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To link oneself with one’s users, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of one’s users. All work done for the users must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned. It often happens that objectively users need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the users have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from our users. Unless they are conscious and willing, any kind of work that requires their participation will fail… There are two principles here: one is the actual needs of the users rather than what we fancy they need, and the other is the wishes of the users, who must make up their own minds instead of our making up their minds for them.

This paragraph is a modified version of an extract from Mao’s address on “The United Front in Cultural Work” from 1944 (included in the Little Red Book, p. 125). I’ve substituted “users” for “masses” in order to see how well Mao’s concept of the mass line fits with a contemporary understanding of library/user relationships and user experience. This was suggested on Twitter by @glam_librarian, and it made me start thinking about the connections between Marxist organization and/or movement building and how library workers understand and work with their users. With the substitutions made above, I don’t think the paragraph would be out of place in an article or book on library user experience or assessment.

It seems to me that the Maoist mass line is meant to provide an alternative to the “democratic centralist”, vanguard party, view of leadership that comes out of the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions. For Mao, “the people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history”, and communists must work alongside (not above, in front or - especially - behind) the people. Indeed, the library (society) can only serve the needs of its users (the people) if it is actively involved with, communicating with, and listening to, the users. Library workers are put in the position - due to the structure of capitalist organizations - of being separate from their users: we are employees of a university, municipality, or other organization, and our users are not. We are tasked with and responsible for creating library services for them. In this way, the structure of the library’s relationship with its users mirrors the undemocratic (indeed anti-democratic) political systems of capitalism itself.

Elsewhere I’ve written about the idea of employing (or deploying) “dual power” in libraries, and it seems to me that the concept of the mass line is a useful addition to this proposal. If, as library workers, we seriously mean to make a difference in the lives of our users, then we can’t continue to make top down decisions around services and service design and implementation. We have to figure out better ways of consulting, communicating with, and listening to our users. In some ways, the library mass line would operate similarly to the way outreach and reference librarians in public libraries operate - being among the library users, in a way that is foreign to many units and levels of library leadership. Indeed, the concept of library leadership itself comes under increasing attack if we accept the idea of dual power + mass line.

One criticism of this view might be that Mao’s language still seems to set up a separation between library workers and users that will lead to failure. As Erin Leach wrote in a valuable recent blog post:

True engagement with user communities is hard. But creating structures, systems, and services intended for their use without their input is a waste of everyone’s time and resources.

I think one useful corrective to this problem might be to bear in mind Gramsci’s distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals (indeed, it is useful to read Mao “through” Gramsci in this way in general). Historically, librarians have always belonged to the class of traditional intellectuals, intellectuals that the ruling class finds already on the scene, ready to help justify and support the cultural and ideological needs of the ruling class itself (i.e. its hegemony over the subaltern classes). What Mao is calling for, I think, is that those of us who do mass line work - who work with users - must begin to see ourselves as organic intellectuals, intellectuals whose responsibility is to the public - especially its most marginalized members - rather than to the ruling class.

“True engagement with user communities”, to my mind, means precisely this recognition of the class nature of the work that we do and the commitment to the needs and requirements of our users rather than to the hegemonic requirements of the ruling class and its ideology. This requires, in many ways, the political education of library workers, which is a topic for another time; but it also raises a question I have tried to address previously on this blog: the question of in what sense the wants and needs of user groups themselves are products of and support the ideological reproduction of capitalism.

Library user experience discourse tends to regard user needs as spontaneous and essential, rather than constructed. This goes against the Marxist view of culture as reflecting (in some sense) the forces and relations of production present in a society at a given moment. If user needs are spontaneous and not constructed, then it makes sense that library user experience work need only hear, understand, and support the needs of the users as expressed by those users. But if, on the other hand, user needs are constructed and serve to support the ideological and hegemonic requirements of the ruling class, then library user experience work (indeed all library work) becomes much more complicated.

Mao doesn’t explicitly talk about ideology with respect to the mass line (again, in this case Gramsci is a better model to follow), but he does address the problem I have identified above. In his view, those of us working to support the needs of users must engage in education and social justice work in order to support real user requirements, rather than simply the needs of the ruling class. Again, this makes the task sound simpler and easier than it is. This is in fact extremely complex work, with many pitfalls (most of which involve thinking of library work with its attendant expertise as somehow privileging us with respect to the knowledge and desires of our users). Again, I think a corrective to this to recognize the class positions of all involved.

This blog post raises more questions than it answers, but I think it points the way to potentially fruitful new directions in library/user relationship research, while also raising problematic ideas in the area of library management and leadership, and the concept of bourgeois hegemony itself. I will stop here, then, with a final “adjusted” quote from Mao:

We should go to the users and learn from them, synthesize their experience into better, articulated principles and methods, then do [education] among the users, and call upon them to put these principles and methods into practice so as to solve their problems and help them achieve liberation and happiness. (LRB, p. 129).

*All quotations from Mao are from “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung”, [Beijing]: Foreign Languages Press, 1972.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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