Progressive Librarians Guild
radical views on library & info issues

What progressive librarians believe


What Progressive Librarians Believe: An International Perspective
A presentation to the Vienna International Library Conference of AKRIBIE at the Dr. Karl-Renner-Institut, Vienna 2000

by Mark C. Rosenzweig

Progressive librarians believe that libraries are, or can be — or must be — advocates for — and facilitators of — the public's "right to know," of its right to access to all the socially-produced cultural capital which historically, through the ages, has, for the most part, been created, distributed, accumulated, appropriated, organized on the basis of social forms grounded, in the last analysis, in exploitation, violent maintenance of injustice, structural inequality, wholesale disenfranchisement, but which, nonetheless — or perhaps, on that account, given the price that's been paid —and even in this "democratic" age, is still being paid—represent, as the "human record", our common, collective heritage and precious human legacy.

This means assuring not only the right but the means of access to the whole of literature and art, of cultural artifacts, of scientific and technical information, so-called government information and para-statal information. It means access to alternative points of view on social, economic, political, scientific and cultural issues. This is true whether we are talking about public, school, university or government libraries.

For us, libraries are to be seen as essential parts of the educational and cultural infrastructure of democratic societies, as institutional actors, in fact, in the preservation and extension of democracy. But their existence as such requires also that they admit to being contested terrains and points of resistance. They must be linked, intellectually and politically, to the discussions of and struggles around the role of schools, universities, museums and institutes as part of the system of facilities vital to the development of nations and peoples and key to their successes in overcoming obstacles to the healthy development of fully democratic societies. A literate, educated and inquiry-enabled citizenry is an absolute pre-requisite to the expansion of — and maintenance of — democratic institutions, practices, programs. Beyond this, however, progressive librarians understand that it is critical literacy, critical education and the ability to engage in critical inquiry which is above all necessary to overcoming the limits to democracy and human liberation which libraries along with cognate institutions can help assure.

For surely in every society, historical as well as contemporary, we must not forget - or allow to go unchallenged - that these institutions are also means of social control, reflecting multifariously, complexly, and often unintentionally, relations of domination, defining the world of thought in ways which are marked by hierarchical structures of power and powerlessness, of freedom and unfreedom, not just in what information libraries provide (or don't), but how they do it, the ways it provides as well as what is provided; in the implicit value-judgments inherent in the way libraries function internally and externally; the socially-determined modes of interaction between providers and the provided; the uncritically accepted models of human organization and mediation according to which libraries are conceived and what is says about what they are (as opposed to what they could be).

Nonetheless, ideally, in the contemporary world the network of libraries, nationally and internationally, can be conceived as a vast global university-without-walls, accessible — at least potentially — to all people. To realize its potential, and as part of larger social struggles with which it must be consciously linked, all barriers to access, including invisible forms of social exclusion and those based historically on race, class, ethnicity, gender, levels of national development and position in the global economy (so called "underdevelopment"), not to mention those more obvious and immediate personal limits of age, physical condition, sexual orientation, etc. must be consciously identified, analyzed, an progressively dismantled so that the basic material which libraries and related institutions collect, document, organize, preserve, truly become the common heritage of humankind in the now increasingly international struggle for a better, happier, more just, less violent, healthier world.

One can say that library development within and across nations, aided — and at the same time over defined and sometimes grotesquely distorted — by advances in technology, can represent a form of what can be called "DEMOCRATIC globalization." Holding on to this latter notion is, with all of its qualifications, an important foundation for struggle.

Democratic globalization, however, is, as I've just suggested, not simply an epiphenomenon of unambiguous tendencies of the unfettered development of new technologies which somehow "are" tendentially democratic just by virtue of their existence. On the contrary, these technologies, embedded in existing conditions of production, forms of ownership, powers over regulation and deregulation, and whose development is market-driven, not need-driven, express and impress hidden agendas which are disguised behind the ideology of technology as neutral media which have no meaning or program of their own, and only exist as means which can be used to any ends. Progressive librarians are acutely conscious of the ways in which these media, these techniocal means, become ends In themselves which stand over and above the ideal of humanity's development as its own end, and profoundly determine what goals will be considered, what options will be viewed as possible or desirable or viable.

