Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression

Editor’s note: On July 16th, 2014 we published Open Source Outline: Locating the Library within Institutional Oppression, where we discussed nina de jesus’s Outline for a Paper I Probably Won’t Write and called for authors to use her open source outline as the basis for an article of their own. We are pleased that nina herself and Joshua Beatty have both taken up the challenge. Below is nina de jesus’s article based on that outline. In a first for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, we are also simultaneously publishing Joshua Beatty’s article based on the same outline.

Figure A: Oppressive Institution

Figure A: Oppressive Institution (source)

In Brief: An exploration into the relationship between libraries and institutional oppression. It begins with with an examination at how the enlightenment provides the ideological foundation and framework for public libraries and the historical processes that created the library as institution. It then examines this institution using the three logics of white supremacy: slavery, Indigenous genocide, and Orientalism.


Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression

1. Introduction ((A note about the research/citation methodology of this article: I’ve decided to make a principled stance about only citing open access resources. The exception within the paper is monographs, which haven’t been considered by the OA movement in the same way. But as far as articles and other scholarly resources are concerned, if I wasn’t able to find a non-paywalled copy, I haven’t cited or used it within this paper. There are obvious and unfortunate limitations when strictly adhering to such a principle, since much relevant research remains locked up behind publisher paywalls.))

Libraries are, in the hearts and minds of many people, a cherished and much beloved institution. Beyond nurturing a love of reading, libraries also embody a certain set of values. Popular author Neil Gaiman recently summarized a commonly held view of libraries:

Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information. ((Gaiman, Neil. “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.” The Guardian, October 15, 2013, sec. Books. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming.))

With libraries holding such a seemingly unassailable position within our cultural imagination, how do we begin to understand their place within institutional oppression?

Just as libraries represent notions of freedom, education, and a love of reading, we also exist within a society and culture of great disparity and oppression. In one very simplistic sense, the existence of libraries themselves attest to this reality, since freely available resources wouldn’t be necessary if it weren’t the case that not everyone has equal access to these resources. Libraries themselves exist to address certain disparities within our society.

This paper is an initial exploration of the ways that libraries, in attempting to address inequity, actually entrench oppression. However, this isn’t about the failures of libraries, rather it is about the way that certain values structure libraries such that they come to embody institutional oppression, rather than resist it.

I discuss both how the enlightenment created the ideological underpinnings of the library as public institution as well as the historical processes that created the library as we know it today. Next, I analyze the contemporary political location of libraries within our culture. Lastly, I explore the implications of the library as institutionalized enlightenment ideology using the three logics of white supremacy as proposed by Andrea Smith ((Smith, Andrea. “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy – Centre for World Dialogue.” Global Dialogue 12, no. 2 (2010).)) as a way to demonstrate that libraries cannot be distinguished either from their historical roots nor from their contemporary context within a white supremacist settler state.

2. Whence libraries?

2.1 The Enlightenment ((Bivens-Tatum is careful to note his bias towards the enlightenment on page 4 of his book when he writes “I will be discussing the principles of the Enlightenment in a positive way.” In the same spirit, I’ll state outright that I think the enlightenment is and was evil because it is the ideology of colonialism. I don’t use the word ‘evil’ lightly, but I’m hard pressed to think of any other word to describe a set of philosophical and political ideas that directly led to the deaths of millions of people and the subjugation of pretty much the entire world under white colonial powers.)) as Ideology

In Libraries and the Enlightenment Wayne Bivens-Tatum makes a compelling case for “the scientific and political principles of the Enlightenment provid[ing] the philosophical foundation for American academic and public libraries.” ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 185.)) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes the enlightenment as “the period in the history of western thought and culture, stretching roughly from the mid-decades of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century, characterized by dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics.” ((Bristow, William. “Enlightenment.” Edited by Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/enlightenment/.)) For the sake of this discussion, I am largely considering the social and political aspects of enlightenment thought.

I focus on the enlightenment and these parts of it because:

The enduring legacy of the Enlightenment lives on in politics as much as in science, especially in the United States of America, which in some ways is the country best embodying Enlightenment principles. ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 12.))

