Friday, August 21, 2020

Shock doctrine at the library

Several years ago Naomi Klein wrote a brilliant book called The Shock Doctrine. The main thesis, poorly expressed by me, is that in times of crisis, disaster, and upheaval, the powerful and their agents use the vulnerability and chaos of the time to push through autocratic, kleptocratic, and sometimes violent power grabs and policies that, under normal circumstances, could not succeed. So in the immediate aftermath of something like 9-11 unwholesome actors were able to ram through a vast array of policies and institutions increasing government surveillance and abridging personal freedoms, most of which had nothing to do with the issues and security problems of 9-11 itself.

All of that is by way of saying that my library is sadly experiencing some shock doctrine of its own in the disaster and instability of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Ours is coming at the hands of the County we belong to.

Over the past five or ten years the County has taken an increasing interest in my library. It has taken over large parts of building maintenance, computer systems, and personnel management, all apparently with an eye to increasing their bureaucratic footprint. And indeed everything they have touched has been inefficient, unresponsive, self-aggrandizing, and edging on the Kafkaesque. But fortunately, to a large degree, the main, open, friendly, and positive function of the library has been left alone.

Until the pandemic.

The County has now rammed through job training, seized library territory, taken over our spaces, installed external staff, and commandeered traditional library functions like Internet usage and access to computers. When one walks into our library now one no longer walks into a library, but rather encounters a large Service Center sign and checks in with a County Navigator who knows little about the library that 98 percent of the people are visiting for, and, oddly, doesn't seem to know all that much about the County Services they're "Navigating" to either.

All of this has been done with little to no coordination with the Library, and indeed the accommodation has all been one way- we operate the library strictly around the systems the County plants into it, and we adapt to the challenges they impose and mitigate the structural problems left in their wake.

I am prone to muse darkly on why the County does all this. Surely their managerial self-importance has blotted out every last shred of their effectiveness and community contribution. I think they must understand on some level that the library is generally admired, well-regarded, and popular, and they are not. They must think that by cramming their obtuse County Bureaucracy into the library they can absorb a little of the affection and respect that will be all around them just by being here.

Of course it doesn't work like that. All they really have to offer here is the possibility of giving the people cause to like the library less.

I can see this all is pretty sad, but since our miserable library curbside pick up ended and was replaced by a vastly more efficient, "in library" self serve hold pick up system I am happy enough here at the library once again. And so in these good spirits I have room to hold out hope- hope that eventually the County will lose interest as it so often does, and retreat, or if not retreat exactly, instead fling on to some other pointless shiny project.

Or, perhaps more realistically, barring that, I'll simply get used to it:

The library will be a little bit the worse for it, but we will carry on, slightly diminished maybe, but a survivor, a force for good, weathering yet another storm in the World.


  1. I admire your wisps of optimism at the end, but it sounds awful. Is the same thing going on in SV and WB? How about the smaller branches? How are the patrons reacting?

    1. Thanks for the optimism reinforcement. Mostly at work I issue alarming diatribes with swearing, but I'm slowly improving! I'm not clear about other branches- I think not the small ones and the midsize have navigators, but are still closed so it's a little different. The patrons, and this is maybe key to shock doctrine, are faced with so much new and disorienting that they it either doesn't effect them or is hard to contextualize. I have heard a little negative comment from them. What most of them don't realize is that all of this inhibits our re-expansion of library services instead of being the agent that takes them away.


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