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When David Camfield drew my attention to Rebecca Lossin’s “Against the Universal Library” (New Left Review 1-7, Sept-Oct 2017) I was initially surprised that anything to do with libraries would appear in the NLR. The long-standing traditions of critique within modern librarianship, dating from the 1930s and the establishment of the Library Bill of Rights, through to the debates around intellectual freedom and social responsiblity in the 1960s and 1970s, and continuing to this day in the various forms and emphases of the Progressive Librarians Guild, the critical librarianship (#critlib) movement, and the work being done by Library Juice Press, to name just a few tendencies - tend to seem rather provincial against the backdrop of broader left critique. In some ways, Lossin’s critique - an intervention in the name of the printed book - aligns with at least some of these movements. But Lossin’s portrayal of a homogeneous, monolithic library profession is at odds with the presence of this trend of debate and these tendencies themselves.

Many of my colleagues, I know, would agree with Rossin’s criticism of the transition from “library science” to “information science”, and there is indeed much to criticize. The fact that what librarians think of as “information science” and what computer scientists mean by the term marks a disconnect between two modes of thought. And it is easy to point to a neoliberal fetishizing of the technological as one of the prime movers behind this transition. This critique of “iSchools” and “information science” programmes is widespread in the library world. And so when Lossin remarks that

from what I observed during my studies, information professionals, true to their elastic and unbookish titles, were fans of just about anything that was not a book. They thought putting video games in the young adult section was a great idea. They talked constantly about ‘rebranding’ the library via Facebook - which still, unfortunately, has the word ‘book’ in it. They even found a way to rename books: as budding information professionals, we were encouraged to use the unsexy – if still suggestive – term ‘information package’ instead.

This makes it sound as if everyone except Lossin, professors and students alike, form a homogeneous bloc fully and enthusiastically in favour of the neoliberal colonization of librarianship. This is at odds not only with mine and others’ experience of library school, but of the profession at large. “Information package” is not in common usage, certainly not to refer to individual e-books. The only time I hear it in the wild is, sometimes, from database vendors referring to a collection of aggregated electronic articles, which are indeed packaged up together. It is a mistake, I think, to argue that librarianship as an undifferentiated whole supports the technocratic instrumentalization of information. Like any other profession, some of us struggle against hegemonic logics and concepts that have been reified and overvalued within our institutions and society at large. At the risk of sounding like a Hardt-and-Negrian, libraries contain multitudes.

I also think that the root cause of this process is misidentified by Lossin, who argues that the renaming of “book” to “information package” (and all the attendant rationalizations and justifications) are due to a single technological moment:

This name-change was the product of the rise of digitization. Books were being removed from the professional vocabulary because they were being removed from the shelves.

Leaving aside the fact that “book” remains an integral part of the vocabulary of librarianship (and the silent elision of “book” with “codex”), ascribing a (putative) devaluing of the book to a single cause - digitization - oversimplifies matters.

Have print codex collections declined, or at least slowed? It’s likely - University of Alberta Libraries has an “electronic preferred” policy where, absent any counterargument, an electronic copy will be acquired if one exists. I’m not a collections librarian and I haven’t done the number crunching, but it seems likely that some material formerly acquired in print is now only being acquired in electronic format. But this is less the result of “digitization” than of changes within the wider economy of book production, libraries’ relationships to vendors, and the dynamics and constraints of parent institutions.

Electronic books acquired by collections librarians are rarely “digitized”. Digitized material tends to be archival, special, or unique material that is digitized and put online both to broaden the use of that material, to protect the material (sometimes, contra Lossin, damage to books can be irreparable and the book itself irreplaceable). Making versions of unique items available beyond the walls of the physical library was one of the recognized benefits of print - a manuscript had to be laboriously copied by hand in order for anyone to be able to read it outside the location in which is happened to reside. Digitizing rare or archival material satisfies the same need. And these are not, as far as I know, destructive of the material being digitized; this would defeat the purpose.

The majority of electronic books acquired by libraries are born digital, that is, they exist electronically alongside a print version; indeed the print version is often produced from - and after - the electronic version. In this sense then, the question of the shift from print books to electronic books becomes one of the lowering the cost of the means of production, and changing the nature of labour involved, that is, it becomes part of the ongoing process of capital accumulation. To posit “digitization” as the cause of a devaluing of the print book misses this aspect of the process.