Democratic globalization therefore, cannot consider itself the inevitable concomitant of technological innovation, and since "our" globalization challenges power-relations not just reflected by but inscribed in technology and media, not surprisingly, runs up against, at the outset of the 21st century, the powerful, market-based policies and institutions of CORPORATE globalization, in which the inexorable economic drives of private profit, the powers of transnational corporate domination, of the priority of high technology over people & the environment, of global financial managers of banks and monopolies (all increasingly outside of the sphere of any democratic controls) unleashed by the destructive neo-liberal policies forced upon — or actively embraced — by governments and institutions, which replace or destroy all other fundamental social mechanisms and commitments.

In face of this progressive librarians everywhere must aggressively defend and expand civil society, the democratic cultural sphere, and the public sector, with organized action, public education, information dissemination, the formation of alliances, the mobilizations of constituencies and communities, and counter-practices at levels from the local to the global.

Neo-liberalism and corporate globalization are corrosive to the social fabric which humankind has been weaving across centuries of struggle, and threatens our collective, common heritage and birthright, natural and cultural.

Librarians, to remain relevant, must increasingly become active partisans of the maintenance, the cultivation, the defense of a sphere-of-life (hopefully an expanding ramifying one) which is not pervaded by and defined by commercialization, accepted inequalities of resources, homogenization of cultures. We must fight to promote diversity, inter-cultural understanding and respect, the free community of scholarship across borders, cooperation of institutions devoted to human development without regard to profit, with humankind's development as an end-in-itself.

One of the main problems facing us as cultural workers is finding ways to mobilize cultural resources and institutions to narrow and eventually eliminate the disempowerment which is supported by the so-called "information" gap, a gap which is both within our communities and nations, and between peoples and nations. As progressives we propose that this is not a problem which will be virtually automatically solved by technological advances, an illusion which is dominant in our field.

Healthy, sustainable human development in a democratizing environment (which has to be carved-out and is by no means a "given") is only possible if — increasingly threatened and defensive — institutions like libraries and people like us, librarians, actively and consciously promote it, against the current, programmatically and practically.

The idea of sustainable development is very important as a concept for us, I think, because we are often under the pressure of technological change in the information sphere, finding ourselves, even in the richest countries, pushed beyond the limits of sustainability where collapse can mean the irreversible disappearance of the very things, the very projects, we thought the technology was meant to advance.

This lack of critical evaluation of information needs of the communities to which we are responsible and of available resources over the long-term in relation to hyped technologies which are based on planned obsolescence and are, by virtue of the market dynamic which drives its development, transient, can be very destructive.

Indeed, we risk in many cases becoming slaves to a logic in which libraries as social institutions rooted in communities and responsive to community needs are displaced by technological and institutional arrangements (with their increasing emphasis on "dis-intermediation") which are implemented in ways in which they leave behind only the ruins of forms of organization and service which we have developed over centuries.

For libraries, internationally, to be a force for democratic development, libraries themselves and the field of librarianship must be democratized. Progressive librarians are obliged to promote changes in the library workplace in which relations are based on mutuality, respect, collective decision-making, interdisciplinarity, appreciation of each others skills and expertise and a commitment to making available continuing library education, on-the-job as well as through library school programs, for all library workers. We must be a force for bringing into the profession, preferentially recruiting, representatives of groups which have been socially, economically marginalized through discrimination and racism, and assuring that they have adequate compensation, training and opportunities for advancement.

Similarly, we in the so-called developed world (of capitalism) must respect and support and actively make contact with the projects of the poorer countries (whose structural position in the global economy threatens to worsen their immediate prospects) to develop an information infrastructure which reflects the needs of the broadest masses without encouraging these nations' incorporation into a "new world order" which holds out promises to them even as it wields the stick of economic coercion, and is an order in which their cultural identities will be obliterated by "McDonaldization."

