Language, libraries and ‘The Market’

The central market in Valencia, Spain.

One of the trends in library rhetoric is the increasing use of neoliberal words and terminology. This has been ongoing for some time and, in many ways, is nothing new (indeed, the discussion about it is nothing new). However, it seems to me to be ever more prevalent as growing numbers of people talk about library services (and public services in general) in broadly capitalist terms. We see this through the growth of the use of terms such as ‘customer’, ‘marketing’ and, most recently, in the suggestion that libraries should adopt a ‘market orientation’.

Language is probably not given the importance it deserves. Care needs to be taken with the words we use and how we use them. Words have meaning, but they also come with baggage. It can help engender cultural change within an institution, changing the collective mindset and corrupting the values of an institution.  There are increasing efforts, some might argue, to “roll-out neoliberal logics” within institutions and language is a powerful tool in paving the way for these “logics” to take hold.

But what of neoliberalism? Why should we be concerned about language reflecting neoliberal ideals? Self (Rolling Back the Market: Economic Dogma and Political Choice, 1999) argued that neoliberalism consists of five main dogmas:

  1. The “free market” and market led growth are the principal and most important sources of wealth.
  2. Large incentives are necessary to market efficiency.
  3. The wealth created by free markets will trickle down to benefit all members of society.
  4. The market is intrinsically more efficient than government.
  5. Government should be re-designed according to market methods and incentives to ensure greater efficiency.

Neoliberalism argues that public services are inefficient unless they adopt market strategies to deliver services. Public services should, in effect, adopt a ‘market orientation’. It is by adopting such a strategy that, according to neoliberal dogma, public services will thrive. Not only should we be wary of the strategy, we should also be wary of the terminology that enables it.

Concern about the use and meaning of language is undoubtedly unfashionable. To value language and its meaning is to be too old-fashioned, to hold back progress or to be an infuriating block on progress.  This is a typical characteristic of neoliberal debate – to present the argument as being between two opposing and simple perspectives:

1) The forward-thinking, progressive view.

2) The old fashioned, backwards view.

Such a strategy is well established by neoliberals: neoliberal ideas are painted as progressive, forward-thinking and exciting. Opposition to such ideals (and there will be opposition when espousing neoliberal ideals that are odds with the values of the majority) is somehow a block on progress and somewhat old-fashioned. These old-fashioned perspectives, underpinned by a fear of change, prevent us from making progress. It’s not just about the way they use language, it’s about the way in which they frame the debate.

Language is repeatedly abused by neoliberals to further their goal of turning us from citizens to consumers [pdf]. Our language has become increasingly capitalist, which is perhaps unsurprising when one also considers that we are increasingly living in conditions that could be best described as ‘extreme capitalism’. One does not necessarily cause the other, but it cannot be mere coincidence that our language is increasingly utilised in capitalist terms. Does the shift in language facilitate the growth of the capitalist system, or does the expanding capitalist system influence our language? Is language, in fact, the weapon that enables the rollout of “neoliberal logics”?

In 1961, Raymond Williams pondered the term ‘consumers’ and wondered if we were seen as ‘users’ instead of ‘consumers’:

“…we might look at society very differently, for the concept of use involves general human judgments – we need to know how to use things and what we are using them for… whereas consumption, with its crude hand-to-mouth patterns, tends to cancel these questions, replacing them by the stimulated and controlled absorption of the products of an external and autonomous system”.

Perhaps the changing of our language influences the way we view our society and how it might develop. Maybe using ‘consumers’ (or ‘customers’) instead of ‘users’ sows the seeds of a particular mindset. A mindset that sees society as one filled with consumers rather than citizens, one that enables the establishment of these “neoliberal logics” within institutions.

