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Cultural Appropriation & Libraries

Names: Robb, Amanda and Shade, Lauren

Group Topic: Cultural appropriation

Assignment 3

LIS570: Research, Assessment & Design

This week, we examined the Izhak Berkovich & Varda Wasserman (2017) study, Exploring narratives of non-faculty professionals in neoliberal higher education: a cultural appropriation perspective on librarians. Berkovich and Wasserman employ qualitative research methodology to compare the effects of a neoliberal-based strategy, new-public management (NPM), on academic libraries in higher education through the lens of critical theory. NPM is defined as a range of business-related strategies aimed at promoting the performance and efficiency of public sector organizations (Behn 2001; Pick, Teo, and Yeung 2012).

The authors interviewed twenty library faculty members at a university in Israel to explore the extent to which the neoliberal movement, with its emphasis on free market capitalism and customer service, in the 1990s and early 2000s, had disrupted and/or transformed the way that librarians view their own roles in academia. They came to three primary conclusions: first, that there was a shift from “traditional professional autonomy into the autonomy to provide service (7);” second, there is a new “culture of collegiality (9)” in libraries; and third, that competition to stay up-to-date with the latest library and information trends has “become a central organizing logic of libraries (9).” In other words, librarians now saw their role as service providers, where the library patron is the customer, and librarians themselves are expected to work together on a wide variety of projects to increase the library’s marketability. While these changes were externally imposed as a reaction to economic and social shifts including the dwindling number of library patrons, increased freedom of information via the internet, and fewer funds for libraries, overall, the authors concluded that the librarians tended to embrace these shifts because they demonstrated their ability to adapt and stay current. This, the authors argued, indicated that:

participants’ viewpoints on changes in their professional work under the NPM culture seem to reflect cultural integration, as a new hybrid traditional- NPM culture is taking shape. Our analysis indicates that the elements of NPM culture (values, symbols, rituals, and technologies) were internalized by the librarians and integrated into their professional identity and daily work (10).

Based on our readings for this week, particularly Wilson’s discussion of Indigenous epistemology and ontology, I (Amanda) was expecting this article to discuss cultural issues from the standpoint of underrepresented populations facing issues with cultural dominance in the academic library system. I was therefore surprised that the dominant culture Berkovich and Wasserman were addressing was the entire NPM system, as they maintain that librarians were now “members of the subordinate culture, who are subjected to the new cultural demands,” and therefore must learn to “negotiate how to appropriate…the imposed cultural elements” of the dominant society (4). This was an interesting way of examining the cultural shifts that were taking place on a global scale due to economic and technological changes that ultimately impacts who controls information.

However, there are problems with the notion that these two systems  – NPM and traditionalism – clash as a result of a type of cultural appropriation (5). I (Lauren) do not believe, as the authors stated, that librarians are appropriating NPM by creating a hybrid NPM-traditional culture. Appropriation implies forcefulness and misuse of something revered by a minority culture, whereas the transformation of librarianship, whether faculty is willing or not, strikes me more as a result of emerging technology, cuts in library and education funding, a change in student interests, and the overall transformation of academic libraries on campuses. What is the balance of power here that librarians are wrestling with, which would make this appropriation the act of one culture dominating over another? Furthermore, their conclusion that, “elements of NPM culture (values, symbols, rituals, and technologies) were internalized by the librarians and integrated into their professional identity and daily work (10)” assumes that the “traditional” culture of academic librarianship is immutable and that any new paradigm oppresses that pre-established culture, and therefore cannot be integrated naturally, but must instead be reactionarily internalized. That is not to say the pressures libraries experience under the NPM model are illusory, but rather librarians are experiencing the effects of fundamental changes that are necessary and warranted given the problematic past of the American Library Association, which was formed from whiteness, maleness, and sexism. Due to this flawed foundation, changes in the way libraries are organized and run is inevitable, whether that change comes from NPM or some other shift. Changes such as this naturally carry with them resistance and adaptations. We’ve seen it many times: the segregation of church and state; Roe v. Wade; LGBTQ+ rights, etc.

Nevertheless, this study offers fascinating insights into how capitalism and neoliberalism have corporatized academic librarianship. When many people think of cultural appropriation, they often neglect professional communities that have as much of a culture as some nations or ethnic groups. To what extent do you believe that professional cultures differ from those of ethnic groups, nationalities, or religious groups? Is the corporatization of libraries and the acceptance of NPM practices in academic spaces a form of cultural appropriation? If so, how do we ethically establish new models for libraries to stay culturally and technologically relevant? Are there positive aspects to NPM in libraries and the new culture of accessibility of information and customer service, or are they all negative? How do they differ from the “traditional” library ethos that existed before the end of the twentieth century?

Berkovich,  I., & Wasserman, V. (2017). Exploring narratives of non-faculty professionals in neoliberal higher education: a cultural appropriation perspective on librarians, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2017.1413081

Pick, D., Teo, S., & Yeung M. (2012). “Friend or Foe? New Managerialism and Technical, Administrative and Clerical Support Staff in Australian Universities.” Higher Education Quarterly 66 (1): 3–23.

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