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“When a seller has no choice about selling, it should be called pillage, not purchase.” Cicero.

In Confronting the Democratic Discourse, I argued that two of the main precepts of liberal-democratic thinking librarianship are: that lives are protected, and that there is all the time in the world for debate and deliberation. I pointed to the very real lives being lost (Black lives, trans lives) and the time limits imposed by climate change as fundamental challenges to this hegemonic, liberal way of thinking. If we want to achieve something other than the status quo, we need to take the loss of lives and the lack of time seriously.

All that was before the global pandemic put both lives and time squarely at the forefront of political questions: how to reduce the number of lives lost, political debates over length of life and quality of life (typically hijacked by rightwingers who are only to happy to sacrifice other people - old people, disabled people - if only to regain time for profit), how soon can the economy “reopen” and things “return to normal”, by which is meant, of course, the profitable exploitation, the wilful destruction of lives and the planet, that marks capitalism in the current conjuncture.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw calls to close the libraries quickly, while various municipalities and universities wanted to keep them open longer, prepared to trade lives for time. In this, we saw the dreadful equation of expendable, precarious lives to the kind of turnover or reproduction time Marx discusses in volume 2 of Capital. For those of us able to work from home, time became fraught: how to distinguish between worktime and non-worktime - a problem exposed by autonomist and feminist Marxists long ago, but now returning with a vengeance, along with the the very question of gender-based “productivity” that Federici, for example, showed was a product of capitalist violence (as primitive accumulation) dating back to the end of the Middle Ages. Quality of life became a vexed question as time took on new weight and new shadows. Housework and childcare - the loss of time and the production of life - became once again a nexus of gendered power.

For those who had to go to work, marked out as “essential” and recognized with applause and empty compliments but no protection, the question of their lives versus their labour-time was brought once again to the surface. In the municipalities and universities, “unproductive time” led - as it always leads - to painful discipline of the workers, the insistence that their lives have no meaning, their time is worthless, if they are not working for their employer. The euphemistic “temporary layoffs” brought the question of working lives and working time together as the absence of both. The forced layoffs in Alberta and Manitoba served only the purpose of discipline, ensuring that workers understood that their lives are valuable only so long as their time is devoted to labour.

Capital, faced with an overabundance of lives (workers) and (unproductive) time, does what it always does: sheds its surplus labour power, making it a problem of the state, while working frantically to regain some of that lost productive time. The ghoulish calls for reopening of the economy while lives in the thousands continue to be lost daily, is nothing new, is no surprise. It is the Standard Operating Procedure of capital in crisis.

Now that we are on the brink of reopening, as libraries want to be the first to “serve their customers”, the question of the lives of library workers and the time “lost” to closure becomes once more the target of the pragmatic, practical thinking of library leadership. The pragmatic calculus is based on once again equating lifetime with working time, but with a third term now becoming more and more insistent: the time of the user. Users clamouring for their own time to pass more quickly or more productively through access to library resources, books, games, newspapers, databases, research material. Ranganathan’s fourth law - save the time of the reader - takes on a tense and eerie complexion as we rush (time) to put library workers (lives) back in jeopardy in order to improve the time of our users, at the same time potentially contributing - in a cycle no less vicious for being obvious - to a second outbreak and the loss of more lives and the waste of more time.

And of course, this depends on users’ evaluation of their own lives and lives of the other members of their community. Abled users who underestimate the risk are prepared to risk the lives of disabled users, immunocompromised users. Should we take our users’ clamouring at their word? Faced with such a choice, libraries often fall back on “give ‘em what they want”, but in times like these such a conception of choice and service is unethical.

Reopening libraries means understanding psychologies of our various constituencies, their over- or underestimation of risk to themselves and to the community, the quarantine time of returned books, it means understanding the choices people are making about their lives. Libraries hate to judge, to decide, to choose. But judgement, decision, and choice is what is called for here. Not the usual abdication of responsibility to the law or to our parent institutions. We have to be able to challenge “give ‘em what they want” if that is the responsible and prudent move.

By moving too fast (saving time) by being practical and pragmatic as always, by falling for the old canard that “the customer is always right”, I worry that we are going to lose more of both lives and time. At the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, there was talk of things slowing down, but slowness is antithetical to the turnover requirements of capital, and as institutions of social and cultural reproduction, libraries must also subscribe to the privileging of speed, the feeling that one is alive simply because one is moving so fast.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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