Facilitating consent: whither the radical librarian?

Last night I watched the live stream of Noam Chomsky in conversation with Jonathan Freedland at the British Library (YouTube clip embedded below).  Billed as an introduction to the upcoming exhibition, ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’, it was a rare opportunity to listen to the thoughts of perhaps one of the most influential political activists of the post-war era.  Indeed, Chomsky has probably been the biggest influence on me in terms of how I view the state, the use of state power and the role of the media (alongside Naomi Klein, whose No Logo andShock Doctrine have also had a substantial impact upon the way in which I view the world).

One of the main themes in Chomsky’s work is the role of the media and how it reinforces the actions and beliefs of the intellectual class.  Information is a tool used and abused by the state and the intellectual class to reinforce agendas and to encourage a certain world view amongst its citizenry.  The media itself plays a critical role in reinforcing these agendas.  As Chomsky himself notes here:

Now the elite media are sort of the agenda-setting media. That means The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major television channels, and so on. They set the general framework. Local media more or less adapt to their structure.

And they do this in all sorts of ways: by selection of topics, by distribution of concerns, by emphasis and framing of issues, by filtering of information, by bounding of debate within certain limits. They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict — in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society.

The New York Times is certainly the most important newspaper in the United States, and one could argue the most important newspaper in the world. The New York Times plays an enormous role in shaping the perception of the current world on the part of the politically active, educated classes. Also The New York Times has a special role, and I believe its editors probably feel that they bear a heavy burden, in the sense that The New York Times creates history.

The media, a prime source of information for much of the population, is designed to serve the interests of the elites. It then follows, obviously, that the media applies a filter to information, selecting what information reinforces existing structures, and filtering out that which damages those same structures.

Of course, given that it was a discussion about information and propaganda held in the British Library, libraries themselves entered the discussion (Chomsky argued that the establishment of the public library network had a far deeper, more profound impact on society than the introduction of the internet).  Which got me thinking about librarians, the profession and the institution of the library.

It is clear to me that the role of the librarian in society is a radical one.  We provide access to information in a society that is subjected to both filtered information from the media, and growing corporate control of the flow of information.  With the growth of neo-liberalism, the institution of the public library has increasingly become a radical idea.  After all, in a neo-liberal society, everything has its price, including information.  An institution that provides free access to anything in a neo-liberal society is by default an anomaly and a radical one at that.  It therefore follows that the role of the librarian is equally radical.  After all, a professional librarian provides access to information without discrimination, a dangerous concept in any society where information is majority controlled either by the state or by corporate interests.

It is interesting to note, however, that the radical roots of the profession are often hidden away.  Increasingly, they are hidden away under a mountain of corporate speak and superficial obsessions.  In some way this is understandable. Market forces have been imposed on much of the sectors in which librarians operate.  Where they have been imposed, it is natural to assume the mantras of the neo-liberal elites.  After all, an animal rights activist will not refuse a gun if dumped in the middle of the African plains.  But sometimes I wonder if amongst the corporate language, the core principles of the librarian aren’t being lost.

I often despair when librarians warmly enthuse about Amazon.  Primarily, this despair stems from the belief that a company like Amazon transparently does not share the values that we espouse as a profession.  They are a corporate entity who, like all corporate entities, does not put benevolence at the core of its business.  They are motivated by profit.  And if that profit comes from majority control of one of the means by which we obtain information, then they will seek to consolidate control.  Not only are their intentions anti-competitive, but they also do severe damage in terms of access to information.

I also tend to disagree with those who do not believe that values should be at the centre of the profession.  For me, without values we have no right to consider ourselves ‘professionals’. Indeed, anyone who signs up to the professional body also signs up theprofessional values that it espouses.  Personally speaking, I cannot understand how it is possible to sign up to a set of professional values and subsequently view them as an optional extra.

From my point of view, the profession stands for providing access to information to enable an informed citizenry, standing against the tide of corporatisation of information and the radical assault on the notion of free and equitable access to that information.  In a way it is sad that arguing for the very things that are the foundation of the profession is, in some way, seen as ‘radical’.  But then, if it makes us ‘radical’ in arguing for equitable access to information and ensuring consolidation of an informed citizenry, so be it.