2014-05-10 18.41.50

Radical Librarians Collective (Part Four): Libraries and Youth

Part Four of a series of posts on the Radical Librarians’ Collective event that took place on 10th May 2014 at the London Action Resource Centre in Whitechapel, London.

This post is about the Libraries and Youth session pitched by Erin.

This is the mindmap for the session (click on the image for full size), which was really interesting and I found very useful for getting an insight into how youth work can contribute to an understanding of the role of libraries and library workers in relation to young people.

libraries and youth mindmap

Are youths using libraries?

One of the first things we talked about was whether or not young people are making use of libraries. The answer, of course, is not simple. Some are, some aren’t. Some do a lot of the time, some only when they have assignments. Some only visit the library in the school holidays. Some borrow books, but a lot only use the computers. Some don’t use it for work at all and use it as a social space. Some of the main questions raised in relation to this were:

  • How do we address the ‘drop-off’ that happens when children reach a certain age? Is it a habit we can get them to form?
  • Do we need to address it, and should we? Do libraries have anything to offer that they don’t already get elsewhere?
  • How do we reflect usage in statistics if they aren’t borrowing books?

Why aren’t they using libraries?

Young people don’t use libraries for a lot of reasons, and some of them relate to library practice. It’s important to acknowledge that young people aren’t a homogeneous group, but have different desires and needs, and there are intersectional issues such as disability which need to be considered. There are also tensions between groups in communities which can discourage library use. We talked about the ways use by young people is discouraged in our practice; there are often no dedicated children’s or young people’s librarians within library services. Another big problem identified was floor-walking – the staff hate it and the users hate it. There are particular issues relating to young people, such as potential embarrassment about being approached by a member of staff, especially if they’re looking for materials about something they might not want anyone to know about, such as sexual health information, resources about sexuality, or other information relating to sensitive areas of their everyday life.

‘Problem behaviour’

We also talked about dealing with the antagonistic relationship young people and libraries/library workers often have, including ‘problem behaviour’ and how to establish relationships with younger users so we can challenge it. We talked about how authoritarian librarians can and should be, how this can create resistance from young people, and how it’s difficult to work out relationships when staff don’t have experience of developing pastoral skills. There are some serious issues to consider, such as aggressive behaviour (and the possession of weapons) which can be very scary for staff to deal with.

What is the role of libraries/librarians?

Another topic we discussed was the tension between libraries as a public space (which are of value for young people to use because they are often the only place available where people aren’t expected to spend money) and the ways in which libraries may be expected to fill in gaps in welfare which may only serve to mask problems such as a lack of public resources.

How can we encourage use?

Some really good ideas came out of the discussion about how we can encourage library use on a practical level. For example, although it’s hard to establish and maintain the right lines of rules and regulations, it can be effective to make sure when you have to enforce rules (like ‘no sitting on each others’ laps!) to tell whoever it is doing something wrong that “I like you and you’re welcome here BUT…this is not acceptable”. We also talked about relaxing rules wherever possible, including internet filtering, which is rubbish and ineffective anyway. The idea of makerspaces was also brought up, which ties into the ideas about working out what the role of libraries actually is and whether diversification/over-diversification is an opportunity or a terrible mistake…

What’s youth work got to do with it?

I found Erin’s insights from youth work really valuable, particularly ideas about the voluntary principle and how it has to be the young person’s choice to engage with an activity or a youth worker. A suggestion about how to encourage young people to use the libraries was for local authorities to hire a dedicated youth worker to bring groups into the library and work with the library to run events, programmes and generally help young people to get an idea about how libraries can be really useful for study and leisure. Another idea was to develop youth steering groups, which as well as helping libraries to develop their services to be geared towards young people in ways they’d actually want to engage with, also provides those involved with an example of the democratic process and experience of engaging with local civic activities. Being brought into libraries through a youth work context can also help young people to establish and think about appropriate boundaries in different contexts and build relationships.

 

 

 

settlers of catan library card

Radical Librarians Collective (Part Three): Critical Theory

Part Three of a series of posts on the Radical Librarians’ Collective event that took place on 10th May 2014 at the London Action Resource Centre in Whitechapel, London.

