Libraries and the Commodification of Culture

The shift from markets to networks and from ownership to access, the marginalization of physical property and the ascendance of intellectual property, and the increasing commodification of human relationships are slowly leading us out of an era in which the exchange of property is the critical function of the economy into a new world in which the purchase of lived experiences becomes the consummate commodity.

–Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access


Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit. 

–David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism


A society in which every transaction must be mediated by the market, in which everything is privately owned and strictly controlled, will come to resemble a medieval society—a world of balkanized fiefdoms in which every minor grandee demands tribute for the right to cross his land or ford his streams. The flow of commerce and ideas—and the sustainability of innovation and democratic culture—will be serious impeded. Furthermore, such a market-dominated society is not likely to cultivate the sense of trust and shared commitments that any functioning society must have….

    The truth is, we are living in the midst of a massive business-led enclosure movement that hides itself in plain sight.

–David Bollier, Silent Theft

I read John DuPuis’ post Penguin ebooks & The Research Works Act: Publishers gain, communities lose with great interest. I’d already been thinking about his tweet from last week (that I caught on Facebook): “Publishers want to monetize all reading and sharing transactions. Are publishers basically saying that they are opposed to the core values that libraries represent?” The final question is one I’ve been thinking about lately, and I believe the answer is, yes, they are saying that. Publishers are indeed opposed to the core values of libraries. However, it’s more than that. Corporations are opposed to the core values public goods, public space, and and other values that resist commercialization and commodification. Libraries are merely part of an international trend in contemporary capitalism and are just starting to feel the impact of trends that have been building for the past forty years or so.

I don’t have a full blown thesis at the moment, and am using this post to sketch out the broad outline of what might be my next research project (my research agenda seems to be to take whatever I happen to be reading about at the moment and stick “Libraries and…” in front of it). There has been a movement afoot to commodify every aspect of human life, to make every human exchange a market transaction, and to reduce every domain outside the market as much as possible. Call the movement what you will–neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, the monetarization of reading transactions, or the commodification of culture–but the dominant belief is a faith that private property and markets are always good and everything outside those markets is bad, or at the very least that everything outside those markets is inefficient, and inefficiency is in itself always evil. The most important thing is the protection of capital and ensuring its free movement, regardless of any other values that might interfere with that goal: human rights, popular sovereignty, a social safety net, or free access to information by citizens of a (nominally?) democratic republic.

This ideology can play itself out on an international scale, such as the power debtor nations might cede to the World Bank or the IMF, or on a national scale, such as when financial institutions “too big to fail” are bailed out by the government but not, say, homeowners duped into buying mortgages they could really never afford. It ranges from Margaret Thatcher saying there’s no such thing as society to Elsevier paying members of Congress to support the Research Works Act. Privatizing public schools, eliminating public funding for higher education, or defunding libraries are some ways that governments acquiesce to the neoliberal dogma that the private sector always knows best. Private-sector corporations act rationally and merely do their best to ensure that governments institute laws favorable to corporations, even if at the expense of the public good.

I’m not saying anything particularly new. Included below are a few books I’m currently reading that touch on these issues. The “commodification of human culture,” as Jeremy Rifkin calls it, isn’t a new trend; nor is it yet complete. There are still spaces of resistance within commercialized culture, spaces motivated by noncommercial values. I say “noncommercial” deliberately, rather than anticommercial. As David Bollier notes in Silent Theft, “the issue is not market versus commons. The issue is how to set equitable and appropriate boundaries between the two realms—semi-permeable membranes—so that the market and the commons can each retain integrity while invigorating that other. That equilibrium is now out of balance as businesses try to exploit all available resources, including those that everyone owns and uses in common.” Libraries are examples of spaces dominated by noncommercial values, a semi-permeable membrane between the market for books and the democratic need for a knowledge commons. A noncommercial ethic can coexist alongside markets, and all can thrive. But public goods and noncommercial spaces can’t coexist with a market fundamentalism that believes all public goods and noncommercial spaces are evil, at least not if that market fundamentalism controls the laws. The more or less successful drive to extend intellectual property rights into perpetuity and to wither the public domain into nonexistence is a good indication that the ethic motivating libraries isn’t winning many political battles.

