Article Image

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about the presumed values of our presumed profession. “Presumed” in this case both in the sense that we presume we agree on meanings (of the words we use to describe our values, for example) and in the sense that a profession of librarianship is presumed to exist. This double presumption, it seems to me, is difficult to support, in part because the two presumptions feed into each other (“what do we mean by profession?”) and in part because our presumptions serve to mystify real relationships among people, and between people and the world.

Mark Matienzo of DPLA wrote a post a couple of weeks ago on The DPLA Technology Team Core Values. I was initially struck by how concrete each of the core value areas was. Each area was not only fairly specific (“Maximal openness to DPLA technology and infrastructure”) but each was accompanied by a statement adding clarification or context (“Maximal openness to DPLA technology and infrastructure, through use of minimally restrictive open source or reuse-friendly licenses for software, documentation, and related assets”). After some discussion on Twitter, I threw out the idea that perhaps our (= libraries’ or librarianship’s) values should have to conform to the SMART principles. These are criteria which, in project management, are required for the definition of a goal. A goal must be

  • Specific,
  • Measurable,
  • Achievable,
  • Realistic, and
  • Time-bound

Perhaps not all of these apply to values as opposed to goals, but some of them are, I would argue, crucial. If we aren’t specific and can’t measure achievement of our values, how do we know that we actually exemplify them? A good example of library values which are to all intents and purposes meaningless, context free buzzwords, the University of Alberta Libraries principles and values are as follows:


  • Accountable
  • Open
  • Responsive
  • Sustainable
  • Transparent


  • Collaboration
  • Inclusivity
  • Innovation
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • Service

That’s it. No attempt to clarify or define these terms. No links to examples. No sense as to how they might be measured. How do we know if we exemplify any of these principles or values? Absent specificity, this becomes the prerogative of whoever controls the discourse. In fact, it becomes subjet to the power hierarchy within the library itself.

At around the same time I discovered a “bucket list” for land reclamation professionals:

Again, this led to some discussion around whether or not librarians could achieve consensus on such a list for our profession. I argued that whether or not we could achieve such a consensus, it’s almost a moot point because we have no forum through which to discuss these things. In Canada, we don’t have a professional association with the size and reach of the American Library Association (and this was true even before the dissolution of the CLA). Small constituencies (like Library Twitter, the CARL Directors, or CAPAL members) might have a way to discuss these issues, but for the most part librarians are stuck within their organizations and institutions which may or may not foster critical discussion (in my experience, the latter predominates).

Other professions have centralized consensus in the form of their licensing bodies: teachers, doctors, and lawyers all have specific and measurable values to which they must adhere. It has been pointed outmany times before that, by that criteria, librarianship is not a profession at all.

And yet, there is something common to the outlook of most library workers I know. Something on the level of an orientation or a worldview that perhaps cannot be captured by anything so prosaic as a mission, vision, or values statement. This is why we argue so vociferously about a lot of this stuff, even though we recognize that it’s unlikely to do any good.

Finally, in a Twitter discussion with Peter Binkley I proposed the idea that perhaps, given that libraries are no longer about books, we could agree that we should promote reading. I argued that there was a possibility, a case to be made, that reading is a qualitatively distinct activity from other “media consumption” promoted by postmodern capitalism. I’m not necessarily wedded to that idea, but I think it’s a conversation worth having. In the end, I settled for the idea that it would be nice if libraries could stand for something, anything, since at present it seems that we are simply reacting, silently and by default supporting the neoliberal and corporate order (albeit in different ways according to whether an institution is academic or public). It seems to me that there is very little (read: none) critical thought that goes into the provision of services. Most of these decisions are made either by the chief librarian or the small group of senior librarians with little or no input or debate. At the same time, the default line in many contexts (presentations, publications) is the success and leadership of libraries and their services. “We done good” is the refrain. This, I think, is what drives so many of us to be critical - of the values that we proclaim we hold, of the principles to which we claim to adhere - because there is no shortage of people uncritically proclaiming the universal value and goodness of the library that never fails.

A good example is with “intellectual freedom”, something that we all - in principle - support. But like many library values, it is seen more in a negative than a positive context. Intellectual freedom is often reduced to “you can’t tell me what to think” rather than an active “here’s what I think”. Intellectual freedom is seen as a right, when it ought to be seen as a responsibility. As a result, it is honoured more in the breach than the observance, as fear of losing funding or - to quote The Wire - suction with funding bodies (municipalities of university governors). If we are so afraid that “saying something wrong” will jeopardized our standing with our funding agencies, then intellectual freedom falls at the first hurdle. As a core value of our profession, if intellectual freedom falls, where then can our profession locate itself?

In this recently published book An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, Fredric Jameson argues that political parties on left have lost any ability they might have had to wield any kind of power, officially or unofficially. These parties might, he suggests, be rehabilitated, but without expecting anything concrete from them. Their purpose would then be to resuscitate ideas and words which, with the victory of neoliberalism and The End of History are considered quaint and old-fashioned. The role of political parties in the kind of utopia Jameson envisions, is to “talk socialism”, “to breathe life back into the slogans withered and desiccated by the triumphant poison gas of Mrs. Thatcher’s breath” (7).

It should be understood that under the current system of representative government, the political parties can never accomplish [any concrete programme], but they can talk about them, they can make them thinkable and conceivable once again, they can plant the seeds and rekindle the possibility of imagining future praxis - and they can reestablish these themes in their legitimate place in the public sphere. (8)

Not only do I think that libraries - especially, but not exclusively public libraries - have a similar role to play in society to Jameson’s political parties, but I think we as librarians also have a responsibility to make real, concrete, values thinkable again. In a profession where the single word “responsive” can be proposed as a principle with a straight-face, where our services are all tainted by our forced complicity with capitalist economics and politics, perhaps utopian thinking, silly proposals, unworkable schemes, arguments, curses, dangerous ideas, in a word, criticism, are vital to give the sapling worldview of librarians - that fragile, ill-defined thing - room to grow.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview