Interview with Stephen Bales

I’m interviewing Stephen Bales, the author of our most recently published book, The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: A Critical Approach. Stephen, thanks for agreeing to do this interview.

Hi Rory.

I’d like to ask you first off to give a little summary of your book for readers.

When many people think of the academic library, they conceptualize it as some sort of monolithic entity. The library becomes a grand, transcendent idea that is understood in terms of one-sided abstractions like “Education,” “Intellectual freedom,” “Scientific progress,” and “Democracy.” While people have always tended to engage in this type of thinking when considering the products of their culture, such thinking is not particularly conducive to the critical examination of our societal institutions. Neither is it conducive to making meaningful change to human society. Things get “stuck” because they become seen as eternal, unchanging realities, and the status quo of neoliberal capitalism becomes “just the way things are,” even though capitalism is marked by inequality and anxiety. The book proposes dialectical materialism as a different way of looking at the academic library; one that refuses to consider the library either as either something sacrosanct or as a purely physical set of things, but one that takes into account its great influence on history and culture. Marxian dialectics lets us view human institutions in terms of material relations in motion, as conglomerations of both physical and mental phenomena that penetrate all aspects of human existence; relations that help us define our total social reality. I outline dialectical materialism as a means for both explaining the function of academic libraries in capitalist society and as a means of action, i.e., as a basis for a praxis of social transformation. A major current in the library literature is the debate over library neutrality. If one adopts a dialectical understanding of academic librarianship, it becomes impossible to accept even the possibility of neutrality. Through considering both theory and practice, the book supports the notion of academic librarianship as an inherently political profession, and I use dialectics as a basis for advocating a progressive professional approach to our work.

Thanks for that summary. I think it’s a good jumping-off point for a discussion about your views on library neutrality. I think a lot of readers here would acknowledge that neutrality is an impossibility, but for the sake of argument or clarification, is some form of non-interference with an autonomous library user possible, say, at the reference desk?

That is a good question. If you look at an isolated reference transaction it may certainly appear to be neutral. From a dialectical perspective things start to get sticky. When you take a relational view of reality, you see the reference transaction as a part containing the whole. That is, the transaction is a phenomenon that exists only by virtue of its relations to all other phenomena. Even though the transaction may appear to be an isolated event, it is codetermined by everything else (and it codetermines everything else). Now many of the other phenomena that comprise this network of relationships have their own interests and, in the current sociocultural situation, these interests are dominated by those of capital. So, although the provision of information in the reference transaction may appear to be neutral, we need to consider the other things that impact it, i.e., we need to critically analyze the “deep structure” of reference work. We should ask questions like: who has access to the reference interview, who does not, and why? How do reference workers orient themselves to their patrons and why? How do the library’s collections affect the outcome of the transaction? How does the bibliographic organization of the information that we access and proffer affect the outcome of the transaction? Whose interests do such things ultimately serve and at whose expense? What are the ideological foundations of the neutral reference transaction? There are many more questions that may be considered in relation to reference work. Although it is not feasible to consciously approach every reference transaction as a particular locus of struggle against neoliberal capitalism—we would frustrate and alienate most of our patrons—it is important to consider the things that we do and how we do them in relation to the whole in which they are performed. By understanding the deep structure surrounding a phenomenon, we can work towards fundamentally transforming that structure in support of social justice. Ultimately, “non-interference” supports capitalist ideological structures and is a political act.

So to get a little concrete, in the context of reference specifically, what does praxis look like? What are some examples of what you would recommend? I realize that is a little outside the scope of the book, but in a way it could contextualize it for practitioners.

I am particularly fond of Marx’s quote that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Theory seems like a bottomless pit sometimes and it’s easy to get caught up in the esoteric and obscure. That is why praxis is essential for meaningful progress. The best way to test our theories is to put them into practice, and the best way to evolve our theories is through practice. How might we do this in our reference work? In terms of the “back stage” processes of information retrieval like information acquisition and organization, subject selectors and liaisons should proactively work to obtain and/or make more easily available counterhegemonic information resources. They can do the same things by creating online subject guides that point patrons as well as other reference staff to alternative or underrepresented viewpoints. In terms of the public service side of reference, it is important to understand where librarians fall in the reference transaction as a social relation. If we understand that reference librarians are in a position of power in most of these transactions, we can better counteract problems with the reference process like patron library anxiety, discrepancies in service due to patron status, or the tendency for reference interactions to devolve into essentially a commodity exchange. One solution to problems like these may be a simple reorganization of the physical environment that makes for a more commensurate and collaborative relationship between the librarian and information seeker. I am often struck by how many reference rooms look like church with a desk and librarian in the place of an altar and priest, transforming the patron into a sort of supplicant. It’s not particularly surprising, as a result, that many patrons feel cowed when asking for help. Ditch the desks and put the patron on the same level as the gatekeeper. In addition, librarians should consciously adopt a relationship with the patron in which they are compeers as opposed to the more traditional client/patron, agent/customer, or priest/supplicant relationships. Not only will the hesitant library user be empowered when treated as an equal, the reference librarian will benefit from the exchange. Currently, I am looking at the work of the “cultural school” of interpersonal psychoanalysis and the ideas of authors like Karen Horney and Harry “Stack” Sullivan for clues on how to accomplish this. Horney and Sullivan advocated that the therapist approach her analysand as an ally rather than as a patient or (worse) as an opponent. Both the therapist and analysand are transformed through the therapeutic relationship. Reference librarians often treat users like patients, opponents, or (worse yet) as objects to quantify in stats. By allying themselves with users, librarians can actively position their practice against concepts symptomatic of capitalism such as hegemonic domination (e.g., through the marginalization of bodies of knowledge), alienation (of the user from these bodies of knowledge as well as their reduction to consumers on which we shovel information), and exploitation (not only the exploitation of the library user, but of the information workers themselves). Thinking dialectically about our practice, i.e., thinking about what we do in terms of the relationships involved, opens channels of communication and subverts hierarchies; it puts us in closer touch with the communities that we serve.

I’m curious about how what you’re saying would play out in different situations at the reference desk. Let’s say you’re in an academic library, and a white male fraternity member, with a Dad who is a “pillar of the community” and a big landowner, comes to the desk asking for help writing a composition paper in which he wants to make an ugly neoliberal argument about poverty and personal responsibility. Hypothetical, yes, but this kind of thing happens, especially at certain kinds of institutions. I take it that you would find yourself challenged to ally yourself with this user. And in prescribing counter-hegemonic resources, wouldn’t you be making use of your position as the bearer of academic authority? It seems to me there may be a conflict between allying yourself with the user and countering neutrality. Isn’t overcoming the traditional teacher/learner paradigm of reference work in effect potentially adopting an attitude of neutrality? I mean if you adopt the point of view of the user, aren’t you forgetting about your own?

A basic problem that I am having in applying psychoanalysis to my areas of research is that psychoanalysis is a bourgeois science. The point of psychotherapy is to adjust people to capitalist society, not to transcend it. And, with the exception of a few solid socialist theoreticians like Eric Fromm and Slavoj Zizek, Freudo-Marxism has left us with strange ideas like orgone accumulators. So, to be honest, I am still working on fitting ideas like the therapeutic alliance into my ideas concerning professional praxis. Nonetheless, I have high hopes because psychoanalysis is very dialectical; it is also proactive, aiming to actively help people. I think that approaching a user as an ally should not preclude challenging the user or being challenged by the user in return, it should encourage productive conflict. What I have in mind is something more in line with Paulo Freire’s ideas about developing conscientizaco, where the relationship between librarian and user is used to develop the consciousness of both parties (as opposed to the traditional model of education, which Freire concludes “domesticates” the learner/information seeker). The ally relationship is not neutral because the counter-hegemonic librarian has a normative agenda, and the process does not involve adopting the point of view of the user so much as it means maintaining open lines of communication. By overturning the traditional teacher/student relationship, we challenge–even if in just a small way–a system typified by unequal power structures, one-way communication channels that push resources, and a fascination with efficiency and quantification. Doing this is definitely not an easy task when one considers the limited amount of time that a reference worker typically has with a patron, and developing conscientizaco will likely require a concerted effort on the part of the librarian to maintain and build relationships. But again, dialectics recognizes the part only in terms of its relationship to the whole. Should the reference librarian approach the fraternity member patron as an ally? I suppose that depends a great deal on context and circumstance. Foisting counter-hegemonic resources on an arch-conservative student will likely do nothing but maintain the traditional (and stereotypical) power structure found in college. It is probably a quixotic strategy at best. Progressive librarians need to pick their battles, and injecting didactic lectures on class struggle into every situation is counterproductive if one aims at staying both sane and employed. From a dialectical standpoint everything is related to everything else, and we can address the same problem from alternative vantage points besides engaging a quixotic reference interaction. What we might not get done in a reference interview, we might work towards tackling by writing an article, building a collection, or serving as a faculty advisor to a student book club.

