Neoliberalism, Platform Capitalism, and the Commodification of the Library Patron

| July 31, 2019

Neoliberalism, Platform Capitalism, and the Commodification of the Library Patron

bookcase with booksMany librarians separate what they do at work with the world at large, and view the library as an autonomous space that provides methods, services, and resources for a more just society, contributing to a public good. These notions often simplify or ignore complex contemporary issues, and typically align with library mission statements and what Stephen Bales calls “Big Ideas” like Truth, or Freedom[1]. Karen P. Nicholson provides a thorough overview of how we might conceptualize space/time in information studies, and extends this idea to include how we think about the library and direct political action. She argues “changes ‘out there’ require librarians immediate action ‘in here’”[2]. The inability to view the library’s mission as separate from sociopolitical realities outside of the library negatively impact what happens inside the library, and taps into work concerning libraries as neutral actors[3]. The need for librarians to act within the institutions we work has never been more pressing.

Libraries are not immune to neoliberal capitalist influences, yet some librarians fail to fully engage with our current political, social, and economic reality. Bales argues that “By drawing the magic cap down over [their] ears so as to deny that there are any monsters’, such librarians have reduced themselves to being components of the academic library qua static social institution, instead of as a catalyst for the library as a phenomenon that is constantly in the act of becoming”[4]. One could argue that this reduction happens not only in the academic library, but also in public libraries and other private non-profit institutions as well. While this may be true, recent research cited in this essay contributes to a healthy discourse concerning the future of libraries and learning, free and equitable access to information, and responsiveness to the current technological paradigm. By engaging with the groundwork laid by researchers within and outside of the LIS field, librarians can take first steps to inform their practice and counteract the ill effects of capitalism and neoliberalism.

It is with this research in mind that I approach the steady increase in subscription-based services and platform products now embedded within library digital infrastructures. Critical examination of product platforms in relation to library and information studies is less readily available than research examining cloud platform technologies and libraries, despite the proliferation of platform-based library products. Ultimately librarians must come out of hiding and face the world we find ourselves in despite fears or professional apprehensions. Positive change requires an active engagement with “becoming”[5], and accepting that neoliberal platform capitalism and its requirements of lifelong learning demand more strategic efforts and careful approaches that grant patrons agency over their library use.

Neoliberal Platform Capitalism

It comes as no surprise that the library adopts neoliberal strategies arguably in an effort to survive the contemporary economic climate, along with others adapting to a competition saturated environment. David Harvey explains neoliberalism’s initial appearance as a political and economic theory aiming to liberate “individual entrepreneurial freedoms” and its totalizing effects on society in his introduction to A Brief Introduction to Neoliberalism:

The process of neoliberalization has, however, entailed much ‘creative destruction’, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers (even challenging traditional forms of state sovereignty) but also of divisions of labour, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life and thought, reproductive activities, attachments to land and habits of the heart[6].

Jamie Ann Lee and Marika Cifor offer a recent critical analysis of neoliberalism’s prevalence within information studies. They write “neoliberalism has come to define and structure our labor and work lives in detrimental ways. Whether one is positioned within academia and studying or teaching LIS, or working as an informational professional in governmental, academic, corporate, non-profit, or community settings, competition has come to form the basis of daily interactions with limiting and delimiting effects”[7]. While neoliberalism and its detrimental effects on the library require librarians to act within their institutions to provide counter-hegemonic strategies[8] and leadership, neoliberal policies in practice come to affect every member of the library community, including library patrons[9]

I want to consider how these sociopolitical and economic pressures impact how libraries engage with library patrons, and have resulted in the commodification of the library patron. While research is more readily available concerning the commodification of data, information, and knowledge, seemingly none exists to investigate the extent to which neoliberal agendas, hand-in-hand with library stakeholders, have transformed library patrons into commodities, subject to exchange and exploitation[10]. While library patrons are not exchanged in a literal sense, patron data and online behavior, all of which is tied to their library card and status as a library patron, can easily be seen as fair game for libraries to illustrate their worth and value to vendors, governments, and funding entities.

Nick Srnicek outlines platforms as “digital infrastructures that enable two or more groups to interact. They therefore position themselves as intermediaries that bring together different users: customers, advertisers, service providers, producers, suppliers, and even physical objects”[11]. In a product platform environment, “platforms appear as an optimal form for extracting data and using them to gain an edge over competitors”[12]. As libraries work with more closely product platforms, and library software ecosystems reflect platform capitalist realities, critical thought could be applied to the consequences of partnering with product platforms and possibly acting in violation of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Library Bill of Rights as it relates to patron privacy and surveillance[13].

