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In a recent Guardian article on the state of Canada’s libraries, Vickery Bowles, the Chief Librarian of TPL, is quoted as saying, “Access to information and pathways to learning were the great equalisers of the 20th century.” According to the writer of the article, Bowles “sees a vital role of the public library in strengthening civic discourse and enabling political participation”. This view has a long history within librarianship, as can be seen in ALA President Nancy Kranich’s 2001 collection of essays Libraries and Democracy: The Cornerstone of Liberty, in which Kranich takes her cue from a 1941 speech by Roosevelt. Library historian Sidney Ditzion saw libraries as Arsenals of a Democratic Culture. In Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library, Ed D’Angelo argues that the foundations of the public library are an “intellectually rigorous commitment to democracy and appreciation for the public record”, now threatened by what D’Angelo calls “postmodern consumer capitalism’. In her introduction to D’Angelo’s book, Kathleen de la Peña McCook writes that from the mid-19th century on, “libraries were established in hundreds of US communities as a means to provide people with access to the cultural record and to provide the resources to support an enlightened population for participation in the democratic process.”

What all these positions on librarianship entail, to my mind, is a liberal-democratic view of industrial capitalist states of the global North and West. When Bowles speaks about “great equalizers of the 20th century”, she is presuming that anything like equality existed in the 20th century, a presumption central to the liberal-capitalist bourgeois view of the world. Indeed, the equation of libraries and democracy, especially in the American context, only makes sense if we uncritically suppose and affirm that the American republic is now or has ever been in any sense democratic. It is even more ironic that Bowles can talk about a supposed 20th century equality in a country that is still not even a republic but a constitutional monarchy – a political system predicated on a fundamental inequality and social hierarchy.

But why does all this matter? Where’s the harm in insisting on what I think of as a “transcendental” view of libraries, an understanding of librarianship which insists on idealistic values like liberty and democracy? There are, I think, two closely connected problems here. In the first place, by promoting a vision of capitalist society as egalitarian and democratic, transcendental library discourse obscures the very real mechanisms of power and exploitation that are fundamental to capitalist society. By insisting that the mission of libraries is to provide educational opportunities and access to information to support a well-informed citizenry capable of participating in democracy, we tell our patrons/users that the society they live in is a democracy, that their participation matters, and that being well-informed is the correct path for making change in our society. This view of capitalist “liberal democracy” is dangerously false, as the history of capitalism attests: from the imperial exploitation of non-capitalist countries, to the lucrative slave trade, to the attempted extermination of Indigenous peoples the world over, capitalism is founded on violence done towards those who are not considered “citizens”. But even for “citizens”, capitalism has brought endless war and cyclical economic crises, all of which increases poverty and oppression for the bottom while increasing wealth and luxury for the top. In addition to being an inherently racist process, capitalist development has also created and taken advantage of other kinds of inequality: sexism, ableism, and the many injustices perpetrated upon various gender and sexual identities. Bowles view of an “egalitarian” 20th century becomes not just ironic but perverse when one thinks of the brutality of that century, a brutality that has continued – in a particularly postmodern fashion – into this one.

So what happens when citizens are fed the message that they live in a participatory, egalitarian democracy where their voice matters and the path to democratic participation is education and being well-informed? In the first place, they don’t revolt: they try to counter the unconscionable, horrific separation of families under racist immigration and Indigenous policies with more information, by being better-informed, by voting. As an institution that keeps telling citizens that by being better informed and voting, they can change society, the library operates as an institution of social reproduction, a mechanism by which capitalist society in fact does not change, but keeps itself going, generation after generation. Because of our focus on information and ideas, librarianship is an institution of ideological reproduction (as in Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and Althusser’s “Ideological State Apparatuses”), but the information we provide, which we like to think about as neutral or at least balanced, but which as Allana Mayer reminded us, is always politically constructed with a view to the maintenance of inequality, also informs a much more material social reproduction. This social reproduction, the reproduction of labour power and its social context, is a core element in much Marxist feminist theory. As Sylvia Federici said in a recent interview:

There is also a political side to the devaluation and consequent naturalization of reproductive work. It has been the material basis for a labour hierarchy which divides women and men, which enable capital to control the exploitation of women’s work more effectively through marriage and marital relation, including the ideology of romantic love, and to pacify men giving them a servant on whom to exercise their power.

