Post-Fordist Librarians: Globalization of Information, Corporate Ideologies, and Ethical Conundrums

by Moya K. Mason


To examine libraries and the work of librarians in the context of Post-Fordism, it is first important to be aware of some fundamental characteristics of life in a Post-Fordist era. Libraries have undergone extensive changes, particularly since the 1970s when automated systems were first being introduced and utilized. Historically, librarians would come to their jobs with an individual speciality such as cataloguing, which they continued to fine tune and build upon through their long careers. In the years before the catastrophic recession of the 1970s, jobs were secure and libraries were heavily entrenched under the umbrella of the nation state, getting large grants and big book budgets. Those were the days when the public came to the library for information, information that could not be found anywhere else. There was no Internet, nor were cable companies offering two hundred channels to surf out everything from how to make the perfect golf swing, to indepth analysis of health and financial matters. Libraries had their fingertips on the information pulse, and they were considered stable, necessary, albeit expensive centers of knowledge. How much libraries have changed and will continue to evolve will be the topic of this essay, and specifically, what it means to be a Post-Fordist librarian immersed in a global market economy run by the corporate world.

Characteristics of Post-Fordism

As much as some intellectuals and economists like to argue about such things as whether there is still mass production or if manufacturing is currently rooted in a 'just- in-time' mentality, there are still many basic characteristics that can easily be cited as an introduction to Post-Fordism. From the post-war days of the late-1940s, until 1973, the industrialized world experienced continuous growth and substantial profits, while giving high wages to its workers. The ideology of Fordism was alive and well, developing strong nation states, powerful mass unions, and the security of lifelong jobs. In those days, when one went to work at a factory making cars or smelting steel, it was with the knowledge that this was where they would work for the next thirty years, in a community built around a factory, that would continually train a worker in one skill. However, by the early 1970s, the economic tides were turning, with a decline in economic growth and a rapid increase in the price of oil and other raw materials that affected the overall costs of doing business.

Although governments around the world responded with strategic policies to combat the slump, nothing worked, and instead, the unremitting period of inflation that settled over industrial countries began to eat away at their power structure, saw currencies plummet, and growing mass unemployment in a stagnant economy. The hey days of Fordism were over, and the break with the past accumulated into the emergence of a global culture, guided by the huge and now extremely powerful multi-national corporations. As Webster points out, "globalization meant that Fordism was increasingly hard to maintain [because] the nation state was undermined by the international flow of information around and across the globe . . . with information playing an integral part" (Webster 1995,145). Conceivably, libraries are currently global information sites, with librarians funneling through and disseminating information for their clients.

The Post-Fordist culture is one typified by a decline in the nation state, and a dismantling of its correlating system of social services, such as welfare, unemployment, and educational programs. There is the corresponding rise of multi-national corporations, with their Post-Fordist labour practices of flexible specialization, 'just-in-time production', and outsourcing, in the confines of mini-factories, with the dual hallmarks of reskilling and retraining. Libraries, as part of the welfare state are now in flux: shifting to a Post-Fordist paradigm leading to a fundamental reconceptualization of the library in a market society. As Harris and Marshall emphasize, "financial restraint and technological change are resulting in marked changes in organizational structures and work patterns in libraries . . . that facilitate client self-service, greater centralization of library functions, elimination of programs and service outlets, and reductions in staff" (Harris 1997,1). Ever more, libraries will be expected to operate like businesses, with budget concerns, and a greater dependence upon technology to be the panacea for all the problems that come with financial cutbacks and loss of staff (Harris 1997,7). Therefore, it is realistic to say that since the transnational corporations are now the key players in the powerful sphere of global economics, and information plays an integral role in its societal manifestations (Webster 1995,162), then the kinds of information available, and how it is distributed, would be critical areas of concern for a Post-Fordist librarian.

In the middle of this paradigm shift, stands the librarian, a constantly reskilled, information connoisseur who performs a multitude of tasks through the organizational practice of team management, always with an eye to the business world to see how to reengineer libraries in fundamental and structural ways (Shapiro 1994,285). Currently, the organizational patterns of individual libraries have been broken down, developing large departments within libraries, which are often somehow merged with the computer services branch (Harris 1997,14). Shapiro and Long suggest "that libraries can no longer afford a small cadre of technological wizards to manage technology. Rather, technology must be integrated throughout the library" (Shapiro 1994,289). Library systems in general, are becoming decentralized, creating huge networks of interconnected links, or the global 'virtual library'. This concept of flexibility has "everything to do with maintaining highly centralized control through decentralized tactics" (MacDonald 1991,193).

Outsourcing, and Self Service: Libraries as Businesses

The collection development controversy that is currently sweeping Hawaii is symptomatic of the current trend evident in libraries today, and that is, the proliferation of large corporate enterprises picking and choosing the books for libraries across the world. In fact, the same Baker and Taylor company now at the center of the Hawaiian library fiasco, also does the collection development for the local London Public Library system. Besides wiping out the important local flavours that were always evident when collection development was done inhouse (Oder 1997,29), with outsourcing, "the tie is severed between the collection and the librarian . . . and has the potential to create cookie-cutter collections" (Oder 1997,30). Collections that may provide a skewed view of the world. In an article by Juris Dilevko and Kalina Grewal, A New Approach to Collection Bias in Academic Libraries: The Extent of Corporate Control in Journal Holdings, concludes that when libraries are deselecting academic journals in their collection, they must be very careful that they do not "privilege 'corporate publisher' titles over 'small publisher' socio-political journals," which provide an alternative voice in today's society (Dilevko 1997). Librarians must be aware that part of their job in this Post-Fordist world, will be to sift through the colossal amounts of available information for their clients, to make sure they are getting a clear picture, not one whitewashed by a corporate mentality. As Bart Kane says, "a librarian's function is to be an information navigator" (Oder 1997,31).