The Commodification of the Library Patron

The commodification of the library patron is inherently different from earlier claims of library patrons as customers or consumers. In the library patron as customer model, patrons receive marketing related to their interests, visit the library coffee shop, buy library tote bags and branded mugs from the library gift shop, listen to the library’s podcast, and receive customer service that aims to ensure the patron will return to the library and continue using services. Patron recommendations and borrowing habits inform acquisitions. The library patron as consumer highlights the sale of library merchandise and content in ways that were not historically necessary, as libraries respond to budget needs[14],  and crumbling infrastructure[15].

It can be argued that in our new reality, the economy “is dominated by a new class, which does not own the means of production but rather has ownership over information[16]. Libraries, once assumed to be at best neutral actors in society, may in fact be complicit in leveraging large patron populations for better license rates and access to products that promise patron engagement. In this scenario, the library gains usage statistics alongside well-designed platforms offering popular content, and vendors win by gaining access to patron platform behavior and personal data in an effort to beat out competitors, increase their dominance in the market, and ultimately increase profits. While it may be a strategic move, the ethics of such commodification are dehumanizing and in need of examination.

Discussions surrounding the library’s institutional decision to compete with the likes of Barnes and Noble and Amazon by providing more on-demand services and coffee shops only break the ice in what is likely to become a glacial issue for libraries and library patrons, and this initial phase of commercialization of the library provided a foundation for the later commodification of the library patron. The library-patron-as-customer model fails to explain the ways in which platform technologies not only change our sense of library space and technical infrastructure, but also change the way in which the library conceptualizes its offerings. New norms allowing for human-centric design to be considered next to machine-centric design[17] illustrate the pressing need for library software systems to work together more efficiently to deliver new outcomes. In this environment library services and resources take a back seat as libraries increase their holdings of unowned subscription and license-based material, and allow for the library patron to emerge as a single, constant focal point. In other words, libraries can count on their patrons more than they can count on traditional library lending models. Meeting community and patron needs often appear as justifications for this shift, though developments in neoliberal platform capitalism suggest hidden motives and consequences.

The vast majority library vendor agreements grant patrons free access to limited resources that are not owned by the library, but licensed to them under specific terms. Through these license and subscription agreements, vendors receive payment along with minimally obstructed access to library patrons and their platform behavior via account creation processes and other data analytics means.  In partnering with the neoliberal platform capitalist world out there, the library has adopted the same modes and methods in here, viewing library patrons as a commodity offered up in exchange for tokens of innovation and the faulty premise of a growth of in collections.

The library-patron-as-commodity takes many eerie forms and extends beyond the vendor platform; it can include providing patron metrics illustrating success of government-funded programming despite a lack of structural improvements, patron data used for marketing and advertising purposes, and direct patron access for political campaigning. More institutionalized examples include a lack of criticality in entering agreements with vendors and blanket acceptance of vendor privacy policies, and the development of a patron-centric library service platforms.

Product Platform Vendors & Library Holdings

Recently New York City’s public libraries including Queens Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and New York Public Library announced their plans to suspend contracts with video-streaming vendor Kanopy citing unsustainable pricing models as the main motivator in ending their agreements. Despite the fact that only 1% of library card holders used the service, the total annual subscription cost for Queens Public Library totaled around $125,000 per year[18].

In response to the cancellation, Kanopy issued an email to those patrons who had used the service and provided their email address as a requirement of the account creation process. The email notified patrons of the libraries’ plan to suspend service, highlighted popular films available via their streaming platform, and heralded the importance of film as a public cultural resource. Many viewed this as an attempt by Kanopy to pull at the heart strings of patrons to garner public support for their platform by subtly encouraging patrons to contact their libraries in an effort to circumvent library professionals and directly pander to their library provided and reliant user-base. While these libraries acted in good faith by cancelling their subscription due to predatory pricing practices, it should not surprise us that Kanopy utilized patron emails to garner support for their platform, which sits somewhere between what Srnicek labels a product and lean platform[19].

Surveillance, Privacy, and Ethics

Library research concerning patron privacy has been conducted since, and arguably well before, the ALA developed its Code of Ethics in 1939. A variety of research investigates the collection and sale of patron data but research is less readily available when pertaining to the use of patron data specifically used in a call to action in support of a vendor. Kanopy’s actions suggest that the library serves no other purpose other than to provide it with a reliable viewership. Librarians must pay close attention to vendors’ direct advertising to library patrons, and what is outlined in or missing from their agreements, as libraries tend to market free products and services. Despite what it looks like on the patron end, these services come at a cost that includes and surpasses financial costs.

