This essay reflects on the effects of capitalism and corporatization on the work habits of librarians, and critiques the profession’s emphasis on innovation for its own sake. First, the essay compares Juicero Inc., a Silicon Valley startup that faced criticism for producing an expensive machine that squeezed premade packets of juice, to projects undertaken by librarians for the purposes of career advancement and prestige that may unnecessarily complicate the services provided to patrons. The essay then outlines the burgeoning Slow Movement within libraries and recommends that librarians leverage the movement’s principles to push back against corporatization in librarianship.
By Julia Glassman
The Juicero: A Parable
In April 2017, the Internet had a good chuckle over a start-up gaffe worthy of a Silicon Valley subplot, which centered on a device that claimed to be the Keurig of juicers:
One of the most lavishly funded gadget startups in Silicon Valley last year was Juicero Inc. It makes a juice machine. The product was an unlikely pick for top technology investors, but they were drawn to the idea of an internet-connected device that transforms single-serving packets of chopped fruits and vegetables into a refreshing and healthy beverage….But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands.1
The Juicero machine originally cost $700—the price later dropped to $400 before the company functionally went out of business—and its wifi capability seemed to do little more than double-check the expiration dates written on the juice packets. To prevent customers from buying the juice packets on their own and saving a few hundred dollars, the company only sold packets to people who purchased the machine. One could argue that the Juicero machine could have benefited people with limited use of their hands, but that argument would beg the question of why someone would pay hundreds of dollars for a Juicero when they could buy containers of pre-made juice, which is essentially what the Juicero packets contained. Although Huet and Zaleski were restrained in their criticism, Albert Burneko at Deadspin didn’t hold back:
When [the investors] signed up to pump money into this juice company, it was because [they] thought drinking the juice would be a lot harder and more expensive. That was the selling point, because Silicon Valley is a stupid libertarian dystopia where investor-class vampires are the consumers and a regular person’s money is what they go shopping for. Easily opened bags of juice do not give these awful nightmare trash parasites a good bargain on the disposable income of credulous wellness-fad suckers; therefore easily opened bags of juice are a worse investment than bags of juice that are harder to open.2
Burneko makes a good point. This machine wasn’t just ridiculous, it’s an alarming symptom of late capitalism. It’s long been a feature of capitalism that, to a large extent, genuine needs are irrelevant to the market; what matters is what you can convince people to buy. The Juicero is what happens when markets become saturated with every conceivable gadget, yet entrepreneurs and investors remain desperate to find some way, any way, to scrape out one more niche. It’s an often-overlooked facet of the fallacy of unlimited growth: human beings have a finite set of needs, and none of those needs includes a machine that does nothing but squeeze its own bags.
I read the Deadpsin article; I watched a video of the Juicero in action; I indulged in some incredulous laughter. But I was surprised to find myself, even before the glow had faded, thinking uncomfortably about my own job as an academic librarian.
The Race to Innovate
At my institution, librarians’ career advancement is regulated through a process of peer review. Every two to three years, each librarian writes a report of what they’ve done to warrant a raise and possible promotion and submits it to a peer review committee and the University Librarian (UL). The centerpiece of the peer review packet is a three- to five-page document called the “Statement of Professional Achievements,” or SOPA. The idea behind it is fairly innocuous: the committee and UL simply want to see that you haven’t been sitting on your hands for two years. How well have you performed your job? What have you done to develop as an information professional and educator? Have you helped advance the profession as a whole? Simply put, why do you deserve more money?
The problem, though, lies in the the word “achievements.” Since the members of each year’s peer review cohort are judged against each other, and it has been made clear that only a select few can ever earn the coveted marker of “exceptional performance,” the process has become an arms race of the biggest, most impressive accomplishments librarians can showcase. How do you play up the fact that you’re a talented and beloved teacher when you have a colleague who has just overhauled the entire information literacy curriculum for their subject area and deployed a brand new series of online instructional modules? Sure, that approach may not have been appropriate for the departments with which you liaise, but think about how these two stories look side by side. There is intense pressure to constantly innovate, to throw out the old and invent something new.
This phenomenon is situated, of course, within a profession (and, indeed, a culture) that kicks around the word “innovation” as if it were a hacky sack. Innovation isn’t just one factor of success in librarianship; it often seems to be the sole benchmark by which we measure the worth of our work. We’re pressured by tenure clocks and hiring committees to publish papers and present at conferences, and no conference is interested in a presentation on how the teaching technique you developed five years ago is still working fine. More than once I’ve witnessed enthusiasm for good ideas evaporate when it turned out we weren’t the first ones to have them, and thus wouldn’t get a publication credit for our efforts.