In his post, John is right that “private interests are attacking the public good.” They always have been, but at the moment their power is increasing because of legal and technological changes seemingly beyond our control, as well as the successful ideological campaign to persuade people that freedom means the freedom to engage in commercial transactions but not the freedom to read. Can the public good or noncommodified culture be saved? I have no idea. The problem is so much larger than libraries or open access scholarship or ebooks or any of the specific issues we address piecemeal. The best I can hope for is that we think globally and act locally, which requires understanding the larger context behind the specific challenges to the public good while doing what we can to fight against those challenges. This is the briefest of sketches because I’m still trying to understand that larger context.

Further reading:

Bollier, David. 2002. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge.
———. 2005. Brand Name Bullies: The Quest to Own and Control Culture. Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley.
Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Hess, Charlotte. 2007. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice / Ostrom, Elinor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Kallhoff, Angela. 2011. Why Democracy Needs Public Goods. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
Miller, Laura J. 2006. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rifkin, Jeremy. 2000. The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life Is a Paid-for Experience. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Saad-Filho, Alfredo. 2005. Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader / Johnston, Deborah. London ; Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press.

19 thoughts on “Libraries and the Commodification of Culture

  1. Very interesting ideas and I look forward to you fleshing idea out more.

    I feel that technological abilities of corporations have far exceeded our cohesion as a species. There is a documentary Yes man fix the world in which pranksters pretend to be Dow and suggest that if deaths are an inevitable part of business, be sure to maximize the positive elements of the tragedy.

    The codification of the information to the point that it hampers out scientific growth traces out this lack of cohesion. There is no unified goal on our planet of a scientific understanding of our place in the universe. Instead our species has concluded that profiteering supersedes scientific growth and that it is better to suffer in collective ignorance with our gadget fetishes than figure out how to save ourselves.

  2. As someone who works for a New Jersey corporation that’s explicitly and passionately values-driven — one whose business model is setting up a market to expand the public commons — I look forward to your making a more sophisticated argument in this domain than the ones I typically see.

  3. Andromeda, now I might be too scared to proceed! What are some of the bad arguments, so I can avoid them?

  4. The irony of a post on the commodification of culture prompted by a tweet viewed in Facebook is killing me. No doubt, the post itself was brought to your virtual door by Google Reader and viewed on an iPhone or iPad.

    To bring in the last of the Great Satans of culture, an extreme view is here.

  5. And as for a general argument against corporate involvement in culture, I don’t think either Wayne or I are making that argument. If anything, I think we would both be it the camp of wishing that more corporations viewed an open cultural commons as a good thing to contribute to, not as some sort of enemy of commerce. My post is in part of plea for the different stakeholders to work together to build business models that make sense in the Internet age and I see Wayne’s in more or less the same light.

  6. You’re right, John. I’m not making any sort of general argument against corporate involvement in culture. I can only marvel at the ways in which Google (through Blogger and YouTube), WordPress, Twitter, Facebook and dozens of other companies have created free or nearly free methods of cultural distribution and yet still make money. I might even include Amazon’s publishing arm (as per Konrath’s post) in that, since it allows authors and readers to connect more efficiently and cheaply than previous models. I’m not opposed to corporations or capitalism or making money. I’m opposed to the idea that there’s no such thing as the public good or a commons, and in my case I’m focusing on libraries and the flow of information. Professionally, I’m especially concerned with the sustained affordability and preservation of scholarship and the human record. I’m also probably more concerned with perpetual copyright than with whether libraries can get ebooks from a particular publisher, but I do see the two as connected. If all reading required an economic transaction (as in, no public schools or public libraries) there would be significantly less reading, possibly to the point that almost no books would be sold because mass literacy would be so low. That’s important, but not the kind of argument that publishers can make to shareholders interested only in their own short-term good.

