A Political Economy of Librarianship???

By etoole

William F. Birdsall, in his “A Political Economy of Librarianship,” laments the fact that libraries have not been an important part of the “emerging national and global information infrastructures.” (Birdsall, p.1) Instead, governments have largely looked toward private enterprise to generate the means by which citizens are provided access to the so-called information highway. While I certainly share his dismay that the public institution long charged with providing public access to information has coasted through the arrival of the information age, the remedy he proposes – to develop a political economy of librarianship — is strangely misguided.

Birdsall begins by describing the “ideology of Information Technology,” supposed to be at the root of the wrongheaded information public policy which is the target of his article. This ideology builds on the drive of politicians to deliver society from the industrial to the information age by creating a space for a deregulated market for information and information services in which firms compete in the realm of e-commerce and development of information technologies. Furthermore, individuals assume the role not of citizen but of consumer, fulfilling his duty to buy goods in the “internet mall.” Certainly, this cuts a librarian to the core. To a professional whose main charge is to provide access to informational material, it would seem that the new world brought about by the merger of computers and telecommunications should provide universal access to all kinds of digitized media, or possibly provide citizens with a more transparent and direct relationship to their government. It should be used for good, not commerce.

But this phantom IT ideology which exists only for Birdsall is reminiscent of a much better established ideology, that of Neoliberalism. The notion can be summed up in the following three axioms: cut government funding of public institutions and programs (austerity); limit government interference in the market (deregulation); and, whenever possible, consign the functions of the state to private enterprises. By viewing the problem through this broader lens, with the impact on comparable public institutions brought into view, the analysis can move beyond the politics of the library and seen instead as a more generalized flaw in the present attitude of government. If, as he says, “Libraries are marginalized as institutions serving the public,”(Birdsall, p.5) they are certainly not the only ones. What about Public Schools, the worst of which are being depopulated and overtaken by private charter schools? Or Public Universities, whose state funding has been reduced from the major portion of the budget to a pittance in recent years?

Birdsall proceeds from his diagnosis, always staying within the realm of the library, to call for the development of a political economy of librarianship. This is to be accomplished through the alliance of academics and practitioners who will unite to somehow spur a reinvestment in libraries and bring them to the forefront of the knowledge-based economy. Maybe I am overly skeptical, but I think a couple of freshly minted academic papers on the “Ideology of Information Technology” will not be enough to reverse the trend of the state limiting the role of public institutions and throwing the reins to private enterprise.

To add insult to injury, Birdsall, who seeks “a political economy of librarianship [that] could examine, for example, the validity of the premises of the ideology of information technology, how they have become incorporated into public policy, and whose ends are being met”(Ibid., p.7) gives the name praxis to the creation of the proposed theory. Praxis is typically understood be mean the realization or embodiment of a theory in a – typically political – act. Writing more papers does not qualify as taking action. And, to reiterate, it is a mistake to confine analysis of this problem to the particular institution of the library. If one seeking to take action can understand the similar effects of the neoliberal ideology on other public institutions, the possibility of a dialog across those institutions begins. Rather than “providing a common ground bringing practitioner and researcher together,”(Ibid., p.7) why not build alliances between librarians, professors, teachers, etc. to counter the marginalization of the institutions you hold so dear and the assault on public goods in general? That would, at least, merit the name praxis.

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