good while doing what we can to fight against those challenges. 
R. David Lankes, David Shumaker, and others, are attempting to separate librarianship from libraries.
One of the principles of embedded librarianship is that librarians are important whether they work in libraries or not. In exploring the landscape of embedded librarianship, I've encountered embedded librarians who are part of library organizations (but spend a lot of time away from a library space), and others who are not part of a library organization at all. 
My focus on this principle makes me hyper-sensitive to rhetoric that over-emphasizes the institutions and minimizes, de-values, and depersonalizes the professionals. I think this happens a lot, subtly, in our professional literature. (Source)
Given this formulation, while libraries are implicated in neoliberalism, maybe librarianship doesn't have to be. Thoughts?

* Both links in this paragraph via Cecily Walker, who worked on alerted me to the project.

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
Libraries as Structures, Libraries as Agents, Late Capitalism Edition


  1. There was definitely some tension in my writing about public libraries, and I wasn't trying to reconcile any contradictions so much as highlight them. I was trying to point out that libraries have had positive educational benefits for many people regardless of the motives of their founders or benefactors (e.g., Carnegie, who I also address in the book). Harris goes out of his way to deny libraries or librarians almost any beneficial qualities because of their ideological origins. Libraries are oppressive and that's bad and the only good things have happened from the people subverting them or whatever, ignoring the fact that without founders and funders libraries wouldn't even be there to subvert. Libraries are oppressive in comparison to an ideal vision of total nonoppression, but libraries have also unarguably been liberating personally and intellectually for many people. Harris and others who argue like him are guilty of the genetic fallacy, trying to make a case about current libraries by criticizing their origins. I was showing that even the origins are not as simple and Harris et al. want to believe.

  2. I won't bother to comment again, but what happened to my comment of yesterday ? Hmmmm.