  7. As you ponder how to approach this as a research interest another trend you may want to explore is consumerization of innovation. This is having, and has had, a significant impact on how corporations develop new products and services – and I think some of the anti-public good trends you point to may result from this change. But it’s not all bad. Consumerization is just as likely to yield products that are environmentally friendly or that don’t exploit foreign workers. It also refers to a trend where consumers take existing products and hack them (e.g., Microsoft’s Kinect systems), and then the corporations use those ideas to innovate.

    The gist is that corporations, as they innovate, are largely responding to how consumers want to receive good and services. I’ll give you a library example. Consumers (students) show a distinct preference for single search boxes. In turn, the corporations produce products that feature single search boxes that function in much the same way as the search systems that the consumers distinctly prefer. Thus we have discovery systems. These may have eventually been created, but each corporation wanted to be the first to market with this consumer-driven innovation. Many of our institutions have gone to G-mail. While it cuts costs, it’s a clear response to a consumer demand for that particular system. The evidence demonstrates that publishers do not make their decisions based on library core values. (Ok – we knew that) Rather, they innovate based on consumer-driven preferences. So if iTunes is a success because it unbundled music, publishers may want to do the same thing by selling access or ownership to television shows, book chapters, magazine articles, and you name it.

    If there was a way to convince publishers to be more library-friendly in their policy decision making, it could be advanced by demonstrating that consumers would be more likely to respond favorably to products that were good for publishers and libraries – and I think that is partially the goal of ALA President’s Molly Raphael’s recent conversations with some of the publishers. We may not be too enthusiastic about the possibilities for positive change, but engaging in a conversation is a good start.

  8. That’s a great suggestion, Steven. I’ll definitely have to add that to the list of things to look into. It’s also always good to keep in mind where the kind of innovation librarians (well, some librarians) like comes from, and it’s certainly not libraries, which perform traditional and desired services reasonably well, but which never have the incentive or financing to innovate the way a Google or Amazon can. Ultimately, I don’t think excluding libraries will benefit publishers in the long run, because libraries are an essential part of the environment for developing an ability to and enjoyment for reading books in the first place, which I’m now calling the lectosystem.

  9. I realize corporations want good relations with customers and will go to lengths to develop relationships. Where I think both customers (also known as people) and libraries are at a disadvantage is that the relationship itself is a commodity. Corporations are not just responsive to our wants, they create our wants, and when they satisfy them, they gather more information about our wants, which helps them . . . etc. etc. Amazon is a genius at this. The Kindle not only creates and instantly satisfies our wants, it gathers intimate information about exactly what we’re doing so it can do it even better – oh, and resell that information. That’s profitable, too.

    The big six publishers already have evidence that libraries help sell their product. That hasn’t made any difference in their attitude. I think they are simply opposed to a world where books can be owned and shared and are hoping to enclose the commons and put an end to that nonsense. That this move may harm book culture worries them very little because they really aren’t interested in that, they are interested in selling product and in fending off Amazon. (I realize that many if not most workers in the industry feel differently about book culture, but they are not in charge.)

    EBSCO designs their products around what librarians say they want. What librarians say they want is driven by students’ well-trained consumerist approach to research. It may seem a lot more convenient to drive to Wal-Mart and buy everything from one store than to shop on Main Street, but soon you have no choice. When libraries cut back, what gets lost? Not the Wal-Mart databases; they’re too big to fail. We stop subscribing to journals from smaller societies and we stop buying books. We abandon main street because the giants have corralled too much content, and pretty soon they will disintermediate us – we’ll just be an office that pay the bills for our users’ shopping because if we have to choose between having a commons and having convenience, convenience is … well, easier by definition, isn’t it? Though the only reason the commons is hard is that corporations want it to be and work hard to add friction. They add it, we try to reduce it, but it’s still there.

    I don’t think it’s the case that libraries are not innovative; they simply haven’t had nearly as much incentive to invest their resources in the commons and get too caught up in buying stuff and trying to manage the friction that comes with it that they have little time or financial resources to do anything else. We also tend not to think much about the infrastructure or needs and benefits beyond our campuses.

  10. PS: excellent quotes and reading list, by the way. I would also add Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.

  11. Barbara, thanks for the book suggestion. I’ve added it to my working bibliography. Also, I didn’t mean that librarians were never innovative. It’s just that the remarkable changes in information technology and the flow of information over the past few decades haven’t emanated from libraries, however quickly libraries have adapted to them.

    But the bigger problem is the ability and desire of large corporations to enclose the public sphere. David Bollier compares this to the enclosure of common lands in England in the 17-18c, when, “in order to exploit emerging markets and aggrandize their power, the aristocracy prevailed upon Parliament to allow the ruthless seizure of millions of acres of commonly used forests, meadows, and game….enclosure helped lead to the creation of modern industrial markets while inflicting devastating social, environment and human costs on once-stable rural communities.” The same thing is happening with the knowledge or cultural commons. I find it especially appalling in academia, because the driving ethos has always been the freest possible sharing of the scholarly knowledge created at universities. In that case the fault lies in the hands of the professors rather than the librarians. I don’t have a lot of hope of success, but I’m not ready to give up the fight. Oh, and I really don’t want to be disintermediated.

  12. Agreed – but I think librarians haven’t innovated in big ways because we think local and have underestimated our own value. We couldn’t get Worldcat public and social until Amazon demonstrated how much people wanted to engage with books. We assumed catalogs were boring.

    I am excited to see where you go with this, because it’s all connected. One more for your bibliography, perhaps: John Ziman, “Is Science Losing its Objectivity?” Nature 382, 751 – 754 (29 August 1996); doi:10.1038/382751a0 – he argued that “academic science” was being replaced by a corporate treatment of science as intellectual property and that would fundamentally harm science itself.

  13. You’re probably right, Barbara. I accused some publishers of thinking of the short term only, even when their actions in the long term will undermine the very business they’re in. The same is probably true of librarians who make local decisions with more than local consequences. I can’t remember the exact topic(PDA, perhaps?), but I recall a discussion in the comments to one of my posts where a librarian basically said, “I can’t think about that big topic because I have to serve my local constituents before everything else.” The contrast is between self-interest and enlightened self-interest. Yes, we have to consider our local situation first when making decisions, but considering only our local situation can lead to decisions that ultimately hurt us all.

    And thanks for the further article. It looks pretty good. Right now I’m more daunted than excited about where I’m going with this, but I think there’s a case to be made to librarians about the larger issues .

  14. Wayne — Very important topic and I strongly encourage you to pursue it. I have been thinking about this for a while. Let me suggest three books that come to mind after reading your post. I think that they are related and might broaden your thinking without taking you too far away from your thesis.

    1. No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Free Choice by Tom Slee. Slee looks at the basic economic ideas underlying neoliberalism, and exposes some their contradictions. It is a smart and unpretentious introduction to the economics.

    2. Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education by David Kirp. Kirp discusses the commodification of higher education in general. Not much about libraries here, but Kirp’s thesis should be relevant to academic libraries. Also interesting b/c he takes a balanced view and tries to argue that “commodification” may be good for higher ed in some cases.

    3. Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech by Paulina Borsook. I admit that this is an odd choice. I guess that it comes to mind due to a nagging concern that I have about many of the librarians (not you) who have been publicly criticizing SOPA, the research works act, Harper Collins, Amazon, ect. I sense that many of them have been seduced by the “technolibertarianism” that Borsook describes in her book, and technolibertarianism shares a lot in common with the neoliberalism. The technolibertarian opposition to the research works act is not really looking for a political solution that preserves information as a public good. It just wants the government — with all of its silly IP laws and regulations — to get out of the way so that the natural harmony of the marketplace and the Internet can work its magic. So, I guess that I am recommending this book as a way of encouraging you to think about the contrasting political motivations that might lead people criticize the publishers on this issue.

  15. Thanks very much for the recommendations, John. The books are now sitting in my steadily growing to-read pile.

  16. I really enjoyed reading this. It’s something I’ve been thinking of since my first semester at library school in ’98. I posted a paper I wrote on it here on my blog if you’re interested.

  17. Thanks for the suggestion, Robyn. I’ll definitely check it out.

  18. Pingback: Libraries, Neoliberalism, and Oppression | Academic Librarian

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