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Monday, February 26, 2024

Public Libraries and Marxism by Joe and John Pateman (2021)

 Public Libraries and Marxism by Joe Pateman and John Pateman. London and New York: Routledge, 2021. 119 p., indexed.

Cover Public Libraries and Marxism

Public libraries offer an amazing range of information and services in Western society, but to what end? Library organizations and librarians mainly focus on the functional aspects of library services and professional activity while ignoring power relationships and the institutional framework of libraries within society. Public Libraries and Marxism analyzes the public library from a Marxist perspective by challenging our conventional liberal-democratic views that focus mostly on delivering services while ignoring its hegemonic basis of authority. John Pateman has extensive administrative experience. He headed libraries in the UK before he came to Canada in 2012 to be the CEO of Thunder Bay Public Library in Ontario. He has written articles and books with a Marxist viewpoint, such as Public Libraries and Social Justice (2010) and Developing Community Led Public Libraries (2013). Joe Pateman is a professor of politics at York University in Toronto, Ontario, and his main research interest concerns the theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism. Together, they have crafted a valuable introductory handbook for those interested in a Leninist version of Marxism and public librarianship. As well, each chapter has a useful bibliography that readers can pursue to navigate the complexities of Marxism.

The Patemans’ argument unfolds in six chapters  — (1) Introduction (2) The Marxist Interpretation of the Public Library (3) V. I. Lenin and Soviet Socialist Public Library System (4) Kim Il-Sung and Socialist Public Libraries in North Korea (5) The Vanguard Library (6) Conclusion. The authors dedicated this book to V.I. Lenin with a following quote from the leading Marxist-Leninist historian of the 1920s, Mikhail Pokrovskii, concerning the importance of libraries. Pokrovskii is quoted from time to time but there is no mention that he suffered the fate of many Russian intellectuals—his work was quickly discredited and his historical school eclipsed during the 1930s then rehabilitated to some extent after Stalin’s death.

The Introduction provides the essential features of Marxist-Leninist ideology, the interpretation of Marxist thought developed by Vladmir Lenin that emerged from Russia at the beginning of the 20th-century. Some readers may be familiar with the terminology of (a) dialectical materialism and its three laws; (b) the base and superstructure of historical materialism; (c) the hierarchical order of class analysis; (d) the creation of a classless, stateless society under scientific communism; and (e) the revolutionary leadership of Vanguardism. This exposition has the quality of brevity and clarity; however, I find the claim that Marxism is a scientific account of social change to be highly problematic. For me, Marxism is essentially a speculative philosophy because of its well-known imprecision (it can lead to many deductions or variants, yet no critical examination can entirely refute it) and its reliance on patterns, purpose, and meaning in history which the vast majority of historians reject because they see no purpose of goal in history. Further, Marxism-Leninism is less a philosophy and more a political ideology that calls for the creation of a Communist state; it is action oriented and analytic thought is mostly a handmaiden. The authors conclude this chapter by discussing other theoretical approaches used in library and information studies (LIS), such as Western Marxism, which they firmly repudiate likely because it is less focused on class or political struggles and more on cultural-social development, philosophy, or art.

Chapter 2 focuses on the library and librarians as historical entities. From the typical Marxist model of the forms of society, there are ancient, feudal, capitalist or bourgeois (Traditional Library), socialist (Community-Led), and communist (Needs-Based) public libraries. Library professionals emerged during the era of capitalism, even in socialist nations, but eventually, in a communist society, the previously exploited working classes will manage public libraries. At the centre of this argument are the teachings of Karl Marx, who introduced the concept that human society consisted of two parts: the base (the economic substructure that comprises the forces of production which provide the necessities of life and give rise to the relations of production, that is relations between people) and superstructure (the political, legal, religious, and cultural institutions of society). Marxists hold that productive forces are fundamental and determine the superstructure; however, some Marxist theorists (e.g., especially the Frankfurt School) postulate that the superstructure is of more interest: it may gain some autonomy and, on occasion, influence the base. Applied to public libraries as part of the superstructure, this generally means that the economic base ultimately shapes the library’s societal goals and objectives, its policies and procedures, as well as its staffing and services.