People say librarianship and partisanship don't mix. I reject this proposition and believe, in fact that partisanship is deeply embedded (both negatively and positively, to be sure) in the library ethic and that it is necessary for us to continue to illuminate in our professional circles, the social commitments entailed by librarianship.

In the US — where mainstream librarians today insist that librarianship is value-neutral — the profession nonetheless has the following commitments, as reflected in its own policy documents (that is, those of the American Library Association (ALA)).

Commitments, explicit or implicit include: defense of free speech and protection of dissent; of the rights to privacy and to free thought and conscience; commitments to the advancement of the public welfare, of health, security and peace; to human rights and the covenants protecting them; to the protection of a sphere of "public goods" in all areas affecting the basis of human welfare; to the elimination of social and economic barriers to access to information and cultural resources; to the eradication of illiteracy and educational inequities; to the overcoming of information/technology based divisions between communities of "haves" and "have-nots"; to the value of promoting cultural diversity and making available the widest range of opinions and critical viewpoints in all media; to the on-going struggle of African-Americans to overcome the legacies of slavery and of the racism which still pervades our society; to the fight of Asian-Americans to overcome stereotypes and ethic bigotry; to the right sand demands of indigenous peoples; to the advancement and protection of women's rights, specifically including "abortion rights'; to the affirmation of the rights of homosexuals and sexual minorities; to the end of anti-Semitism and the full rights of national minorities; to labor rights and respect for their exercise; to the rights of children to the least restrictive environment for the exercise of their intellectual curiosity and respect for the developmental needs and growth of autonomy of the child; to non-discrimination, opposition to bigotry and bias, and social exclusion; to comprehensive programs to address the needs of the poor and to help overcome poverty, homelessness and disenfranchisement; to priority service to the least advantaged; to the value of cooperation and shared resources; to equitable and sustainable development; to free, universal public education and life-long learning; to everybody's rights to leisure, play and entertainment; for peaceful solutions to international conflicts; asserting the right to decent conditions of work; to an end to environmental despoliation and for increased awareness and action on ecological issues; to responsible stewardship of the cultural resources of all peoples.

For a value-neutral profession that certainly is an extensive list of value-commitments! However, we should point out that many of these commitments are only on paper and holding the profession to their actual practice is a job which falls, more often than not, on the shoulders of progressive librarians.

So, while I am committed to drawing up a more coherent and hopefully more complete program to propose to this group, for now let me suggest several elements of the basis of common work as, specifically, progressive librarians.

1) Expansion of free access across national borders to cultural resources with special attention to the poor and marginalized communities, while at the same time fighting for improved, publicly funded, services and resources for the entire community.

2) The maintenance of the library as part of a necessary public sphere, as community-building institutions which are extensions of the educational systems, but as means to make education, self-development, community-support, conscious social projects with deep public support.

3) Promotion of diversity in library staff and in library materials collected. The library should reflect the diversity of society and the multiplicity of its interests. We must oppose the "economic censorship" which excludes vast tracts of so-called alternative literature" as being unaffordable luxuries. They are not: they are important resources for social struggle and many-sided self-development.

4) Opposition to corporate globalization, privatization of social services, monopolization of information resources, the commodification of information, the profit-driven destruction, or private appropriation and control, of cultural artifacts and the human record.

5) Defense of the sovereignty of nations and peoples against the imposition of cultural homogeneity, encouraging grass-roots cooperation by libraries, within and between countries, which respects the differences in social systems, particularly in the developing world.

6) Creation of strategic alliances among cultural workers of all kinds and at all levels to encourage solidarity (including defense of such workers against government attack) and to enhance our political power. Promoting connections between the cultural sector and the popular masses, encouraging civic education for informed choices and effective activism.

This is, as you can see, not by any means an exhaustive list of programmatic items, and I hope discussion here & in the future will develop the basis for effective common work between our organizations There is much need to organize internationally, much to be gained from uniting around shared values and goals.

Mark Rosenzweig is co-editor of Progressive Librarian, co-founder of the Progressive Librarians Guild and an American Library Association Councilor at large (for identification purposes only)