Andrew Feenberg has taken issue with the “neo-liberal agenda” that is currently guiding how far too many universities both conceptualize and use “educational technology.” In this article, I expand the scope of his critical discussion to include analysis of contemporary higher education initiatives that capitalize on big data.
At the end of Libraries and the Enlightenment, I suggest that libraries are places “where values other than the strictly commercial survive and inspire, places people can go, physically or virtually, and emerge better people, their lives improved and through them perhaps our society improved.” The key is “values other than the strictly commercial,” because I think public and academic libraries are examples of public spaces where commercial values don’t dominate. They are public goods founded upon the values of democratic freedom and critical reason and provide a possible location within society to promote and protect anti-neoliberal values. Librarians in general are committed to open access to information and education. As Barbara Fister just wrote, they are gatekeepers who want to keep the gates open.
Neoliberal thinking tells us a successful reference “transaction” provides the patron with the most efficient answer to their immediate information need. Neoliberal thinking mocks the idea that library instruction and reference might be about encouraging students to think critically not only about their own information consumption but also about the whole system of knowledge creation & access, and about who controls how we search and what we find. Neoliberalism scoffs at the idea that librarians ought to encourage browsing and serendipity and other forms of “inefficient” research and learning.
Neoliberalism frames this as a contrast between giving patrons what they want vs what giving them what we think they need. That formulation is a rhetorical strategy that makes librarians sound like condescending bunheads who aren’t hip to what the kids need.
What I want to suggest is that we can and should resist that rhetoric – both because it is incredibly sexist and ageist and because the tension is not between what our patrons ask for and what we want to give them; the tension is between a neoliberal, transaction model of library services and a model based on the mission of promoting critical thinking and equipping students to interrogate power and authority.