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?

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