Comments in response to Lead Pipe editorial, “DIY Library Culture and the Academy”

In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an interesting editorial this morning titled, “DIY Library Culture and the Academy,” though editorial may not be exactly the right word for it, because mostly it is a call for discussion of the ideas it presents. Library Juice Press is mentioned as an example of a DIY project, and so as you might guess I have some comments.

Lead Pipe editors Emily Ford and Micah Vandergrift both refer to the history of DIY, Emily stating that it is (in a way) what academic librarians have been doing all along, and Micah calling on the specific meaning of DIY in punk culture as a standard we should be keeping in mind. I would like to talk about it in terms of something that happened in the 60s and 70s that was called the “new careers movement,” and what sociologists of the professions at the time were calling “the revolt of the client,” because it was an important DIY moment that relates to this one. I am drawing these comments largely from a couple of papers written by sociologist Marie Haug: her 1969 paper with Marvin Sussman titled, “Professional Autonomy and the Revolt of the Client,” in Social Problems 17.2, and her 1975 paper titled, “The Deprofessionalization of Everyone?,” in Sociological Focus 8.3, which was a response to an influential paper by Harold Wilensky in 1964 titled, “The Professionalization of Everyone?”

Marie Haug developed a concept of deprofessionalization in response to the idea first proposed by Daniel Bell (famous for the term “the information society”), that the rapid proliferation of knowledge and technology would give more power to professionals and would also increase the share of knowledge-work as part of the economy, as machines would gradually take over all of the less-skilled work. Haug thought about this idea in terms of something that had begun happening in the late sixties, which sociologists termed “the revolt of the client.” What this referred to was the way “the person on the street” had started to feel alienated by the authority of professionals of whom they were clients, started to see them as “The Man” and started demanding the right to take care of needs that the professions had a monopoly over fulfilling, at the street level. Simultaneous to this revolt against the authority of the professions were some other social changes that had begun to enable non-professionals to perform some of these roles. Haug focuses on the medical profession, but we can see how the same changes gave power to people working in paraprofessional or non-professional roles in various institutions or outside of institutions completely. Haug observed that the professions’ monopoly on knowledge was being eroded by the general increased level of schooling, and also by the rise of computers, since data-driven software allowed for professional knowledge to be codified for access by non-professionals (essentially what happened later with desktop publishing software). So Haug argued that contrary to the main stream of the sociology of the professions at the time, these factors would lead to a loss of autonomy for professionals, who had previously enjoyed a strong monopoly on the knowledge on which their practice was based. In medicine specifically, the “new careers movement” was the beginning of the trend of giving nurses and nurse practitioners more of the privileges of MD’s in terms of basic medical practice. There was a gender element to the new careers movement and the revolt of the client in addition to a class element. So, I think that moment is important to think about in the context of DIY, because it links what are now a couple of separate meanings that DIY may have – the punk idea that Micah Vandergrift evokes in order to talk about the political reasons behind DIY, and on the other hand the power that desktop software gives people to do a lot of things pretty well that formerly required a professional (like desktop publishing). At the time of the “new careers movement,” the social trend toward deprofessionalization that Haug saw just beginning was motivated at one level by the desire for a sort of revolution in a political sense, and was enabled at another level by mass education and computerization.

While the rise of the new careers movement and the erosion of the professions’ monopoly on knowledge might seem simply like something to celebrate, Haug was concerned that it would lead to an increase of power for the bureaucrats who worked in professional institutions, resulting in less autonomy for professionals. This does seem to have happened and seems still to be happening (and in an ironic way may be part of the impetus for DIY practice among professionals now). At the same time, she acknowledged that people did become empowered outside of the professions in meeting needs formerly in the total purview of the professions. There is a certain way, however, I think, in which changes that enable DIY and sub-institutional work can redistribute and veil professional control as much as they can undo it. The reason for this is way software that makes use of professional knowledge in a codified form has decisions embedded into it, so that what for the professional may be questions of judgment to apply in various different contexts become software limitations of which users may not be aware, not having the background of a professional who can articulate the questions that the software has already answered for the user. Software that empowers us also makes decisions for us, decisions that are by nature outside of our focus as we are using it. (This is part of the argument for open source software.)

As librarians, we occupy an ambiguous position in the space defined by these changes. We claim an area of professional expertise but do not claim a monopoly over it; in fact, our professional ideology goes against the monopoly of knowledge on which professions are traditionally based. Our self-defined role is to empower people with knowledge, yet we try to protect our status as a profession as having a unique ability to do it. We also occupy an ambiguous position as designers of systems at the same time we are users of systems in which professional knowledge is embedded that we don’t necessarily have access to (think about the opacity of function of next-generation discovery tools). This may mean, in Haug’s terms, that we function both as professionals, with authority over a knowledge domain and a need to protect our autonomy from encroachment by the bureaucracies of our institutions, and as allies of clients who want solutions outside of the professions, in pursuit of an opening-up of professional privileges (though copyright battles, through access to medical and legal knowledge that we can share, etc.). In light of this, I think DIY work can accomplish a number of goals. First, it can enable us to do things that our bureaucracies have made difficult for us to do, despite the fact that we are ostensibly the professionals in our organizations. Second, it can demonstrate for our users that we are their allies who work in the same “DIY consumer space,” meaning that we understand the limitations they confront or feel that they confront. Third, DIY tools that are sold to consumers can afford us the benefits of professional knowledge outside our own fields without the cost of high-level business-to-business deployment, which we can’t control as individuals anyway.

I think there is also a dark side to observe, as well as a danger in attempting to understand DIY entirely through a historical lens, and that is that the kind of DIY affordances we are talking about are a part of a major economic shift that has taken place over the last half-century, away from Fordist production toward more software-driven, small-scale, customizable production and the different economic relations (and subjectivities) that Post-Fordism entails. There is a lot written about these changes in the field of political economy, but I would like to mention one article that relates to DIY specifically: Yiannis Mylonas’ article in Triple C, titled, “Amateur Creation and Entrepreneurialism: A Critical Study of Artistic Production in Post-Fordist Structures.” (Full disclosure: Mylonas has a chapter in the upcoming Litwin Books title, Piracy: Leakages from Modernity, edited by Martin Fredriksson and James Arvanitakis.) Mylonas suggests that the DIY orientation is a part of the transformation of everybody into an entrepreneur, i.e. the spread of neoliberal subjectivity. So, I am careful about getting behind it as a “cause,” though I like to take part. Furthermore, I can admit to having the ambition to bridge the gap between DIY voice and institutional voice, and to cross that bridge, as entrepreneurs generally do.

Rory Litwin was an academic librarian prior to working full time as a small press academic publisher and continuing education provider with Litwin Books, Library Juice Press and Library Juice Academy.

4 comments on “Comments in response to Lead Pipe editorial, “DIY Library Culture and the Academy”

  1. Thanks for this post, Rory. We have little theoretical background to understand DIY and this is a great help as we grapple with what is, what is does, what it can be, and what challenges DIY poses.

Comments are closed.