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Antonio Gramsci has long been a critical darling in LIS, in part because his philosophy - stripped of its revolutionary power - is easily assimilatable to the profession’s unacknowledged liberalism. He adds a touch of red spice to an otherwise bland and unpalatable porridge of political commitments. Stephen Bales’ “counterhegemonic academic librarian” owes a debt to Gramsci, as does Toni Samek’s work on the history of social responsibility debates in the ALA, and Douglas Raber’s work on hegemony and intellectual freedom. That there is a hegemonic discourse of LIS is probably uncontroversial. What I want to get at in this post is just how clear the division is between hegemonic LIS positions, as well as the way in which a liberalized Gramsci allows dominant voices in the profession to ignore the second half of Gramsci’s famous image of the centaur, the use of force or coercion as a necessary complement to leadership or hegemony.

The recent events around transphobic speakers at Toronto, Vancouver, and Seattle Public Libraries have exposed a deep rift within the profession. I used to see the main division within the profession as between academics and practitioners (the split at the Congress of the Social Sciences and the Humanities between CAIS and CAPAL is indicative of this divide), but that is overly simplistic and potentially leads to an unwarranted opposition between theory and practice. It is tempting to see this rift as generational, but the edges are too rough and undefined for that. It is equally tempting to see the divisions as indicating a rift between “mainstream” and “critical” librarianship (those “woke cool kids” who don’t know their place in polite discourse). It is probably closer to the mark to argue that divisions are between hegemonic positions - intellectual/academic, managerial, or both - and challengers to hegemony (from whatever perspective). Additionally, my own research interests suggest a split between the constituted power of the profession (in both our organizations and the academy) and the constituent power of library workers.

In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci quotes Machiavelli on the two ways of fighting, “by law or by force”:

The first way is natural to men, and the second to beasts. But as the first way often proves inadequate one must needs have recourse to the second. So a prince must understand how to make a use of the beast and the man. The ancient writers taught princes about this by an allegory, when they described how Achilles and many other princes of the ancient world were sent to be brought up by Chiron, the centaur, so that he might train them his way. All the allegory means, in making the teacher half beast and half man, is that a prince must know how to act according to the nature of both, and that he cannot survive otherwise. (Machiavelli, The Prince).

For Gramsci, hegemony/leadership was only half of the the method of rule: coercion or force was always held at the ready. We can see this in the Wet’suwet’en pipeline protests and supporting blockades: for the Canadian establishment “rule of law” must always be backed up with RCMP violence. Hegemony and leadership shade indiscriminately into coercion and force. In terms of Negri’s theory of constituent power, both hegemony and coercion are ways in which constituted power forecloses the direct, living productivity of the multitude.

In practical terms we can see this in the discourse around rights, free speech, intellectual freedom and democracy deployed by Vickery Bowles in her defense of TPL’s room rental… right up until the moment the police are called in to a library branch and community protesters kettled inside. Hegemony and force, leadership and coercion, both in support of the same thing: the constituted power of the state and its representatives.

In the academy, it is perhaps less easy to see the coercive element of constituted power, but it is all the easier to recognize the hegemony of mainstream LIS thinking. A just published book on “libraries and archives” now, Minds Alive, edited by Patricia Demers and Toni Samek (U of T Press), is a good example of a mainstream or hegemonic volume of LIS research and perspectives. In the introduction, Demers and Samek note that “Libraries and archives, at once public institutions providing both communal and private havens of discovery, are being repurposed and transformed in intercultural contexts” (3). The role of the book is then to to help “understand and pursue the ethical dimensions of these transformed theatres of communicative discourse” (3). As someone relatively active on the “critlib” side of LIS research, I would argue that the changing nature of libraries and archives lies very close to the heart of critical librarianship: how have libraries and archives changed, and just as importantly how have they remained the same (in terms of institutions implicated in structures of domination organized around class, race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc). In a book published in 2020 about “libraries and archives now” I would expect to see some reference to recent critical library literature. Off the top of my head, I would probably name:

  • Fobazi Ettarh’s “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: Lies we tell ourselves”.
  • Karen Nicholson’s “The McDonaldization of Academic Libraries and the Values of Transformational Change”.
  • David James Hudson’s “The Whiteness of Practicality”.
  • Gina Schlesselman-Tarango’s “The Legacy of Lady Bountiful: White Women in the Library”.

These are four papers chosen fairly quickly from among a large body of work that has become foundational, I would say, for critical librarian discussions. I probably wouldn’t necessarily expect them all to appear, that might be hoping too much, but it is troubling that none of them do. None of them is so recent that they would be overlooked by scholarship appearing in 2020. None of them are cited in Minds Alive. The only scholar I can see in the references who I would consider at least adjacent to critlib is Donna Lanclos. On the other hand, John Buschman, Jesse Shera, Nancy Kranich, Gloria Leckie… these names are prominent throughout the work.

A good indication of the ways in which this body of knowledge and research is hegemonic is, as Maureen Babb pointed out, how those of us writing from a “critlib” position have to engage with the “mainstream” literature, but the mainstream never has to engage with us. In this way, the ideas contained within hegemonic works appear unchallenged and unchallengeable, thereby reproducing themselves from generation to generation of library workers.

What kind of ideas? How about:

“Libraries make us, their users, feel safe also. We all have our favourite places to sit in the library - the desk by the window, the desk by the radiator, the desk cocooned by bookshelves. Author Miriam Toews told Ali Smith about the day she sat at work in a Toronto public library and saw her own mother come in, settle herself in a sunlit window and fall asleep.” (Crawford, p. 20).

An engagement not only with vocational awe, but also with the reality of Canadian public libraries (no-sleeping policies in Edmonton, draconian security in Winnipeg, transphobic speakers in Toronto) would have challenged and problematized this notion that libraries are valued because of “the safety they promise for ourselves and for the things we value in our culture” (21). The racial and classist underpinnings of this conception of the library are ignored, precisely due to the hegemonic nature of this kind of LIS research.

One more example:

“The public library is a place that provides free access to diverse kinds and formats of information to all. It is a public place where people can acquire and refine competencies and skills. It is a public place where culture is displayed, preserved, and promoted. It thereby helps strengthen democratic principles and practices including freedom of information and the press, in addition to freedom of speech and assembly.” (Kosciejew, p. 35). It is significant that this paragraph, like others in a similar vein, does not cite anything. This perspective is so dominant within the profession that it can be presented as an absolute truism. And this despite the presence of critical voices challenging just such a conception for decades, let alone the more recent resurgence of critlib.

It’s no wonder, then, that faced with challenges from inside and outside the profession, the CEOs of public libraries in Canada can do nothing but retreat behind the comfort of liberal platitudes (democracy! freeze peach! censorship!) without being able to articulate a compelling response. These CEOs are steeped in the hegemonic discourse of librarianship, though as we know they are not averse to deploying coercion as well. When hegemony and leadership fails, the response is not - as the adherents of John Stuart Mill or Habermas would like us to believe - to adjust ideas and take better arguments under consideration. It is rather, on the one hand, to ignore other voices, different arguments and, in the last analysis, to call in the big guns to restore law and order. What we see with the Wet’suwet’en is the playbook for the defense of constituted power in any context.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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