The fixation on innovation, in turn—at least as it pertains to academic librarianship—is situated within a deeply corporatized academia. Universities hire more administrators than faculty members.3 Pharmaceutical companies exert frightening influence over medical research.4 Business jargon like “core competencies” infects and then shapes our conceptions of pedagogy.5 Put all these factors together—universities that see education as a product line and research as entrepreneurship, and information professionals working to advance their careers within such an environment—and perhaps it’s no surprise after all why my mind jumped from the world’s silliest juicer to academic libraries. When we begin to chase innovation for its own sake, seeking the approval of authority figures rather than considering the needs of our students and patrons, then we fall into the same trap as Silicon Valley startups frantic to woo investors. We put out flashy projects that take more time, resources, and money to do what we could have done with something much simpler—perhaps even with our bare hands.
For example, a group of MLIS students recently evaluated my library’s popular reading collection for a class project. The students expressed surprise and dismay that librarians were adhering to what the students called an “object-centric conception of a collection.” The fact that circulation rates were healthy and undergraduate students expressed excitement about the collection was not included in the MLIS students’ analysis; in their view, the collection was deficient because it failed to significantly expand the definition of “collection.” In order for the collection to be successful, they believed, we needed to resist our desire to remain focused on items. The students also recommended that we replace our collections policy, which included a broad vision statement, with specific, measurable learning outcomes that would be frequently measured.
A non-object-centric popular reading collection with learning outcomes instead of a collections policy? How innovative! The problem, though, was that the students seemed unable to explain what such a collection would actually look like, aside from telling us to put on more events. How does one build a popular reading collection without centering popular reading materials? How does one assign measurable learning outcomes to circulating items without committing gross violations of patron privacy? If the incident had merely consisted of a few over-zealous students, I might have shrugged it off; however, what troubled me was that several IS professors and librarians expressed strong admiration for the students’ ideas and advocated moving forward with them, even though no one could articulate a realistic course of action or endpoint.
I myself have fallen prey to the scramble to innovate. Two years ago, a colleague and I created a pre-assignment for one-shot instruction sessions using a Google doc.6 I tested it, piloted it, made some tweaks and adjustments, and started using it regularly in my teaching. In the fall of my second year using the assignment, though, with my peer review deadline looming, I looked at the Google doc and felt a pang of anxiety. If I continued using the same tool, was that sufficiently innovative? Would I appear to be stagnating? I decided to create a Moodle version of the assignment for a lecture class I was working with so that in the future, faculty would have multiple versions to choose from. I spent weeks wrestling with Moodle, but found the interface so clunky and incomprehensible that the week before classes started, I gave up and just tailored the original document to the needs of the class. It worked out perfectly. The students completed the assignment without incident, it met the faculty’s learning objectives, and it helped me teach more effectively. Nevertheless, I felt guilty for doing the same thing twice.
This pressure didn’t build up gradually, either; it started as soon as I began my career. For instance, in my first year as a librarian, when I sought travel funding to present at my first information literacy conference, I asked colleagues for advice on filling out the funding request form. The prevailing attitude was that my attendance had to benefit the library in an immediate and tangible way. “If you go, what will you be able to do when you come back?” one colleague prompted, sending me on an anxious hunt through the conference program for sessions that might appeal to administrators. The exchange of ideas, the honing of skills, and service to the profession are not enough, apparently, to warrant inclusion at a gathering for educators and academics. One is expected to come home and unveil something new each time.
This, despite the fact that the patrons with whom we work remain, underneath our society’s increasingly frenzied pace of development, human beings: a species that hasn’t changed drastically in cognition or temperament for tens of thousands of years. We librarians like to muse that the codex is just as effective a piece of technology today as it was during the Roman Empire, but in our day-to-day jobs, we seem unable to believe that anything could work so well for so long.
So, what’s to be done? How can we stay grounded in what’s genuinely useful, rather than what’s exciting in the moment? How do we avoid creating our own version of a $700 bag-squeezer?
On a surface level, the answer is quite simple. We must let our patrons’ genuine, demonstrated needs and interests guide our work. What services and resources are they searching for? Are we providing them? If not, how can we change our practices so that we are? Yes, new technology or a radical departure from previous practices can be exciting and lead to publication. But does it meet an actual need?7
On a deeper level, though, we must push back against the corporate cultures in which we work. How? Here I don’t have any easy answers. It is heartening, though, to see that librarians have begun to look to the Slow Movement for guidance.
The Slow Movement began in the 1980s, when Carlo Petrini began the Slow Food movement to protest the degradation of food quality and agricultural ethics. Working off of the principles that food should be “good, clean, and fair,”8 the movement protested the over-industrialization of food and sought to “counteract the rise of fast life” by emphasizing eating as an experience to be savored.9 Although the movement started with food, its principles have proven adaptable and useful to many aspects of Western and global culture. In the realm of librarianship, Dewan10 cites Carl Honoré’s11 call to do “fewer things in order to do them better” and suggests that librarians both provide tranquil spaces for users and “model slow living” themselves. Gervasio, Detterbeck, and Oling12 build on the movement’s principles of “resisting cultural pressures to hurry” in order to advocate for an assessment model “that emphasizes reflection, choice, and meeting local needs to provide more meaningful evaluations of library services and students’ research skills and to combat the corporatization of higher education.” These authors cite the “Slow Reading, Slow Education, and Slow Technology” movements, which emphasize reflection, quality, and sustainability, as precedents that libraries can build on.
