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In English writers of the seventeenth century we still often find the word ‘worth’ used for use-value and ‘value’ for exchange-value. This is quite in accordance with the spirit of a language that likes to use a Teutonic word for the actual thing, and a Romance word for its reflection. Marx, Capital, Volume 1.

Here we go again. Late last week, people noticed that the same transphobic speaker who spoke at Vancouver Public Library earlier this year is scheduled to speak at Toronto Public Library as well. In the midst of pushback against the room-booking, Vancouver Public issued a statement (now gone from their website - that’s some great information management, VPL) making three fundamental claims:

  1. VPL is only renting the space; they don’t endorse the speaker or the statements mmade.
  2. VPL cares deeply about its community, especially LGBTQ2S+ community.
  3. Intellectual freedom is one of VPL’s core values and trumps all other considerations (“the fundamental role of libraries as a place for free expression and intellectual freedom must be upheld.”)

Now, we can leave aside the question of endorsement: those who live by the brand die by the brand, in other words, libraries can’t expect the public to associate the library with events put on in their spaces (“hosted” or not) only when it suits them. If you foster a connection between, say, the public library’s image and one set of speakers you have to expect the public to make the same connection between the library and other kind of speakers. What’s fascinating to me here - and extremely troubling - is that while public libraries seem to expect the public to intuitively understand when a particular speaker is not speaking on behalf of or with the support of the library, they insist on vetting presentations made by their own workers, or policing their speech for fear they might be mistaken for representing the library, thus denying them their own intellectual freedom in order to protect their image. At best this is cognitive dissonance, at worst it is hypocrisy. There is, however, a political economy aspect of this as well. The idea that a “third party rental” is merely a cash/exchange relationship - a contract - and therefore carries no social, political, or moral charge, is a precept of capitalism in general and neoliberal capitalism in particular. What the library doesn’t understand is that while it is operating firmly in the mode of a value-free exchange relationship, the human community of which it is a part sees things very differently indeed.

In terms of community support, this is upheld by VPL’s own set of core values, which includes “community-led planning” and “community partnerships”. “Intellectual freedom” is in the same list, but there is no indication that it carries more weight or takes priority over the others. Why then, do public libraries prioritize intellectual freedom over community when conflicts between these values arise? This is the heart of the third claim, for the absolute hegemony of “intellectual freedom” over all other considerations.

Fast forward a few months, and Toronto city librarian Vickery Bowles is reading from the same script in her statement about the same speaker booking space at Toronto Public Library.

Intellectual freedom is one of the core values of public libraries, and we promote freedom of expression in our collections, programs and services. We cannot deny access to a room rental on the basis of views that the third-party holds if the request meets criteria set out in our policy. The event organizers are also contractually obligated not to violate the policy. As always, we will be prepared to take immediate action should any room rental contravene the law or our policies.

Intellectual freedom, contract, policy: these are the hallmarks of liberal-bourgeois thinking. What is significant here is that, as many people have already pointed out, Toronto Public Library’s policy already allows them to refuse a hall rental on the basis of discriminatory views. This change to the policy was made after the last time this came up, when TPL rented a room to a bunch of nazis to hold a memorial service. Clearly, the library’s insistence on maximalist intellectual freedom and contract trumps even its own policies.

We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom, but at the same time are deeply committed to equity and diversity. Allowing a room booking does not imply we endorse or support the views expressed. We are strong supporters of the LGBTQ2S+ community within TPL and the communities we serve.

Note the “but”. Toronto Public has the same problem with conflicting values that Vancouver Public does. Note also the is/ought elision when the statement claims “we are strong supporters of the LGBTQS+ commmunity”. How honest is that support when a bourgeois conception of intellectual freedom and the sanctity of contract immediately overrides it? As I’ve mentioned before, when library values are abandoned at the first obstacle, then they are meaningless.

What I find most worrisome about Bowles’ restatement of the VPL position is not that they are so fundamentally similar: public librarians share the same professional and political education, and their libraries serve the same role as apparatus of the state, so it is unsurprising that they should share views. But in that case, why has TPL not learned from the VPL experience? VPL, after many years working to gain the support and trust of marginalized communities in Vancouver destroyed those relationships at one stroke. As a result Vancouver Pride banned VPL from participating as an organization. Toronto Public Library seems to pride itself on its support of Toronto’s LGBTQ2S+ community; how shocked are they going to be when they too are banned from participating in Pride? Because if chief librarians of public libraries don’t learn from each other, I’m fairly certain that Pride organizers do.

We (libraries) spend a lot of time and energy trying to communicate our value to our parent instiutions (often a university or a city). Library administrators respect this relationship because it is an exchange relationship: we will do the bidding of the neoliberal state in exchange for budgetary support. Here the sanctity of contract raises its head again. But we are prepared to abandon any concept of value to our communities at the first hurdle. The allegiances of the public library (and the academic library) are to the state, the state that holds the purse-strings. The library’s community - as we have seen at VPL, TPL, in the security theatre of Winnipeg Public Library, and the pro-cop “both-sidesism” at Halifax Public - is there to be disciplined, controlled, dictated to, not listened to or learned from. This is because the relationship of the library to its community cannot be one of value, but must be one of worth. The library has value to its parent institution, but is supposed to be worth something to (and worthy of) its community. Because libraries are capitalist institutions, they can only understand, subscribe to, and participate fully in one of these relationships: the relationship of exchange, or as Marx and Engels put it, the relationship of “callous cash payment”.

I think it would be useful to revive the distinction between value and worth in these discussions. Human lives - especially in this instance, the lives of transgender people - may have no value under capitalism (which is how public libraries get themselves into this mess to begin with), but we therefore have to insist on their worth. In order for public libraries to be worth anything to their communities, they have to demonstrate that their communities are worth something to them.

NOTE: Bowles’ statement refers to this post by Alvin Schrader on IF at the Ryerson Centre for Free Expression. I’ve addressed this post previously on this site.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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