This post is about the session pitched by Kevin Sanders, about the lack of critical theory on Library and Information Studies (LIS) courses, which is particularly unusual for postgraduate courses, in which students are usually expected to be able to demonstrate that they can critically engage with their subject. Kevin suggested that there isn’t much by way of critical theory present on reading lists and within modules on courses relating to LIS, and that perhaps this might be a by design rather than accident on the part of departments to ensure that students of LIS remain what Foucault described as “docile bodies”; that is…kind of…workers who are easy to control and unlikely to challenge authority, as a result of how academic institutions and wider society act to make people submissive. The absence of critical theory may suggest a lack of desire to expose students to materials that may raise consciousness of issues of social justice and how this relates to library and information work.

What is critical theory?

A good place to start is by briefly defining critical theory, which Kevin and I attempted to do on the day, but perhaps not very well. However! The power of the blog means I can use other people’s words to explain (perhaps) more effectively:

“The rise of critical theory is usually identified with the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), formed in 1923 and associated over the years with the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany. The institute was the home of what became known as the Frankfurt School of social thought/critique. Particularly under the leadership of Max Horkheimer during the 1930s, the institute became a focus for the radical critique both of the fabric of society (including the economy and its attendant sociopolitical formations) and the social theories that were purported to be explanatory of social phenomena.” (Leckie and Buschman 2010, p.viii)

The early critical theorists of the Frankfurt School covered a wide range of topics but were broadly united in neo-Marxist ways of approaching problems. The term doesn’t just cover the members of the Frankfurt School, but also includes people writing in France, slightly later, who tended to focus on moving the critique of political economy towards a broader critique of society and culture. It also covers later generations of writers up to the present day who…think I said on the day something like “people writing about problems in society relating to social justice and inequality, and working towards understanding how structures of power are the cause of the problems”. It now exists in a lot of disciplines, including: education, literary studies, philosophy, management, communication /media studies, international relations, political science, geography, language studies, sociology, and psychology (Leckie and Buschman 2010, p.ix).

Why is critical theory important in LIS?

There are very many good reasons critical theory is important in LIS, which we didn’t discuss all of in detail in the session but include:

  • Theories from other disciplines are being increasingly adopted by LIS research and practice, such as business studies, marketing and psychology. However, critical theory exists which challenges the theories and practices of these areas, and neglecting to consider these means that we fail to address the failings of the theories we’re taking on uncritically;
  • To make itself seem like a ‘legitimate’ area of research and its own field of practice, LIS places itself within different disciplines, such as education and social science. There are “debates and the progressions of thought” (Leckie and Buschman 2010, p.xi) in these fields which LIS has not kept up with, but needs to in order to maintain its place in those communities of practice.
  • Most importantly (I think), engagement with critical theory enables people working in all areas of library and information to respond thoughtfully to current events such as public spending cuts, internet filtering, surveillance, government and market use of big data, censorship, the marketisation of higher education, and changes to all areas of education that place emphasis on assessment and teaching to the test. Leckie and Buschman (2010, p.xi) talk about how the area of library technologies is massively undertheorised, which is really worrying given how keen to adopt new technologies and approaches libraries often are.

These benefits aren’t just beneficial for LIS research, but are issues that need to be thought about by practitioners and acted on in practice in the decisions we make in policy and in everyday engagement with the individuals, communities and societies we serve.

Why isn’t critical theory included on LIS courses?

Some suggestions were made about why there isn’t much critical theory on LIS courses, including:

  • The desire for students to be uncritical of the problems within LIS as a whole, particularly the neoliberal, marketised routes being taken by universities, professional bodies and other institutions related to libraries and information work;
  • The perceived ‘difficulty’ of critical theory – there was some doubt about whether all the students given a place on LIS courses would be able to engage with the material, and even if they have a high enough standard of English to be able to read and write about the course content (and whether the standards expected of LIS students is lower than on other Masters courses – this will be explored in a later post). Issues were also raised about the reluctance of departments to fail students, and that critical theory assignments may be more likely to see lower marks than other, ‘easier’ modules;
  • The emphasis of many LIS courses on vocationalism – many students see LIS courses as a means to an end, they ‘need’ the qualification to serve as a tick-box on a form for job applications which require a ‘qualified’ candidate, and therefore there is increased pressure on departments to teach skills for the job rather than theories for the profession.

I want to read some critical theory, where should I start?

