On Friday, McMaster Rare Books rightly took issue with the erasure of archival labour coincident with the use of a letter written by Bertrand Russel, which is in their archives. This letter has “gone viral” several times over the last few years, variously claiming to have been “unearthed” by a researcher - in fact, it is located due to the work of acquiring, sorting, describing, encoding, and digitizing performed by professional archivists. This kind of erasure of the labour of library and archives workers both inside and outside academia.
But it occurs to me that the erasure of labour is not the only thing going on here. Under the current mode of capitalism, everything is a commodity, including one’s online “brand” and “virality” itself. The value of the commodity, as with all commodities, is commensurate with the labour that goes into its production. The moment of erasure comes when the research attempts to pass off the labour of archivists as their own (using labour-intensive words like “unearth”). But the harnessing of another’s labour power to increase the value of one’s own commodity, while not sharing in the value of the object produced has another name: exploitation. In addition to the erasure of archival labour, in this case, the archivists are also being exploited. Now, working primarily (at least in Canada) in the public sphere, making a public salary, academic librarians and archivists tend not to worry too much about this kind of exploitation in general - we’re making a public salary, and we’re generally happy for our labour to contribute to the public good. But brand management and virality are typically not part of the public good, but private betterment, that is - profit. We tend to get pretty riled at the idea of our publicly funded work being used to further private interests.
A few years ago when the Future of Libraries is Open (FOLIO) project was announced, it caused a bit of confusion in the library world. Our ILS vendor ecosystem has moved rapidly towards cloud-based services, and Ebsco, which doesn’t have an ILS project, seemed to be trying to move into this area. However, the FOLIO project was positioned as arms-length from Ebsco, an independent community-led project, built on the hoary Koali-OLE project, begun in 2008. Billed as a partnership between the “FOLIO Community”, Ebsco, and IndexData, FOLIO promises to be “a true partnership between libraries and vendors in which we are each making real substantive contributions based on our unique strengths.”
When we look at the FOLIO community members lists, however, we can see that of the 7 that are specifically mentioned, 4 are vendors and 1 is OLE, and the other is a vague “Libraries”, whose contribution will be “Guiding, Discussing, Developing, Collaborating”. So far, this looks like a pretty standard “Public-Private Partnership” so fond of neoliberal governance, in other words, a mechanisms for “privatizing profits and socializing losses”.
Now, Ebsco has been making the rounds for the last few years - at the annual Access conference, for example - to push for collaborative work by librarians, library technologies, and library software developers to start building ILS modules on top of the FOLIO SaaS platform. This is described as seeking in kind collaborative contributions to an open-source library product. Leaving aside the question of who needed FOLIO in the first place (our ILS market is pretty much sewn up by proprietary vendors, and we have two mature open-source ILS products), this looks to me like an attempt by a group of vendors - with Ebsco in the lead - to tap into the large amount of open-source software development taking place in libraries which, from a vendor perspective, no-one is profiting from. From a capitalist viewpoint, this is wasted (i.e. unexploited labour).
For a while, I was uneasy with the FOLIO project, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. There was a suggestion of “open-washing” a proprietary product, but the FOLIO SaaS platform is open-source as well. Where is Ebsco’s (or Sirsi’s or IndexData’s) skin in this game? Well, it turns out that the theoretical “way in” to properly thinking about this comes in form of recent writing around “platform labour”.
In January, 2016, the labour theorist Ursula Huws asked whether platform labour was “sharing economy or wild west?”, noting that
For some idealists, [platform labour] is even seen as a way to bring about a post-capitalist society. Others, using terms like ‘workforce on demand’, or ‘liquid labour’ see it as a way of creating a just-in-time workforce, sometimes described as a ‘human cloud’ or ‘crowd’, that is available on tap for specific tasks.
Juliet Schor and William Atwood-Charles argue that platform labour “emerged from the wreckage of the 2008 financial collapse with multiple positive claims about its potential to change the world”.
Proponents of what was originally called “collaborative consumption” highlighted the ability of platforms and apps like Airbnb and Uber to use “underutilized” assets more efficiently, build social connection and trust through person-to-person economies, reduce environmental footprints and help ordinary people cope with difficult economic times.
In other words, very similar arguments are used to describe the FOLIO initiative as other labour platforms. It should come as no surprise that the exploitation of platform labour is irremediably gendered and racialized, as Niels van Doorn has pointed out, but I think there’s an additional angle to all of this, reflecting on neoliberalism’s contradictory attitude to the state and the public sector.
According to neoliberal theory, state intervention should be minimized to allow the unfettered, unregulated, smooth movement of capital and commodities (except labour) wherever it can make the most profit. In reality, however, capital accumulation is shored up by strategic state interventions in particular areas (the “commanding heights” of the economy, for example, or in the suppression of unions, cf. Thatcher against the miners, or Reagan against the air-traffic controllers). One of the areas still - for the moment - subsidized and regulated by the state is post-secondary education, offering good salaries and benefits (for the most part) to relatively large labour forces. For neoliberalism, this labour is just as untapped as off-duty cab drivers were for Uber, or vacationing apartment dwellers were for AirBnB. There are profits to be made off this labour, and there are ways to get the labour for free. In this case, even the maintenance of the labourer themselves, which is ensured in the form of wages under capitalism, is avoided by the entrepreneur. The wages - including the social wage - are paid 100% by the state in the form of public funding for post-secondary education.
But why stop at post-secondary education? Ben Tarnoff writing in the Guardian argues that “Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages”. In addition to adding to the “industrial reserve army” keeping down the wages of skilled workers in silicon valley, the training of these workers can be offloaded to the state (through schools) and the work itself can be paid for be anyone else in the form of platform labour. With corporations set to reap the profits, as always.
I’m still not sure what Ebsco, Sirsi, or IndexData’s end-game is. I think at the moment they may not have one - they may be content merely to get other people’s labour working for them, just as researchers who erase the labour of archivists mobilize archival labour for their own private interest.