It is primarily due to concerns about the extent to which language enables the expansion of “neoliberal logics” that I am weary of its growing (mis-)use in libraries. I’m not comfortable with talk about ‘market orientation’ (or ‘marketing’ if I am entirely honest) with respect to public services in general, let alone with specific reference to libraries. Libraries do not exist in a market (although it could be argued that HE libraries operate increasingly within a market environment). Talk of “market orientation” in terms of a public service is, for me, deeply troubling (and I come from the retail sector where such language is obviously deepy ingrained). Not least because one has to question when a market based solution has ever worked for any public institution (clue: never). But also because of what the word actually means.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘market’ as:

Of a manufacturer, advertiser, etc.: to place or establish (a product) on the market; esp. to seek to increase sales of (a product) by means of distribution and promotion strategies. Also (in extended use): to promote the public image of (a person, organization, etc.).

Marketing is:

The action or business of bringing or sending a product or commodity to market; (now chiefly, Business) the action, business, or process of promoting and selling a product, etc., including market research, advertising, and distribution.

Using the terminology of the market simply validates it and encourages its spread, enabling the “neoliberal logic” to take hold. By adopting capitalist language we accept that information is a commodity (a product) that can be promoted and sold (marketed) – in essence “neoliberal logics”. If we accept the logic, do we then accept that our services should be re-designed according to market methods and incentives?

Is it appropriate to frame information as a commodity? And, if it is, how do we square this with our professional ethics? Commodities have prices, it therefore follows that if we treat information as a commodity we accept that it has a price. But if we are concerned with facilitating free access to information, isn’t there a conflict? In a neoliberal, extreme capitalist state the answer is, of course, that there is and that, therefore, the conflict must be resolved in favour of the market (the market trumps all in an extreme capitalist society). We then become marketers and sellers of a product, rather than facilitators of access to a social good. The roll-out of “neoliberal logics” would be complete.

The problem for me is exacerbated by how such terminology is couched. If you oppose such language (as I mentioned above) you are seen as obstructive block to progress, an out of date annoyance. This is how the discussion is often framed: accept market terminology or face marginalisation. The truth is, however, that that particular side of the argument is actually deeply conservative and is, in many respects, the real block on progress. After all, how progressive is it to adopt the terminology and strategies that constitute much of the frameworks of our capitalist society? Surely to reject capitalist norms is to be progressive and forward-thinking? Is a fascination with ‘market orientation’ the actual block on progress? Shouldn’t resistance to “neoliberal logics” be respected in a professional context, rather than rejected out of hand as obstructive? Such resistance is, after all, entirely in tune with our professional ethics.

The adoption of capitalist language and strategies lacks imagination. It’s easy to reach for a solution readily available from there, even when such solutions have had limited success over there.  It seems much harder to come up with a strategy that is substantially different. It takes time and effort to construct something new. We can do much better, we can construct something imaginative and distinct. We do not have to adopt capitalist, neoliberal norms because that’s the path others have followed. We have the skills and the capabilities. It’s no good being fearful and negative, believing that we can do no better than what is done there. We have to believe that we can construct something better.

And this is where the debate often leaves me filled with despair – it prevents us from constructing something new, from using our imagination to construct something better. If you dare to criticise the rollout of “neoliberal logics”, your argument is nullified at source, prevented from being explored in any meaningful sense. There are alternatives, there should not be one dominant voice in the debate, all avenues should be explored and critiques should be a launching pad for further discussion not seen as a threat. However, neoliberals and arch-capitalists frequently frame the debate in such terms so as to close down the opportunity to explore alternatives – leaving us in the state we are in now where we have seen continual ‘progress’ towards an extremist capitalist state.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We do not have to be fearful of the alternatives. We do not have to accept that by rejecting capitalist rhetoric we are, in some way, holding back progress. We do not need to enable “neoliberal logics” to take hold within our services. Fear may prevent us from taking action, from challenging existing norms to create something distinct. But we shouldn’t be fearful of rejecting these norms and creating something new. We have it within ourselves to build an alternative, we just need to be fearless, collaborative and patient.

  • Brian Kelly

    Hi Ian

    I enjoy reading your blog posts – well-written, articulate and written with a passion. However I don’t always agree with your posts!