There isn’t a huge amount of writing specific to critical theory in library and information studies, and what there is tends to be from the US and is therefore not always applicable in a UK context. However, I’ve made a google doc of Critical Theory in LIS Recommended Reading on a google doc. It’s open for anyone to edit, so if there’s anything I’ve missed that you think would be of value for people new to the topic to read, please do add it. The other day I also came across a bibliography for content specifically focusing on critical pedagogy (theories about the method and practice of teaching) put together by two of the people involved in the twitter #critlib discussion group, which runs at horrible o’clock in the morning for UK-based people but is always worth catching up on afterwards.

john cusack in high fidelity

(In the style of John Cusack) my Top Five (okay fine seven) All-Time Must-Read Critical Theory in LIS texts are:

  1. Leckie, G.J., Given, L.M. and Buschman, J.E. eds., 2010. Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Discipline. Oxford: Libraries Unlimited.
  2. Leckie, G.J. & Buschman, J.E. eds. (2009) Information Technology in Librarianship: New Critical Approaches. 1st ed. Westport, Libraries Unlimited.
  3. Gregory, L. & Higgins, S. eds., 2013. Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis. Sacramento, Library Juice Press.
  4. Elmborg, J., 2006. ‘Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice.’ The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32 (2), pp.192–199.
  5. Buschman, J.E., 2005. ‘On Libraries and the Public Sphere.’ Library Philosophy and Practice, 7 (2). Available from: <http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/libphilprac/11>.
  6. Day, R.E., 2000. ‘Tropes, History, and Ethics in Professional Discourse and Information Science.’ Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51 (5), pp.469–475.
  7. Greene, M. and McMenemy, D., 2012. ‘The Emergence and Impact of Neoliberal Ideology on UK Public Library Policy, 1997–2010.’ Library and Information Science, 6, pp.13-41.

I’d say that pretty much anything by any of these people, and most of the stuff published by Library Juice Press is well worth a read.

How can we make critical theory in LIS happen?

A few suggestions from the session and chats afterwards:

  • If you’re on a LIS course, ask for it;
  • If you were on a LIS course, contact your old department and recommend it if you’ve benefited from engaging with it after your course;
  • If you’re a doctoral researcher, volunteer to teach on courses where there isn’t much critical theory and get it in there;
  • If you want to do doctoral research, consider applying critical theory to your work, and apply for funding (advice about which I’m always more than happy to share);
  • If you’re a practitioner who might have opportunities to do research in the field, have a look at how critical theory has been applied to action research and other ‘in the field’-based research projects;
  • Blog about the stuff you’re reading. Propose papers to journals. Journals are often not keen on purely theoretical papers, but if you’re a practitioner and have experience or examples to furnish your use of theory and vice versa, I think they’d love it;
  • If you want to get involved in Radical Library Collective local events, let us know and we can put you in touch with people local to you who might also be interested in meeting up and talking about stuff they’ve been reading;
  • Follow the Sheffield University Critical Reading Group hashtag #critLIS on twitter (livetweeting from reading group meetings from 11am on the last Wednesday of the month);
  • Start a reading group wherever you are!

References

Leckie, G. and Buschman, J. (2010) “Introduction: The Necessity for Theoretically Informed  Critique in Library and Information Science” in Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Discipline. Leckie, Gloria J., Given, Lisa M., Buschman, John E. (Eds.) Oxford: Libraries Unlimited.

newspapers cc by binuri on flickr

Radical Librarians Collective (Part Two)

Part Two of a series of posts on the Radical Librarians’ Collective event that took place on 10th May 2014 at the London Action Resource Centre in Whitechapel, London.

I promised to write in more detail about the sessions I took part in. This post is about the first session on censorship in libraries, which I led, but which was very much a group discussion.

I wanted to discuss what’s gone wrong in terms of library and information workers failing to understand that banning content we disapprove of on political grounds is unacceptable, what we can do to challenge opinions about censorship on a general level and also in the workplace, and discuss other issues of censorship that we need to be aware of as library-related folk. I’m not sure to what extent this was achieved, but the session was certainly very interesting!

What censorship?