Bivens-Tatum further identifies the key themes of enlightenment ((While it is commonplace to capitalize or treat the ‘Enlightenment’ as a proper noun, my practice of not capitalizing the term is a small act of resistance to the mythology surrounding most discourse about the enlightenment.)) political/social/ethical thought as “individual liberty, equal rights, religious toleration, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to education and political participation in a democracy.” ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 23.)) In addressing the seeming contradiction between Enlightenment ideologies and the slave-holding reality of many of its proponents (especially in the US), Bivens-Tatum claims that “their historical blindness to their own contradictions hardly negates the universal appeal of enlightened political thought.” ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 23.))

However, Bivens-Tatum not only has no argument or evidence to support this claim but he also ignores the historical reality that, speaking only of the US, Indigenous (and other) peoples have been resisting the settler values of enlightenment from the very beginning of its history. As already noted, he writes that the US “is the country best embodying Enlightenment principles in theory if not always in practice” and traces this to the founding document of the US state, the “Declaration of Independence.” ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 12.))

It is also the case that 1776 “initiated a land grab that drew to a close only after the United States had extended its border to the Pacific Ocean and nearly eliminated the Native American land base” with the invasion of the Cherokee just a few months after American independence. ((Saunt, Claudio. “1776: Not Just the Revolution – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com, July 6, 2014. https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/07/05/not-just-revolution/7NWJFee79vi7mxxLe2zMvI/story.html.)) Why was this violent genocide needed by a state founded on ideas with universal appeal? Why are Indigenous peoples in the US _still_ resisting this state grounded on ideas with universal appeal? One would think that hundreds of years later, with the values and politics of the enlightenment firmly entrenched, they might have come to understand the appeal of enlightenment values. ((The articles/posts on http://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com provide a great example of contemporary Indigenous resistance to setter colonial states like the US. This is an ongoing struggle.))

Bivens-Tatum’s hand-waving about how the historical evils committed by the early ideological state as a failure to live up to stated principles doesn’t explain why resistance continues today, since it is fairly easy to argue that the US today does a much better job of living up to enlightenment ideals than it did in the past. Putting his claim in proper historical and political context helps us understand the full hegemonic force of the claim: enlightened political thought does not have universal appeal.

The US, the nation best embodying enlightenment ideals, is and was grounded on the (ongoing) genocide of Indigenous peoples. Where Bivens-Tatum and I largely diverge is that he characterizes criticism of the enlightenment via historical context as being derived by an apparent contradiction between ideal and reality. However, the source of my criticism is that there is no contradiction between the ideals of the enlightenment and the harsh reality of the ongoing Indigenous genocides, rather the two are inextricably linked within settler states.

A key theme of this paper is that libraries do, in fact, embody enlightenment values, but/and that enlightenment values are themselves steeped in and reinforce white supremacist settler state ideologies. To the extent that libraries do embody enlightenment values, they likewise contribute to ongoing colonization and are thus reasonably seen as sites of violence and oppression.

2.2 The Historical Genesis of Libraries

In discussing the purpose of public libraries, Bivens-Tatum notes that:

Public libraries began as instruments of enlightenment, hoping to spread knowledge and culture broadly to the people, who as free citizens of a democratic republic required access to that knowledge and culture to live fuller lives and to become better citizens. ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 133.))

It becomes clear that the primary purpose of libraries wasn’t education (as he erroneously concludes from a claim like this) ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 133.)) but was political. Education within this ideological statement is only a means to an end: creating better citizens. In this instance ‘better’ equals ‘better educated.’ Almost nothing in this statement about the purpose of libraries is value-neutral and apolitical. And it would be difficult to unpack everything that is oppressive about this motivation to create libraries.

In a context like this, many of the current real-world examples about how libraries are ‘failing’ marginalized people become clearly not a ‘failure’ but intentional. Public libraries in America and Canada were not designed for everyone; they are, as Bivens-Tatum says, intended for citizens. And their purpose is to create better citizens. This is not a politically neutral purpose.

And, in anticipation of his arguments against ‘revisionist histories’ about the founding of public libraries, ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 111.)) I note that I am, in fact, following his account of the historical motivations and ideology surrounding the formation of libraries. I do honestly think that they were motivated by enlightenment ideals. Where we significantly depart is in statements like this, “we can have a reasonable pluralism in society, but only if everyone acknowledges the authority of the public democratic institutions.” ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 112.)) ((So that my position is very clear: I don’t acknowledge the authority of public democratic institutions. This is exactly  why I’m writing a paper locating the library in institutional oppression. I’m not attempting to quibble about what is or isn’t the enlightenment or what did or did not motivate the creation of public libraries. Part of my argument rests on the understanding that libraries, as an institution, are oppressive because of their relationship to a white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal settler state. And because of the exact reasons he describes: libraries are necessary for creating better citizens of a democratic state. This is one of the major reasons why, as they currently exist in Canada and the US, libraries are a tool of oppression, rather than of liberation.))

