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Yesterday evening, I made an off-the-cuff tweet about university central administrations abdicating responsibilities which libraries then pick up out of a sense of confusion around the role of the library in the university, and the consequent necessity to keep proving our “value”. Under some probing by Lisa Hinchliffe, I realized that my initial tweet was either ill-thought-through or too compressed. The following is the result of thinking about this further.

I’ve been thinking lately about the idea that there’s no such thing as “a library”, that librarianship is composed of a multitude of professions, activities, jobs, and perspectives that while not necessarily antagonistic, at least do not share a goal or an understanding of the business and role of the library or librarianship. We have documentationists (under which I include bibliographic services, search/retrieval and web/discovery workers), records managers/archivists, IT-specialists and developers, teaching and learning specialists, scholarly communications/publishing specialists, designers, instructors, logistics, project managers, etc, etc. Within each of these groups it is doubtful you could find consensus on the goal of their work, and certainly between groups this must be nearly impossible. And this isn’t simply a theoretical problem - we can see the effects of this lack of consensus, this lack of purpose and direction, both in the crisis of library “leadership” (whither are we being led?) and in regular communications breakdowns and cross-purposes across the institution and the profession. Rather than deal with the problem, however, we tend to repress it by appeals to ever vaguer mission statements, values, and strategic directions, and we rely on people’s sense of responsibility to “keep the lights on”.

So, I don’t think that confusion over the role of the library exists simply in the minds, to be overcome by better explanations, more transparency, or improved understanding. I think this confusion exists in reality, as a consequence partly of trying to do too much, and partly to the lack of focus of library work: all of the different areas of work listed above are resumed under the title of “librarianship”, which gives each area of work a sense of being able to speak for the whole profession, when they are really speaking from the perspective of their own professional practice. (This perspectivism is not insurmountable, but it is more common in practice than we would like to believe).

In thinking about criteria for judging when an activity or service should rightly be the responsibility for the university rather than the library, I don’t think there is a way to come up with general criteria based on professional perspectives; and my sense is that everyone recognizes this problem while perhaps applying their own judgement as to the role of the library and what properly falls under its purview, rather than more properly belonging to central administration.

To be completely open about this, I hold the view that the role of the library ought to be to promote reading and unregimented self-learning as a complement to the instructional activities of the faculty. Ronald Day, in his book Indexing it All (about documentation), distinguishes between a “hermeneutic” approach to texts exemplified by Heidegger and an instrumental approach to documents exemplified by Paul Otlet,arguing that Otlet’s approach became dominant in documentation and, by extension, in librarianship. As a Marxist, I think the primacy of instrumental reason is a consequences of capitalist alienation, and so I tend to come down on the side of “readership” rather than consultation of documents-as-evidence. As a result, any activity of the library that, from my perspective, undermines its role in supporting reading and self-education, falls outside the scope of the library and should more properly be taken up by the university administration. Note that I have moved from “is” language above to “ought” language - I’m proposing a normative definition of librarianship, though I don’t expect it to gain wide support.

The question then becomes how do we get past the perspectivism of the various practical attitudes of library work? Jodi Dean, in her book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, argues that one of the requirements of politics is “raising the particular to the level of the universal”, and so I think one way to think ourselves out of this impasse is to ask the question of who a particular service is meant to value - individuals, or the whole? Rather than focusing on whether or not a new service is “library work” (as I’ve been arguing we should do, but cannot), perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether the beneficiaries of the service should be individual users, or the whole population of our users. Take, for example, the idea of a subsidized bus-pass. In universities I’ve attended, this is usually a student-union initiative, with a student levy on all students to cover the cost of a transit pass. This tends to raise complaints from students who don’t use public transit (mostly, those who drive), but the justification is the same as taxes: everyone should be able to benefit from the service, not just those who need it. Everyone subsidizes it even if use isn’t universal.

Now take laptop-lending programmes run by libraries. These look like a service for all (we don’t limit who is allowed to use a laptop) but in practice, we can’t supply enough laptops for all students, and usage of the programme is high enough that the small amount of laptops tend to be in use almost all of the time. In practice, then, this is a service for a subset of our user-group. In addition, adding laptops increases staff time taken in (for example) circulation and imagine, security and privacy concerns, storage space, etc, etc, all of which is a cost to the library. If we think this service ought to be a service for all, then it cannot be laid at the door of the library and its operating budget. In my view - and this might be taking things a step too far - if students need laptops, then it should be treated like a transit pass: a service open to all.

[Note: the reason I think services like laptop lending should be open to all is that services open to subgroups - even if that subgroup is not defined - tend to benefit those who understand and work within the system best. Only universalized services are able to resist the workings of various forms of privilege, even if that makes them open to “abuse”, a charge which, to my mind, is nothing but a right-wing strawperson.]

So there’s one criterion that might get us beyond the contradictions inherent in perspectivism that comes out of the crisis of role and leadership in the profession at large: the political requirement of serving the universal rather than the particular. I don’t insist on it; I’m sure there are objections to looking at the issue in this light (issues of identity and privilege perhaps foremost). But I do think that asking ourselves questions like “are we serving the whole or a part” is useful in asking whether something should be a library’s responsibility or the university’s.

One final word about “mission” (or role of the library). We hear a lot these days about “student success”, but in my opinion this is misdirection on the part of university administrators. It is formulated so as to allow educators (faculty, instructors, librarians) to believe that “student success” lies in achieving an education, while for neoliberal university administrators it simply means the successful, ongoing, and complete extraction of tuition. The slippage between the two interpretations opens the space for university administrators to maintain their hegemony over “higher education” while obeying the imperative to profitability required of all capitalist organizations.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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