The “independent learner” continues to be a prominent trope in the world of academic libraries (and higher education more broadly), circulating through library mission statements and program descriptions, library school textbooks, scholarly literature, and other library writing. “We’re not here to give you the answers,” the story goes: “We’re here to create independent”—alternately “self-sufficient,” “self-directed,” or “autonomous”—“learners.” While such narratives are clearly born of well-placed desires to empower users as active participants in their own education, their specific recourse to Western liberal framings of such agency in terms of independence is nevertheless worth interrogating. Independence has, after all, continued to operate with conceptual centrality in the stories used to legitimize and extend the racial capitalist order by which our lives are governed, with the recurring assertion of racialized hierarchies in the terms of Western mythologies of individualism serving as rationale for ruling class exploitation of land and labour, for dispossession, disappearance, disposal.
With this broad context in mind, this presentation situates the academic libraries’ apparent conceptual investment in the concept of independent learning against the more specific backdrop of the university’s operation as a racial capitalist institution and its operational dependency as such on individualist accounts of education. More than a simple exercise in semantics or cultural (in)competence, a critical exploration of our persistent recourse to this seemingly innocuous concept provides an opportunity for confronting academic libraries foundational entanglement in the material structures of racialized violence that undergird the social, political, and economic arrangements through which the normal life of our societies is organized.