If we view libraries as embodying a particular political ideology (that of enlightenment and its support for democracy) and if we understand that libraries were created to make citizens better, then the role that libraries play, as an institution, in perpetuating settler states becomes clear. As noted in the previous paragraph, libraries have a limit to the (types of) knowledge they provide access to — they cannot significantly or effectively challenge the authority of democratic institutions. Thus, libraries are implicated within institutional oppression in two ways: by having their genesis within the enlightenment ideology and by existing as a tool to perpetuate the state.

2.3 Contemporary Libraries and Liberalism

In my search for resources for this paper, the connection between liberal philosophy and the enlightenment was simply taken as fact rather than something that needed to be established. As such, I’m going to take this as a given: liberalism is the modern day embodiment of enlightenment values.

It does need to be noted, though, that liberalism as political philosophy/ideology is not really at all connected to political parties as they currently exist in Canada or the US. The type of liberal political ideology that was born out of the enlightenment fundamentally structures most contemporary political parties and organizations. This ideology broadly encapsulates the values of having a democratic state, freedom and inherent rights, etc. While current political parties debate about what counts as ‘freedom’ and how, exactly, the democratic state should be run, most of the larger, influential parties agree on these basic tenets. ((In Canada, for example, while the Conservative party and the Liberal party place a different emphasis on what they consider ‘freedom’ and have divergent views on economics, neither has any interest in pushing for a non-democratic Canada.))

ALA’s Code of Ethics asserts that:

We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations. ((“Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.” Accessed August 3, 2014. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics.))

It should be fairly easy to see the parallels of this statement to what Bivens-Tatum notes was the original motivation for the creation of public libraries, at least as far as the ‘political system grounded in an informed citizenry’ is concerned.

As the Annoyed Librarian also notes:

Outside of a commitment to liberal democracy in general — which, by the way, is the only regime that supports the intellectual freedom of writers, artists, historians, philosophers, etc. — liberal institutions should take no substantive political position. A liberal library association would support intellectual freedom, access to information, and liberal democratic political institutions, but wouldn’t go on to make political statements irrelevant to libraries. ((Annoyed Librarian. “Annoyed Librarian: Libraries as Liberal Institutions.” Accessed August 3, 2014. http://annoyedlibrarian.blogspot.ca/2006/12/libraries-as-liberal-institutions.html.))

While the Annoyed Librarian does think that ALA (or at least parts of it) are failing this liberal standard, it doesn’t make a difference to the reality that, failing or not, liberalism (and thus enlightenment) is the fundamental political philosophy informing how (at the very least) libraries and librarians think of themselves.

Last, as I began exploring in the previous section, we can see that, yes, libraries are political institutions and, from this section, they are politically liberal institutions (in the classical understanding of liberalism). This also means that regardless of what the Annoyed Librarian and ALA wish, the proposition that libraries (and librarians) be politically neutral is a self-defeating one. Claiming that libraries ought to be liberal institutions that take ‘no substantive political position’ is a political position in and of itself. And it is not a neutral one (if such a thing is even possible).

3 Libraries, democracy, and the logics of white supremacy

In locating the library in institutional oppression I’ll be focusing on only one line of criticism — white supremacy and decolonization — because of how focused my earlier sections are on the role that public libraries play (or ought to play) in maintaining a democratic (settler) state. I’m also largely depending on Andrea Smith’s understanding of how white supremacy is constituted:

We may wish to rearticulate our understanding of white supremacy by not assuming that it is enacted in a single fashion; rather, white supremacy is constituted by separate and distinct, but still interrelated, logics. I would argue that the three primary logics of white supremacy in the US context include: (1) slaveability/anti-black racism, which anchors capitalism; (2) genocide, which anchors colonialism; and (3) orientalism, which anchors war. ((Smith, Andrea. “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy – Centre for World Dialogue.” Global Dialogue 12, no. 2 (2010). http://www.worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=488.))