Because Marx and his followers viewed human history as a long-term class struggle, the public library, in its various incarnations in capitalist societies, evolved as an instrument of the power of the ruling bourgeoisie to control the working-class proletariat which comprised the majority of people in most countries: “the public library, as a cultural institution, functions in order to stabilise the economic base and, by extension, the rule of the property-owning class.” (p.29) As part of the authors’ thesis, the ruling elites and acquiescent petite-bourgeois librarians mostly excluded and ignored the voices of the unserved, disadvantaged and minorities. This is consistent with the capitalist idea that the individual and competitive self-interest are the central ingredients in society.

Although the modern public library in Western capitalist countries is theoretically supposed to serve everyone in society, in reality the authors observe that its failure to do so is all too evident. The ‘Traditional Library,’ the state-supported public libraries that emerged in the mid-19th century, served the same function as the mechanics’ institutes — they were instruments of social control. Today, the public library as an institution is often widely regarded as a mainstay of democratic values (i.e., liberty, freedom, pluralism, and equality), yet critical scrutiny of its actual history in LIS literature belies this entrenched belief. Consequently, the authors propose transformative ideas to completely rework the practices of public librarianship and the unconscious operation of ‘capitalist’ libraries. The Marxist perspective emphasizes group conflict through class struggle and the eventual success of the proletariat in seizing the means of production. The authors assert, “It is only under communism that truly public libraries can exist.” (p. 26)

Chapter 3 outlines the Leninist model followed by socialist/communist countries in the 20th-century. Because Vladimir Lenin believed that socialist public libraries and librarians could be a leading force in developing the cultural, educational, and technical knowledge of the masses, the Soviet Union created a centralized, state-controlled library service that drew initial praise even in the West. After Lenin’s death, his widow, Nadezhda Krupskaia, a Communist commissar of education, was largely responsible for the direction of library development and better training for librarians. Her writings are quoted extensively throughout the book. She infused libraries with new ideas about their goals and functions and helped promote a rapid expansion of literacy in the Soviet Union before she was discredited during the dictatorial regime of Stalin. Krupskaia felt that understanding readers, selecting books to suit readers’ interests by promoting communist thought, and better organization of resources would improve services. Today, the basic Marxist-Leninist model she helped establish in the Soviet Union continues in socialist countries such as Cuba, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea.

Chapter 4 outlines one country’s public library system, North Korea. Kim Il-Sung (1912–94), the national Supreme Leader, was mostly responsible for its development. His concept, inspired by Juche, was self-reliance in a national context. Public libraries in the Korean state must build upon a revolutionary outlook and the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea focusing on ideology and, more importantly, the authority of the Supreme Leader, a sort of allegiance on steroids. This chapter is quite helpful in explaining the development of public libraries in North Korea, a topic seldom appearing in the Western library literature. North Korean libraries have diverged somewhat from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy but they retain many characteristics of the conventional model.

Chapter 5 discusses the ‘Vanguard Library’ and its potential in capitalist and socialist societies, especially Cuba. Lenin developed the idea of Vanguardism as a strategy whereby highly motivated, key members of the proletariat formed groups to further the goals of communist ideology. Of course, there are elements of elitism in this approach, a matter which leads back to the issue of social control of the working class and variant Marxist views about how capitalism would falter and collapse. The Vanguard Library leads the evolution of public libraries from one Marxist stage of historical development to the next. As capitalism declines and disappears, under vanguard action the Traditional Library will evolve into the socialist stage of the Community-Led library that better meets the needs of the working class. At some future point, the highest stage of public library progress will be reached under classless, stateless communist conditions and the Community-Led Library will transition into the Needs-Based Library. This latter incarnation of the public library faithfully serves the entire public without limitations. In the context of Cuba, the Vanguard Library is said to have played a critical role after the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power. The government established a network of libraries which vitalized the working class and rolled back illiteracy in short order. Vanguardism raises working-class consciousness by educating workers and by creating a ‘new man’ entirely in sync with socialist ideology and motivated by the best principles of class consciousness.