Describing a comprehensive Slow Librarianship movement, applicable to all facets of library work in all types of libraries, is obviously far beyond the scope of this essay. However, a public commitment to prioritizing reflection and meaningful practices over chains of impressive-sounding achievements could serve to open up alternative avenues for professional development and recognition.
Learning from the Jacaranda Tree
I certainly don’t want to sound like a Luddite or a curmudgeon. The benefits of genuine innovation are obvious, and I know how frustrating it is to work with colleagues who dismiss any and all change as fads. I also recognize that every library environment is unique, and an idea that’s ill-suited to one scenario may be vital for another. Finally, I realize that libraries must keep pace with the evolution of academia, even if curmudgeonly Luddites like me disapprove of some of the particulars.
When I first drafted this essay, the Jacaranda tree outside of my window was just beginning to bloom. Jacarandas are famous for their brilliant purple flowers, which erupt in breathtaking sprays every spring in Los Angeles, and every year I find myself checking the tree multiple times a day in anticipation. There’s nothing quite like walking down a street lined with Jacaranda trees in full bloom.
What you’ll never see on a tourism website, though, is what Jacarandas look like for the vast majority of the year. In the summer they’re nondescript; in the fall they release a limited bloom and dull brown seed pods; and in late winter, most of their leaves turn yellow and fall off. However, the trees are doing important work all throughout the year. The Jacaranda blooms fully only when the time is right—no sooner, and no longer.
It’s supremely unhealthy, for both individuals and organizations, to try to be in bloom all the time. Perhaps, if we reject the capitalist drive to constantly churn out new products and instead take a stand to support more reflective and responsive practices, we can offer our patrons services that are deeper, more lasting, and more human.
Acknowledgements: I’m grateful to my internal reviewer, Amy Koester; my external reviewer, Maura Seale; and my publishing editor, Ian Beilin, for their support and feedback on this essay. Many thanks to Annie Pho, who gave me initial feedback on my essay proposal, and to the librarians and information literacy educators pioneering the Slow movement within our profession.
Burneko, Albert (April 19, 2017). I just love this Juicero story so much. Deadspin. Retrieved from http://theconcourse.deadspin.com/i-just-love-this-juicero-story-so-much-1794459898.
Dewan, P. (2015). Slow libraries in a fast-paced world. Library Journal 140(18), 46.
Gervasio, D., Detterbeck, K., & Oling, R. (2015). The Slow Assessment Movement: using homegrown rubrics and capstone projects for DIY information literacy assessment. ACRL 2015 Proceedings. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/conferences/confsandpreconfs/2015/Gervasio_Detterbeck_Oling.pdf.
Glassman, J. & Worsham, D. (2017). Digital research notebook: a simple tool for reflective learning. Reference Services Review 45(2), 179-200. Retrieved from http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/RSR-10-2016-0063.
Honoré, C. (2004). In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Huet, E. & Zaleski, O. (April 19, 2017). Silicon Valley’s $400 juicer may be feeling the squeeze. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-04-19/silicon-valley-s-400-juicer-may-be-feeling-the-squeeze.
Slow Food (2015a). Our philosophy. Slow Food. Retrieved from http://www.slowfood.com/about-us/our-philosophy/.
Slow Food (2015b). About us. Slow Food. Retrieved from http://www.slowfood.com/about-us/.
UCLA Library Information Literacy Program Steering Committee (2005). Information Literacy at UCLA: The Core Competencies. Retrieved from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/8kh5v4q0.
Whorinsky, Peter (November 24, 2012). As drug industry’s influence over research grows, so does the potential for bias. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/as-drug-industrys-influence-over-research-grows-so-does-the-potential-for-bias/2012/11/24/bb64d596-1264-11e2-be82-c3411b7680a9_story.html?utm_term=.f8e89dbebd4e.
Zamudio-Suaréz, Fernando (April 20, 2017). Cal State’s growth in hiring of managers exceeds other staff, audit finds. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/cal-state-hires-more-managers-than-faculty-or-support-staff-audit-finds/117886?cid=wcontentlist_hp_latest.
- Huet & Zaleski 2017 [↩]
- 2017 [↩]
- Zamudio-Suaréz 2017 [↩]
- Whorisky 2012 [↩]
- UCLA Library Information Literacy Program Steering Committee 2005 [↩]
- Glassman & Worsham 2017 [↩]
- Of course, these questions bring us to the sticky issue of the needs assessment, which is good and necessary in and of itself, but can so easily be used to quash new ideas and keep power structures in place. Want to grind an unorthodox project to a halt, especially when it challenges hegemony? Demand a mountain of irrefutable data justifying it. The question of which innovations are celebrated and which are sidelined is wrapped up quite tightly in issues of privilege and power. [↩]
- Slow Food 2015a [↩]
- Slow Food 2015b [↩]
- 2015 [↩]
- 2004 [↩]
- 2015 [↩]