Her analytic framework provides a three lens way to view how the library, as institution, embodies and enforces one type of oppression, white supremacy.

Namely, that libraries, being liberal institutions, are not ‘neutral’ in the ways that many of the sources cited in this paper either want them to be or believe they are. Rather, the explicit and expressed function of libraries, from their inception in the US and Canadian political structures to their existence today, is to create an informed citizenry for the sake of democracy. This allows us to finally locate the library in institutional oppression.

3.1 The Logic of Slavery

Andrea Smith writes:

One pillar of white supremacy is the logic of slavery. This logic renders black people as inherently enslaveable—as nothing more than property…This logic is the anchor of capitalism. That is, the capitalist system ultimately commodifies all workers: one’s own person becomes a commodity that one must sell in the labour market while the profits of one’s work are taken by somebody else. To keep this capitalist system in place—which ultimately commodifies most people—the logic of slavery applies a racial hierarchy to this system. ((Smith, Andrea. “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy – Centre for World Dialogue.” Global Dialogue 12, no. 2 (2010). http://www.worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=488.))

Note one of the key claims in Smith’s discussion of the logic of slavery, that it ‘anchors capitalism’. Another way of understanding this is that the enslavability of Black people is a necessary and foundational part of capitalism, such that slavery is not the result of capitalism, but rather that capitalism itself is structured around this logic:

[T]he market did more than surround and detain black bodies — it also possessed them with logics of fungibility and accumulation. Under the logic of the Atlantic slave trade, the market’s arithmetic of accumulation was sutured to the flesh, inhabiting the bodies and lives it stripped down to the sum of their biological parts for sale within the freedom of the market. For the slave, economic rationality possessed every moment of life’s terror and death’s release. Liberal distinctions between the public and private, and the economic, political, and social were fabrications for the slave, illusions that depended on their erasure from the realm of the human. This erasure made possible the alchemy of the market so that with its social, economic, and discursive racial mechanisms, the market could transform a human being into an object and test the limits of that object’s biological life. The fungibility of blackness meant that slaves were money, were animals, were gold, were cotton, were rum, and on and on. ((vitoria. “The Fungibility of Blackness.” Acceptable Society. Accessed September 5, 2014. http://acceptablesociety.blogspot.ca/2012/04/fungibility-of-blackness.html.))

This fungibility of Blackness also, for Black people, makes notions of intellectual property a fabrication when it comes to Black creative and intellectual work. A reality evidenced by the history of modern/contemporary music whereby every major movement in music over the past 100+ years has happened via a process of the exploitation of Black creative labour with little benefit to their creators. ((For a recent example, do an internet search on “Miley Cyrus twerking cultural appropriation.” See Bowen, Sesali. Let’s Get Ratchet! Check Your Privilege At The Door.” Racialicious – the Intersection of Race and Pop Culture.  Accessed September 15, 2014. http://www.racialicious.com/2013/04/09/lets-get-ratchet-check-your-privilege-at-the-door/.))

However, because the logic of slavery structures the process of commodification within capitalism we also see that “the overall trend in intellectual property protection is broadly correlated with the rise of capitalism. In fact, some institutional features associated with capitalism had to exist prior to the full development of intellectual property rights.” ((Klumpp, Tilman, and Paul H. Rubin. “Property Rights and Capitalism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Capitalism, edited by Dennis C. Mueller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 11. Preprint here: http://www.ualberta.ca/~klumpp/docs/PropertyRightsFinal.pdf)) While it is possible for intellectual property rights to exist outside of a capitalist framework, the system we current have exists within this framework. This means that our system of intellectual property, having arisen (at least in part) from capitalism, is necessarily structured by the logic of slavery.

All of this creates a framework through which we can begin to understand how libraries institutionalize white supremacy. Principle IV in the ALA’s Code of Ethics states “we respect intellectual property rights.” ((“Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.” Accessed August 3, 2014. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics.)) Of course, many people would counter this claim by saying that the manner by which libraries operate fundamentally contradicts this capitalist impulse by making ‘intellectual property’ freely accessible to the public. Except this isn’t entirely true or, rather, it doesn’t represent the entire picture.

