Class and librarianship

The current crisis of capitalism has led to the renewed interest in Marxism and its core categories of analysis such as class and exploitation. In our own discipline – library and information science – voices and ideas that have long been confined to the critical margins have been given buoyancy as forms of critique have gained traction. Class and Librarianship: Essays at the Intersection of Information, Labor and Capital (Library Juice Press, 2015) is a timely intervention in this debate and offers a fresh look at the interaction of information, labour, capital, class and librarianship.

One of the essays, From Steam Engines to Search Engines: Class Struggle in an Information Economy by Amanda Bird and Braden Cannon, suggests that the information economy has replaced the steam engine as the driver of capitalist enterprise. Information is a commodity and the people involved in its creation, organization, transmission and preservation – including librarians – are commodities themselves. The labor of information workers is a product that contributes to capitalist economies. Public libraries are agents of social control.

The class struggle is located within the hierarchies and organizational culture of public libraries. Library Assistants see Librarians as authority figures and not necessarily as allies; and Librarians align themselves more with Management than their fellow workers. To create a united workforce means leveling hierarchies and breaking down barriers between Library Assistants, Librarians and Management. One way of doing this is to focus more on individual strengths, talents and abilities rather than professional qualifications.

Deprofessionalization is not the problem but the solution to creating a strong, unified workforce. Management are fellow workers because they also have to sell their labor. They may have more control over what they do but they can share this power with their fellow workers, and they can give workers more autonomy by developing flatter, less hierarchical structures. This in turn will create a more equitable and egalitarian organizational culture.

While information work does not exist at the point of production it still directly impacts the efficient management and profit generating capacities of the economy. Library workers are key agents in the information supply chain which they can either enable or disrupt. Librarians do not use this power because professionalism is a divisive ideology which creates tension and conflict between Librarians and their fellow workers. Librarians serve their own profession and its elevated standing instead of the communities in which they work. They do not share the same values as the communities they serve. They have more in common with the oppressors than with the oppressed. This is false consciousness.

Deprofessionalization can create greater class consciousness within the library workforce. Trade unions also have a role to play in this process by bringing workers together to raise awareness of their shared class interests. These shared interests could extend to Management who are first and foremost fellow workers. The artificial division between workers and Management is as arbitrary and damaging as that between professionals and non professionals.

Another of the essays, Poverty and the Public Library: How Canadian Public Libraries are Serving the Economically Challenged by Peggy McEachreon and Sarah Barriage, positions Canada as a world leader in developing Community-Led libraries.  The Community-Led library movement in Canada emerged from the Working Together Project (2004-08) which piloted many of the ideas recommended by Open to All? The Public Library and Social Exclusion (2000). This movement is stand-alone and home-grown and has not required external support, such as that provided to public libraries in the United States by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

The Community-Led library movement in Canada is organic and driven by local community needs, rather than a one-model-fits-all approach.  As a result, Canada has some of the world’s most socially inclusive public libraries, but it still has a long way to go before it can reach the levels of library usage which are achieved in Cuba and Scandinavia. What is now required are intentional strategies and systematic action by public libraries to develop policies, programs, and spaces for the poor that can have a broad transformative effect on poverty and the socially excluded. There are still many barriers to information access for all and public libraries continue to cater predominantly for the middle and upper classes, directly or indirectly ignoring the unique needs of lower-income citizens.

Public libraries frequently have restrictive policies, late fees or replacement costs, and can often be intimidating and unwelcoming to people not acculturated into ‘acceptable’ library behaviours. The organizational systems (e.g. Dewey Decimal) used by public libraries are another barrier for people already struggling to interact with a bureaucratic institution.  ‘Library anxiety’ refers to the discomfort people often feel when interacting with the public library. The people who work in libraries may seem unapproachable because they think and act differently to patrons with low incomes, or because of the unwelcoming attitudes staff may exhibit, consciously or unconsciously.

Public libraries should stop claiming that they can serve everyone and start focusing on those with the greatest needs. I have consistently argued that it is only by concentrating our efforts on the most marginalized populations that libraries can become community led and needs based.

  • Peggy Lunn

    Start at the margins, that is a philosophy we share John