Many of the data collection methods used by third-party vendors are normalized within platform capitalism and not within library and information science, yet the normalization of analytics and surveillance trends developed outside of the library world increasingly find their way into acceptance at the library. Many vendors include user features in their platforms as a way to organize materials, market new products or features, make recommendations, and observe patron behavior. Patrons come to expect these features as they encounter them throughout the digital landscape on platforms like Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify, all of which are notorious for packaging and repurposing user data for various means to the company’s benefit.

Legacy Software and Emerging Options

Research shows that people are more likely to use a system when it makes a given task easier, and patron experiences on library websites impact opinions about the library and librarians[20].  One could argue that when a patron experiences functionality issues with library software, it creates a negative impression of the library and librarians and may deter library use. While companies like Bibliocommons pay close attention to user-interface design, many library catalogs fail to compete with the design and functionality of subscription-based product platforms. Despite the fact that “platforms are designed in a way that makes them attractive to its varied users,” they often fail to illustrate a comprehensive understanding of library workflows and processes[21]. While traditional Integrated Library Systems (ILS) software perhaps understands the heart of librarianship best, the software fails to keep up with technological developments and changes in library workflows. Patrons and librarians frequently complain about functionality, speed, and reliability in aging library software ecosystems, creating an opportunity for corporate platforms to capitalize on the need for better systems. Marshall Breeding’s yearly review of software trends in libraries across the globe provides a reliable temperature check for library software development. In his 2018 report, Breeding notes that more academic libraries are moving away from traditional ILS providers, and moving towards new modular products provided by Library Service Platforms (LSP)[22]. The LSP is comprised of micro-services in which libraries have more options to customize their product and choose modules that fit their needs rather than purchase a bundle of vendor-determined services.

This cost effective and flexible option has attracted many academic libraries with a need to consolidate a variety of resources from multiple providers for a seamless user experience for both users and technical service librarians. No longer a fringe alternative, LSPs seem to be the mainstream choice for academic libraries. One LSP making quick strides is an open-source option called FOLIO. Duke University, Cornell University, and The University of Chicago are among its earliest adopters. Breeding says FOLIO is poised to join or even disrupt the traditional library software market, which has been dominated by vendors with generations of library experience[23].

As the FOLIO project develops from the work of librarians and software developers across the country, it provides a better alternative to other new software options aiming to consolidate library workflows into “customer management”, which serves as a thinly veiled mask supporting the commodification of library patrons. OCLC’s latest product Wise deemphasizes library workflows by “dethroning” bibliographic data as the centerpiece of library systems and replacing it with the library patron[24]. OCLC argues that placing the patron at the center of the library platform will strengthen library communities, as “its design centers on customer relationship management and marketing services[25]. The conceptual design of OCLC’s Wise closely aligns with product platform agendas like those of Facebook and Google, where a combination of user-generated data and profiled users provide a technical infrastructure for advertising, data harvesting, and beating out competitors[26].

In critically looking at Wise, particular attention should be brought to their claim that bibliographic records take precedence over patron records and engagement, and that any “dethroning” is even necessary. One could argue that the traditional ILS does not contain a true center; library legacy systems contain a multitude of functions for complex library workflows essentially decentralizing any single facet of the library. Relationships between patrons, acquisitions, cataloging and metadata, email notices, fines and fees, and electronic resource management all work together to reflect the complexities of librarianship and library patronage. Arguably, library software has not disenfranchised patrons more than library classification systems, fines and fees policies, or the myriad of long standing inequities within and outside of library science reflecting a social reality that disproportionately marginalizes individuals that do not fit the dominant norm. It seems odd that OCLC, a global leader in library software and metadata, would approach the ILS as an area in need of restructuring, when attention to metadata schemas, classification, and information retrieval seem equally if not more pressing.

OCLC’s Wise does not promise to enhance the patron experience, deliver new services, or challenge traditional library or societal paradigms; its main prerogative is to lean into platform capitalism by commodifying the very communities it aims to serve to maximize its profit, grow its presence, and continue the process of privatization in public and private non-profit institutions. For example, OCLC’s Wise “leverages user-generated content” which includes tagging, list features, reviews, and easily shareable media, despite that these features are already available in the library software market. In this model, the library catalog does not provide avenues to new materials, service offerings, or the relationships between them, as much as it provides pathways to increase the quantity of trackable patron data. While utilizing a methodology developed by platform capitalists to keep users on the platform for purposes of advertising conversion and other profit-generating activity, OCLC has also co-opted patron-centric design to market their product as acting in patrons’ and libraries’ best interests.