When we look at the work of libraries, we begin to see that they actually play a significant role in not just ‘respecting intellectual property’ but in ensuring the stability of intellectual property itself. One mechanism through which libraries do this is through the creation of ‘authority records’: “An authority record is a tool used by librarians to establish forms of names (for persons, places, meetings, and organizations), titles, and subjects used on bibliographic records.” ((“Frequently Asked Questions (Library of Congress Authorities).” Accessed August 3, 2014. http://authorities.loc.gov/help/auth-faq.htm#1.))

While the Library of Congress (LOC) makes it clear that authority records are created with the intent to improve accessibility, the mechanism they use for this ensures that every creative work necessarily has an identifiable owner. This is necessary in a system of capital wherein everything and everyone can (and likely will be) reduced to a commodity.

This is only one way that libraries come to be implicated via active participation in the logic of slavery, of capitalism, and of white supremacy. We can also see that libraries, regardless of their making ‘knowledge’ or ‘information’ accessible for free, do not actually challenge or resist this logic. Rather, libraries are another institution necessary for maintaining a system of intellectual property within a larger context of white supremacy that depends on the inherent enslaveability of Black people.

3.2 The Logic of Genocide

According to Andrea Smith:

This logic holds that indigenous peoples must disappear. In fact, they must always be disappearing, in order to enable non-indigenous peoples’ rightful claim to land. Through this logic of genocide, non-Native peoples then become the rightful inheritors of all that was indigenous—land, resources, indigenous spirituality, and culture. Genocide serves as the anchor of colonialism: it is what allows non-Native peoples to feel they can rightfully own indigenous peoples’ land. It is acceptable exclusively to possess land that is the home of indigenous peoples because indigenous peoples have disappeared. ((Smith, Andrea. “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy – Centre for World Dialogue.” Global Dialogue 12, no. 2 (2010). http://www.worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=488.))

In earlier sections it was noted that libraries were created and continue to be conceived as institutions designed for benefit of creating an informed citizenry for the sake of democracy. This can only be established as a value in a settler state like the US or Canada if the Indigenous peoples of this region have already disappeared.

For ‘Canada’ and the ‘United States’ to continue to exist as democratic states (or for them to even be conceived as such) requires either that we understand that the Indigenous genocide is already complete or that we ensure that the genocide is ongoing. Since it is a fact that the Indigenous peoples of North America continue to exist, the ideal of libraries as liberal institutions existing to make democracy ‘better,’ thus stronger, is no less than an ideal wherein the genocide of Indigenous peoples is finally completed (putting democracy in its strongest possible position).

By and large, this is what is missing from Bivens-Tatum’s glowing account of libraries and the enlightenment. He is careful to distinguish the historical and material realities of the enlightenment from its ideas/philosophy. My argument is that the historical and material context of the enlightenment is not actually ‘historical’ at all. As we continue to grapple with the ideas of the enlightenment today, so do we grapple with the material conditions that both caused and are caused by the enlightenment (settler colonialism, white supremacy, etc).

However, we cannot be surprised by this, since the logic of genocide is “that indigenous peoples must disappear,” ((Smith, Andrea. “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy – Centre for World Dialogue.” Global Dialogue 12, no. 2 (2010). http://www.worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=488.)) so the absence of their struggle against settler colonialism in the US (and all other settler states) is necessary. This absence, of course, extends not only to their physical disappearance, but their disappearance from history and discourse. Thus, having an ethical code “grounded in an informed citizenry” for librarians is fundamentally rooted in the ongoing Indigenous genocides. ((“Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.” Accessed August 3, 2014. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics.)) To put it plainly, settler states, in order to lay claim to their statehood, require the genocide of native populations. Libraries in supporting “a political system grounded in an informed citizenry” support the state and thus support genocide.

3.3 The Logic of Orientalism

As Andrea Smith states:

The logic of orientalism marks certain peoples or nations as inferior and deems them to be a constant threat to the wellbeing of empire… Consequently, orientalism serves as the anchor of war, because it allows the United States to justify being in a constant state of war to protect itself from its enemies. Orientalism allows the United States to defend the logics of slavery and genocide as these practices enable it to stay “strong enough” to fight these constant wars. ((Smith, Andrea. “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy – Centre for World Dialogue.” Global Dialogue 12, no. 2 (2010). http://www.worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=488.))

