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One of the things I’ve become aware of over the last few years is how process can be (and often is) used as a substitute for thinking, discussing, debating, interrogating, critiquing, and reaching consensus. In short, process becomes an alternative for the hard work we should expect to be doing in libraries. Process is seen as a silver bullet because the other stuff is difficult, messy, time-consuming, and often intangible.

In his 1862 novel-as-memoir of his time in a labour camp in Siberia [1], Dostoyevsky writes about the difference between work performed to make simply to fill up the day (what we would call “make-work projects”) and work with a defined goal. Prisoners who receive an assignment for work with an assigned goal can go back to barracks when the work is done; otherwise they work until a specified time. With make-work projects, the work is “done more for the sake of form than of need” (p. 84). Later on he writes that prisoners in the prison hospital were locked into their dormitories and not allowed into the hall to use the toilet, despite the fact that the toilet was nearby and there was a guard on duty all night. “Who originally established this order I don’t know; all I know is that there was no real order in it and that the whole useless essence of formalism was nowhere expressed more fully than… in this case” (p. 175).

Here we have an example of process substituting for thought, consideration, and active decision-making. When a process is applied, reasoned, argued-for decisions can be avoided because it is better to follow the process; following the process will ensure success.

In the library world, we are all about process. We like the formalism of cataloguing rules, the process-heavy mechanisms of library accounts, library cards, interlibrary loan, and all the moving parts that make up the (admittedly complex) library system. It seems to me that there are two fundamental problems with the insistance on process over anything else. On the one hand, it makes it very difficult for us to change (maintaining traditional processes, even when they no longer work, is the epitome of the “we’ve always done it this way” problem). On the other hand, it substitutes a belief in automatic success (without defining success) with the intellectual work required to understand and evaluate what success means in a given case. How many of us have embarked upon new projects, beginning with the process, the formal procedure of project management, without ever having a clear understanding of what the project is supposed to achieve, i.e. what would constitute success.

I believe this formalism, this oblivion of process, affects all the different areas of the library, from the “procurement-based IT” that Alan Harnum has written about, to problems of assessment, to new-hire messianism, and the profileration of library standards. It affects projects - which are often never completed because we don’t know what “complete” means - as well as services, which are considered successful because we’ve followed our usual model for service delivery. The uncritical acceptance (either in whole or in part) of new procedures and methodologies (ITIL, PMP, Agile, Scrum) which either get only partly implemented or which limp along year after year out of faith in their processes, means that librarians can get in the habit of thinking we’re moving forward, when in fact we’re simply caught in the some procedural morass as we always have been.

There are alternatives, definitely - I’ve seen successful projects, successful assessment and evalutation, services implemented without being bogged down by procedural conformity, but these are exceptions.

Why is this important now? Over on Twitter @allanaaaaaaa and @bibliocracy have been discussing ways libraries might best respond to what many of us see as the coming dominance of fascist state tactics, likely sooner rather than later. I think this recognition of the deeply-rooted allegiance to process, to formalism, is important in this case because one of the values of formalism - to library administrators, to the state, as much as to prison guards - is that it automatically invalidates and shuts down any critique or interrogation that is not process based. An insistence on process, coupled with the values of neoliberal capitalism, leads to surveillance in the library whether librarians recognize it or not. Any attempt to critique the encroachment of surveillance is deferred - the process will take care of it. There are several problems with this. First, our process are imperfect, they leak data, they support values that run contrary to those that - I hope - most library workers would endorse. Secondly, they are easily manipulable - by university administrators looking to cut positions or services, and by the state itself. Third, we never get back to the critique. We run out of time, or energy, or political capital. Fourth, because following formalized process “is how we’ve always done it”, it prevents an awareness that what was merely annoying under the previous political regime, becomes actively harmful and dangerous under the new one. As contexts change, library structures of thought, feeling, and decision-making - in short, our organizational and professional culture, have to change too. Doing what we’ve always done is likely to start getting people arrested and deported (or worse) before very long. Fifth, how do you counter a position that most people aren’t aware that they’ve taken? The hegemony of process is so deeply-rooted in our professional culture that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get people to see it - and the dangers it poses - for what it is. This is the problem with “library neutrality” in general, and the insistence on process is simply one of the ways “neutrality” influences library practice.

How do we counter this? In the academic world, we have to use what intramural academic freedom and political capital we have to raise these questions as vigorously and frequently as we can. In public libraries, I think the the position of staff members is much more difficult, and I’m not sure what tactics public library workers can adopts while still protecting themselves and their patrons.

Anyway, these are just a few thoughts on a tendency in libraries that is rarely if ever discussed in library school, and is so subtle and ubiquitous that it’s hard to notice even when you start working in libraries. This post should not be considered a definitive statement, but is hopefully complementary to other writing in this area, like Allana’s Libraries in the age of fascism, which has much more concrete suggestions for what we are going to need to do as the political landscape changes over the next while.

[1] quotes taken from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from a Dead House, New York: Knopf, 2015.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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