Democratic Student Participation at Olin College at METRO Conference 2017

By ktidwell

     At the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s annual conference on January 11, 2017, the two keynote sessions were both about libraries’ physical spaces, a theme perhaps influenced by METRO’s own move to, and plans for, a new location. Along with new spaces, all of the featured libraries talked about new technology- from large flatbed scanners, digital vinyl cutters, 3-D printers, photo stations, to interactive design stations- and the ways in which the spaces and their contents could be aligned to promote user participation and a sense of ownership. The final keynote from Jeff Goldenson of Olin College of Engineering credited the administrative transfer of decision-making to students and student access to shared property with the library’s success in engaging learning in their new space. While Olin Library’s experiment in democratizing decision-making worked for its institution, the presentation caused consternation among some audience members who expressed concern that Olin’s relative abundance of financial resources and small user population was a palliative and privileged measure for implementing democratic theory in libraries.

     The final keynote from Goldenson about the small liberal arts school’s campus library was a visually lush multi-media presentation about student engagement and the physical and technological improvements made to the space. Olin is an engineering college. The library, led by Goldenson, made itself central to campus life by becoming a sandbox to a volunteer group of students who were empowered by permission and access to funds to act on what they felt the library needed to become a useful resource to campus. For Olin this looked like a special collection of lendable power tools, a vinyl sticker cutter and student’s self-made labels for shelves, a hydroponic garden in a bookshelf, a free pour-over coffee bar, and bookshelves on rolling casters. For all its technological trappings, however, Olin library’s success was founded on its group of volunteer students, OWL, or Olin Workshop on the Library, who made decisions in a democratic manner. In a critical overview of democratic theory in library and information science, Democratic theory in LIS: toward an emendation, John Buschman reviews writings by Sheldon Wolin, Jürgen Habermas, and Amy Gutmann and generalizes that “democracy is not a specific thing to be attained (like a possession or a perfected structure), but rather a process that enables – even requires – debate about its meaning, limits, and problems in order to realize authentic collective democratic action.” By inviting students into the library as decision makers, Olin college created an evolutionary system that began to address problems as they presented themselves and to act on new ideas as they arose.

     The library also saw its student population as a network: students in OWL began taking input from students not directly involved in the library and highlighting them in meetings. As a student volunteer group, these contributions were made out of a love for collaborative creation. Yochai Benkler writes about this kind of non-capital motivation 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, where he says that “nonmarket collaborations can be better at motivating effort and can allow creative people to work on information projects more efficiently than would traditional market mechanisms and corporations.” Though Benkler was talking specifically about networking over computers, his ideas apply here too. One of the reasons Benkler saw computer networks as a counter to the “industrial information economy” was the relatively low resource threshold to access free information and low cost or free access to tools of creation. In Olin Library’s case, allocation of budget to student-driven projects made resources available to be used collaboratively, in conjunction with the library’s core resource- information in digital and physical formats. The library encourages late-night student meet ups with no staff supervision- sending a message that the administration trusts and will minimally regulate student resource use. Students who build structures for the library are encouraged to share their plans, and photo stations are sometimes used to create shared art projects. In some ways, this seems to be a physical expression of the kind of collaboration that evolved during the “emergence of the networked information economy.”

     During the Q&A after Goldenson’s presentation, a jarring question drew both surprise and nodding heads. A public librarian raised his hand and asked: “What was your presentation about?” After the hour-long talk, the question seemed on the surface obtuse. Yet by the reactions of several in the crowd, it was implying a deeper divide in how people in the room understood the very purpose of a library. In a room of librarians from institutions of varying resources, those on the lower-resourced end were visibly uneasy about advancements in Democratic participation in libraries expressed as stream of new, and expensive, technical acquisitions. While Olin’s budget mimicked some of the freedoms of the internet for its students alone by allowing them a say in resources allocation and a freedom of use, it still falls under a critique of liberal arts education from Sheldon Wolin in his 2000 essay, Political Theory: From Vocation to Invocation, as quoted by John Buschman in Democratic theory in LIS:

“The ’virtual university’ tailored to the needs of a technologically driven society is gaining support […] it offers the hope, mainly illusory, that by a severely practical curriculum its students can climb the wall separating the [classes]. When scrutinized according to such measures as costeffectiveness… and productivity, the ideals of the humanistic liberal arts education cannot survive, except as an appendage to the culture industry or as a Potemkin village where the sons and daughters of the rich … receive a polish unobtainable elsewhere.”

When METRO participants from institutions with fewer resources assessed Olin’s demonstration of collaborative possibilities, many saw it as an unobtainable goal, and possibly even undesirable one. Even if Olin’s students are not exclusively “sons and daughters of the rich,” its exclusivity and high funding allow it smooth democratic operation within its prescribed world, where entry to its resources is guarded by restrictive school admissions, and where its pool of contributors is circumscribed. To some other librarians, the freedoms described at Olin looked haphazard and unscalable, and a contribution to democratic library involvement that did not meaningfully expand on democratic behavior in libraries at large.

     One of Olin Library’s greatest assets was a voluntary transfer of some governing power from administrators to a network of students. John Buschman asks in Democratic theory and LIS, “Can […] a library support intellectual freedom for its community without practicing it as a workplace?” The Olin Library cannot provide a complete answer to this question; its case study offers only the opposite, that yes, at least one library can support intellectual freedom while practicing it as a workplace.

     This question was tested in the negative at Long Island University when faculty, including librarians, were locked out for twelve days by the administration in a preemptive response to possible strikes over union contract negotiations. In a different session at METRO, Emily Drabinski and Aliqe Geraci detailed how the faculty organized with support from the well-organized library union, additional support from students, other unions, and professional associations. In a quote from the New York Times, Drabinski says, “We made a really clear statement that you can’t run a university without faculty and without students.” This was just one example of a library where empowerment of collective decision making- in this case faculty contract negotiations- was met with administrative absolutism. While Olin was successful in taking advantage of its assets to improve library experience for its specific patrons, the mixed reaction from the community of librarians at the METRO conference demonstrated a need for an acknowledgement of broader issues facing democratic theory and the library field at large when highlighting the success of an unusual institution.


Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press.

Bromwich, J. E., & Robbins, L. (2016, September 14). Faculty Lockout at L.I.U.-Brooklyn Ends With Contract Agreement. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Buschman, J. (2007). Democratic Theory in LIS: Toward an Emendation. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 1483–1496.

Wolin, S. S. (2000) . Political Theory: From Vocation to Invocation. In J. A. Frank & J. Tambornino (Eds.), Vocations of Political Theory (pp. 3-22) . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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