    In your post you cite a definition of marketing ‘Of a manufacturer, advertiser, etc. and base your critique on the definition “The action or business of bringing or sending a product or commodity to market; (now chiefly, Business)”.

    But we know that marketing is nowadays much more than selling a physical products. We also know that it applies not just to ‘businesses’ but also services.
    I decided to respond to your post after picking up a brochure at the CILIP Wales conference in Cardiff on Thursday which described the changing role of university libraries:

    “Where students used to apply to universities in the hope of being considered for a place universities are realising that increasingly it is they who need to sell themselves to the students”. The article concluded with a quote from Kitty Inglis, Librarians at the University of Sussex: “Students are increasingly identifying themselves as consumers. When choosing a university the quality and content of the course comes first on their list of priorities but now they re looking at the whole package of what is on offer, including the library.”

    In another brochure I picked up Ian Anstice was quoted as saying “The reduction in library funding combined with new game-changing technology have created the perfect storm. Public libraries will never be the same again.”

    For me the importance of marketing library services in light of competition from commercial services, Government cutbacks and (in a university context) the need to ensure the value of library services is both acknowledged and appropriate levels of investment are made should be self-evident.

    Whilst I was at the CILIP Wales conference I came across a series of #USLTG tweets included one which asked:

    “What makes a non-user? Never visits the library? Never borrows bks? Never uses e-resources? Uses our resources without knowing it? #USTLG”

    I would suggest the thing that makes a non-user is, in part, due to the failure of libraries to market their services and the value libraries can provide.

    I would conclude by sating that it doesn’t have to be this way. We do not have to be fearful of the alternatives. We do not have to accept that by rejecting marxist criqitues of capitalist rhetoric we are, in some way, holding back progress.

    Rather rejoice in your marketing of the value of library services. You have nothing to lose but your library and your users!

  • Tracey Stanley

    I’m interested in Ian’s use of the phrase “corrupts the values of the institution”. “Values” is a very loaded term – whose values are we talking about here? Universities were originally established as mechanisms for educating the sons of the upper classes; later becoming mechanisms for educating the sons of the rising professional classes. Are these the values that are being corrupted? If so, they seem to exclude women, the working classes, ethnic minorities and the disabled from the preserve of University life. Is this really what we want when we talk about institutional values? The point I am trying to make is that values are not set in stone, they shift according to the mores of the times (and rightly so, otherwise as a working class woman I’d still not have the vote, never mind having gone to University!).

    So can we really say that values are being corrupted by the advance of the market and the use of market-orientated language, or is this just a natural evolution?

    Ian sees the market as a threat, but could we argue that the tools and language of the market can be adopted, and perhaps subverted, to improve services for our library users? What about the increased use of LEAN processes, customer journey mapping etc in libraries as tools to enable librarians to critically assess and improve the user experience? LEAN comes out of the manufacturing industry so it’s certainly a tool of the market, but I’ve seen it used successfully to reduce bureaucracy in library services and improve the quality of services – for example, by reducing the time it takes to get a book from the cataloguing department to the user. Would we argue against such initiatives because they adopt the tools and language of the market? I think we should take a more user-centric view.

    What about digital and information literacy? Is that not a form of marketing, raising awareness of the services we offer, encouraging users to use these to best effect etc. Are we promoting these services purely for the sake of it or do we believe there is a greater good that will arise, a more engaged student experience, an enriched academic environment?

    Likewise the adoption of the Customer Service Excellence standard across libraries has resulted in big improvements in services for users – taking feedback more seriously, putting in place proper processes for handling complaints, involving users on working groups and projects to introduce services which will affect them. This seems to me to be about empowering the users, treating them as partners in the service, rather than as mere consumers of that service.

