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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the criticism that librarians tend not to look outside their own field for inspiration, best practices, cautionary tales, etc. This problem isn’t specific to librarianship, of course, but given our culture of “permanent crisis”, looking beyond our disciplinary borders (such as they are) might be a way to gain perspective and strategy with respect to our mission and values. This is even more important right now, as Bibliocracy points out, given that we could be (are?) facing the greatest test of both mission and values in many years. Myron has also pointed out the importance of economic understanding as we attempt to make sense of and position ourselves in the world:

As a Marxist, of course, I’m all for looking at the economic explanations for cultural phenomena, so I went back to Marx and other economists who - in opposition to the dominant trend in bourgeois economics - did not dismiss Marx outright. What follows, then, is an attempt to give some economic weight to some trends in librarianship.

One of the sideshows of the Berninghausen Debate in the 1970s, was the question of whether we should be exercising our professional expertise in collection development or simply, as the Baltimore County Public Library put it, ‘Give ‘em what they want’. This argument was framed around professional responsibility and expertise: who could judge the value of a given work to another person. With the rise and dominance of approval plans and (more recently) patron- or demand- driven acquisition, this argument has lost its urgency, but in reality, it hasn’t gone away, it has simply migrated to other areas of librarianship. A good example of this is the prioritizing of “giving students what they want” in academic libraries, both in terms of space and services, and in terms of user-experience design for online and digital services. This argument is also often framed as pitting professional expertise (the curated LibGuide, for example) against the needs and wants of “users” (however user is defined). In broader terms, this is an argument around consumer choice - that capitalist canard that becomes harder and harder to define the more its used. (Another example is the current struggle over Library of Congress subject headings, though the arguments there are significantly different, in my view).

When I was in library school, some of us argued that “what users want” is socially constructed, and so collection development was ethically required to take a social justice position with respect to acquisition and “marketing” of stock. If all our “users” saw in the library was material upholding the dominant (bourgeois) view of the world or material that reinforced the role of our users as “content consumers”, then we were simply helping to reproduce the dominant ideology, contributing to the social construction of the bourgeois subject itself. Taking the position of “neutrality” simply help to entrench bourgeois ideology, consumerism, and the values of capitalism. This argument is based on what Marx would call “superstructural” phenomena - what we would now probably call culture. But there is an economic argument that can be made here as well.

In Paul Sweezy’s 1942 book The Theory of Capitalist Development - a Marxist rejoinder to Joseph Schumpeter’s Theory of Economic Development of 1911, he discusses the question of demand in Marxian and neoclassical economics. Marx has often been accused of ignoring consumer demand due to his focus on the forces and relations of production in society. Sweezy argues that Marx recognized the important of demand, but that it legitimately played little part in his economic analysis, partly because consumer demand is itself determined by other economic phenemena:

Under capitalism, effective demand is only partly a question of consumers’ wants. Even more important is the basic question of income distribution which in turn is a reflection of the relations of production or, in other words, of what Marxists call the class structure of society. (49).

In addition to this, Sweezy holds up Marx’s materialist conception of history (historical materialism) as supporting the playing-down of “what users want” in Marx’s economic theory:

Wants, in so far as they do not spring from elementary biological and physical needs, are a reflection of the technical and organizational development of society, not vice versa. […] If one is interested in economic change and if one accepts the position that subjective factors play an essentially passive role in the process of change, one can scarcely deny that Marx was justified in neglecting consumers’ wants as he did. (51)

Sweezy supports this view with a quote from Schumpeter - definitely not a Marxist economist:

We will, throughout, act on the assumption that consumers’ initiative in changing their tastes - i.e., in changing that set of data which general theory comprises in the concepts of ‘utility functions’ or ‘indifference varieties’ - is negligible and that all change in consumers’ tastes is incident to, and brought about by, producers’ action. (Schumpeter, Business Cycles, quoted in Sweezy, 51)

Now, librarians are not used to thinking about themselves as “producers”, or indeed of library workers as employees in firms (public libraries, universities) which are producing and selling commodities. However, if we are different than any other capitalist enterprise, we have to engage with this idea straightforwardly. The time is past when we could simply make comforting assumptions on this score.

With respect to users, however, there is an even more challenging problem. We really have no choice but to meet the demands of our users (whether they are students, members of the public, online users and consumers of digital services). Usability, user experience, and design are and will remain important focuses for libraries and library services. But we have to come to terms with the question of consumer demand - whether they are constructed, or self-generated; whether they are spontaneous, or the effect of “producer action”; whether they themselves are “neutral” or further reproduce patterns and structures of capitalist domination. And no matter which side of the argument we come down on, we have to think carefully about how we go about acting within the context of our evaluation of consumer demand.

Now, I am not an economist. I’m sure there is a lot more to be teased out in this area, and perhaps others in the library world have already undertaken an economic analysis, not just of what our users needs are (we already know we should be doing that), but of where our users needs come from in the first place. However, I hope that as an exercise in looking outside librarianship for ways of looking at an issue in our profession, this was worthwhile.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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