In Context

Reflections on a symposium about libraries and capitalism.

February 5, 2018

I was excited to be part of a symposium in New York, Libraries in the Context of Capitalism, put on by the Metropolitan New York Library Council in their new digs on 11th avenue. It’s a nifty space where people can do things – have a meeting or workshop, use equipment to transfer older format media (VHS tapes, audio cassettes, etc.) to digital, or record a podcast. The Council also coordinates a number of programs among libraries and archives in the area. This symposium, the first of a series, brought folks from across the GLAM spectrum (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) to discuss the place of libraries and cultural institutions in our capitalist system. There are traces of the event in this Tweet stream.

In addition to my talk – which basically looked at how libraries evolved their values and how those values applied to our wider information systems could do some good – there were panels and presentations that offered lots to think about. Miriam Musco shared her research on where cultural institutions are located in cities – surprise, surprise, not evenly distributed and accessible, though public libraries are relatively intentional about spreading branches out in neighborhoods. Dave Ghamandi spoke on how the most profitable companies involved in scholarly publishing are swooping in to make open access profitable for them and why we need librarian-supported cooperative solutions as an alternative future. A fast-talking and well-timed panel (Nora Almeida, Romel Espinel, Eamon Tewell, and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe) discussed how our information literacy programs so often use the language of capitalism or are structured to satisfy basic task-oriented learning, though students actually express almost as interest in learning things as in getting a job as they start their college career. Jonathan Cope unearthed a 1979 exhortation from John Kenneth Galbraith about what libraries should be doing to preserve public institutions in the wake of the “great conservative revolt” against paying taxes. Galbraith thought librarians should project dangerousness more effectively, dismayed at how passively public servants accepted critiques of public service. We also heard from librarians working in a highly diverse community college, a for-profit college that didn’t hide its for-profit motives, and a gallery that needed provenance research done but not for public consumption.

The hidden and undervalued nature of library and archives labor was also a theme. Too many major digitization projects are grant-funded and at risk of vanishing when the grant runs out. Too many archives internships are unpaid – and often are an illegal way of avoiding paying for work without providing educational dividends. This supposedly helps graduates get experience needed for employment but is not something many people can afford to do – which means only the well-heeled can join the profession. Roxane Shirazi looked at the “reproductive labor” of librarianship asked to ensure student success at the same time that faculty labor is being casualized. Emily Drabinkski reminded us that we’re all at risk and need to be prepared for the hard work of organizing – something librarians are actually pretty good at. She shared lessons from the Long Island University Labor Day lockout – a moment when a university administration decided to fire everyone rather then sit down at the negotiation table. Make lists, she recommended. Build relationships. Keep doing it even when the immediate crisis is over because there will be another one and we need to be ready.

Finally, Dan Greene, a postdoc at the Social Media Collective and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center, gave us a sneak peek at some of the research he will be publishing in a forthcoming book from MIT Press. He is particularly interested in the ways technology and entrepreneurship are posed as a solution to poverty’s problems, redirecting the work of schools and libraries to fixing a divide perceived as digital rather than a wealth gap. He did ethnographic research at the DC public library, observing how the library developed a high-tech space for entrepreneurs while also being overwhelmed with the need to deal with homeless folks who had nowhere else to go but “the last truly public space in America.” Though he didn’t blame librarians (who were seriously overwhelmed by the homelessness crisis) the shift to supporting entrepreneurship displaced homeless patrons who found new ways to adapt the spaces available. (Being poor is hard work and requires great adaptability - it's entrepreneurial itself.) Though librarians tended to use “you wouldn’t do that in a workplace” to scold people doing unsanctioned things, the uses of public spaces were negotiated with users, homeless and otherwise. That’s one of the neat things about public spaces – the few that are left.

My big takeaway from this gathering: we can do a lot if we think about the systems at work, if we look beyond ideals and employ our practical skills in making change, if we find allies for social justice work. We must stop thinking about libraries and the technological developments we constantly adapt to as being somehow inevitable. We can change the terms of engagement, though it won’t be easy. I’m grateful to all the folks at this symposium for giving me so much to think about. Now I need to get better at making lists and building relationships. 


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