The idea for this session came from the recent discussions around the petition to ban The Sun newspaper from public libraries, specifically in the London Borough of Islington. The rationale behind the petition is on three counts:

  • The imagery in The Sun (specifically the Page 3 feature which publishes topless photos of glamour models) promotes sexism in society through the objectification of women.
  • The authors of the petition disapprove of the sexist content of the newspaper in general. 
  • Stocking the newspaper contravenes a number of Islington Council’s policies, including: the Code of Conduct under Equalities Issues 4.6 which states that employees must “never display in the workplace, nor allow others to display, sexist or racist material, or material which people could reasonably find offensive”; the Corporate Equality Scheme and Community Cohesion Strategy which states that  the Council are “committed to tackling discrimination and inequality in all the service areas for which we are responsible, including in our role as employers”; and the Dignity for All Policy, which states that “As 52% of Islington’s population is female, prejudice based on gender stereotyping means that gender discrimination can be very widespread. As a result, women, and sometimes men, can find themselves facing inequality when it comes to pay, access to services, responsibilities, levels of safety and other areas. Such discrimination can directly affect life choices.”

There has been some discussion of this online, and I’d recommend reading Ian Anstice’s comments on Public Libraries News and Ian Clark’s post on banning offensive material in public libraries. I’d also recommend reading this post in support of the idea of boycotting The Sun on the informed blog, but which I very much disagree with, and was my main motivation for discussing the issue at RLC.

But…librarians are against censorship…aren’t they?

I thought so, but apparently not all of them. Or rather, there’s a lack of clarity about what censorship is, and which way the balance of ‘professional’ duties around social justice and access to information should tip. We talked about how library workers have a responsibility to be ‘neutral’, how this is a bit of a misnomer and how professional ethics inherently represent a political stance, but that this isn’t well understood and discussion about it is often avoided.

I get the impression that most, if not all, of us in the session have a low opinion about the kind of content The Sun features, particularly in relation to its support of views that are, well, pretty racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, misogynistic and so on. It understand the temptation to prevent the awful rag from seeing the light of our libraries, but there’s a lot of content in most libraries that conveys similar messages, and we’re not talking about banning that content. There’s the question of how the material is used, too; if the material isn’t there for people to analyse and understand, how can it be criticised? (It’s also worth remembering that not all librarians are politically left-leaning, or even necessarily anti-racism/sexism/homophobia etc., although that’s a whole other issue.)

An issue raised when we were talking about librarians’ opinions on the matter was that if we as professionals are setting this standard, what kind of message does it send to volunteers who are running libraries? A lot of the volunteer groups stepping forward to run libraries when councils threaten to close them are special interest groups and religious organisations. The idea of these groups having control over access to information they deem unsuitable for public use is worrying.

Legal precedent against banning newspapers

One of the first things that was mentioned in the session was that in the UK there is legal precedent relating to local authorities trying to ban certain newspapers from being stocked in public libraries. R. v. Ealing London Borough Council, ex parte Times Newspapers Ltd. (1986) dealt with a case in which the London Boroughs of Camden, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Ealing imposed a ban on the newspapers and periodicals published by Times Newspapers Ltd. 

The councils had decided to stop providing newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, who at the time was supportive of the Conservative Party under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The rationale for banning the newspapers at the libraries was to show “sympathy with the views and activities of the trade unions and its members” during an industrial dispute relating to the relocation of a number of newspaper printing houses. The case report notes:

“Over 30 other local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have taken similar action. The first three applicants have brought applications for judicial review, none of which have been heard so far, against eight of these. A few local authorities who imposed bans have withdrawn them. The remainder refuse to do so. In all the local authorities referred to, Socialist councillors have a majority, and therefore are said to be in control.”

The Divisional court held that:

“The decisions of the respondent local authorities to ban The Times and other publications of the applicants from their public libraries in support of print workers in industrial dispute with the applicants was an abuse of their power as library authorities under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and a breach of their duty under s.7(1) of the Act to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.A library decision taken on purely political grounds is an unlawful abuse of power. In the present case, the ban was inspired by  political views. The respondents’ reason for imposing the ban was solely that it could be used as a weapon in aid of the dismissed print workers to damage the other side in their industrial dispute. Thus, the ban was for an ulterior object and in exercising their duties the respondents took account of an irrelevant consideration. No rational local authority could have thought that such a ban was open to it to impose in discharge of its duty to service libraries.”

The most interesting point from this case to me is the suggestion that “a library decision may be lawful within s.7 [of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964] if the dominant purpose bringing it about could not be said to be unlawful even though to some extent inspired by political motive”. So for example, does this mean that a library service could cease stocking certain newspapers because they don’t agree with the content of them, but use budget cuts as a justification for doing so? This may well be an abuse of power, but cannot be considered illegal. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t be giving people ideas…

But what else?

