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Over the last while, two observations have been floating around in my head. The first is that several radically different kinds of work with different perspectives and values have been shoehorned into a single profession: technical services, systems/digital projects, public services/reference/teaching, etc. The dominant perspective on this is siloization, as if these different kinds of work are really fundamentally unified, but our organizational structures get in the way of effective communication and collaboration between the silos. I used to subscribe to this idea, but now I think the areas of work are fundamentally different and possibly at odds with each other. However, institutionally they share the same object of work, and in terms of solidarity it is better to be united within the organization and profession than fractured and isolated.

The second observation is that our library organizational structures tend to mirror our political structures (at least in the Westminster system, in countries like Canada). At the top we have a single person, a chief librarian, premier, or prime minister; at the next level is a small select group of upper managers - a cabinet or senior leadership team; below them are the rank and file of library workers.

These two thoughts remained disconnected until I came across a passage in Hardt and Negri’s Multitude (2004), in which they describe the two kinds of military organization present within asymmetrical conflicts (think Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq). Hardt and Negri describe the traditional military structure in terms which will be familiar to library workers:

The traditional sovereign military structure is organized in a pyramidal form with a vertical chain of command and communication: a small group or single leader at its top, a larger group of field commanders in the middle, and a mass of soldiers at its base.

Guerilla warfare, however, has a radically different organization.

Even though guerillas generally operate on obscure terrain, in jungles and in cities, that obscurity is not enough to protect them. Their organizational form itself also serves to protect them, since guerilla organizations tend to develop polycentric forms of command and horizontal forms of communication, in which small groups or sectors communicate independently with many other groups.

Of course, this organizational model brings to mind not only the conspiratorial network of, say, anarchist and communist cells, but the federation of communes envisaged by some anarchist and communist political theorists. This is not accidental, as Hardt and Negri are in the process of laying the groundwork for a plan of direct, decentralized democracy in opposition to centralized sovereign power, whether in the form of the state, the military, the academy, or the library.

“Polycentric forms of command and horizontal forms of communication”. Could this be the answer to the siloization and hierarchical organization of the library? Could technical services be a self-organizing unit collaborating with other self-organizing units (systems, public services, etc) without the centralized control of the upper echelons? Hardt and Negri argue that it is the collaborative and cooperative experience which makes the multitude a form of political organization capable of challenging sovereign power, which means that while a form of “guerilla organization” for libraries might take some getting used to, might fail in the beginning, in the long run it could make for more successful organizations, capable of resisting the demands and exigencies of sovereign power. Such demands are increasing exponentially: analytics, metrics, surveillance, performance, and productivity. And they will go on increasing, since, for sovereign power and its traditional military structure “imagine an army of efficient and reliable robot soldiers along with a perfectly controlled, obedient population”.

Dr Donna Lanclos gave a keynote at #APTconf2019 recently in which she advocated for “listening to refusal” as a positive political act:

Refusal is not participating in those systems, not accepting the authority of their underlying premises. Refusal happens among people who don’t have access to structural power. Refusal is a rejection of framing premises. Recognizing refusal requires attention, and credit to tactics such as obfuscation, or deliberate misinterpretation.

This is a powerful point, and important to bear in mind. And if refusal is to be anything more than a futile Bartleby-esque gesture, I think it requires the support of different forms of organization within our institution. In this sense, I think Hardt and Negri’s conception of the multitude as powerless (in the asymmetric sense) populations struggling against sovereign power agrees with Dr Lanclos’ perspective:

Tactical refusal comes from a position of no power. People will be exerting what agency they can, and we can learn from tactical refusals, seeing them as ways of communicating as well as trying to survive.

If we are to fight against the imposed innovations of sovereign power, the state, and the neoliberal academy, we could do worse than remember Negri’s motto, “Sabotage is innovation”.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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