The same thing can be seen in the overriding policy that sees libraries accepting copy cataloguing from the Library of Congress, or wherever else they can get it to save money. In a sense, this is also outsourcing because it often utilizes a moneymaking third party to provide the service. As with collection development policies, cataloguing has no more local flavour, signifying that everything that once matters, is now determined on a global level, where there is a feeling of sameness and standardization. The quest for the perfect record has all but faded into the background of library procedures (Shapiro 1994,286).

In addition, a noticeable trend over the last few years has been a reduction of library services, which will only be exacerbated by more cutbacks and loss of staff. Harris and Marshall cite branch closures, the elimination of bookmobiles, and the closure of independent departments, like children's services (Harris 1997,14). An emphasis on self-service in libraries is also on the rise, for everything from placing orders for books, checking out, and for renewing. On the one hand, libraries say they are trying to offer better service, but what they are actually offering are automated systems for customers to use, hoping that self service will be the savior (Harris 1997,12).

Ethical Considerations in the Quest for Information Brokerage

Revelations brought out in Steven Ellis' article, Data Entry and the Economy of Offshore Information Production, showed that outsourcing has been taken another step, and moved into the exploitative regions of 'offshore' or overseas conversions of library materials to electronic formats. Underlying this practice is the corporations' desire to save money in their daily operations, regardless of data integrity, environmental consequences, or even, the quality of "the labor conditions under which conversion occur" (Ellis 1997,121). Now that librarians know that these kinds of policies are being carried out in conjunction with outsourcing, what will be done? When has the cost of knowledge been so high that it has been associated with real human suffering? Martha MacDonald, quoting Clarke, writes:

Post-Fordist technologies can no more liberate the working class than could the technology of fordism, because the working class is not exploited and oppressed by technology, but by capitalism (MacDonald 1991,192).
Canadian libraries assuredly need a stronger code of ethics, to combat this kind of legalized discrimination, and to deal with the problems associated with user fees.

With the increase in the technological facilities within libraries, such as the numerous online indexes, databases, and of course, the Internet, librarians will be expected to have knowledge of them, so they can help the public with online searching. Shapiro and Long contend that along with the need to be a generalist in today's libraries, librarians will also be expected to be specialists, especially when it comes to knowledge of electronic resources, and a reengineering of service operations that will instill a business mentality towards the users (Shapiro 1994,287). The problem that arises with this kind of service is that it will increasingly involve the charging of user fees. Libraries no longer enjoy the kind of financial benefits they once did, and now, with expensive automated systems in place, they will charge for many more kinds of services.

Harris and Marshall believe that libraries are trying to change their image to one of technological glamour that "is expected to entice a new type of patron to its customer base" (Harris 1997,21). What is left unsaid is that, preferably, they will have lots of money to spend. The emphasis on information brokerage is becoming stronger, "with an increasing emphasis in library services for clients who can pay, and 17% anticipate a greater focus on services for business clients" (Harris 1997,15). The overwhelming sentiment from librarians is that unless a library user can perform a task themselves, more and more, it will be pay-for-help basis (Harris 1997,16).


There is no question that the future is now here for libraries and their staff. Contemporary librarianship is now synonymous with Post-Fordist and it silently, and stealthily crept upon us when we were too busy trying to keep our heads above water. By and large, the technology is in place to completely eradicate how libraries have historically conducted their business. If libraries are expected to become streamlined epitomes of information brokerage, with MBAs in charge, tooting all the benefits of freeing up librarians and other staff from circulation duties, collection development, cataloguing, data entry, and perhaps even routine reference practices, so that they can concentrate on serving the paying public, while dishing out information that can only be described as censored and self-serving for the powers that be, then will they still be libraries? That is the question that must be carefully pondered, now, before too much more time passes by and it will too late to find our way back home.

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Dilevko, Juris, and Kalina Grewal. A New Approach to Collection Bias in Academic Libraries: The Extent of Corporate Control in Journal Holdings. Library & Information Science Research (Fall 1997) 19(4), pp.359-385.

Ellis, Steven. Data Entry and the Economy of Offshore Information Production. LRTS 41(2), 1997, pp. 112-122.

Harris, Roma M. and Victoria Marshall. Reorganizing Canadian Libraries: A Step Back from the Front. Library Trends 46: 564-580.

MacDonald, Martha. Post-Fordism and the Flexibility Debate. Studies in Political Economy 36, Fall 1991, pp. 177-201.

Oder, Norman. Outsourcing Model -- or Mistake? The Collection Development Controversy in Hawaii. Library Journal, March 15, 1997, pp. 28-31.

Shapiri, Beth J. and Kevin Brook Long. Just Say Yes: Reengineering Library User Services for the 21stCentury. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, November 1994, pp. 285-290.

Webster, Frank. Theories of the Information Society. London: Routledge, 1995.

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