Opinion: Policies, not political meddling, are causing problems at the library

A corporate push to de-emphasize books and stress digital learning and community spaces is at the heart of the problems roiling Berkeley’s public library.

By Jeffrey Kaplan

Jeffrey Kaplan is a retired corporate information technology consultant.

In her recent article, Berkeleyside reporter Frances Dinkelspiel suggests that the resignation of Berkeley Public Library director Heidi Dolomore further exacerbates the turmoil caused by the City Council’s removal of two Berkeley library board members. Instead, it is quite possible, even likely, those actions will lead to a much-improved situation at the library.

To understand why, we need to realize that library policies, not unwarranted political meddling, were at the heart of the problems at our library. Those policies are part of a worrisome trend in libraries across the country that is being pressed upon us by large corporate-backed foundations such as the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Both of these foundations are also major financial supporters of the charter school movement which seeks to transfer control of education from the public to corporations. If the citizens of Berkeley don’t want that to happen to our schools, they should also be concerned by the attempt to turn our libraries into adjuncts to a corporate-controlled, top-down education system.

A Gates Foundation-sponsored report written at the Aspen Institute ,”Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries,” (Gates Foundation Library Report) lays out a corporate agenda for libraries. The Aspen Institute’s Board of Trustees includes Madeleine Albright, David Koch (yes, one of the “brothers”), Condoleezza Rice, and Carrie Penner , who heads the Walton Family Foundation.

Some of most controversial policies of the Berkeley Library over the last few years were consistent with the agenda laid out in the Gates Foundation report. This does not mean that Berkeley library administrators were familiar with the report or were consciously following it. Like a lot of corporate public relations efforts, the goal is to establish a new normal in the thinking of policy makers. Both the content and the style of presentation on the “Libraries Transform” page at the web site of American Library Association provide a good example.

The terminology used in the Gates report gives us a pretty good idea of what the report authors mean by “re-envisioning.” It refers over and over again to such terms as “business,” “economy,” “digital”, “information” and “capital” (including “human capital”).   At one point it even refers to “return on investment.” There is hardly any mention at all of physical books.

Other things the report leaves out are equally telling. There are no references to such subjects as the arts, history, or philosophy. Nor is there any reference to the natural world whatsoever, a curious omission when ecological literacy is likely to be at least as important as the report’s much-vaunted “digital literacy.” It appears as if the corporate-centrist version of climate denial is not to dismiss the reality of climate change directly but simply to ignore it.

The narrow focus is evident when the report tells us one of the key skills people will need to develop is the “the capacity and disposition to learn in small and quick doses” in the “knowledge economy,” which it seems, is the defining characteristic of our “knowledge-based society.” It goes on to declare that the ability to exploit “the means of “production and knowledge sharing” offered by the internet, “has become the new ‘literacy.'” and that “In this environment, success will belong to the entrepreneurial learner.”

The Berkeley library appears to have followed some of the key policies the Gates Foundation calls for. As the report suggests, the library reduced its “extensive collections of printed material” and reallocated the space to meeting rooms and a maker machine.   It is not clear if library management also planned to include areas for “coworking and technology-centric spaces, where “entrepreneurs” can create “new products in maker spaces,” but they seemed to have been moving in that direction.

There are also important issues regarding the books that the library continues to hold.

Librarians who are knowledgeable in various subjects such as literature or science were largely stripped of their role in assessing which books were to be discarded from the collection as well as decisions as to what new books to acquire. Instead, the process was centralized and library staff was told to discard books that had not been checked out recently.

There are several problems with such an approach. It resulted in especially heavy weeding of material related to minorities. Minority groups have relatively little influence in determining which books are checked out most often. Other cross sections of the community have been adversely affected as well. According to current and former staff, the art and music departments were decimated by the weeding in Berkeley.

Excluding librarians from their traditional role in book selection and retention eventually degrades the entire collection. A few administrators cannot possibly have the subject knowledge of an entire team of expert librarians. It is also an example of “deskilling” whereby management attempts to centralize power by routinizing or automating the jobs of skilled or knowledgeable workers.

Berkeley is not the only library to have gone down this path. The Boston library went much further. In Boston, the branch libraries lost from twenty-five to forty percent of their books. As in Berkeley, the library there has reallocated the space to communal meeting areas. The head of the library system explained that “People talk and laugh, which is our goal… It’s about helping close the achievement gap, it’s about doing our part in the digital divide, and then it’s just a friendly wonderful space too. And there’s books.”

But as the article makes clear, many patrons are not finding the books they want. As in Berkeley, some groups were more affected than others. A Boston librarian commented (on the condition of anonymity) “What we’re losing is things pertaining to minorities particularly.”

One big difference compared to Boston is that in Berkeley library staff sounded the alarm. And they were punished for it. The ACLU noted that the library may have trampled on the free speech rights of staff “who have spoken out” and “have been critical of library policies.”

Of course, libraries should support access to the internet. It is an essential resource and we must make it readily available to the entire community. What we shouldn’t do is allow technology to displace books. The roles of the internet and books are entirely different and yet complementary. Wikipedia is a good example. It is a marvelous tool for anyone who wants a quick summary on almost any subject. But it is mostly just that, a quick summary. Anyone wishing to delve more deeply into subjects such as civil rights or economics will have to turn to books because that’s where the complexity of those subjects have been explored in depth.

It is true the City Council took an unprecedented step in the 100-year history of Berkeley’s library when it removed two board members. It is also true that the changes affecting public libraries are unprecedented in the history of their existence.

The previous library board was simply unwilling or unable to address these issues properly.

With the new library board, we may be able to have a truly democratic discussion concerning the role the library should have in our community. In that case, we might be able ensure that Berkeley will continue to have a library that helps support a democratic society by providing citizens with the means for self-education and free inquiry.