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One of the interesting discussions in John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology is the discussion of “coevolution”. Foster relates how, due to their study of Darwin and other 19th century scientists, came up with the idea that, just as the internal organs of animals evolved along with changes in their environment, so did human tools (“the external organs”) but, given that tools were used by human beings to change their environment, both tools and environment evolved alongside each other in a mutually modifying relationship.

Alfred Russel Wallace, “co-discoverer with Darwin of the theory of natural selection”, maintained that the mind itself was an organ like any other, evolving alongside its environment which, increasingly, included the use and effects of tools. “Early humans”, Foster writes,

were able to alter their relation to their local environment, radically improving their adaptibility. Those who were most ingenious in making and using tools were most likely to survive, which meant that the evolutionary process exerted selective pressures toward the enlargement of the brain and the development of speech (necessary for the social process of labour), leading eventually to the rise of modern humans. Thus the human brain, like the hand… evolved through a complex, interactive set of relations. (Foster, p. 203)

In this way, Marx and Engels’ dialectic view of history received support from the scientific discoveries of the 19th century. The evolutionary, mutually determining view of the development of nature correspended to the dialectical, holistic theory of human history.

This discussion made me think of the history of libraries, often not much more than a history of famous buildings or a checklist of book technologies (scroll to codex, manuscript to printed book, etc). While the field of Book History has long recognized the material basis of its object of study (the physicality of the book itself, the material organization of labour, production, and distribution), there always seems to be a gap in the material history of libraries. This gap also corresponds to a lack of contextual, holistic thinking around library history. What, for example, was the effect of the dissolution of the monasteries, not only on monastic libraries and their collection of libraries, but of a trained, disciplined, literate workforce (monastic scribes) suddenly finding themselves unemployed? More closely tied to the idea of coevolution, what effect did the change in book format have on the organization and structure of libraries and on the workers and practices within them? These questions are raised, for example, in the field of manuscript studies, but the connection to library history is often left relatively undefined. This, of course, raises the larger question of the effect of changing modes of production, their effect on the organization both of book production, as well as libraries, their buildings, and their staff. Libraries are one of the few institutions with a long enough history that we can trace the effect of different modes of production over time.

In Public Libraries, History, and the State, I attempted this kind of dialectical historicizing by relating some aspects of public library history to the evolution of the state over the 19th and 20th centuries. This was only a small part of dialectical determinisms at play in library history. The changing class structure of a given society, the particular moment of equilibrium (or disequilibrium) within capitalist production, the fortunes of the political class at a given moment in time, all of this plays into the material history of the library.

The most recent large-scale change was, of course, the rise of digital technologies and the distributed web, which had an effect not only on print culture - complementing ink and paper with electronic, steel, and plastics - but the library as well. The gradual rise of the internet and technologies of online publishing, access, and distribution have called the very physicality of the library and its holdings into question. The debate around the effects of this evolutionary moment tend to be one-sided, as if the traditional library and traditional usages and practices needed to be stacked against some “disruptive” model which seeks only to destroy the library as we know it. But if we follow the dialectical, coevolutionary model of history, it should be clear that what will result from the contradiction between traditional library buildings, books, and modes of reading, and newer ones, will be something new, something different from either the traditional library or the technocratic, decentralized, uncontrolled flow of information beloved of bourgeois entrepreneurs, politicians, and media people.

The dialectic, in Jameson’s view, can be both a philosophical system (as in Hegel) and a method (as in Marx), but in fact it is both of those things at once: a way of thinking about the world that resists the static categories of traditional thought. To think dialectically is to, first, see the totality of relationships at play. The library cannot be taken as a self-contained, identifiable entity - it is the product of relationships between people both avowedly related to the library and completely outside it (one thinks of city planners or university donors), and it evolves alongside both the material culture of reading and writing, research, teaching, and learning, and the physical and digital worlds in which the library occupies space. But dialectical thinking is also to recognize that the traditional categories of logical thought have alternatives. Jameson calls out “the law of non-contradiction” (that is both A and not-A cannot be true) as not holding within dialectical thinking. In fact, the very cornerstone of the dialectic is that the concepts of A and not-A are never clear, never stable. A is always changing, always in the process of becoming something other than A.

It is this emphasis both on the totalities of the relationships which constitute and entity, and the insistence entities as dynamic and always-changing, that sets dialectical thinking apart from traditional (or even “common sense”) categories of thought. In a sense, the dialectic restores the effects of time to our thinking and understanding.

Did not the the dialectic, even in its Hegelian form, set out to inscribe time and change in our concepts themselves, and to show how some all-too-human longing for timelessness obscured the inadequacy of our mental categories[?] (Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, p. 3)

What am I driving at? Perhaps I am tentatively suggesting a research project into the dialectical, coevolutionary, materialist history of the library. Such a project would need to look closely and critically at labour, at buildings, at the relationship with cultures of print, and with the material effect of the digital on all these things. It would also have to pay attention to modes of production, to forms of the state, and to the dominant and subaltern ideologies. It would have to treat the library as an institution, practices of reading, writing, and research, technologies, and classification systems and standards, as all part of the superstructure, material traces of the determining effect the mode of production has on anyone working in libraries today, or at any point in the past.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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