Article Image

(part one)

When I was in library school, our collection development class rehashed the Berninghausen Debate (probably for the millionth time - sorry, Dr Howard). Essentially, the debate boils down to the social role of libraries, often framed as a debate over the “neutrality” of libraries. In terms of collection development, this ends up being a debate over giving users “what they want” (essentially, mass market commodities) or curating a collection with a social or political agenda in mind. I argued that mass-market commodities were immediately available to the vast majority of library users and that libraries should focus not only on the development of collections for the underserved (the homeless and immigrants, for example), but also on promoting materials that were not part of the continuum of mass-market commodities (alternative social or politicial theories, for example, or non-bestseller fiction). Given that bestseller fiction is available from any Chapters or airport bookstore (or online), it seemed ridiculous to devote library budget and display space to promote that material at the expense of other, less obvious, things. The counter to this argument, of course, was the supposed neutrality of libraries and collection policies, as well as the idea that we simply “give users what they want” (presuming that the wants of users are somehow not socially determined). The function of the library, I argued, was not in neutrally providing users access to content they somehow already desired, it was in producing and maintaining the desires for the commodities of capitalist culture itself.

Lately, I’ve noticed how both public and academic libraries have begun to loan out material that explicitly seek to address social/cultural/health issues. The loan of internet hot spots by Toronto and Edmonton Public Libraries and SAD lamps by University of Alberta Libraries, are explicitly meant to address the digital divide on the one hand and the mental health of students on the other. What’s interesting about this is that this places the library in the position of addressing problems which ought rightly to be addressed by the parent organization. The digital divide in a city ought to be addressed by the municipality; the mental health of students ought to be a concern of the university at large. By offloading these social services onto the library, the municipality is able to abdicate responsibility - a process inherent in the dismantling of the welfare state. When I was in Bournemouth in 2010, I was shown a flagship social centre within a public library branch. The centre was a library, but it contained offices for a social worker, employment officer, as well as a community police station.

Whether providing these services should be the role of the library or the state (i.e. the municipality or the public university) is not what I want to talk about here. Rather, I’m interested in the idea that libraries already provide a network of social services that operate in tandem with constituted state power. I want to talk about libraries as dual power.

In “An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army” (Verso, 2016), Fredric Jameson constructs a thought experiment whereby the American Army becomes the mechanism for socialism in the US. Without challenging the existing state and municipal governments, the Army becomes a medium by which every American citizen would receive health care, employment, social services, etc. Jameson selects the Army after discarding other non-state institutions, such as the church, the post office, and the professions, because it is an institution that crosses political borders, has both local and national presence, and already provides, for example, socialized medicine for its members.

If business, the professions, religion, even the labor unions (let alone the post office or the Mafia) are inadequate vehicles for dual power, what can then be left in late capitalism as an already organized institution capable of assuming the parallel and ultimately revolutionary role on which alone radical social change depends?

Dual power, a term coined by Lenin, and referring to the coexistence of the soviets (workers’ councils) and the provisional government in 1917, essentially means the taking over of social services (socialized medicine, education, etc), by a non-state organization, without openly challenging the existing state apparatus. Dual power would consist of a network of social services nominally operating under the supervision of the state, but in fact independent of it.

Jameson does not mention libraries as a possible network ready for the exercise of dual power, but I would like to explore the idea a little here. The largest network of libraries is the system of public libraries, typically organized by municipality, but active in both provincial associations and consortia the cross provincial lines. They are already offering social services, whether that be internet hot spots for loan, outreach to the disadvantaged, prison literacy programmes, onsite social workers, and safe spaces for the homeless (in municipalities which have seen the massive closure of day shelters run by the government). They also employ a large, disciplined, and decentralized workforce.

Academic libraries exist in every province and large municipal area. They belong to their own consortia, but also in provincial associations and consortia with public and special libraries. They too cross provincial lines, through national networks both at the library and the university level. They have connections with vast numbers of post-secondary students, as well as researchers in every discipline.

Special libraries provide connections with the professions and the government. Law libraries are implicated within the legal profession and the judiciary; health libraries with the medical profession; government libraries with all levels of government: municipal, provincial, and federal. Imagine presenting your library card to receive medical care.

What I am arguing is that libraries as a whole a) are already present in the lives of vast swathes of the Canadian population and b) are already structured to provide services to their consituents. As a result, libraries are well-placed as exactly the “already organized institution” on which Jameson contends dual power must be based.

There are two immediate objections to such an idea, however. On the one hand, the question of library neutrality itself. For libraries to provide the services required of the dual power institution, they must give up any pretence to neutrality. They must - just like Jameson’s Army

  • recognize the socialist content of what they are doing. Rather than serving their current function, that of maintaining the population in their positions within capitalist culture, they would have to insist on their function as a socialist service layer, as effecting what Jameson calls “cultural revolution” in antagonism to capitalist culture.

Connected with this, the other objection is the presence within librarianship of a “leadership” layer which not only insists on the fundamental neutrality of libraries, but whose position within the hierarchy, and within the networks of capitalist power, are dependent on their ability to maintain libraries in their ideological function (i.e. the reproduction of capitalist social and ideological structures). For libraries to occupy a space of dual power, it will not be enough to resist the policies and ideas of the parent organizations; libraries would have to set itself up in opposition to the ideas and desires of library leadership itself. In a sense, libraries already have this structure, given the positioning of certain elements of the library hierarchy either in or out of a given union or association.

This, then, is my own utopia, the idea that the network of libraries that already exist in this country could come together in an explicitly socialist network (or federation) in order to take over the services and support increasingly abdicated by capitalist state institutions. Libraries, then, could provide an alternative space to bourgeois ideological reproduction, leading, in Lenin’s view (and Jameson’s) to the eventual withering away of the state itself.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview