Libraries, Neoliberalism, and Oppression

I just read Beerbrarian’s post on libraries and neoliberalism, partly responding to this post on locating the library in institutionalized oppression by nina de jesus. I wanted to enter the discussion, but then realized I’ve already pretty much said what I have to say on the subject. I’ve addressed neoliberalism and libraries some before, particularly in a post on Libraries and the Commodification of Culture. I wanted to make that a research project a couple of years ago, but frankly after a lot of reading I found the topic too overwhelming. Nevertheless, the gist of that and other writings provides some view of where I think libraries are located in “institutionalized oppression.”

At the end of Libraries and the Enlightenment, I suggest that libraries are places “where values other than the strictly commercial survive and inspire, places people can go, physically or virtually, and emerge better people, their lives improved and through them perhaps our society improved.” The key is “values other than the strictly commercial,” because I think public and academic libraries are examples of public spaces where commercial values don’t dominate. They are public goods founded upon the values of democratic freedom and critical reason and provide a possible location within society to promote and protect anti-neoliberal values. Librarians in general are committed to open access to information and education. As Barbara Fister just wrote, they are gatekeepers who want to keep the gates open.

de jesus says that she has “seen very few people take a critical and sincere approach to analysing how the library, as institution, is actually oppressive and designed to create and perpetuate inequity.” The reason for that could be that the library, as an institution, isn’t that oppressive or designed to create and perpetuate inequity. That’s a strong and counterintuitive claim, and the burden of proof rests on de jesus. However, there have been two  books arguing just that, both published in the 1970s and both still worth reading (although as you’ll see below I disagree with some of their conclusions). First is Michael Harris’ The Role of the Public Library in American Life, second is Rosemary DuMont’s Reform and Reaction: the Big City Public Library in American Life. Excerpted below are three pages from Libraries and the Enlightenment where I address Harris and Dumont and the possible counterargument to my claims that libraries are institutions philosophically founded upon Enlightenment values of freedom and reason, and are instead instruments of oppression.

From Libraries and the Enlightenment:

The taste elevation theory has also been criticized for its “elitism” and “authoritarianism.” In The Role of the Public Library in American Life,” for example, Michael Harris argues that the entire democratic argument behind the founding of the Boston Public Library is flawed because of its elitist authoritarianism. By the eighteen forties, Boston had developed into a major destination for new immigrants, who in the opinion of the Standing Committee of the Boston Public Library thought “little of moral and intellectual culture.” George Ticknor believed the massive influx of immigrants could be a problem because, in Ticknor’s words, they “at no time, consisted of persons who, in general, were fitted to understand our free institutions or to be intrusted with the political power given by universal suffrage,” and thus the city needed to “assimilate their masses” and accommodate them to democratic institutions, primarily through education. Harris criticizes “Ticknor’s belief in the library’s potential as one means of restraining the ‘dangerous classes’ and inhibiting the chances of unscrupulous politicians who would lead the ignorant astray,” and claims this belief “explains his insistence that the public library be as popular in appeal as possible” (6). The most significant motivation behind the founding of the Boston Public Library and other libraries in the nineteenth century, Harris argues, was a fear that the masses would destabilize society, especially the immigrant masses unused to republican regimes. Any attempt to “Americanize” immigrants was “elitist” and “authoritarian,” a critique developed further in Rosemary DuMont’s Harris-inspired Reform and Reaction. The desire to elevate the reading taste of the people is just a desire to control the lower orders and prevent radical social change.

I mention this revisionist history of the founding of public libraries because it calls into question my argument that such foundings were inspired by the Enlightenment goal to educate and improve the lot of everyone, rich and poor alike. For Harris and like-minded historians, such idealistic rhetoric always masks the ambitions of the powerful to control the powerless. However, one does not have to disagree with Harris’ account of George Ticknor—who did seem to be an authoritarian prig—to recognize that something as complex as the founding of a large public library could be motivated by multiple reasons, some of them perhaps contradictory. Though the 1852 “Report” goes out of its way to argue that while good books should be supplied, no one should be forced to read them, one could still argue that even thinking some books were better than others and that people should read those books is “elitist,” etc. One question is whether such elitism and alleged authoritarianism are anti-democratic, and potentially counter-Enlightenment. The revisionist critique seems to imply that to be democratic in relation to books and learning means to consider all books equally good and useful and to consider all political beliefs and values worth defending, even if they are hostile or foreign to the needs of a democratic republic.