Smith doesn’t go into the details of Orientalism, as it was developed by Edward Said, ((Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2003.)) but libraries firmly belong to the discursive space identified by Said as “a structured set of concepts, assumptions, and discursive practices that were used to produce, interpret, and evaluate knowledge about non-European peoples.” ((Kohn, Margaret. “Colonialism.” Edited by Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/colonialism/.)) It is this knowledge that informs the logic of orientalism described by Smith — the logic that allows the US to justify its ongoing wars.

Libraries disguise their Orientalism by invoking the stance of neutrality: “We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.” ((“Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.” Accessed August 3, 2014. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics.)) However, it is pretty easy to see that libraries are far from neutral spaces. There are many examples in the literature about the ways that collection development, ((See Downey, Jennifer. “Public Library Collection Development Issues Regarding the Information Needs of GLBT Patrons.” Progressive Librarian, no. 25 (Summer 2005): 86–95.)) reference, ((See Curry, Ann. “If I Ask, Will They Answer?” Reference & User Services Quarterly 45, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 65–75. http://pacificreference.pbworks.com/f/If+I+Ask,+Will+They+Answer.pdf)) cataloguing, ((See “Teaching the Radical Catalog.” in Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front, ed. K.R. Roberto. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, April 2008. http://www.emilydrabinski.com/teaching-the-radical-catalog/)) and many other library functions reveal deep biases in how the library as an institution exists. More importantly, as Bivens-Tatum himself writes, “we can have a reasonable pluralism in society, but only if everyone acknowledges the authority of the public democratic institutions.” ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 112.)) In such a situation, it is impossible for neutrality to exist.

Thus, if we look past this claim of neutrality and understand that it is an impossible position, we begin to understand how libraries come to articulate the logic of Orientalism. Part of what made Said’s work so groundbreaking and influential is that he demonstrated the way that knowledge creation within the empire is not (and never has been) a neutral activity and so the knowledge itself cannot be neutral. One of the interesting distinctions often drawn in library literature is between ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’. Information is understood as neutral facts and knowledge is created when we understand information (or something like that). It is a tidy distinction that allows ‘neutral’ librarians to feel like we are transmitting neutral facts, all unmediated by reality.

Most criticisms of library neutrality tend to focus on the librarians and/or institution, rather than the ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’ preserved, stored, communicated, and legitimized by libraries. Said’s claims are, in part, explorations about the epistemology of empire, of colonial expansion, and of war but few criticisms of library neutrality have examined or focused on the role that libraries have within the empire and its epistemology.

When we look into the collections, the actual ‘information’ contained in libraries and how it is organized, we can see that it (surely by accident) somehow manages to construct a reality wherein whiteness is default, normal, civilized and everything else is Other. In so doing, libraries very much participate in a larger imperial project that justifies war. We see that libraries very happily fulfill this expectation of Bivens-Tatum: “we can have a reasonable pluralism in society, but only if everyone acknowledges the authority of the public democratic institutions,” ((Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012), 112.)) since these ‘public democratic institutions’ he is discussing are constituent parts of the empire. Seen from this light, is it at all surprising that library collections play their happy role in the Orientalist project of creating the Other?

4 Conclusions

Looking back, now, at this paper and seeing what all I had to say during this excursion, one of the surprising themes (to me at least) is how often the concept of ‘neutrality’ came under fire, even though this was not intended. As I consider it now, it seems obvious to me that neutrality has been central to locating the library in institutional oppression. But it is a more complex concept of neutrality than is usually discussed within the literature, which tends to focus on the coherence of the neutrality of the individuals operating and working within libraries or on some of the processes and systems of libraries (like classification).

The main notion of neutrality that I challenge within this article is that of institutional neutrality. Regardless of many people’s feelings about the coherence of individual neutrality, many have taken it as axiomatic that libraries are neutral institutions and that any failure of libraries to be neutral is largely the fault of individuals failing to live up to the ideals or ethics of the profession, rather than understanding the library as institution as fundamentally non-neutral. Libraries as institutions were created not only for a specific ideological purpose but for an ideology that is fundamentally oppressive in nature. As such, the failings of libraries can be re-interpreted not as libraries failing to live up to their ideals and values, but rather as symptoms and evidence of this foundational and oppressive ideology.

In tying my line of criticism to that of colonialism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy (but as a reminder: there are many other lines of criticism that can and ought to be explored when situating the library in institutional oppression), I also have the seeds of solutions, for those who want such things. The clear solution is decolonization. ((Refer to Unsettling America, http://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com, for a starting point to understanding decolonization.)) Of course, this is a difficult prospect for many within the field since it precludes any solution that is reformist in nature; no reform is possible if we understand libraries as fundamentally white supremacist institutions.

