Haunted libraries, invisible labour, and the librarian as an instrument of surveillance

This post was inspired by the article Intersubjectivity and Ghostly Library Labor by Liz Settoducato which was published earlier this month on In the library with the lead pipe. The article, in brief:

Libraries are haunted houses. As our patrons move through scenes and illusions that took years of labor to build and maintain, we workers are hidden, erasing ourselves in the hopes of providing a seamless user experience, in the hopes that these patrons will help defend Libraries against claims of death or obsolescence. However, ‘death of libraries’ arguments that equate death with irrelevance are fundamentally mistaken. If we imagine that a collective fear has come true and libraries are dead, it stands to reason that library workers are ghosts. Ghosts have considerable power and ubiquity in the popular imagination, making death a site of creative possibility. Using the scholarly lens of haunting, I argue that we can experience time creatively, better positioning ourselves to resist the demands of neoliberalism by imagining and enacting positive futurities.

Intersubjectivity and Ghostly Library Labor by Liz Settoducato, In the library with the lead pipe

I also think libraries can be described as haunted but for other reasons than Settoducato suggests. That doesn’t mean I think Settoducato is wrong or the article is bad. On the contrary – I found the article delightful and I learned a lot from it. For example, having not read Foucault myself, this was new to me:

In such examples, books are a necessary component of the aesthetic of librarianship, juxtaposing the material (books and physical space) with the immaterial (ghosts). Juxtaposition is central to Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopias, places he describes as “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (1984, 6). Foucault identifies cemeteries, libraries, and museums among his examples of heterotopias, as they are linked by unique relationships to time and memory. Cemeteries juxtapose life and death, loss (of life) and creation (of monuments), history and modernity as their grounds become increasingly populated. Similarly, libraries and museums embody “a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place,” organizing and enclosing representations of memory and knowledge (Foucault 1984, 7).

Intersubjectivity and Ghostly Library Labor by Liz Settoducato, In the library with the lead pipe

That passage felt true to me. As I once confessed to an avocado on the Internet…

There are other passages in Intersubjectivity that I think could be expanded upon. For example, while I completely agree with its expression that the labour of library staff is largely invisible, I believe that particular invisibility was prevalent long before neoliberalism. The librarian has been subservient to those who endow the books for hundreds of years.

Richard Bentley, for his part, continued to run into problems with libraries. Long after the quarrel of the ancients and moderns had fizzled, he installed a young cousin, Thomas Bentley, as keeper of the library of Cambridge’s Trinity College. At Richard’s urging, the young librarian followed the path of a professional, pursuing a doctoral degree and taking long trips to the Continent in search of new books for the library. The college officers, however, did not approve of his activities. The library had been endowed by Sir Edward Stanhope, whose own ideas about librarianship were decidedly more modest than those of the Bentleys. In 1728, a move was made to remove the younger Bentley, on the ground that his long absence, studying and acquiring books in Rome and elsewhere, among other things, disqualified him from the post. In his characteristically bullish fashion, Richard Bentley rode to his nephew’s defense. In a letter, he admits that “the keeper [has not] observed all the conditions expressed in Sir Edward Stanhope’s will,” which had imposed a strict definition of the role of librarian. Bentley enumerates Sir Edward’s stipulations, thereby illuminating the sorry state of librarianship in the eighteenth century. The librarian is not to teach or hold office in the college; he shall not be absent from his appointed place in the library more than forty days out of the year; he cannot hold a degree above that of master of arts; he is to watch each library reader, and never let one out of his sight

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles

He is to watch each library reader” is a key phrase here. From the beginning, librarians and library staff were installed as instruments of surveillance as a means to protect property.

Even to this day, I will hear of university departments who wish to make a collection of material available for the use of faculty and students and are so committed to this end that they will secure a room, which is no small feat on a campus nowadays. But then the faculty or students refuse to share their most precious works because they realize that their materials in an open and accessible room will be subject to theft or vandalism.

Same as it ever was.

” Social security cards unlock the library’s door. ” image from Amelia Acker.

