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Two interesting tweets showed up in my timeline today, one by April Hathcock and a reponse by @hayzeus89. The gist of the tweets was that, given the increasing recognition of a PhD in place of an MLIS, then we should also accept years of service in non-MLIS positions, in effect being able to convert non-MLIS years of service into the equivalent of an MLIS. On the face of it, this is similar to the proposals for automatic conversion from contract faculty to tenure track positions after a certain number of years of service.

What this ignores, though, is the economic (that is, the exchange) value of the degree itself. Foucault’s view of education under neoliberalism is that education is an entrepreneurial investment. Like any commodity, one’s labour power increases in (exchange) value with the value of the commodities that go into it. We can split the component commodities - following Marx - into constant capital (means of production and raw materials) and variable capital (labour power). In this view, the variable capital expended on one’s education is both one’s own and the labour of the professors, TAs, library staff, support staff, etc, etc, that make up one’s career as a student. This labour is measured in labour-time, so the more years of work tied up in one’s degree, by all workers involved, not just oneself, add to the value of one’s degree. On the other hand, the value of the buildings, the value of one’s professors’ degrees, etc, also feed into the value of one’s degree. The value put into building the building, or the value of one’s professors’ degrees are transferred, to a certain extent to the value of one’s own degree. It stands to reason, then, that a longer time spent “investing” in one’s labour power will command a higher price on the labour market.

On the other hand, time spent as non-MLIS staff is not, according to neoliberal logic, investment in one’s labour power. It is labour, the transferring of value into a commodity. The value transferred by a non-MLIS worker to the commodity we produced is less than that of an MLIS holder or a PhD. It makes sense, then, according to neoliberal logic, that PhD holders are more desirable in MLIS positions (because a PhD takes more labour time to produce/acquire) than a non-MLIS holding staff member. The price of our commodity goes up if we put a PhD holder in an MLIS position, and goes down if we put a non-MLIS holder in the same position. In terms of the value of the commodity (degrees, labour power), a PhD has higher value than an MLIS and an MLIS has a higher value than, say, a library technician certificate. If we want to transfer more value to the commodity (ie. cause the price to go up), then we want to underpay PhDs, rather than overpay library technicians.

In this view, of course education is not about educating citizens, education is not even the commodity universities are selling. What is being sold is the “graduated worker” or the “worker-with-degrees. Library labour can then be understood as itself a value-input into the exchange-value of this commodity.

What I find interesting in all these discussions in the library world is that we substitute “is” language for “ought” language. The theme of this year’s ALC conference is a good example: “We stand up: we inspire hope, create change, and empower individuals and groups. We listen, we learn. We stand for human rights, for dignity, and for access to information.” This is is language, it says that we are doing these things. Any consultation with the critical or progressive or social justice wing of librarianship will disprove that idea. That we ought to be doing these things is a much more supportable argument, but for whatever reason in librarianship (and perhaps more widely) we succumb to this elision of is and ought.

I think it’s important for a critical theory of librarianship to insist on the strict separation of is and ought, just as we have to maintain a strict vigilance about why we say we do certain things (e.g. “hiring PhDs to MLIS positions is an act of inclusion”). This is all part of the de-mystification process that I think lies at the heart of all critical analysis. I don’t like the neoliberal logic expressed in the analysis above, and I think the social and economic conditions that give rise to it ought to be abolished, by force if necessary, but I think it’s important to be able to recognize the logics that are at work in contemporary social phenomena.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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