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The dialectic that Marx adapted from Hegel sees the world as categories which are constantly changing, dependent on history and the way in which they interact with other categories. Human perception can only “grasp” these categories at specific moments in time, freezing them and seeing only particular aspects of them rather than the whole. It is as if the a film was stopped so that we can see a single frame, but we lose the entire context provided by motion and the persistence of vision. What is important in the movement of dialectical categories is the contradictions that they hide when we freeze them momentarily. It is contradiction that makes the categories change over time, but since we are only able to see them, grasp them conceptually, at a particular moment, the contradictions are hidden from view.

For Marx, these categories were concrete: money, for example, or commodities. Indeed, the opening chapters of Capital concerning the commodities are an unpacking of the contradictions inherent in what seems like a simple concept, the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value that gives the commodity its dynamism. For Marx, the contradictions significant to the category are social, and so the category becomes representative of the very real contradictions of society at a given moment.

Which brings me to the library, which is itself a category produced out of contradictions, antagonisms, and mediations. It is not a simple thing, complete and unchanging - which would be the Platonic view of a category - but a snapshot of a constantly-moving system of social relations each in contradiction to another. So it is unsurprising that, at various moments, the social contradictions appear as crises within the history of the category. Often these crises are insufficient to completely revolutionize the category, but in the end radical transformation of the category itself is assured (this, in a nutshell, is the Marxist theory of revolution).

One such crisis, I would argue, attended the Toronto Public Library last night, when one of their bookable public spaces was used to host a memorial for Barbara Kulaszka, a lawyer who defended, among other people, the Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel. According to the Torontoist, “The memorial will have speakers like Marc Lemire, former president of the Heritage Front, a neo-Nazi group; Christian Klein, who says Germans were the real victims of WWII and that Jews ran camps where Germans were tortured and murdered; and Paul Fromm, Canada’s most prominent white supremacist of the generation left standing”.

The memorial has garnered criticism from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre. A statement from the library states that a) “the library accepts bookings… that are in accordance with the law and the library’s Rules of Conduct” and b) “using library space… does not imply any endorsement”.

The fact that the event garnered criticism, as well as the fact that white supremacist organizations have recently become more public in their activities, are social antagonisms which, in their contradictions, effect changes in social categories, like the public library. The public library is different now than it was a day ago, just as society is different from when its room-booking policies were framed.

This is one of the difficulties involved in framing library values; it could be argued that values, if specific enough (and they need to be specific), are outdated almost as soon as they are set down. But another, more egregious problem, is that organizational values - especially those of a state institution - have to posit a universalizing view of society in order to create consensus and maintain hegemony. In this sense, institutional values are often (always?) little more than propaganda. Put another way, institutional values are ideological. But this raises yet another contradiction, since library values, for example, are specifically meant to be non-ideological. A good example is the ALA Code of Ethics, which purports to specifically exclude individual ideology from library work, implying that the library itself is above ideological considerations.

David Harvey, in his first major work, Social Justice and the City, distinguished between two kinds of ideology: “Marx gives a specific meaning to ideology - he regards it as an unaware expression of the underlying ideas and beliefs which attach to a particular social situation, in contrast to the aware and critical exposition of ideas in their social context which is frequently called ideology in the west” (18).

What we see in the value statements put out by libraries, or in the ALA Code of Ethics, is ideology in the first sense, ideology that is unaware that it is ideology, and that its ideology is liberalism. On the other hand, movements like PLG, #critlib, and unaligned work such as that on updating the LCSH headings to reflect something other than the dominant liberal ideology, are examples of the second kind of ideology.

Barbara Goodwin, in Using Political Ideas writes that “in Britain we imbibe liberal ideas effortlessly from an early age, with the result that liberalism appears as a necessary truth, the basis of reality, rather than as one political ideology among many” (35). In addition to underpinning the notion of “neutrality” that continues to underpin so many library narratives, liberalism also supplies the concept of pluralism to the dominant ideology of librarianship. The notion of an “ideology of librarianship” must seem laughable to, for example, the framers of the ALA Code of Ethics, which attempts to enshrine the concept of value-neutrality by explicitly denying the relevance of ideologies to library work. The fact that the ALA Code of Ethics, like most normative ethics which support the status quo does not need to mention its liberal presumptions is merely a testament to liberalism’s hegemony: it is such a “necessary truth” that it can allow itself to remain unmarked.

Given that the library is a state institution, perhaps the controversy over last night’s memorial boils down to an antagonism between those who see the public library as a social institution with social responsibilities, and those who see it as an institution of the state with political responsibilities. This, naturally enough, is yet another contradiction contributing to the identity of the public library. The contradiction between social responsibility and political responsibility boils down, in my mind, to the question of contradictory values: communal, humanist values on the one hand, and liberal (i.e. individualistic, “value-neutral” values based on the sanctity of private property) on the other. These contradictions cannot be resolved through discussion, though we might seek to expose them, de-mystifying the library as dialectical cateogory, and making our positions known. They can only be resolved over time, that is through a historical process, of ever-increasing crisis leading eventually to fundamental social change.

It is futile to attempt to play it safe, to future proof, one’s own social position through vague, unactionable “values”, such as those which are typically propounded by library value statements. By default, vague values or values which pretend to neutrality support the unmarked, dominant, culturally hegemonic values of liberalism. One has to commit to a set of specific values while not losing sight of the fact that the world changes, moment after moment, and that we ourselves are the products of social contradictions and mediations. Understanding the dialectical nature of our relationships does not absolve us from taking a stand; “not taking a stand” means siding with the implicit values of liberalism and the state. But the values that we commit to, while specific and actionable, have to be capable of change. Five years ago, the open and unapologetic use of public spaces by far-right white supremacist groups was not something we needed to worry about particularly. That time has gone, and we need to decide whether our values are social ones, which would deny oxygen to such groups, or political ones, which prioritize the maintenance of hegemony and power above all else.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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