Because book publishers have moved towards electronic books as cheaper and easier to copy and distribute, vendors push for libraries to acquire them rather than print books. I’m not denying that a similar logic is at play within libraries - electronic books don’t require shelf space or workers to move the books around, for example - but that this logic is not particular to libraries, it is general to the mode of production that sees automation and digital production as a means to cheapen if not discard labour power in the centres of capitalism. It should not be surprising that libraries as institutions find it difficult to resist such logics; libraries too are subject to austerity and all the other dynamics of neoliberalism.

Academic libraries are embedded within universities, colleges, etc, and public libraries are situated within municipalities, all of which are subject to socio-economic and ideological pressure to conform to neoliberal structures of thought and behaviour. Decision-making in libraries is far from distributed or non-hierarchical, and decision-makers self-select through their conformity with the requirements of the capitalist university or the austerity municipality. This supports Lossin’s contention that neoliberal changes have been and are being wrought within libraries, but it challenges her assertion that every librarian must be on board with these changes. We struggle, though the struggle often looks and feels futile.

Lossin argues that “Libraries, in their attempt to ‘future-proof’ themselves… are importing both commercial practices and logics into nominally alternative spaces”. “Nominally” in what sense? Libraries have never been pure, alternative spaces safe from commercial practices and logics. There has been a lot of work done on the role of libraries in both the self-reflection of bourgeois ideology, the ideological conditioning of the working class, and the construction of canons and epistemes that support dominant power structures. Again, Lossin’s view of libraries seems oversimplified, and she sets up a false dichotomy between a pure alternative space and a corrupt commercial institution. But there are no pure spaces untouched by capitalist logic, exploitation, and domination.

Lossin’s account of the various destructive processes that have taken place throughout the history of libraries is not wrong - indeed, the destruction and repurposing of paper (and of rags to make paper) is as old as the book itself. I’m just not sure what her point is - librarians don’t destroy books because we hate paper and love whatever the new technology is, and the process of destruction identified by Baker was never a uniform, homogeneous process either. We are all, always negotiating social, economic, political and, yes, epistemic changes like everyone is. Where I do take issue with Lossin’s argument is the idea that the episodes she mentions

are the logical conclusion of a set of techno-fetishistic practices that have shaped the culture of libraries over time.

I would argue that, with technology being such an integral part of the process of capitalist accumulation, both of value and of ideology and culture, we can’t escape some form of techno-fetishism. Indeed, the very qualities of the printed book Lossin writes about mark a techno-fetishism of her own, since the printed book is itself a technology. All this may make it sound as if I am unsympathetic to Lossin’s argument, but I’m not. I agree that reading something in print is different (and, in my opinion, worse) than reading it electronically. But Lossin’s view seems to oversimplify and overgeneralize the process she is describing, and ignores the hegemonic realities librarians live, work, and struggle in. I think it also ascribes single causes to what are in fact overdetermined processes. Digitization of material aids in accessibility (a screen reader can read an electronic text; an electronic text can easily be converted to various accessible formats). The presence of electronic materials also allows for quick and easy satisfaction of a reader’s immediate needs - patron-driven acquisition systems, for example, would be inconceivable in a print only world. And this, I think, is at the heart of my critique of Lossin’s argument: she posits too many false dichotomies - information specialists vs. librarians, the status quo vs. her solitary voice, print vs. electronic. The truth is that both the symptoms which she diagnoses – which in general I agree with – and the causes of those symptoms are much more complex than she allows. Like librarianship itself.

This blog post can’t do justice to everything in Lossin’s article, which ranges widely, and certainly raises important points about the directions and dynamics of libraries (and librarianship) under capitalism. Libraries and librarianship continue to have major problems with respect to labour, gender, sexuality, class, and disability, many of which we are ill-equipped (culturally, politically, ideologically, and theoretically) to address. But librarianship is full of countertendencies, debates, argument, and critique, and to pose - simplistically - that librarianship is purely the preserve of philistines and crypto-fascists is, in my opinion, wide of the mark.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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