Happy End of 2015

Rebecca
Rebecca on her day off, still in the office [photograph]. Nada Sweid (photographer). Rebecca Ciota (editor). 2015.
Librarians know how to throw a party. Who knew? They’re so great at these parties, that I even came into work on my days off to celebrate with my coworkers. Over to the right, you can see me supervising the drink (all non-alcoholic) cart. Yeah, not all that exciting – but I was ready for the awesome food and time to get to know my colleagues better. The holiday party is a great way to end the year.

I hope all of my readers are having a good end to their 2015.

Here’s to hoping that 2016 has its highlights.  For me, I’m aiming for graduation from my MLIS program (and I’ll be celebrating with my coworker J who will be getting her BA at the same time). I’m hoping to keep up with the acquisitions work and coursework and my life as I round out my education. I’m also striving to make the most of the opportunities that present themselves.

What are you, my readers, hoping for in 2016?

Well, if you’re hoping for more of my library blog, I hope to keep doing that too. Stay tuned for next week’s post of narrative art.

Happy end of 2015!

Neoliberalism in the Academic Library

This post is derived from a December 2015 poster presentation I gave on Neoliberalism in Academic Libraries. You can view the poster here.

American Stock Exchange 2008
Awesome image by Russ Allison Loar (2008). Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic, via Flickr.

I’m not always a “fun” person.  Sometimes, you’ll find me inside on a Friday night, reading about some strange and academic-ish topic.  One fine week in September, I took an interest in the history of higher education in the United states. One of the articles I read William Deresiewizc’s “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold its Soul to the Market,” in Harper Magazine. Basically, it discussed how American colleges have sold their souls to the market.  American higher education no longer focuses on education as a means of creating critical or analytical thinkers, democratic citizens, ethical individuals.  Now, educators and institutions of higher education look to turn a profit: they put money into aesthetics, building new and ritzy dorms and pimping out their athletic facilities, while neglecting to put equal amounts of money into academics; they market their rate of job placement and not whether or not their students learn anything or make a true impact on society; they continuously raise tuition without any marked improvement in curriculum.

After reading Deresiewizc’s article, I began to wonder how academic libraries are impacted by neoliberal thought.  Have librarians and libraries embraced neoliberalism, just as their larger institutions have?  Or are they somehow resisting?

To start talking about neoliberalism in libraries, first, I ought to define neoliberalism.  I know I had a hard time grasping the term when I first heard it, so I’ll try to explain it the best I can for you.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines neoliberalism as a theory “Of, relating to, or characteristic of a modified or revived form of traditional liberalism, esp. one based on belief in free market capitalism and the rights of the individual.”  Nowadays, we’re used to thinking about liberalism as being pro-social welfare, intersectional feminist, pro-choice, pro-larger government, etc.  Well, with neoliberalism, we’re talking about, as Oxford English Dictionary says, “traditional liberalism.”  Basically, we’re talking about the liberalism of the 1840s – when being liberal meant wanting a constitutional monarchy instead of an autocrat, upholding Adam Smith’s capitalism, where socialism was just a twinkle in Marx’s eye (Marx wouldn’t publish his Communist Manifesto until 1848).  With neoliberalism, we then give this traditional liberalism a contemporary twist.  After the 2008 economic downturn, people have started to value things based on whether it will get them a job and money.  And that is basically neoliberalism – can it get me a job? can it get me money? If not, it’s not worth anything.

So, most academic libraries exist within institutions and within a society that really buys into these neoliberal ideas.  Do academic libraries and librarians buy into it too?  Yes.

My research highlighted a few areas where neoliberalism has infiltrated libraries.  First, information is treated as a commodity.  This commodification of information can be seen in many ways.  We use words that suggest information is a good: librarians, like ATMS, have reference transactions; people talk about consuming information (about users being consumers or customers). Or you can see information commodified in electronic resources especially: a print book might be $12 and can circulate pretty much anywhere; an ebook costs a library around $400 and it comes with a list of how it can be used.  Then, when trying to seek funding, libraries often have to prove their viability as a business – not per se their need.  Libraries also try to become more like bookstores and coffee shops – often setting up coffee shops in libraries. Melissa and I, at least, know that coffee shops in libraries are often money-losing enterprises; free market capitalism just doesn’t seem to work in collective and non-monetized spaces like libraries.

After having seen neoliberalism seep into libraries, I wondered how librarians – and their libraries – might be combatting that neoliberalism.  In their book Critical library instruction theories and methods, Accardi, Drabinski and Kumbier suggest that librarians implement “critical pedagogy” and have students ask what it means or does to use information. Three librarians from the UK – Lawson, Sanders, and Smith in “Commodification of the Information Profession: A Critique of Higher Education Under Neoliberalism” – propose teaching “liberation bibliography” which insists that learning supports the greater good, not the individual or institution; the “liberation bibliography” also resists the commodification of information by insisting there is no hierarchy of information, that scholarly information is no more or less valid than non-scholarly information, that Open Access materials are no more or less valid than traditionally published materials.

So, that’s what I’ve learned about neoliberalism in the library.  And I have a few questions to leave you with: where do librarians really fit into neoliberal ideas? Are we resisting them, supporting them, and is one better than the other? How might neoliberalism be good for libraries and their patrons? How might it be bad?

Self-Care: Wisdom from a Colleague

Lisa and Rebecca
My friend and coworker, L, retired at the end of November.

At the end of November, my friend and coworker, L, retired after 30 years working in the library acquisitions department.  Before we stuffed our faces with vanilla cake with cream cheese icing, our department head stood up to give a brief commemorative speech.  After that, she turned over the talk to L.

