on the Future of Libraries
February 21, 2016
I briefly tweeted yesterday that I want to, at long last, discuss the Future of Libraries. Primarily why I don’t think we have a future.
Before anyone jumps on me, I want to put a few caveats on this discussion. Right now, how we understand libraries is deeply embedded within enlightenment ideology. The modern iteration of both public and academic libraries is just that: modern. So when I talk about how Libraries are Doomed, what I mean is the modern instantiation of them is doomed. So too with the profession that supports it. Because places whose purpose is to preserve and organize and share documentary traditions have always existed pretty much everywhere and since these places have always had caretakers, I’m not saying that this generalized concept will die.
Libraries and Librarians as we currently know it will die. More importantly, they should die. Hopefully the places and people who will take up void left by our demise will do a far better job of not being complete shitbags. Hopefully. However, whether or not what comes next is an improvement really depends on how and why libraries die.
And they will die. I know I’m repeating myself but I don’t want anyone to be confused. They’ll die and, should I still be around, I’ll celebrate their death. I’m bitter and petty like that. But I’m also optimistic that we (as general humans) can do much better. Especially once we abandon the failed experiment that is the enlightenment Library… or what we might call the ‘eLibrary’ (snort).
None of this should surprise anyone, given that I wrote an article about how libraries are institutions of oppression.
But first let me discuss why I think libraries are doomed. Or at least why they’ll collapse from external pressure. We’ve been discussing stuff like neoliberalism and libraries for a while now. As important is the rise of neo-facism in Europe and white settler countries. I feel like it ought to be obvious why libraries are doomed. I mean… as much as I hate and disagree with the enlightenment ideology, it’s still better than facism. Not by much. But enough that I’d pick it as the lesser evil.
Because the current iteration of libraries (public and academic) were intended to create an ‘informed citizenry’ in order to support democracy… It’s pretty obvious why this isn’t something desirable in a context where politicians are openly advocating for concentration camps1. The ‘free’ flow of information isn’t really a desirable thing within this context. And we can see this with various [government’s opposing encryption][encrypt], trying to destroy net neutrality, and spying on their own citizens.
And they frequently do this in collusion with major corporations. One the economic front, its pretty well recognized by now the kind of damage that neoliberalism and late capitalism is doing to the public education system and universities. Take, for example, the Gates Foundation and the Common Core in the US. More and more, unfortunately, we are looking towards (usually tech) corporations to solve social problems. Social problems that they are ill-equipped to tackle because they rarely bother doing any substantive research into the problems.
The very things that libraries are intended to embody are precisely what our current context does not want. And we have many discussions about the slow, calculated dismantling of libraries. But few people seem to realize that libraries actually can’t be saved. Not in a socio-political environment where we’d rather increase funding for police despite falling crime rates and decrease funding for libraries despite climbing usage.
Insofar as libraries have been considered important, they certainly are not anymore. It’s funny because we can talk about and highlight the many different crises that this purposeful defunding of libraries is causing but we rarely step back to notice that it isn’t an accident. That it isn’t about a lack of money, overall, but because libraries are out of step with the prevailing ideology. The police vs libraries thing really says it all.
When I hear about librarians trying to make ideological claims for the value of libraries and why we should get increased funding and whatever, it boggles my mind that they don’t get that all they are doing is underscoring why, at the end of the day, we must disappear in late capitalism and neo-facism.
“Access to information” we say, when the government is taking increased steps to reduce transparency to its own operations. But also when corporations are trying to stop selling content and simply letting us borrow them at their whims (something libraries are happily supporting).
At the end, this is why libraries must die: they no longer serve the interests of the state.
And I know this all sounds dismal and whatever. Dystopian even. And to a certain extent it is. If we do nothing, then the current trends suggest we’ll all be living in facist states and libraries as they currently exist, with their current values, will be gone. And whatever replaces them will serve a neoliberal, facist state.
But what can we do?
Well… it turns out that the solution to this problem is that we, ourselves, work to dismantle libraries (and the socio-political context that created them). Because as noted within my article, the library is an institution of oppression. It may not be in sync with what is coming but it is in sync with what currently exists and what was hoped to exist (via enlightenment ideology).
Except that what we have isn’t any better than a neoliberal, facist state. What we currently have is a settler state engaged in a genocide that’s been going on for centuries. A settler state built from the labour of enslaved Africans (yes, even Canada had slaves, even if not to the same degree as the US. Moreover, it is the Atlantic slave trade that allowed the colonial powers to accumulate so much wealth and power. All parts of the empire benefited from the enslavement of Africans.).
Libraries serve to entrench oppression and enforce it. Thus, they must be abolished. Like the prison system, judicial system, and the entire government. Given that most libraries are funded by the state, they shouldn’t be spared in our discussions about dismantling the white supremacist, anti-Black settler state.
Either way, the modern iteration of libraries has to go. Enough with it already. No more talk of reform.
Dismantling it ourselves – along with the state that supports it – is the better option is because it gives us an opportunity to create something new and (hopefully) better. If we do nothing and allow libraries to die bc of neoliberalism and facism, whatever replaces them isn’t going to be something we want. Or something that is better. Might be worse. I also doubt many of us are going to enjoy living in that socio-political context.
I mean… where we are is already bad enough for me. I can barely survive in our current context. Pretty sure that survival would be impossible for me if/when things get much worse.
So. What’ll it be? Do we chose our own adventure? Or continue to wring our hands attempting to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t actually need to be solved?