Locating the Library in Institutionalized Oppression

This image is pretty great for illustrating the topic of this post. I looked for, but couldn’t find, the image source or, more importantly, the name of the man in the picture. Of course, this sentiment and statement isn’t unique to him, but it is a visceral expression of what it means to exist in a society designed to perpetuate oppression and inequality. A society, rather than is often thought, is fundamantally successful in its goals all while convincing us to keep ‘fixing’ what isn’t actually broken (leading to incremental and sometimes revolutionary improvements on performance and efficiency).

I have a slight preference, when talking about oppression, to focus on the macro, institutional level. This doesn’t mean that I think that dealing with interpersonal instantiations of oppression are unimportant (indeed, the exact opposite is true). But rather, I prefer attempting to deal with the institutions and social systems that enable individual, discriminatory behaviour.

But what does this mean when talking about ‘diversity’ in libraries? How do we even begin to make sense of this question without understanding that libraries themselves, as institution, are not exempt from the inherent oppressive natures of, say, the judicial system? Or the current system of governance? Or the many and varied economic systems that drive material inequity?

The answer? We can’t, in fact, have a productive (or even coherent) conversation about equality or freedom within libraries and/or librarianship without understanding the ways that libraries (in the modern age) are actually designed to be oppressive.

When you peek into the history of public libraries, perhaps starting around the Public Libraries Act of 1850 in Britain and contuing on during the age of Carnegie Libraries, a period spanning about 70 or 80 years (1850-1920s), we can see that Black men were only nominally citizens (and slavery just barely ended) in the US (while they had the ‘right’ to vote, they were usually unable to exercise that right). Women, of any race, weren’t citizens (unable to vote). And, importantly, this was also still within the more violent stages of the (ongoing) genocide of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

I focus on the notion of citizenship as voting because the ALA’s code of ethics states:

In a political system grounded on an informed citizenry…

And, of course, the political system they refer to is ‘democracy,’ wherein the right to vote is one of the most critical and important rights.

All of this history is critical for understanding that when libraries were shifting from private institutions to institutions designed for the ‘public good,’ the notion of who, exactly, was considered part of the ‘public’ was radically different than today. Indeed, when you look into the rhetoric of why public libraries became a thing, it was a middle-to-upper class initiative enrich and ‘better’ the working class, so that they’d have something to do with their free time other than realize just how crappy this new economic system was for them. One could say that this was the beginning of the realization of what Aldous Huxley would later describe in Brave New World, whereby the masses are placated and kept complacent via distracting and pleasurable activities (of course, not that successful at the beginning since it took a fair bit of time before public libraries had content that actually appealed to working class, which is also, incidentally when the middle-to-upper classes started turning up their noses at public libraries).

The reality behind the library as institution for oppression is also expressed in well known critiques bias in the LCSH, a system still very much in use. But note that even most of the critiques of the system still largely insist on reforming LCSH, rather than doing away with it entirely and making a new system that tries to remove as much bias as possible. Of course, even if we were to push for a new system, would we actually be able to create one with fewer biases? Probably not, given that librarianship has a largely homogenous workforce.

I write all of this not as a call to abolish libraries, but out of a desire to see the dogmatic assertions that libraries are a prima-facie good for society. So much of current discourses on libraries is either nostalgic or fetishizing of the library as concept and institution. And I’ve seen very few people take a critical and sincere approach to analysing how the library, as institution, is actually oppressive and designed to create and perpetuate inequity.

It is a strange that so many people appear to think that libraries, for some unstated and never explored reason, managed to escape the inherent, deep oppression (not just bias) that exists in every other public institution (the police, the judicial system, the education system, the health system, the economy, democracy, and so on). And while not everyone has to agree with my particular stance (as in, I’m not a reformist), we should be suspicious about this framing of libraries as unquestioned good, particularly since we have no real evidence that libraries to only good (or even more good than they do harm).

I do understand that this is a difficult and unsavoury position/approach given the current climate for libraries. However, I definitely think that having a better idea of what, exactly, we are fighting for will likely give us more effective strategies and methods for, ideally, creating a future for libraries that ends oppression.

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