Knowledge (as opposed to mere information gathering), Public Space (as opposed to commercial or private space), and Sharing (as opposed to buying and selling)

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Below is an excerpt from a speech given by Naomi Klein at the joint American Library Association/Canadian Library Association Conference, June 24 2003. Seven years old and still oh, so relevant. The topic: globalization and a warning to librarians against privatization.

When we talk about free trade or globalization, what we are really talking about is the fencing in, the enclosing, of the commons. This has reached into every aspect of our lives: health and education, of course, but also ideas, seeds, now purchased and patented, as well as traditional remedies, plants, water and even human genes: the privatization of life itself. And as you know, it is also reaching into libraries. Information, your stock and trade, ranks just below fuel as the most precious commodity coursing through the global economy. The U.S.’s single largest export is not manufactured goods or arms or food, it is copyrights; patents on everything from books to drugs…..This is the essence of free trade: making sure that absolutely nothing, whether books or water or ideas, is offered for free. The role of international trade law must be understood not only as taking down barriers to trade,  as it claims, but as a legal process that systematically puts up new barriers, around knowledge, technology and the commons itself, through fiercely protective patent and trademark law. There is absolutely nothing free about it.

The best way you can preserve the state funding you currently receive is to resist the temptation to partially privatize your precious public spaces, whether by letting advertisements into libraries, or co-branding with Microsoft, or outsourcing more of your core services. The more you allow the lines to be blurred between a library and a superstore, or a library and, heaven forbid, Google Answer, the more these multinationals will be able to turn around and claim that you are robbing them of their rightful market share. Partial privatizations will be used as the thin edge of the wedge, the legal precedent, to force more complete privatization down the road. It’s already happening with water, health care, sewers, and energy. Why, when information is so profitable, would libraries be immune?

Book store chains can imitate that feeling with local interest sections and story times, Amazon can talk about community stake holders, but a marketing concept will never be able to replicate the passion that flows from an institution that is truly an outgrowth of the people it serves. That passion, that sense of collective ownership, is your greatest protection in the unavoidable battles ahead. Remember that the next time a management consultant tells you that the only way to save your library is to act more like a corporation, or to turn your library into a bargain Barnes and Noble. Not only won’t it work, it will hurt you in the future when your users don’t fight for you because they can’t tell the difference between public and private space. The best way to stay public is to be public – truly, defiantly, radically public.

Naomi Klein is a leading anti-sweatshop activist, and author of Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate? (Picador, 2002) and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador, 2000). Visit the No Logo website: www.nologo.org.

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