Presently, a handful of municipal libraries in Denmark operate with open service models. These open libraries rely on the self-service of patrons and have no library staff present—loans, returns, admittance and departing the physical library space are regulated through automated access points. Many public library users are familiar with self-check out kiosks and access to the collections database through a personal computing station, but few patrons have ever been in a public library without librarians, staff workers or security personnel. Libraries that rely on self-service operation models represent a new kind of enclosed environment in societies of control. Such automated interior spaces correspond to a crisis in libraries and other institutions of memory like museums or archives. Under the guise of reform, longer service hours, and cost-saving measures, libraries with rationalized operating models conscript their users into a new kind of surveillance….

The open library disciplines and controls the user by eliminating the librarian, enrolling the user into a compulsory self-service to engage with the automated space. The power of this engagement is derived from a regime of panoptic access points that visualize, capture and document the user’s path and her ability to regulate herself during every movement and transition in the library—from entering, searching the catalog, browsing the web, borrowing information resources, to exiting the building.

Soft Discipline and Open Libraries in Denmark, Amelia Acker. Posted on Saturday, November 3, 2012, at 5:00 pm.

That was written in 2012.

The tools of monitoring and affecting space have widely proliferated in the ‘smart home’ category since then. We have services such as AirBnB that allows all manner of spaces to made available to others. We have technologies such as Nest that act as combination thermostats, smoke detectors, and security systems that are learning systems as they use AI to discover patterns of use not readily apparent to the human mind. And then we have the spooky and unpredictable spaces where these technologies interact with each other.

Because of these technologies, many, many spaces are going to feel haunted. Not just libraries:

The other day, after watching Crimson Peak for the first time, I woke up with a fully-fleshed idea for a Gothic horror story about experience design. And while the story would take place in the past, it would really be about the future. Why? Because the future itself is Gothic.

First, what is Gothic? Gothic (or “the Gothic” if you’re in academia) is a Romantic mode of literature and art. It’s a backlash against the Enlightenment obsession with order and taxonomy. It’s a radical imposition of mystery on an increasingly mundane landscape. It’s the anticipatory dread of irrational behaviour in a seemingly rational world. But it’s also a mode that places significant weight on secrets — which, in an era of diminished privacy and ubiquitous surveillance, resonates ever more strongly….

… Consider the disappearance of the interface. As our devices become smaller and more intuitive, our need to see how they work in order to work them goes away. Buttons have transformed into icons, and icons into gestures. Soon gestures will likely transform into thoughts, with brainwave-triggers and implants quietly automating certain functions in the background of our lives. Once upon a time, we valued big hulking chunks of technology: rockets, cars, huge brushed-steel hi-fis set in ornate wood cabinets, thrumming computers whose output could heat an office, even odd little single-purpose kitchen widgets. Now what we want is to be Beauty in the Beast’s castle: making our wishes known to the household gods, and watching as the “automagic” takes care of us. From Siri to Cortana to Alexa, we are allowing our lives and livelihoods to become haunted by ghosts without shells.

Our Gothic Future, Madeline Ashby, February 25, 2016.

How can we resist this future that is being made for us but not with us? One of my favourite passages of Intersubjectivty suggests a rich field of possibility that I can’t wait to explore further:

However, it does not have to be this way. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder also take up the questions of embodiment and productivity, examining through a disability studies lens the ways in which disabled people have historically been positioned as outside the laboring masses due to their “non-productive bodies” (2010, 186). They posit that this distinction transforms as the landscape of labor shifts toward digital and immaterial outputs from work in virtual or remote contexts, establishing the disabled body as a site of radical possibility. Alison Kafer’s crip time is similarly engaged in radical re-imagining, challenging the ways in which “‘the future’ has been deployed in the service of compulsory able-bodiedness and able-mindedness” (2013, 26-27). That is, one’s ability to exist in the future, or live in a positive version of the future is informed by the precarity of their social position. The work of theorists like Mitchell, Snyder, and Kafer is significant because it insists on a future in which disabled people not only exist, but also thrive despite the pressures of capitalism.

Intersubjectivity and Ghostly Library Labor by Liz Settoducato, In the library with the lead pipe

[An aside: a research library filled with non-productive objects can also be seen to resist capitalism. ]

In conclusion, I would like to answer this dear student who asked this important question:

The answer is: yes.
The library staff are the ghosts in the machine.