L didn’t talk, really, about herself.  First, she briefly thanked the entire department for being great people to work with.  Then, she decided to give advice on how she was able to lead such a long and happy career in library acquisitions.

L said that her series of bosses (department heads) in acquisitions enabled her to have a great career.  The three supervisors she had would provide training and then they would step back; they gave L space to “do what [she] needed to do” in order to get her job done.  And, more importantly, she said, her supervisors gave her space and time to take care of herself as well.  So long as L got her work done and made up her hours, her supervisors allowed plenty of flexibility, allowing L to take care of herself and her family while helping the library progress through previously unheard of changes. (She saw approval books to approval paper slips to electronic approval slips. She participated in the population of the online catalog. when it was first implemented.  She went from cataloging print books in a card catalog, to managing the receipt and cataloging of ebooks.)

This flexibility that L described is incredibly important.  Yes, ideally, all workplaces would allow their employees with plenty of flexibility – but libraries especially need to be flexible.  The library profession is female-dominated; and (fortunately or unfortunately) women shoulder the majority of the burden for caring for aging parents, children, and the home itself.  Increased flexibility in careers allow libraries to be staffed with incredible, talented women (and men).

And this flexibility helps keep employees engaged.  It gives employees opportunities to refresh.  Even just a regular 40 hours (or 37.5 hours) per week enables this recuperation; 90 hours…does not.  After relaxing and recuperating, employees have the energy and attention to focus on their work; this increases productivity.

So, I’m going to take L’s wisdom to heart, for when I enter management positions: give your team members room to breath (i.e. don’t micromanage); and then be flexible, you’ll have a better team that way.

Privacy and the Library, Part IV

This is the fourth part of a continuing series on privacy and libraries. Read part I and part II and part III.

My last three posts were much more text-driven and narrative.  This post on privacy and the library is a list of links for your reading pleasure.

  • The Right to Privacy” by Warren and Brandeis – One of the earliest American (United States) legal sources discussing the right to privacy.
  • The professional page of leading privacy scholar Helen Nissenbaum, the Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication and Computer Science at NYU and Director at the Information Law Institute.
  • The professional page of leading privacy scholar Daniel Solove, the John Marshall Harlan Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School.  He founded TeachPrivacy, which provides data security training programs.
  • Edward Snowden Explains How To Reclaim Your Privacy” – A recent (November 12, 2015) interview with Edward Snowden, a former employee of the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) on how to reclaim your privacy.
  • Who’s in control of your library’s data?” – An article about how libraries need to protect their patrons’ privacy from third party vendors.
  • Chief Privacy Officers Shouldn’t Be the Last to Know” – Who knew there was a such thing as CPOs in the corporate world? Keeping their companies safe from litigation one secret at a time.
  • Privacy toolkit for librarians – Another list of links that are relevant for librarians who want to incorporate privacy discussions into their library instruction sessions.
stack of newspapers
“12-03-01-axel-springer-by-RalfR-17” by Ralf Roletschek – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Privacy and the Library, Part III

This is the third part of a continuing series on privacy and libraries. Read part I and part II.

Urumqi, Xinjiang, China
“Urumqi city ZT plaza” by Ccyber5. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the greatest parts of attending one of the most international universities in the United States is that you can learn a lot about the “outside” world – if you only take the time to sit down for some (apparently very caffeinated) green tea and mooncakes (月饼).

In the brutal winter months last year, I met a fellow graduate student, Y.  She grew up in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, and then worked for a few years in Shanghai before applying for graduate schools in the United States.  From our first meeting on, Y and I have gorged ourselves on frozen yogurt, exchanged television series recommendations, and swapped stories.

One of our discussions turned to the topic of privacy.  Seeing as I was already writing a series of posts on privacy, I decided that I would include her discussion of privacy in my series.  So, this post might not be completely relevant to libraries, but it does talk about privacy.

In her studies (she is not a librarian), Y came across a discussion of privacy.  The arguments in her field were that privacy, at its very origins, came from the desire to protect private property. (The East and the West developed different senses of the division between public and private, but both stemmed from a desire to protect private property.)  Thus, early in the history of privacy, only the elite would want or need privacy; the common people had little or no property to protect.  Only as more people began to accumulate property did an idea of “universal” privacy – or that everyone has a right to privacy – come into being.

I found this interesting.  And I wondered how this potential origin might affect current ideas of privacy.  Does our society value the privacy of the elite more than the “99%”?  How?  Celebrities’ lives are often scrutinized: they’re the subject of exposés; they’re followed by the paparazzi; they get their own reality shows with cameras following them everywhere.  What do they get to keep private that “the rest of us” don’t?  How is that experience different from, for example, mine?  My information habits are monitored constantly by large corporations like Google; little snippets of my thoughts are read by hundreds on Twitter; my cellphone tracks everywhere I’ve been.  Is the difference that I don’t live behind walls (in a gated community), or that I don’t have PR staff and lawyers to make my “scandals” disappear?

Then, to end on an even more interesting note: Y also noted a difference in privacy and secrecy.  Things that are truly private, she said, have nothing to do with the public.  Secrets, on the other hand, are a place where the public and private intersect.  She used an example that likely hits home for someone from the terror-ridden Xinjiang: a man carries a bomb in his briefcase onto a train.  What he carries on his person, in his briefcase, is very much a private matter.  (Who likes having their bags checked?)  And yet the public ought to know about the presence of the bomb – to stay safe, to avoid a tragedy.

Yes, when planning for a situation like this, citizens and policymakers have to decide how much intrusion on personal privacy is acceptable when trying to discover a deadly secret.