- Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy
Once again John Buschman has done the library profession a service. His project in this book is ambitious and large in scope: he provides a critical assessment of the social and economic milieu in which librarianship operates. Drawing from thinkers such as Michael Apple, Henry Giroux, Frederic Jameson, and Jürgen Habermas, Buschman explicates what he sees as a crucial challenge to the profession. A relatively new discourse centering on market economies, instrumental efficiencies, and information capitalism threatens the existence of the public sphere as the locus for debate and opinion formation. The power of this discourse is transformative; it reshapes not only the ways people speak about public institutions and public space but also the possible ways of thinking about public space. As Buschman says, librarianship embodies a means for enabling rational discourse (with "rational" defined narrowly as the application of practical reason) through "the principle of unfettered information and transparency [End Page 404] in concrete ways (collections and services)" (46). This goal (among others) is seriously threatened in the environment of the New Public Philosophy.
The discourse informed by the New Public Philosophy tends to become manifest in library buildings, services, and policies. In other words, the trends Buschman identifies are exemplified not merely in conversations taking place in meetings; they also take the form of concrete actions that have the power to redefine libraries and librarianship. The centripetal force of these actions is focused on particular notions of a library's purpose that are based on concepts of "information." After examining statements by some library managers, Buschman concludes, "I count at least five different concepts in the previous quotes from library managers: information as system or technique, as economic 'matter,' as 'stuff' to be collected and organized, and as a basis of occupation" (88–89). What is missing is the human, especially a self that may read, question, or seek. The information-as-thing view is an offshoot of neoliberalism, where human action and human products are valuable only insofar as they have transactional worth. A goal of the New Public Philosophy is to demonstrate value through demonstrating increases in the numbers of transactions that occur. This goal is manifest in education, in medicine, and in other settings. Patrons, users, and information seekers become customers who will "buy" some commodity. The language imposed by neoliberalism shifts meaning: reading, learning, becoming aware no longer have intrinsic value; they are only counted. In the rush to measurement Buschman says, "To the person out to measure 'quality,' what is/can be measured—and for what purposes—becomes the reality" (112).
Buschman's tone may be slightly intemperate at times, but the force of his argument is strong. The stakes in this transformed environment are high; Buschman is correct to observe that the fundamental tenets of democracy are at risk in a neoliberal state. The language of the New Public Philosophy admits to an instability that it can use to its advantage; meaning can thus be manipulated. He writes that "without a public, democratic purpose for librarianship there is no compelling reason/argument in the long run to continue libraries" (176). If the public good is sacrificed to private good, then there effectively is no public sphere. Even if the consequences are not so dire, democracy may be reduced to an aggregative form in which people's preferences are assumed and decisions are made without public deliberation. In any event, it is vital that Buschman's message be heard and heeded by all in our profession.