i dream of being possible

knowledge, agency, and the individual in institutional oppression

So, yes, my brain is on fire after reading Barbara Fister’s recent blog post on knowledge creation in libraries. Please go read it…

Some choice quotations (and the one’s that have been sticking in my brain since I read the post) are:

Unfortunately, I think librarians are often using the corporate identity of the library to shield us individually from taking responsibility. That’s partly because our organizational structures tend to look far more like administrative units than academic departments, even when librarians are tenured faculty. Very often we actually don’t have agency; we have coordinators and committees and we have to ask permission. It’s also because we’re conditioned to think that providing stuff on demand is our fundamental function, though treating knowledge as a consumer good for individuals is wreaking havoc on the knowledge commons and we know it’s not how we should be spending our limited collective resources.


When we spend most of our time feeding a completely dysfunctional system, the idea of librarians collaborating on knowledge creation (rather than on organizing access to finished products) begins to sound like a pipe dream. I think it’s where we need to go, but we aren’t going to get there by ourselves. The future of libraries belongs to the people who rely on them. How do we come together if those people are too busy to look at the big picture and librarians are afraid to say no?

(Although the paragraph between these two with the rants with examples of how our current library systems are dysfunctional is well worth reading.)

After I wrote my last post on workplace politics, I had at least one person say: but we have to consult faculty/admin on stuff we do, they are the community we serve. True. But. I’m tired of this framework that suggests that libraries must always be subservient to the rest of the campus. It is part of what enables dysfunctional systems.

More importantly, this consultation isn’t reciprocal. Do faculty consult us before doing a thing? Does the admin always consult us before doing a thing?

The answer, of course, is ‘no’. Sometimes, for good or ill, these parties will decide to do something in their best interests which may or may not align perfectly with the rest of the campus. As a result, the other parties simply have to adjust and deal. I don’t necessarily think that this is a problem. The competing interests create necessary tensions because the admin and faculty (and other parties) have different values and will work towards achieving those goals. This isn’t a problem. It means that negotiation and communication are critical to have a functioning whole. Again, not a problem.

So why is it that libraries necessarily must consult with everyone else before we do anything? I mentioned sarcastically in a tweet that we don’t go around telling researchers how to research, so why should they be allowed to tell us how to library? We know what is best for the library. Moreover, since we do have domain specialization, we also know how to best steer the library so that it can do what we want it to do (facilitate research and knolwedge creation and support students).1

It’s funny, but while my article on institutional oppression and libraries was all about the institution, as is most of my writing about this. But the point I make about how libraries participate in white supremacy via Orientalism and Fister’s post, should make it clear that libraries actually do play a role beyond a passive storehouse for books. Thus, it also means that librarians are more than simply automotons who exist at the whim of admin and faculty.

Regardless of how a lot of librarians act (as if we really are automotons), we are agents and the library is already an agent. Trying to defer responsibility and culpability by saying “oh, we’re just following orders” is a cop-out. So is pretending that we don’t have the power that we do. And neither of these things actually works as a viable ethical defense for the ways that we are complicit in institutional oppression.

This is what I also mean when I say that we can just ‘seize the means of production’. We already have this power. Choosing either to not weild it or, as is most often the case, choosing to allow others to weild it as they desire, is all on us. And understanding this is a matter of shifting perspective, not necessarily one of organizational restructuring (although, some organizational methods enable or hamper).

The thing is? All this time we’ve had the agency and requisite power to say ‘no’. We already spend a lot of our agency and power saying ‘yes’. And, for something like scholarly communication, I think we can do better than waiting until we’ve reached a crisis point before we do say ‘no’ (or rather saying ‘we can’t do this anymore’ after our options have reached zero).

Yes. Initiatives to tackle the serials crisis would be a million times more powerful and better if we could get broad community support. But… How long has the OA movement and other initiatives been attempting to obtain broad community support? More than a decade by now, if memory serves. Have things substantively changed? Not really. OA journals are still less than 5% of all journals. Gold OA, despite being just as unsustainable as non-OA journals, has become the main way to do OA. Journal prices are still rising despite constantly shrinking library budgets.

Abdicating our responsibility for how this crisis has been created by saying “what could we have done?” is just… disingenuous. We identified the problem ages ago. But most of our solutions require external validation before they can be effective… despite the reality that we’ve always had the power to deal with the crisis on our own.2 Why would publishers lower prices or stop raising them when we continue to pay whatever they ask for? They have no motivation to do so.

I digress…

The point of this post is that we aren’t passive institutions or people who have little choice but to do as we’re told. This is a position we consciously choose to occupy as a means to defer responsibility and relinquish the hard choices that being agents forces us to make. We already have agency and the power to back it up. All we need to do is start using it.

  1. This latter I think is actually one of the more important and unique aspects of the library, since we (as a whole) truly care about undergrads beyond their ability to pay tuition. It is a level of care that I never saw in faculty while I was an academic. In a university where the tenured professor is at the apex, I know many librarians who are very much deeply concerned about the educational experiences of undergrads. 

  2. Especially true around the time that the serials crisis was first really understood. Way back before a lot of content was digitized or available online. Do you get how easy it would have been, back then, to force publishers to stop raising prices via collective action? Before big deals and the like locked us into multi-year contracts?