This, of course, not only applies to the work of sexual reproduction, but is woven through the labour regime of capitalism as a whole, including the predominantly female work of librarianship (I owe the phrase “predominantly female”, as opposed to “female dominated”, to Amy Buckland). This particular problem with the transcendental view of librarianship has a long history. At an early ALA conference, there was a motion from a contingent of women librarians to discuss the material aspects of library work: wages, working conditions, etc. This motion was denied by Melvil Dewey (whose own history of sexual harassment has once again recently been exposed Dewey argued that librarianship was a transcendental profession, librarians had a “mission” (Dewey’s word) and shouldn’t be concerned with tawdry materialist issues. Of course, this distinction between high-minded, transcendental, male librarians (later library scientists) and female library workers whose physical and emotional – but ostensibly unskilled and certainly devalued – work kept the library going, is a fundamental one in librarianship. Again, this undercuts Bowles’ insistence on library work as egalitarian. So, by ignoring the material inequalities of our own profession, we set up a false image of an egalitarian (and meritocratic) society that keeps capitalism going, both in an ideological and in a directly physical sense.

But the second problem with the transcendental view of librarianship came out in a discussion yesterday on Twitter. I argued that we shouldn’t be focusing our energy on “communicating our value” (which the Guardian article and the Bowles quote are an example of), because capitalists don’t care if we can communicate our value – they only care how little we will work for. In addition to great, valuable responses from various people, including Jessica Schomberg (whose tweet sparked its own interesting discussion) and Lisa Sloniowski, who linked the question of value to the very troublesome issue of metrics, I was asked a really good question about the context for my tweet and whether we should be concerned with the question of monetary value. If our user constituencies understand our value, shouldn’t that be enough?

This goes back, for me, to the fundamental distinction between use-value and exchange-value. By focusing on a transcendental mission for librarianship (support for democracy, for example), we tend to ignore the material realities of capitalist social relations. By excluding any question of exchange (or exchange value) from our discussions, we deny or obscure the realities of capitalist economic relationships. It’s for this reason, by the way, that I think the opening of the books and honest discussion about how much we are paying for things, and the decision not to sign NDAs for licensing contracts is a step forward; even the fact that the OA movement has put costs and financial inequality on the agenda is positive progress. But by excluding questions of exchange and exchange value, by focusing on the transcendental, we lose any ability we have to fight a capitalism which excels at paying lip-service to transcendental values (democracy) while carrying on its corrupt business-as-usual (to wit: the Donald Trump and Doug Ford elections). If library workers insist on believing in libraries as democratic institutions of knowledge and self-development, then we have no defence against either against our role in ideological reproduction or against the cuts and restructuring that are currently hitting libraries and other social agencies. If we lived in a non-capitalist society, in which transcendental (use) values were all that mattered, then libraries would likely live up to a transcendental mission. But we live in a world of austerity, fascism, cruelty disguised as freedom, and a set of economic relationships that no-one controls but everyone is subject to. Our response can’t be to rely on an idealistic view of the mission of libraries, but nor can it rely on beating capitalism at its own game – which often seems to be what chief librarians are trying to do – the only way to win is to overthrow the game itself, to change the rules, to bring about a new world. But until then, I think trying to support a transcendent view of libraries in order to try to convince people that they are morally worth saving is a foolhardy position to take. As I said the other day, the only option we really have, I think, in the face of austerity, is to get organized, negotiate strong collective agreements, and be prepared to strike, if necessary illegally and in solidarity. (I recognize the many and varied problems with unions as well as the additional problems faced by unionized and precarious workers. I guess all I can say to that is that have to make do with what we have available).

I realize that the problem with this view is that, without giving us something transcendental to work towards, we have to ask why work in libraries are opposed to anywhere else. Indeed, under capitalist conditions of labour, where we have no choice but to sell our labour power to survive, this question doesn’t have an honest or unconstrained answer. But I think that working for a better society is something that we can bear in mind; that must mean, however, more than simply repeating platitudes about democracy and participation.


(I use “create” here in the sense intended by various Marxist theorists in race and gender, that while racism and sexism may pre-exist capitalism, capitalistm produces particular forms of both).

This post is dedicated to Emily Drabinski, from whom I continue to learn a lot, not least about the value of organizing.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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