Considering what a Marxist library service would look like in the Western capitalist countries of today, Public Libraries and Marxism provides insights that help us understand the revolutionary impact of the potential for transformation in Western public librarianship. The Patemans outline why and how Western public libraries can change organizational practices, indeed their culture and mission, to better serve those in need. That is an important Marxist message for librarians to keep in mind as new challenges arise. It is not a utopian vision, but a call to understand our place in history and our communities, to reach unserved minorities and the working class, and to strive to build an authentic public library service that will finally achieve what it claims to do, to serve everyone. However, the vexed issue of who will lead the Vanguard is left open.

Although the writings of Karl Marx form the basis for Marxist-Leninist thought, e.g., the concept that the material conditions of life determine the nature of human consciousness and society, readers should note that many ideas outlined by the two authors feature the ideas of Vladimir Lenin who championed the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat led by a revolutionary vanguard party. Lenin, moving beyond the usual Marxist doctrine, theorized this action as the political prelude to the establishment of communism. Public Libraries and Marxism gives us a view of how to work toward communist public libraries, but readers must keep in mind there are many variations of Marxism to chose and follow. But for librarians or LIS scholars who may believe in the ultimate triumph of communism, this book can be a useful starting point.

A selection of V.I. Lenin’s writings on libraries and contributions by Nadezhda Krupskaia is available at the Internet Archive in a work by Sylva Šimsová, Lenin, Krupskaia and Libraries (London: Clive Bingley, 1968). Šimsová was a Czech citizen who emigrated to the UK after World War II and worked in London libraries for many years.

Friday, February 02, 2024

Four Library Development Reports in British Columbia, 1945 to 1956

Programme for Library Development in British Columbia. Victoria, B.C.: Joint Committee on Library Policy, 1945. 36 p. maps

Programme for Library Development in British Columbia, 1950: Being a Condensation and Revision of the “Programme for Library Development in British Columbia,” 1945. Victoria, B.C: Joint Committee of the British Columbia Library Association and the Public Library Commission, 1950. 10 p.

Survey of Union Libraries in British Columbia. Victoria, B.C.: British Columbia Public Library Commission, 1950. 59 p.

Programme for Library Development in British Columbia, 1956. Victoria: British Columbia Public Library Commission, 1957. 15 p. (cover illustration below)

Over the course of a decade following the Second World War, British Columbia trustees, officials, and librarians sought to improve library services across the province. The provincial Public Library Commission (PLC, est. 1919), in conjunction with financing from the Carnegie Corporation, had issued two previous surveys, one in 1927–28 and another in 1940, that had led to the geographic extension of services through the formation of three union libraries (officially re-titled regional libraries in 1951): Fraser Valley, Okanagan Vally, and Vancouver Island.

However, the wartime and postwar scene began to reveal new issues beyond simple extension: the need to serve a growing population, the need for improvement in the quality of library service, the need to address technological developments, and the need for increased provincial financial support to reach people living in smaller, isolated communities beyond the south-west corner of the province.

Under the able chairmanship of William Kaye Lamb, chief librarian of the University of British Columbia, a 1945 report by a Joint Committee of the BC Library Association and the Public Library Commission sounded the alarm that public library service was inadequate, even in the major cities, Vancouver and Victoria which were housed in decades-old Carnegie libraries. “The pages that follow amply establish the shocking fact that not one community in British Columbia at present enjoys adequate public library service. Furthermore, they show that, for practical purposes, the majority of the people in the Province have no public library service at all.” (p. 1)

The 1945 report unveiled an ambitious program to remedy the situation. The report stated that with expanded services from seven existing libraries, the addition of one new union library district in West Kootenay, and one new Commission branch in the Peace River area at Dawson Creek, about 80% of British Columbians could be served. A revitalized public library map would include:
■ three proposed metropolitan districts serviced from Vancouver, New Westminster, and Victoria
■ four union systems organized in the Fraser Valley, Okanagan Valley, Vancouver Island, and West Kootenay (proposed)
■ two Commission branches at Prince George (already in service in a North-Central district) and Dawson Creek (proposed for the Peace River district)
The remaining population, about 20%, could be better served by converting existing public library associations (e.g., in Kamloops) into free municipal public libraries. The Open Shelf and Travelling Libraries operated by the PLC could supply rural towns, villages, and settlements. To implement its plan, the report called for improved provincial library aid and legislation to authorize the formation of metropolitan districts, an innovative approach by Canadian standards.

