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When I was young, I attended a meeting of the Winnipeg IWW, in the course of which a young bike courier asked about union certification for his “cooperative”. An older man took issue with the young man’s characterization of the organization as a cooperative, demanding to know who owned the equipment, whose name was on the lease - “who signs the paychecks?”. The lesson here was to dig below the comforting phrases and descriptors to the economic (and therefore power) relations that actually pertained.

As part of the Social Studies and Humanities Congress being held in Calgary, my colleague Sean Luyk tweeted out the CAPAL “Statement on Collegial Governance” dated April 2015 (and approved at the CAPAL AGM on June 1). I’m somewhat interested in the question of collegial governance because it’s something we talk a lot about but rarely, if ever, see in action. Sean and Eva Revitt’s talk at University of Alberta earlier this year on their work studying library councils was very interesting, especially because it underscored the fact that whatever committees librarians belong to within U of A, we certainly have nothing approaching collegial governance (though we do have a library council). So I glanced briefly at the CAPAL statement, after which the following exchange took place:

Now, “aspirational” to me indicates that it describes a state of affairs to be worked toward (to aspire to), but if this is the case, surely an aspirational document must take care to accurately describe the current state of affairs. If it does not - if, as Sean further states, the audience of the document is librarians in bargaining positions and senior administration - then it may actually harm the librarians’ bargaining position to mischaracterize the situation, playing into the hands of senior administration who, let’s face it, are unlikely to read such a document, let alone take it seriously.

CAPAL/ACBAP endorses professional academic librarians as equal participants in the governance structures of academic institutions and recognizes the core role of academic librarians in the teaching and the advancement of research and knowledge in the mission of educational institutions.

This opening statement does not define who the participants are that we would like librarians to be equal to. Faculty? That’s not a homogeneous group within an institution. Administration? The University President? The vice-presidents and associate vice-presidents? Once we begin to ask “equal to whom”, we are forced to recognize that “equality” is not a term that can be used to describe the hierarchy of a university. And once “equality” is thrown in doubt, then “endorsing” a view of librarians as “equal participants” becomes not only too vague to mean anything, it in fact covers up the unequal, hierarchical structure of the organization. Hiding the fact of an unequal employer – worker relationship behind an illusion of equality is dangerous at the best of times, but especially so in a period of collective bargaining. One of the ways in which capitalism succeeds in continuing to exploit workers is by mystifying its own economic relationships. In the same way that the bike courier “cooperative” hid a reality of employment, characterizing a university as an egalitarian, democratic organization obscures the reality of economic domination at play within all the constituent relationships. To paraphrase the older worker at that IWW meeting, if librarians should participate at all levels of the organization does this mean we can write the checks? Obviously not.

Frequently a minority within their academic communities, it is often difficult for academic librarians to achieve equal representation within a democratic process.

Again, which “democratic process” is being described here? I’ve seen no indication at any of the universities I’ve worked at that anything that could remotely be described as “democracy” holds for the institution. The members of the board of governors are political appointees, and the search criteria, remuneration, and decision-making powers of the president and VPs fly in the face of anything that might even be called bourgeois democracy (which isn’t, in the end, democracy at all). Universities are not democratic institutions. All of the committees and councils that faculty (and librarians) belong to serves only to hide that fact and to give academics a semblance of agency within the larger organization. To insist that universities and libraries are somehow democratic is dangerously naïve.

Centralized and unilateral decision-making risks alienation and is counterproductive to the advancement of an organization’s mission.

Again, this makes it sound as if such a model of decision making is an aberration, something that, once it is pointed out, everyone will agree to remedy. It ignores the fact that centralized and unilateral decision-making is the norm in universities and in academic libraries. To pretend otherwise, especially to librarians in a bargaining position, is to play into the hands of the employer’s bargaining team. Revitt and Luyk state the case more strongly when they note “evidence of a general disenfranchisement of librarians from significant decisions affecting library operations, resources, services, and the appointment and evaluation of senior library administrative positions”.This has certainly been borne out in my experience.

Academic libraries, like the institutions that house them, are public spheres that play a critical role in safeguarding our democratic freedoms; and as such, they must be governed based on values rooted in the public good and professional ethics and principles.

This, I’m afraid, is an opinion stated as a fact, with nothing to support it. As always the truth is more complicated than that. Leaving aside the question of what “democratic freedoms” we in fact possess, it can also be argued that academic libraries play a role in the management of the economy (through controlling supply and demand of workers at different levels of accreditation) as well as the reproduction of ideology and the cultural hegemony of the ruling class. Now, the library is not just these things, but it is also those things, no matter what else it is. To give a one-sided description of anything, never mind academic libraries, is an abdication of critical thinking, something that libraries are supposed to promote. It does no-one any good to repeat over and over again a naïve and simplistic view, an ahistorical, fairy-tale view of the importance of libraries. By repeating phrases such as these to those who don’t believe a word of it (employers, administrators, etc), we play into their hands. As long as they pay lip-service to these views we can be led into anything.

What follows after this is a description of what a library council should look like. This, I suppose, is the aspirational part of the document, and I agree that such proposals would – if they could be effected – be helpful and beneficial to library workers in all sorts of ways. But to base such proposals on a vague and one-sided characterization of the university and the library as egalitarian, democratic upholders of the public good means, on the one hand, the proposals will never be enacted (because nothing challenges the administrations rosy characterization of the mission and structure of the university and library) and on the other hand that librarians will lose out on an opportunity to cast a critical eye on the organizations that we are extremely privileged to work in.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have criticized the bourgeois university and provided a blue-sky notion of an alternative model of organization, one that doesn’t require us to attempt to win any recognition from our employers by repeating platitudes about democracy and egalitarianism.

Now, I recognize the importance of propaganda, but for propaganda to be effective it has to be just a little more extreme that what everyone can agree with. It is unclear whether the CAPAL statement is intended to be propaganda or whether it is actually meant to have be used as a tool in collective bargaining, or even whether it is simply meant to be educational. The problem with this statement is not just that it is vague, not just that it argues a single rosy opinion, the problem is that it is safe, and therefore, from an administrator’s point of view, can be safely ignored.

In closing, I have to admit that the argument can be made that university and library administrators will ignore what I write too. The difference is that I know that nothing I say can change the fundamental nature of my relationship to the university and library as a worker. All I can do is to write for other library workers, and the greatest courtesy I can do, in that case, is to try to speak as plainly as possible and to expose, as consistently as I can, the reality of “who signs the paychecks”.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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