Vendors that herald patron-centric design risk twisting library terminology for for profit. In its efforts to sway patrons, Kanopy similarly referred to its product as a free public resource, ignoring that libraries subscribed and paid for service[27]. It is imperative that librarians clarify the terminology used in practice, as tactics used to sway public opinion in support of neoliberal practices often adopt terminology in an effort to confuse their audience[28]. A patron-centric model may not need to place patron behavior, metrics, and availability at the center of library activity and workflows.

Conclusion

In looking at the exchange between the product platform and the library, increasing costs illustrate only one associated loss for libraries. The opportunity for data extraction advantageous to the vendor, and the potential for a significant loss of public trust seem likely. In the worst case scenario, the library’s value is not found in responsive, digital services or in the potential of bibliographic and linked data, or in the preservation and circulation of free information, but rather in vendor created and extracted patron data, combined with unfettered access to a patron community. A better approach includes more transparency on the part of both the vendor and the institution, and patron choice leading to increased ownership over library experiences. Library software would work with library data to establish and illustrate known relationships between entities in the library’s ecosystem and to free, reliable resources outside of it, while enhancing emerging methodologies that break away from traditional, platform capitalist standards. Key features for new approaches would uphold patrons as members of library communities and not as resources to be shared with vendors as they work to meet their company goals and bottom line. If libraries provide can research and development in these new methodologies, they may positively influence the trajectory of libraries and the technological advancements to come.

References

[1] Bales, Stephen. 2015. The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: a Critical Approach. Sacramento: Library Juice Press.

[2] Nicholson, Karen P. “On the Space/Time of Information Literacy, Higher Education, and The Global Knowledge Economy “. Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies. Accessed July 3, 2019.https://journals.litwinbooks.com/index.php/jclis/article/view/86.

[3] Lewis, Alison. 2014. Questioning Library Neutrality. Duluth: Library Juice Press.

[4] Bales, Stephen. 2015. The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: a Critical Approach. Sacramento: Library Juice Press.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/teacherscollege-ebooks/detail.action?docID=422896.            Accessed July 30, 2019.

[7] Lee, Jamie Ann and Marika Cifor. “Evidences, Implications, and Critical Interrogations of Neoliberalism in Information Studies”. Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies. Accessed July 3, 2019. https://journals.litwinbooks.com/index.php/jclis/article/view/122.

[8] Bales, Stephen. 2015. The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: a Critical Approach. Sacramento: Library Juice Press.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Commodity.” n.d. Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/commodity.

[11] Srnicek, Nick. 2016. Platform Capitalism. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Admin. 2019. “Library Bill of Rights.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues. February 11, 2019. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill.        .

[14] Goldstein, Daniel.”Library Inc.”. The Chronicle Review. Accessed July 29, 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Library-Inc/124915.

[15] Hu, Winnie. “New York Public Libraries Warn ‘Staggering’ Crisis with Infrastructure”. The New York times. Accessed July 29, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/22/nyregion/new-york-libraries-citing-dire-need-for-renovation-seek-funds-from-city.html.

[16] Srnicek, Nick. 2016. Platform Capitalism. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

[17] Zolotev, Tiur. “Landscapes of the Post-Anthropocene: Liam Young on an Architecture Without People”. Strelka Mag. Accessed July 25, 2019. https://strelkamag.com/en/article/landscapes-of-the-post-anthropocene-liam-young-on-architecture-without-people.

[18] Cagle, Chris. “Kanopy: Not Just Like Netflix, and Not Free”. Film Quarterly. Accessed June 24, 2019. https://filmquarterly.org/2019/05/03/kanopy-not-just-like-netflix-and-not-free/.

[19] Srnicek, Nick. 2016. Platform Capitalism. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Breeding, Marshall. “Library Systems Report 2018”. American Libraries Magazine. Accessed April 10, 2019. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2018/05/01/library-systems-report-2018/.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Johnson, Ben. “OCLC Wise Reimagines the ILS”. Information, Inc. Accessed July 23, 2019. http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/NewsBreaks/OCLC-Wise-Reimagines-the-ILS-130813.asp.

[25] Breeding, Marshall. “OCLC to Launch a New Product for US Public Libraries”. Accessed July 23, 2019. https://librarytechnology.org/document/23500.

[26] Noble, Safiya Umoja. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press.

[27] Burns, Dylan. Wait A Minute Honey, I’m Going To Add It Up: Kanopies, DRM, And The Permanence Of The Collection”. ACRLog. Accessed July 8, 2019. https://acrlog.org/2019/07/08/wait-a-minute-honey-im-gonna-add-it-up-kanopies-drm-and-the-permanence-of-the-collection/.

[28] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/teacherscollege-ebooks/detail.action?docID=422896.            Accessed July 30, 2019.