These days we would say this is a question of the value, or perhaps even the meaning, of multiculturalism, and addressing this debate in depth is out of our scope here. Harris and others (rightly in my opinion) would argue that the culture of the immigrants should be respected, but the question is, to what degree and in what areas? Let us assume that Ticknor and other upper-class Bostonians had a very conservative idea of what democracy should be; nevertheless, that does not show that they did not believe in democratic institutions. If we believe in the value of democratic institutions, then we must support those institutions, and what is more we must insist that everyone supports those institutions publicly, regardless of their private beliefs. Groups in democracies might fervently believe in fascism, but a democratic society cannot allow them to act on those beliefs. We can have a reasonable pluralism in society, but only if everyone acknowledges the authority of the public democratic institutions. What democracies cannot allow is a mere “modus vivendi,” as the philosopher John Rawls argues, where groups abide by democratic institutions until they can be overthrown. Carrying this argument back to Ticknor, why would he not believe that immigrants from countries without democracies would need some sort of education regarding democratic institutions? How could anyone possibly believe otherwise? Is there any difference in motivation behind this belief and the practice we have in the United States of giving extensive tests on American democracy to naturalizing immigrants, tests which most natural born Americans themselves cannot pass? While some supposedly democratic criticisms of practical educational institutions are no doubt valid, we must resist the tendency to believe that all educational efforts not derived from the group being educated are inherently undemocratic. Undemocratic groups require an education in democracy.

Harris and DuMont are quite critical of the admittedly stuffy movement in nineteenth century libraries to Americanize immigrants through education, arguing that Ticknor and others merely wanted to suppress dissent and the rising ideologies of socialism and communism. Even if Ticknor and other conservatives were motivated by a fear of, say, communist demagogues convincing the undemocratic masses to revolt, or whatever the fear was, this does not undercut the fact that they did indeed seek to educate people and to provide them with the means to educate themselves throughout their lives. That the founders of the Boston Public Library were not trying to educate revolutionaries does not take away from their accomplishment. We could just as easily interpret their actions as an early stage of progressivism. For example, Jane Addams and the settlement workers in the early twentieth century wanted to “’Americanize’ immigrants into the norms of their new society,” but they definitely improved the lives of urban immigrants (Flanagan 37). Indeed, by the standards of the anti-immigrant movements that gained control of the American government in the nineteen twenties, George Ticknor looks like a raging liberal. Citizens of a democracy must be acculturated into democratic institutions, and criticizing this necessity because the action first arose from the conservative fear of uneducated immigrants ignores this. Even Harris is forced to admit the value public libraries had for everyone, including immigrants. “That the library’s services to the immigrant had definite positive values for those able to take advantage of them cannot be denied,” though he still claimed that librarians had little to do with benefit, arguing that “these positive values were the result of the immigrant’s persistence and not the librarian’s conscious attitude” (14). In his zeal to deny the beneficial accomplishments of anyone remotely conservative, Harris acts as if the libraries which benefitted the immigrants sprung into existence without influential citizens to found them and working librarians to run them. Regardless of whether or not an enlightened and democratic ideal was not realized in practice, it is undeniable that the Trustees of the Boston Public Library wanted to found an educational institution to allow people access to useful knowledge and give them the opportunity to educate themselves for life and citizenship, and that the Boston Public Library became such an institution whatever its flaws. It is also clear from the founding of the Boston Public Library to the founding of libraries throughout the century, that the most important motivating reason was the link between the public library and public education. (pp. 110-14)

6 thoughts on “Libraries, Neoliberalism, and Oppression

  1. Try looking at my Libraries, Classrooms and the Interests of Democracy: Marking the Limits of Neoliberalism (2012), and before that, Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy (2003); and before that the work of Michael Harris and Wayne Wiegand. This stuff has been out there a while

  2. It should be pretty clear that I’ve read Michael Harris, since I quoted four paragraphs in this post where I’m arguing with him. I found him much too overwrought and biased. He built his case more like a trial lawyer than a scholar, piling on convenient facts and giving them the worst possible interpretation until it just became tedious in places. I’ve also read a bit of your work as well.

    You and others seem to be under the misconception that I believe libraries are never oppressive or implicated in neoliberalism. We might possibly agree on a lot, but we focus on different things. If you or whomever want to focus on how oppressive or neoliberal libraries are, fine. I can agree with you. I choose to focus on the ways in which libraries are liberatory and promote or allow the noncommercial values of freedom, equality, democracy, and reason. If you believe libraries can never do this, then we can agree to disagree. Otherwise, we’re just not talking about the same thing.

  3. Smug much? I realize the ARLs are, gasp!, discovering that there is neoliberalism right here in River City, but really… Harris wrote well beyond 1975, and his 1986 State, Class, and Cultural Reproduction was a sophisticated use of theory — he managed to move well beyond his stuff from the early and mid-1970s. You might want to actually know who you’re dissing here. He’s a distinguished scholar who made a significant contribution to establishing a critical LIS literature in the first place. And yes, my stuff (you might want to try actual books here) is quite critical — simply because the emancipatory potential of libraries (and their role in democracy) is being steadily undermined, eroded, and as I have said in the title of one of my books, dismantled. John

    • John, you seem to be in a discussion in which you’re the only participant. I have no interest in your work or in Harris’s work other than the particular one I mentioned because that book specifically addressed the Boston Public Library founding that I was writing about. You seem to think we’re in some sort of debate and that if you leave enough angry comments I’ll somehow give in. And as for smugness, physician, heal thyself.

    • Whatever, John. Your arrogance speaks for itself. I’m puzzled as to why you think your irrelevant, hostile, and condescending comments would elicit anything from me other than contempt or indifference. It’s not that I’m uninterested in what others have to say. It’s that because of your incivility, I’m uninterested in what you have to say.

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