Miskatonic University Press

Politics in the Library

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Last month I read Sam Popowich’s post Gramsci and Library Neutrality, where he said he’d been “interviewed along with University of Alberta School of Library and Information Studies professor Michael McNally on the CJSR radio show Shout for Libraries.” I started following CJSR, and they must have broadcast the show a couple of days ago because it showed up on SoundCloud. I recommend it to anyone interested in libraries and politics (bearing in mind that if you don’t like it when people recommend reading Marx and Gramsci then the interview will rub you the wrong way).

Sam digs into Gramsci in his blog post:

We began by discussing the age-old question of library neutrality. Neither Michael nor I support the idea of library neutrality and, while I have met rank-and-file librarians who hold this position, I find it mostly part of the discourse and value system of library administrators. When Michael and I were asked why we think the idea of library neutrality continues to be so strongly held, we mentioned things like reification of social relations and hegemony. But the question made me start wanting to dig a little deeper into this: why has library neutrality continued to be a bone of contention ever since at least the 1970s debates around social responsibility and professionalism, if not before.

In the show Sam says this issue and others can come to a head when there’s a labour problem happening. Things get real. I can tell you that’s my experience where I work. I’m one of two librarian union stewards in the York University Faculty Association (Patti Ryan is the other), and we’ve been dealing with a variety of issues over the last few years. We haven’t had any trouble with “neutrality,” but other things have come up, and they’ve moved from being theoretical issues discussed in the abstract to being real things discussed in real terms because they are problems that need to be solved, and there is a framework—the collective agreement—we can use to do that.

Moss on a tree—not a metaphor.
Moss on a tree—not a metaphor.

At the end of the interview, Sam recommends reading Gramsci’s Notebooks and The Myth of the Neutral Professional. Michael McNally recommends In Solidarity: Academic Librarian Labour Activism and Union Participation in Canada, edited by Jennifer Dekker and my colleague Mary Kandiuk, which I think every Canadian academic librarian should have a look at, as well as any others interested in academic librarianship and labour issues.