    In my role I’m frequently required to produce business cases to justify additional investment in my library services. I’m happy to do so – after all, I am spending tax payers money and there is a responsibility on me to ensure that I am doing so in a responsible way. I use the language of the market to write these business cases, and I have to evidence my assertions with data – but I’m doing this to protect or develop my services for the benefit of my users. Universities are not bottomless money pits and I recognise that my case has to stand up against other equally worthy cases – for example, for improvement of lecture room facilities or the virtual learning environment, all of which will also have an impact on the student experience. We live in a market environment with internal competition for scarce resources, so we have to adopt the language of the market and use it to make our case for why our services need investment. To ignore the market is to betray our users and to condemn our services to obscurity.

    • Ian

      Hi Tracey, thanks for your comment. I’ll try to answer your points as best I can!

      First off, I should concede that I didn’t make it clear what I meant by ‘insitution’…what I should have said was the ‘institution of the library’ In that sense, it follows that by values I mean the free provision of access to information without discrimination. Those are the values I am referring to in this context (which I’m hopeful we can all agree are indisputable values?). I would argue that it therefore follows that the language of the market is a threat as it threatens to treat information as a commodity that has a price. Given our core values, this is worrying. There is an inherent contradiction between the values of the market and the values of the library service.

      I would also say, I don’t dispute anything that you say in terms of delivery good service, attracting people to use the service who do not already do so, seeking out new ways to connect people with their library service (indeed, I do all of this as much as I can in both my current role (subject librarian) and previous roles (public library manager). My ‘beef’ is with the language. We don’t need to use market orientated terminology to describe the things we do or should be doing. We don’t have to refer to people as customers when we are talking about how to get them into libraries and using the services that are on offer. We don’t have to talk about communicating with the public about the service as ‘marketing’. We can do all the things that we both agree on, without using the terminology of the market.

      I’m not opposed to the methods and ideas you outline, I’m opposed to the language we use to describe those methods. I think it’s fair to say that in my post I focused purely on the language as the target for my criticism, not the process of engaging with users. It is the language I have a problem with. So, for example, when you state:

      “Likewise the adoption of the Customer Service Excellence standard across libraries has resulted in big improvements in services for users – taking feedback more seriously, putting in place proper processes for handling complaints, involving users on working groups and projects to introduce services which will affect them.”

      Would we not have achieved the same end result if we had called it “User Service Excellence”? Would we not have taken feedback more seriously, put in place proper processes to handle complaints, involve users in working groups (I’ve written often here about my personal interest in creating non-hierarchical libraries by the way!) but not called it “Customer Service Excellence”? Surely the umbrella term was not the cause for those actions? If it wasn’t called “Customer Service Excellence” would those things not have happened? I don’t think so. I think we could achieve the same end result without using terms such as ‘customer’.

      The problem with the term ‘customer’ is it implies a financial transaction, something that is at odds with the core values of libraries as providers of free access to information. Once we adopt language such as ‘customers’ we open the door to creating either the impression of a chargeable service, or enabling the introduction of wider charging (witness, for example, the number of authorities that have removed free access to the internet and have introduced charging). That’s where I have a particular problem.

      I’m slightly troubled by “we have to adopt the language of the market and use it to make our case for why our services need investment.” I’m not sure what this would look like: how you would use the language and in what way it would help to make our case for investment. But I would need to know more about what you mean before I could really comment. I guess my immediate concern is that that might lead to “failing libraries” that cannot make the case for “investment” as well as other libraries – a sort of league table effect (which hasn’t served the NHS or education particularly well!). But, again, I’d need to be clearer on what you mean to be able to express more fully my perspective on this. I think my real concern here would be that we would be too focused on ‘hard’ stats (“number of issues”, “number of PC sessions”, “number of visits”) and not enough on the valuable stuff that we cannot quantify.

      Not sure if all of that makes sense (I wrote it in two sittings due to time constraints!), but I guess that’s my take on things.