A subsequent brief report by the Joint Committee in 1950 complained that very few bold strokes had happened since 1945. Library service remained inadequate, in part due to low public expectations. Committee members repeated the call for increased general provincial aid (a meagre $25,000 in 1948–49), especially for the start of grants for city libraries. More importantly, in the same year the PLC issued a Survey of Union Libraries under the chairmanship of Edgar Robinson, chief librarian of the city of Vancouver.  By 1950, the three regional libraries were serving about one-fifth of the total population of British Columbia, and their progress demonstrated an efficient, cost-effective way to provide library service. Like many cooperative public libraries in Canada, school library service was one of these libraries’ strong suits.

Overall, the union libraries report aimed to improve rural services, strengthen existing union libraries, provide the provincial government with information to justify its expenditures and establish a future program for regional development. Various elements of union library operations were studied — governance, book collections, buildings, finances, personnel, bookmobiles, library objectives, standards and public relations. The report reiterated the importance of regional library work but noted the lack of trained personnel, substandard provincial support, and the need for additional regional development:

Gratifying as the record is, there is still obvious need for improvement in almost all phases of regional library work, and it is to this end that the present survey is pointed. Additional rural areas need service, some now being without a vestige of libraries, while existing libraries need additional and substantial financial aid from both local and provincial sources. (forward)

Six years later, in 1956, the third “programme for development” was more optimistic about the services provided by municipal and regional library systems:

The number of municipal public libraries has doubled, and five of the present ten have embarked on expansion programmes, including four new buildings. Financial support by municipalities has risen 60 per cent, though it is still well below the minimum required for services expected of a public library. Provincial aid has been extended to municipal libraries and has gradually increased over the five-year period. Three municipal libraries are now operating bookmobile service, and have mechanized their internal procedures.
The three regional libraries have acquired, with Provincial Government assistance, new headquarters buildings, which have helped immeasurably to improve the service. Local support has improved by 50 per cent or more ... . 
(p. 7)

Generally, the better financed libraries were operating from a position of strength rather than weakness. There was a repeated call for the formation of metropolitan systems around Victoria, Vancouver, and New Westminster and new regional systems in the Kootenay and Kamloops districts. School libraries were deficient and depended too much on services provided by public libraries. The report emphasized the need to establish a graduate library school at the University of British Columbia. 

The series of British Columbia reports of the 1940s and 1950s were unique statements in Canadian library planning. With the growth of the national economy, rising levels of employment, and the improvement in the standard of living, there was also an increased interest in the development of libraries. Cultural and social changes were taking place with the arrival of television and the popularity of sporting events. When the four library reports were published, the encouragement of metropolitan library planning was in its infancy and regional library service was not firmly established in other parts of Canada. British Columbia trustees and librarians had pioneered library extension work and, coupled with the PLC’s intention to publish up-to-date library surveys, they provided straightforward statements for efficient services, better grants, and improved standards.

By the mid-1950s, British Columbia libraries had reached reasonable levels of achievement and gained better provincial support. On a per capita basis, libraries in BC persistently ranked high in Canadian public library service levels. They were spending an overall $1.28 per capita expenditure compared to the Canadian average of 91 cents in 1957, as the following table summarizes.

Dominion Bureau of Statistics Public Library Receipts and Expenditures per person, 1957
local     prov.     total        book    salary
taxes    grants    receipts   exp.     exp.         
$1.04   $0.19     $1.28      $0.23    $0.83  BC
$0.71   $0.14     $0.92      $0.15    $0.54  Canada

The 1940s and 1950s had been marked by slow progress; nonetheless, BC libraries had profited from the repeated efforts of library planners to upgrade service on a provincial scale.

Two earlier Library History Today posts on British Columbia’s libraries are at:
BC public library reports 1927 to 1941
Two iconic films on the Fraser Valley Library