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I’ve written about library values on this blog many times before. Basically, I’ve questioned whether our espoused values are anything but rhetorical public-relations tools, whether they enjoin actual behaviours on the part of library workers (this holds true for “professional ethics” in an unregulated profession as well), and how they connect up with a social “value” of libraries. There’s also the question of a hierarchy of values. Professional leaders tend to deny the presence of such a hierarchy, but I and other critics of absolutist intellectual freedom have pointed out that when push comes to shove intellectual freedom tends to trump (can we ever use this word again?) other espoused values like community engagement and partnership. The Vancouver Public Library TERF-platforming is a case in point, as the values of community-led planning and community partnerships were jettisoned in defense of an absolutist adherence to IF. VPL’s relationship with a number of its communities suffered as a consequence.

I have also written about the proceduralism of liberal ethical and political thought. Liberalism has always been the ideology of bourgeois capitalism, and modern liberalism takes its cues from industrialization, assembly-line work, Fordism/Taylorism, etc. As a result, there is a focus on following procedures as the best way to achieve a desired outcome. Ronald Dworkin made this explicit when he enunciated two competing theories of equality. One such theory argues that, because individuals can and do differ on their conceptions of “the good”, the role of the liberal state and its civil society institutions (like libraries) is to ensure the proper function of procedures (the law, regulations, etc) to ensure every individual’s ability to pursue their own idea of the good life. This is the equality of rights enshrined in John Rawls’ first principle of justice.

On the other hand, a community, society, or state could explicitly commit itself to a conception of the good life and implement policies that aim to further our achievement of that good life. We can see this in the case of Quebec, where the survivance of Quebecois francophonie is identified as a substantive good warranting the infringement of individual rights. One thing that such a position requires is that we (community, society, or state) be able to articulate our vision of these substantive goods. This view is that of Rawls’ second principle of justice.

I think one way library values are ambiguous is that they can be read as articulations of substantive goods - and I suspect many library workers and members of the public do read them this way - but they can also be read procedurally, and this is the way they are often understood by library leadership, LIS professors, professional organizations, etc.

Take, for example, intellectual freedom. This could be read as a substantive good: something like Kant’s definition of Enlightenment as the freeing of the individual mind from self-incurred ignorance. This would then be a goal we would implement policies to further, but it would require us to articulate what exactly “freedom” consists in, what intellectual activity counts as free, etc. This perspective would see intellectual freedom as an outcome libraries are bound to work towards. (Full disclosure: given the existence of culture and education, I don’t think there is any such thing as intellectual freedom).

But we know from the defenses of absolutist IF that it is more often conceived procedurally: the library’s policies are meant to be neutral, to have no opinion as to what freedom is or what intellectual activity might or might not be free. Rather, IF is something that belongs originally to every individual, as a right, and the library’s role is to ensure that no policies get in the way or infringe this right. In this sense, IF is seen not as an outcome but as an origin. Individuals decide for themselves what intellectual freedom is, and that decision is in itself intellectually free. The right and ability to make that decision must be protected by library procedures.

(NOTE: I don’t think these two positions are as well-defined in practice as I have laid them out here. The profession’s thinking about values and goods is not particularly clear or coherent).

However, there is a good associated with Intellectual Freedom, the good of the well-informed citizen and their participation in democracy. But this again is described procedurally: the well-informed citizen participates in democracy solely through the electoral process. Intellectual freedom guarantees the ability to participate in this process, but takes no position on the outcome. The election of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro are the inevitable result of procedural views of justice faced with grifters who do have their own substantive views of the good (self-aggrandizement, ego-boosting, power).

What happens in libraries is that the procedure takes the place of any substantive vision of a good outcome. Library leaders can think that there is no hierarchy of values because procedurally they are able to rent library space to TERF speakers and perform community consulations and do the project work necessary for community partnerships. A classic example of this was the scandalous TPL board meeting of October 2019 which fulfilled the procedural requirements of hearing from the community, etc, but made no difference to the decision actually made. The procedures of IF and community engagement, in this view, are not in conflict.

But what I want to argue here is that procedural liberalism (or liberal proceduralism) is not agnostic when it comes to a conception of the good. There is a good - or rather, a set of goods - that underpins proceduralism. But these “goods” are unmarked, do not have to be articulated, because they are already the default “goods” of racial, heteropatriarchal capitalism: these are the “goods” of private property, exploitation, racism, sexism, transmisia, ableism, etc. Liberal proceduralism simply allows these unacknowledged, unarticulated “goods” to take precedence over any other under the guise of procedural neutrality.

Two recent Canadian political examples demonstrate this in spades. First, the unwillingness for Canadian provincial governments to shut down the economy to respond to the pandemic (and I know this is far from a problem specific to Canada). This, they argue, violates the equal right of every individual to choose for themselves, the right to a livelihood, the right to follow individual desires, etc, etc. The state is there to ensure the equal application of universal rights, not to actually do anything to ensure the achievement of a good, even if that good is the lives of millions of people. But the unacknowledged good is for profit over the lives of workers, the disabled, the elderly, anyone “unproductive”. It is also the good of “fiscal responsibility”, the unwillingness to spend money to achieve any kind of social good as a result. Fiscal responsibility is a binding, unquestionable procedure. (We can see here how in practice proceduralism and the inarticulate good of bourgeois capitalism are fundamentally intertwined).

The other recent example is over the RCMP intervention (or lack of intervention) in various protests. The procedural neutrality of the RCMP when settler fishers were attacking Indigenous fishing activity in Nova Scotia was undermined by their violent intervention in Indigenous protests over the course of 2020. RCMP proceduralism applies to white settlers - the universal application of equal rights is colourblind! - but is cast aside when an unacknowledged settler-colonial good (racist state violence against Indigenous people) can be indulged in.

Tl;dr the procedural view of equality expressed by Dworkin and derived from Rawls is a lie. It simply mystifies and obscures an unarticulated good that is hegemonic, unmarked, and commonsense in racial capitalism. And it provides a means for these unarticulated “goods” - prejudice against trans people, for example - to be pursued under the guise of neutrality and a disavowal of outcomes. The procedural adherence to library values is, in fact, an abdication of those values.

What we as a profession need is an open, frank, articulation of substantive goods of the profession. This would not be an easy discussion, as the procedural, liberal view is so deeply entrenched. nd because our professional goods are defended by conflict aversion, white tears, white rage, vocational awe, etc. But I think this question of the substantive good is what has underpinned much of critical, radical, or progressive librarianship from the origins of Social Responsibility at the end of the 1960s. Often it seems as if we are no further along since then; but equally, there seems little alternative but to keep fighting for concrete, substantive visions of a just society.

One major problem with the divide between critical librarianship, “angry” librarians, social justice discourse, etc, and the dominant, hegemonic structures of library leadership is that library leaders (in libraries, professional associations, and library schools) are never called upon to defend their views or articulate their notions of the good. Critical librarians do, because our goods are never unmarked, never commensense, always have to be articulated, justified, and defended. This too contributes to the exhaustion of critique.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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