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Yesterday, a blog post by Kevin Seeber was making the rounds, and while it struck a chord with a lot of people, I think there are some problems with the way Seeber frames the question of collections. Mainly, I think the problem is that while Seeber is right that “libraries have been moving collections and discarding stuff for a long time now”, without engaging with the specifics of moving and discarding now, in the neoliberal conjuncture, Seeber risks ignoring the ways in which processes which have been part of librarianship for a long time are increasingly subsumed within a capitalist regime of labour. While collection management and weeding may be basically the same activities that they were a hundred years ago, the socio-economic conjuncture in which those activities are situated has changed, and to ignore that change, and the ways in which librarianship (like all academic labour) has become subject to commodity logic - and fetishism - plays into the hands of the capitalist subsumption of academic and library labour itself.

There are other reasons to quibble. When Seeber says that he “didn’t think that speed of access was as much of a concern for humanists who spend years preparing a monograph”, he seems to betray, I think, a misunderstanding of the writing process, an artistic process (yes, even scholarly writing) that is intuitive and extremely sensitive to the kinds of flows and disruptions Seeber discounts.

But the part of the blog post I really want to focus on is what Seeber says about “serendipity”. He writes:

It’s not “serendipity” that put those books there and you’re not “discovering” them. There’s a lot of nerve on display when faculty question librarians and lament the decisions we make, but maybe the most galling is the repeated insistence that the forces of fate have connected them with these books. It’s not the heavens smiling on you when you browse the stacks and find a relevant item, it’s the labor of a bibliographer, a cataloger, and a shelver. This stuff ends up where it does because people are doing the work of putting it there. And oh yeah, another part of making it “discoverable” is removing all of the stuff that’s no longer relevant. Librarians call it “weeding” for a reason.

In the first place, this mistakes the serendipity of the library user with a non-existent or illusory serendipity of the books on the shelves. When library users talk about serendipity, they are referring to a subjective experience, the discovery of a book they didn’t know about as a happy coincidence, due to its presence next to a book they knew about. Or the discovery of important books in a location (stack) they thought to visit. The presence of the books on a particular shelf in a particular order, devoid of the noise of outdated or irrelevant material, is of course no accident, happy or otherwise. But the subjective experience of the browser is no less real for all that. There are two kinds of serendipity being employed here, and Seeber’s dismissal of the subjective experience of the browser is due to his only recognizing one of them.

As I mentioned on twitter, even if we agree that “serendipity” is the wrong word, we would still need to come up with another word that properly describes that sense of a “happy accident” by which one discovers a book one wasn’t looking for. I’ve been using the word “discover” deliberately here, because it is the aspect of “discovery” that touches on the question of the erasure of labour.

Very often when something is “discovered” in an archives, archivists and librarians make the valid point that it was not discovered in the sense of a discovery in the natural sciences. Active human labour went into the organization and “discoverability” of archival material, the finding aids, the organization of physical space, the maintenance of the building, the organizational entity in which the archives is situated. We are embedded in a chain of labour that stretches from my own individual subjective experience of work horizontally throughout the world of human life, and vertically through larger and larger abstractions of labour organization and management. We are right to speak up for the labour of all those who organize and make available documents, records, books, and all other kinds of information. But there is always a sense that the ignorance of all that labour that goes into one act of subjective discovery is simply a moral failing, that if only researchers or faculty would just smarten up then they would see all the labour that goes on around them.

But this is an idealist view of the world. Many of the complaints made by librarians and archivists that our work is not valued - as if any workers’ labour is valued under capitalism - seems to suggest that the question of how labour is valued is only a question of knowledge or ignorance. The idealism comes in when we expect that if people think differently then the material conditions of our labour - our lack of recognition, in many cases poor conditions of work, lack of prestige, feelings of alienation, etc - will be solved by people thinking differently. This ignores the material reality of the capitalist system in which we work, a system which is structured (physically, mentally, ideologically, culturally, politically) to erase the work of labourers.

It may seem as if I am contradicting myself: how can the subjective feeling of serendipitous discovery on the part of a browser be legitimate and at the same time the erasure of labour be taking place and be a significant aspect of the capitalist labour regime? I am contradicting myself, but as Georg Lukacs has argued, contradictions exist in capitalist reality; they cannot be overcome except by overcoming the material conditions that give rise to them.

For Marx, the increased (and today almost universal, at least in the capitalist centre) socialization of labour was a product of the division of labour (as in Adam Smith’s (in)famous pin factory) reaching such a pinnacle that no worker sees the raw materials they work with as the product of another’s labour. The very logic of capitalist production, the very mystification of the commodity-form itself, leads to what Marx calls “fetishism” (and is often nowadays called reification): mistaking the relations between people for the relations between things. Because we are alienated from the products of our labour, from each other, and from ourselves, it is impossible for us to see commodities that we work on, produce, purchase, or consume as the products of an almost infinitely complex web of labour relationships. And while I think it’s good to try to constantly remind people that all of the things they engage with in their lives, including stacks and books and finding aids and records, are the products of human labour, we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that one day, if we just convince everyone, if all these misguided fools would just free their minds, then all will be well. The contradictions of capitalism can only be overcome when capitalism itself is overcome, and this can only take place through organization and resistance. Resistance, if it is to mean anything, must include a resistance to the forces of commodity logic, and this requires a critical perspective on how and why the context of library work has changed and is changing for the purposes of increased capitalist exploitation and oppression.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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