Monday, March 12, 2018

Neoliberalism, Libraries and Cars in Space | Sara Bond

My supervisor asked the library staff at a recent meeting if we had any ideas for how to use the library’s open and reconfigurable seating space in a new way. A couple days later, I emailed her and suggested setting up Legos and board games there, so that people could come and take a break from their work and do something fun and spontaneous, and maybe even meet someone new that could spark a new collaboration. I work at a special library, where the general public doesn’t come in, and government clearance is required to even step foot inside. The library is one of the few spaces, if not the only, that has common-use space for anyone from any part of the institution to come and use, but its value is misunderstood, and physical space is shrinking to make way for other projects, i.e., projects with market value that are not simply cost centers.
My supervisor liked my Lego and board games idea, but asked me to prove the “ROI,” the return-on-investment, of such a venture. “What benefit is it to the institution?” she asked. The benefits of having a communal space are no longer self evident. I ended up defending the idea by looking into Google’s studies on “serendipitous” spaces at their campuses, which are “proven” with some kind of data-driven method, to improve employee morale, and encourage creativity and collaboration, which ultimately is about keeping workers working, which boosts Google’s financial gains. Google has several spaces for employees to gather casually, including spaces with Legos and board games. My supervisor liked this reasoning, and the financial ethics of it all seemed to resonate as something to be valued and respected by the higher ups. But, to borrow from Audre Lorde, neoliberalism’s tools will never dismantle neoliberalism’s house.
I’m fearful that, with the reality that libraries face each and every day, as their budgets are cut, and the demands to track metrics and measure their value quantitatively and financially increase, this “financial talk” may be all a librarian fighting for survival has to fight back with. However, there is no winning a neoliberal game when the intrinsic value of a library lies in its commitment to the public good.
As David Harvey writes in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, “Neoliberalism has meant, in short, the financialization of everything.”[1]  Without “financializing” itself, the library has no place in this neoliberal world. My librarian-in-the-making self cringes at the thought of what a “financialized” library looks like, though it is already happening. In my personal experience as a reference desk assistant at the UCLA Science and Engineering library, I have to log every interaction, all in the name of usage metrics. How to use the printer, where the bathroom is, where the stapler is, why is this book not on the shelf, etc. Log all of it. What isn’t logged are the hundreds of students that don’t talk to me, but that come in every day, to sit, read, browse the internet, procrastinate, sleep, and generally do whatever it is a group of stressed out academics does to stay afloat. The space itself has a value that neoliberalism can’t touch, but what gets valued are the metrics.

In her article, “The McDonaldization of Academic Libraries and the Values of Transformational Change,” Karen Nicholson writes,

James K. Elmborg argues that, when we market library space as a product, it ceases to be an “absolute space” endowed with cultural significance, to become instead an “abstract space,” emptied of intrinsic meaning and given over to commercial use and generic identity, “like mini-marts, Wal-marts, McDonalds, and malls.”[2]

Fighting neoliberalism with neoliberalism debases the library’s true power - that of a cultural institution in the public sphere. Why do we constantly undercut our true value to appear more like some kind of convenience store, logging sales of cigarettes and those mysterious hot dogs that rotate under the heat lamp by the register?
There is something about neoliberalism that is so slippery, that is hard to see. It is hard to define. Why? Nicholson writes: “It is precisely because neoliberalism is part of our everyday lives that it remains largely invisible to us. This might explain why LIS has paid little attention to neoliberalism to date.”[2] It is so inherently part of our culture and lifestyles, that to try and challenge it is especially difficult. It’s so naturalized and normalized, we, or perhaps I, don’t know what it would be to exist without it. It is like a moving, slimy creature in the jungle out of an 80s movie like The Predator, slippery and invisible to those that try to see it for what it is, but able to outdo us easily by the humanness and warmth we exude despite ourselves.
I tend to want to put some kind of visceral feeling to what neoliberalism “feels” like. What does it feel like to live in a system that, as Harvey puts it, “seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market?”[1] It’s maybe easier to think about when you think of all the bodies that are not able to perform this marketized human action.  That is, disabled bodies, or elderly bodies, or child’s bodies. Bodies that are sick, or tired, or hungry, or in danger. There are so many shapes that humans take that are not marketizable, financializable. The answer, in neoliberal doctrine, is they fall through the cracks, and with 45 in the office, they have no safety net. Neoliberalism is for the “white, straight, healthy, neurotypical, upper and middle-class, cis- and able-bodied man who makes his home in a wealthy country, has never not had health insurance, and whose importance to society is everywhere recognized and made explicit by that society; whose importance and care dominates that society, at the expense of everyone else.”[3] Neoliberalism gets to decide who is worthy of survival, and that seems to be determined by their domain in the market.
I had a brief moment, a few weeks ago, looking up at the night sky, where I mistook the glow of the 76 gas station sign, round and persistent, oddly, reassuring, for the moon itself. Is even space safe from neoliberalism? There is now a Tesla looking down at us from above in our solar system, and it doesn’t seem a stretch to picture a McDonald’s on Mars. But what about a library on Mars?

Works Cited
[1]  Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
[2]   Nicholson, Karen P. “The McDonaldization of Academic Libraries and the Values of Transformational Change.” College and Research Libraries 76, no. 3 (2015): 328–38.
[3]  Hedva, Johanna. “Sick Woman Theory.” Mask Magazine, n.d.

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