Buschman, libraries, and the public sphere

by Paul Lai

If any of you have read some useful analyses of the relationship between the values of librarianship and the values of the corporate world, please share them in the comments of this post or email me if you’d like to contribute a guest post. I’d love to see more of this discussion foregrounded on the blog.

I’m about half way through John E. Buschman’s Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy (Libraries Unlimited, 2003), which Elaine Harger at Progressive Librarians Guild recommended as background reading on the dangers of mixing business and librarianship. The book is revelatory for me, and Buschman put into words (almost 10 years ago!) many of the vague concerns and frustrations I have felt this past year while immersed in coursework and trying to keep up with some of the current conversations in librarianship through online forums and in scholarly publications. I was pleased to hear from some of my classmates that they had actually read this book in their introduction to library and information science class. I plan on writing up a review of the book as a whole later, but I thought I’d share this paragraph from the end of “Chapter 5: Co-opted or Rolling Over? Follow-the-Leader Library Management and the New Public Philosophy”:

If the public founding of American libraries as a social institution helped to make it the embodiment of the public sphere (as I have argued), the trajectory of library administration is to manage away the public sphere. I have given clear indications of this throughout the chapter: the language of library administration encompasses an information capitalism view of the institution with users as “customers” and “markets” to be “captured.” Along the way, inappropriate business concepts are applied to libraries and cavalierly misused. Trends in buildings and collections have made this discourse concrete in some “transformed” and “reengineered” institutions. When the future of the library is talked about so incessantly in the language of economics, its public (nonprofit) orientation slowly slips away. One is reminded of Wollin’s formulations that “all public questions can be converted into economic terms” and “when the economy becomes the polity, citizen and community become subversive words.” Under such a management discussion regime it appears absurd to defend libraries’ public sphere role in democracy, public memory, embodying organized and rational discourse, and fair and free information as a democratic safeguard. The library-as-public-sphere is being managed out of existence.

. . .

It seems clear to me that fashionable management rhetoric about libraries constitutes a form of managing away the public sphere in librarianship–and possibly managing away the institution itself. It is a discourse shallowly conceived and logically incapable of defending the field long term. Such formulations can–and should–be routinely challenged. (100-101)

Buschman is quite a bit more pointed in his critique than I am, but he is very convincing and really pushes librarians to think through the logic underlying their decisions (most of which, Buschman points out, are ultimately based just in an economic logic without real weight given to the ideal of supporting the public sphere).

For those of you interested in reading shorter pieces of related commentary, please check out these links: