The Crisis of Libraries

The Boston Public Library (Copley Square)

NOTES FROM A WORKER’S PERSPECTIVE

I’ve worked in libraries for about four years: two years at a small private college in Boston, a year at a public library in a wealthy suburb in the Boston area, and another year at a major university in Cambridge, where I currently work. Throughout my work experience in libraries, I have observed the same problem everywhere. There is a widespread, societal perception that libraries are exempt from the logic of capital, since they’re clearly not a site for producing profit, and their whole purpose is to provide knowledge (sort of like a museum). So on the one hand, libraries are a space for knowledge and their primary value is providing physical books to patrons for no cost. On the other hand, the rise of the internet means that most books are accessible for free online, or are easier to access since you can order anything on Amazon. Why should people go to libraries if they can access the knowledge already from their own home? This problem is felt most acutely in public libraries since they are dependent on town funding, and in the neoliberal era where towns have less money to spend (or are more inclined to spend it on the police), libraries will fall lower in the pecking order on a town’s spending priorities. The director of the public library where I worked explained how the bulk of her job revolves around convincing the town to give the library money. Libraries therefore have to prove to capital that they are necessary, which means proving they are compatible with capitalism. 

A common way to do this is by converting the library into a “learning commons.” Instead of the library being defined by physical collections of books, they are now defined by services. The logic goes that, since anyone can access a book anywhere, the library isn’t a privileged site. However, what a patron can’t find anywhere is the specific service and knowhow a librarian provides. So libraries are now “selling” their value on the particularity of library services that cannot be found on Amazon. Both the university libraries I have worked at, a small liberal arts college and a massive, global university, have undergone this transformation while I was an employee. In both cases, the transformation into a learning commons resulted in the gutting of the physical collection in order to create more physical space. At the liberal arts college, they removed the collection on the first floor so that the entire floor could be open for study rooms, tables, and computers. The collection from the first floor was integrated into the collection on the second floor, and in order to create the space for the new books, staff weeded out almost half of the total collection. This upset people in the community, as most of these books were either donated or thrown into a dumpster. People were horrified to see sacred objects like books discarded as trash, even though most of these books possessed knowledge that was outdated (science books from the 1920s, etc).1 While I wasn’t yet working at the larger institution, a similar process unfolded where older books were gutted to make way for the learning commons.  

The result of the crisis of libraries under capitalism is that libraries and their workers are now subjected to the same logics of any other workplace. Ben Webster conceptualizes this as the problem of reading at the circulation desk. He says, 

“When I tell people that I work at a library, a common response is to ask whether I sit around reading books on the job all day. Although asked jokingly, the stereotype contains a kernel of truth and points to a real site of conflict… At all but the busiest libraries, the worker checking books in and out will have periods of inactivity between transactions. It’s only natural that she will turn to the materials at hand — books and a computer — to pass the time in the intervals. Management often does not see this as a logical response to the cyclical, uneven nature of much library work. Not only have I been forbidden at certain libraries from reading at the circulation desk (once with the explanation that it gave an impression of laziness to the public), I’ve often been made to fill the spare moments with menial tasks as banal as highlighting the library’s web address on due date slips.”2

My experience as a library worker echoes Webster’s. Like my job at a cafe, I was told by my manager that patrons shouldn’t see me on my phone, they shouldn’t see me reading, that I could only have one airpod/headphone in so it looks like I’m available, and if I was on my break, I had to take off my ID lanyard so patrons knew I wasn’t currently existing as a staff member. Working at a library became the same as working at a cafe or a grocery store, where workers are subjected to the peculiar logic of American customer service. The only difference is that we are not selling commodities, we are supposed to be a public resource where anyone, regardless of their class, can access knowledge without charge. As Webster says, “this ‘time to lean, time to clean’ mentality of enforced productivity is not unique to libraries, but it takes a peculiar form here, where the means of production, so to speak, are things of edification and pleasure.”3 As a result, working at a library felt no different to working any other job. 

I’ve experienced a different problem in the university. Since libraries are intrinsically necessary for any academic institution, there is no shortage of funding. Yet that funding goes entirely to books, resources, and higher level management, while support staff are exploited with low wages and have little say in the workplace. At the public library, I felt like the workers were the backbone of the institution which played a huge role in our community, but at the university library, I feel lost in a sea of bureaucracy. While I still believe that the support staff are the backbone of the libraries, the libraries don’t feel necessary in the same way they did for the public. All I do now is help students find books, and considering the state of higher education, I don’t feel like I am doing meaningful work. At the public library, on the other hand, I felt like I was contributing to a fundamental public service. 

