- Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy
In this work, John Buschman brings the ideas of one of the world's leading living philosophers to bear on the most important question(s) facing the library profession. According to Buschman, we are living under the sway of a "New Public Philosophy," which understands our public, cultural institutions in economic, market-oriented terms. This is evident in the privatization of public institutions and the application of for-profit corporate management models to public sector services.
The consequence of the New Public Philosophy is nothing less than the destruction of "the public sphere," a concept first elaborated by the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Briefly, the public sphere is the social domain that connects the state with the private lives of citizens. It is the institutions that collectively make up the democratic forum in which important social, political, and economic discussions take place. Buschman rightly recognizes that the library, along with other educational institutions, serves as a critical institution of the public sphere. He argues that by succumbing to the New Public Philosophy, libraries are abdicating their responsibilities to support and advance the democratic values that are central to librarianship.
Buschman explains the details of this process in five chapters describing current trends within librarianship. Probably the two most important (and related) trends are "information capitalism" and the unexamined intrusion of technology into librarianship. The essential feature of information capitalism is the commodification of information, i.e., the private accumulation, ownership, and control of information for the purpose of reselling it for a profit. The commodification of information makes the ability to buy information the main determinant of its dissemination. Clearly, this promotes plutocracy and undermines democracy in that general access to information is necessary for citizens to effectively participate in the public sphere on equal terms.
Regarding the second important trend, Buschman's criticism of the intrusion of technology in librarianship does not come from simple Luddite tendencies. Instead, he reveals how the profession's rush [End Page 277] to make use of new technologies has led to the uncritical, postmodern adoption of technology. The result has been to promote the indeterminacy, fragmentation, and discontinuity of the texts that librarianship is responsible for preserving. Furthermore, the current manner of adopting technology has fostered a visual/non-literate bias in the delivery of information, it has undermined standards for establishing the authority of sources, and it has led to the ahistorical treatment of information. At the same time, the cost of new technologies has burdened library budgets already starved by the New Public Philosophy current in federal, state, and municipal government. Finally, the mad rush for technology generally has advanced the power and position of the information industry within librarianship.
Buschman also details three trends that are perhaps more epiphenomenal: the tendency of library managers to adopt corporate or business management philosophies, customer-driven librarianship, and the corporatization of the American Library Association (While each of these may be a result of the commodification of information and the immense economic power of the information industry to affect libraries and the ALA, Buschman makes a good case that library management practices and the posture of the ALA are accelerating the destruction of the library's place in the public sphere.)
Buschman's work is clear and well argued. However, it would have been much improved by an in-depth analysis of trends among publishers and in copyright law. After all, the services provided by librarianship depend first of all on access to information and, as Buschman clearly understands, the New Public Philosophy is limiting that access both through the consolidation of the publishing industry and by making the rights of information ownership more and more robust.
Dismantling the Public Sphere is a call to action to protect information—an essential public good—from slipping out of the hands of ordinary citizens and a call to defend the traditional and vital role...