For those who find this unpalatable, there is, perhaps, a worthwhile solution in decoupling libraries from their avowed goal in propping up and strengthening settler democracies. This could allow us to preserve the institution, but would require drastic and daring changes to the overall structure and organization of libraries. Libraries, unlike other institutions of settler states (like the judicial system), have at least some emancipatory potential.

Realizing the emancipatory potential of the library as institution would require breaking and disrupting the system of intellectual property and other aspects of capitalism, especially the publishing industry. It would require disrupting the empire’s mechanisms for creating ‘knowledge’ by being more than a repository for imperial knowledge products. It would require supporting Indigenous resistance to the settler state and working towards dismantling anti-Blackness.

In so doing, perhaps libraries could begin to live up to the ideal expressed by Gaiman in the introduction. Libraries really could come to represent and embody freedom. They could become focal points for the free exchange and access of ideas, knowledge, and imagination.

Thanks to Chris Bourg and Ellie Collier for being such ridiculously awesome reviewers and for making this paper about 100000000000x better. Really. THANK YOU SO MUCH. 


5 Works Cited

Addams, Suellen S., and Kate Pierce. “Is There Transgender Canon?: Information Seeking and Use in the Transgender Community,” 2006. http://www.cais-acsi.ca/proceedings/2006/adams_2006.pdf.

Annoyed Librarian. “Libraries as Liberal Institutions.” Accessed August 3, 2014. http://annoyedlibrarian.blogspot.ca/2006/12/libraries-as-liberal-institutions.html.

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12 Responses

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  2. Peter

    You short cut a bit around one of the enlightenment’s main historical contributions to Andrea Smith’s triad: enlightenment ethics sanctify ‘individual’ property rights. John Locke made his freedoms very clear: Life, Liberty, Property (a triad too crass for a literal inclusion in the declaration of independence). Without such sanctity, capitalism could neither flourish nor exist.
    Now, property rights thoroughly eclipse and replaced human rights and freedoms, including the notion of the being human itself.
    Indigenous communal ownership and decision making needed elimination because, among other reasons, it was communal. Colonialism is part and parcel of capitalism, and orientalism and its modern justification for war are the very manifestations of capitalism.
    Indeed, the historical transition from feudal ethics to enlightenment ethics was necessary to support the transition from primitive accumulation to modern capitalism.

  3. Alecto Greenslade

    An example of the terribly convoluted space or function of libraries that comes to mind after reading this article, is the prison library. I have worked, briefly, in a prison library. While prisoners would say things like, “I feel free to be myself here [in the library]” and while some items in the collection offered potential for transformation because they offered a chance or a vision to do or be or reach for something different, the library was clearly integrally fitted into the prison system. Access to it was controlled and people were controlled while in the library; and the rationale for it included the potential for “rehabilitation” so prison libraries are unarguably located in institutional oppression. I myself have decided that rehabilitation is a furphy in the prison context and a lot of prisoners lives: “rehabilitation” implies a state of health to which a person who has been wounded or ill can return – or be returned. A lot of prisoners don’t have lives which don’t include prison to which they can return or be returned, so they can’t be “rehabilitated”. I do think that prison libraries (and prisons) offer the opportunity for transformation, by which I mean the opportunity for doing something different or differently whether it’s becoming an artist or thinking clearly about getting married when you leave or resolving to pursue lapidary as a hobby, also when you leave, or anything that’s different. In such a constrained environment, it’s very hard to grasp that chance but it’s there, oddly and paradoxically enough. Such transformations can entail leaving the life that got the prisoner into prison in the first place – which is what prison and prison education and prison industries etc are intended to do so such “transformations” fit the institution’s purpose, no question. Maybe the nascent ‘transformations’ that I witnessed in the library, stuck less in my craw than the rehabilitation-lite efforts did because once chosen, the learning and the activity could be somewhat self-directed by the prisoner. It’s that funny thing of agency – people operate in worlds they have not constructed and would not construct if they had a choice but they/we find ways to be assert ourselves nevertheless, even if they are small expressions – now THAT is a feature of human nature that is very clearly demonstrated in prisons, Enough. Cheers.

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