I’ve always been deeply frustrated as a library worker because the learning commons model is not a real solution to the crisis of libraries, and there is no way out of the crisis under capitalism. Libraries are an institution that predates capitalism, and whose existence largely contradicts the capitalist project, as capitalism is defined by producing maximum profits, whereas libraries are defined by free knowledge. It is impossible to prove that libraries are necessary and worthy of funding within the logic of capital. For capitalism, libraries are charity projects. While some rich people may value libraries, this is due more to a traditionalist upbringing where they are taught to value knowledge — aka an appreciation for libraries based on the cult value of books (the same reason rich people value museums). Rich people valuing libraries is an exception to the rule, and one that cannot be relied upon in the effort to improve libraries. 

In our efforts to prove that libraries are still relevant under capitalism, we have given up the values that libraries are associated with: knowledge and community. I have seen older coworkers who have worked at libraries their entire life marginalized in the workplace because they have a completely different understanding of how libraries should operate. They don’t view the library as a workplace, they view it as a community centered around knowledge, and most of the older coworkers I’ve had have built remarkable relationships with members of the community. For most people, that’s what libraries are all about — the helpful librarians who facilitate learning. But we cannot return to that old type of library, because capitalism will not allow it. Libraries can only ever exist at the periphery of capitalism due to their nature, and as we move further into the neoliberal era, libraries will continue to be subjected to the logic of capitalism. As Webster says, “the library is a site of work, and therefore of struggle.”4 

Librarians understand this, and there definitely has been struggle within libraries over the last few years. Library staff have been unionizing, the Abolitionist Library Association formed in the wake of the George Floyd Protests, and libraries have become a site of political contestation, as evidenced in the uproar over Drag Queen Story Hours. Conservatives, like James Panero, are lamenting this “politicization” of libraries. He says, 

“The American library, until recently a refuge of neutral quietude, has become a booming battleground in the culture wars… The organization [the American Library Association] published its “Resolution to Condemn White Supremacy and Fascism as Antithetical to Library Work.” The edict claimed that “libraries have upheld and encouraged white supremacy both actively through discriminatory practices and passively through a misplaced emphasis on neutrality.” The proclamation charged the ALA’s “Working Group on Intellectual Freedom and Social Justice” to “review neutrality rhetoric and identify alternatives.” The quiet, neutral library was out. Full-throated progressive politics were in. As Emily Drabinski, a self-described “Marxist lesbian” who was recently elected president of the ALA, stated on her campaign website: “So many of us find ourselves at the ends of our worlds. The consequences of decades of unchecked climate change, class war, white supremacy, and imperialism have led us here.”5

Panero perfectly articulates the dominant conception of libraries (neutral and quiet), and then spends most of the article reviewing the history of library design with the implication being that debates in libraries used to revolve around the library itself, whereas now, the woke police have taken over and made debates in libraries about, (gasp!), politics. Librarians are now challenging the canon through collection development, and some libraries are even reforming their own classification systems. For example, the Dewey Decimal system that is used at most public libraries has been criticized for racism. An egregious example is Dewey’s cataloging on religion, which encompasses the 200’s section. Anna Gooding-Call says, “there’s a section in the 200s just for Black people. The entire 299.6 subdivision is for ‘religions originating among Black Africans and people of Black African descent.’ In fact, everything about ‘African religion of Haitians in Haiti’ can be fit into 299.6097294, according to the DDS. Because at some point, someone — for some reason — decided that Haitian religions originating from Black people were not as important as ‘Germanic’ religions originating from white ones.”6 In other words, African religions only have a single number within the entire 200s, while Christianity and Western religion encompass almost the entire 200s. The public library I worked at was actively reforming their Dewey system for this reason, which I’m sure Panero would hate. 

There can never be an ideal library under capitalism, in the sense of fulfilling the true mission of libraries in providing knowledge and serving the community. While we cannot escape the crisis of libraries, we can struggle against library management, against towns that prefer to fund racist police departments, and seek to overhaul racist collection practices. But these struggles must be incorporated into the larger struggle against capitalism. After all, the crisis in libraries is only a symptom of a larger problem. 

Notes

1. I would argue that these reactions are a result of libraries, like museums, being perceived as sacred. As Benjamin argues, artworks under capitalism possess a cult value that results from art’s origins as a ritualistic practice. The same holds true for books, which have similar origins in Western society. 

2. Ben Webster, “Notes of a Library Worker,” Viewpoint Magazine, September 25, 2013. 

3. Webster, “Notes of a Library Worker.”

4. Webster.

5. James Panero, “A Library by the Book,” New Criterion, December 2022. 

6. Anna Gooding-Call, “Racism in the Dewey Library System,” Book Riot, September 3, 2021. 

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