      • Tracey Stanley

        My reflection on this led me to think about a number of things:

        1. Does language matter?

        Yes I think it matters hugely. When I first started working in the Library sector, I joined a profession where (at that time) users were known as ‘readers’. Where we talked about training and information literacy, we called it ‘bibliographic instruction’. These terms implied a hierarchical relationship between the Library/Librarian and the user. Readers implies that information transmission is all one way, that the user is not actively involved in using the information to create new content or transform a way of thinking. The use of the term also pre-dates the revolution in libraries to embrace new learning styles, provide active learning facilities etc. The Librarian acts as the gatekeeper to knowledge and has the power to grant or with-hold access.

        Bibliographic instruction likewise smacks of the ‘sage on the stage’ model of teaching. An expert who instructs the novice in what is best, rather than engaging in a learning partnership.

        The language described how many staff who worked in Libraries at that time thought about their roles. The culture at that time was still very much one where Librarians felt that readers were lucky to have access to our wonderful collections. We didn’t need to bother with promoting or marketing them as our readers had nowhere else to go anyway. If they didn’t come to the Library at all it didn’t really bother us, our focus was on building collections for posterity rather than to serve needs here and now.

        This may sound like a rather extreme scenario, and maybe I am being unfair in describing my early experiences in a Russell Group University and implying that these translate to other library environments and scenarios, but it does demonstrate the power of language and how it can contribute to the culture of an organisation.

        2. Culture and language

        Changing the culture was important back then and it remains important now in our continually changing environment. Change is a constant in the Library world as in so many other areas. We’ve moved from an environment where students were considered lucky to go to a University, to one in which they pay fees and expect that excellent quality facilities and services are part of the package. We see this in the feedback we receive and in things like the National Student Survey.

        We’ve also seen, at Cardiff, when we refurbish a library space or launch a new service, the students quickly move in to populate this space/service and soon come to see it as the norm. So we are constantly faced with rising student expectations and we continually lag behind in terms of student expectation.

        So is the use of the term ‘customer’ a help or a hindrance in this environment? I think it helps to set an expectation for our staff of the quality of the service we should be providing. We’ve asked our staff the following question in terms of our service delivery: “do we want to be John Lewis or do we want to be Ryanair”? Ryanair don’t care about the customer experience, they just provide a no frills (transactional) service. When you go to John Lewis you have a high level of expectation about the service you will receive, and on the whole this is met.

        What you are not getting from John Lewis is a simple ‘transactional service’ – it’s so much more than that, it’s about the relationship you build with them, which potentially will endure over time. It feels more like a partnership. If you look at the Customer Service Excellence standard you see that the standard emphasises the importance of a partnership with your customers, rather than just delivering service in a transactional way. We are encouraged through the standard to develop long-term relationships with our customers, actively engage with them in our service development and actively seek their feedback on our services (and to do something about it!).

        Do we need to use a term like customer to achieve this in our libraries? Well, yes, if it gives us a useful label which our staff can understand, a vision which they can line up behind, and if it empowers them to do their best to go the extra mile for the customer. How else do you achieve change other than by establishing a vision and encouraging staff to aim for it?

        Some may argue that we don’t need to change our services. But the evidence is that we still have a long way to go. We need to eliminate those unhelpful and unintuitive interfaces that we allow suppliers to sell to us, we need to strip out the unnecessary bureaucracy and simplify our policies and processes to deliver our services to reduce friction with our customers and deliver more effectively and efficiently, and to create a better overall quality of service.

        3. Do I want to be a ‘user’ or a ‘customer’?

        If I go to see my Doctor I want him/her to treat me with respect and courtesy. I want to have my concerns listened to and taken seriously. I want to be kept informed with what is happening with my treatment, told what to expect and when to expect it. In short, I want him to treat me like a customer.

        The term ‘user’ implies that I am somehow a drain on the service. I’m taking up an appointment that someone else could have if only I wasn’t there wasting the Doctor’s time. I’m using something that perhaps belongs to someone else. It doesn’t sound like there’s a partnership in our relationship. I am someone who is having something done to them (whether I like it or not). I may be a co-owner in the service through having funded it through my taxes, but that’s not how I am made to feel. Sadly it’s often how we are made to feel in many of our public services.

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