That makes a lot of sense. Thanks for making it a bit more concrete. What we’re talking about seems related to the difficulty in developing class consciousness among people who view themselves as middle class. If people are relatively comfortable, they are less likely going to be aware of their place in the larger structure of power and the nature of their dependency. You’re a practicing librarian. Do you have any illustrations from your own experience in teaching about the capitalist system to middle class students, whose motivations in college may primarily be to have a stronger position when they enter the job market? I realize that your book isn’t focused on concrete illustrations like this, but I think it can be helpful in orienting your readers to it.

I work at Texas A&M University Libraries where a large portion of the student body are white, middle class, and from rural areas and small towns. The student body is a very conservative one. For example, in Austin there is a popular tee-shirt reading “Keep Austin Weird.” I have seen tee-shirts on the TAMU campus that read “Keep College Station Normal.” A few years ago another TAMU librarian and I taught a semester-long, for-credit freshman seminar course on zombies (this was at the peak of the latest zombie craze). The class combined an examination of pop culture with in-depth library and information literacy instruction. It was also a rare opportunity to build an ongoing relationship with the students because, unlike some colleges and universities, as Texas A&M does not have required information literacy credit classes. We organized the class around group discussions of zombie movies, books, and video games, and the semester project included an essay on one such pop culture artifact. Over the course of the semester, everyone brought their own experiences and interests to the conversation. My library colleague, for instance, shared her expertise in public health with the class, and the students brought their own experiences and personal interests. I used the opportunity to discuss concepts like the commoditization of culture, the “other,” and hyperreality in relation to the subject matter. I suspect that these ideas were new to most of the class, most of whom would label themselves conservative, but we discussed these ideas along with other viewpoints. The main requirement for the discussion was that one had to be willing to listen. As the course instructor, I was in a position of authority but I consciously adopted a policy of communicative openness (but not impartiality) as opposed to the transmission-belt model of pedagogy in which students are seen as tabula rasa. What surprised me the most was that my preconceptions about the students’ reactions were wrong. Despite the fact that most of them had solidly middle class backgrounds and that most if not all of them were from Texas, their intellectual curiosity far outstripped their desire to blindly defend political positions or tune out challenging ideas. It might have had something to do with the fun subject matter and the fact that zombies act as ciphers upon which we transfer social relations. This let the students really plumb the depths of something usually seen as trivial entertainment that really, if anything, only made the subject more interesting. The analytical papers that they turned in at the end of the semester were refreshingly critical in nature, but they didn’t come across as forced. They weren’t political in a partisan sense, but they were political in that they made connections between history and social relationships. I harbor no illusions that any of them had been radicalized, but I believe that the consciously dialectical approach to learning made for a meaningful change in their approach to analysis in the Hegelian synthesis sense, as opposed to treating them like buckets to fill up with knowledge. To top it off, they learned how to effectively use library resources during this process of discovery, and I like to think that their critical attitudes towards the subject matter critically oriented them towards the research process and the research process. I was changed by the experience as well.

Thank you. That is clarifying, as well as inspiring of hope. I’d like to finish by asking you if there’s anything else that you’d like to say or to emphasize.

I was going to say “keep the library weird” but I think it is probably more appropriate to say “make the library weird,” and if you haven’t started already, start today.

That’s great, Stephen. Thanks so much for doing this interview. I hope that your book reaches a lot of people.

Cool, thanks Rory