Aside from the legal issues, we discussed how banning certain materials because the content is offensive and potentially harmful is, for want of a better word, problematic. The main issue for me is that the message that we’re sending when we choose not to stock items because the content is hateful is that we have no faith in our patrons, our learners, the public, to be able to think for themselves. We have no hope that the content they are exposed to will not have a negative effect on them, and that they can read that content, think about it, and realise the biases and attitudes inherent in it which make it hateful.

Of course my own research heavily influences my opinions around this; what I’d like to see is the increased emphasis of critical literacy skills in information literacy education. I do think that there’s weight in the argument that rather than failing to provide a variety of content because we’re afraid of what people might do with it, we should make resources available and have the faith in humanity that people can decide for themselves what they want to be exposed to. However, in the course of my research what’s become clear to me is that a lot of people don’t have the level of awareness about the way the media and politics work to understand the underlying issues such as how messages are presented, what is and isn’t reported, how issues are framed and so on. People’s opinions are formed as a result of what information they are exposed to and how they interpret it, and a lack of understanding can be harmful. I think libraries have a responsibility with regard to this; we should provide courses, workshops, training, whatever, on critical information literacy and media literacy. I’d like to hope that there’s a public interest for programmes like this in UK public libraries as well as academic environments.

The discussion about this led us on to talking about the constraints placed on staff in public libraries. As employees of local authorities, they are prevented from being overtly political, but there was also the sense that they are also prevented from doing anything remotely challenging. Political terrain is very dangerous ground in libraries, for example when it comes to making public information displays about European or UK elections, or book displays about contentious issues. There were also suggestions that as a result of deprofessionalisation, a lot of the remaining library staff now would not feel confident taking on work on such unsteady ground. I personally think there’s a serious issue with staff not having control over their own displays and the pressure to conform to a corporate ‘brand’ as part of councils with an increasing emphasis on what they view as customer service, and there are also issues about staff feeling that they wouldn’t have the support of their employer if they did attempt to inform the public about certain issues even though they are within the remit of public library services. Another major issues is the lack of professionally trained staff in public libraries, both as a result of redundancies in recent years, and a failure to recruit staff trained to postgraduate level in library and information studies to public libraries. It’s less and less seen as a requirement by employers (without good reason) and less and less seen as a viable career path for graduates (with good reason).

What are the concerns for the future?

We talked about internet filtering and how in attempting to protect users from harmful content we can often do more harm than good. Filters are ineffective and insensitive, often failing to block content that they intend to and blocking content they aren’t meant to. They act as a barrier for people researching sensitive topics, and the result is that a lot of people don’t go to the library staff to ask to have the ‘innocent’ but sensitive content (such as information about sexual health, female genital mutilation, sexuality etc.) unblocked. When people who are confident enough to go to the staff to ask for the block to be removed, this has to be done on a page by page basis by technical staff off-site, and is far from instantaneous.

Another question we considered was about changing stock selection policies and the increased involvement of library users in these decisions. If the focus of libraries is to provide what users say they want, and they explicitly state that they do not want money to be spent on certain newspapers, should we stop buying them? Conversely, if they say they want us to buy newspapers we don’t currently stock, should we start, regardless of how extreme or hateful the content?

What can we do?

Aside from trying to encourage public libraries to run workshops about media and/or critical information literacy, the idea of notice boards was discussed. Perhaps every so often making a display showing the different ways the different newspapers reported the same issue in the headlines, as an informative but ‘neutral’ presentation for visitors to see and interpret for themselves. As far as getting our colleagues to understand the problems with censorship, challenging them gently may be the best way, especially when their intentions are clearly well-meaning, but a little skew-whiff. This kind of discussion needs to go on not only in environments like RLC where a lot of people are on the same page, and not only on LIS courses where few people will ever be in positions where they’re affected by this kind of issue, but at ‘ground level’, where library workers are more likely to come into contact with colleagues or members of the public who like the idea of censorship, well-intentioned or otherwise.

 

Image: CC by binuri on flickr

2014-05-10 15.39.22

Radical Librarians Collective (Part One)

Part One of a series of posts on the Radical Librarians’ Collective event that took place on 10th May 2014 at the London Action Resource Centre in Whitechapel, London.

This post discusses what RLC is, where it was held and what sessions happened. I’ll be writing more posts about the sessions I attended soon!

What’s the Radical Librarians Collective?

It’s both an online and physical space, where people who are starting off from the general point of view that there are some problems in the way that libraries and information services of various kinds function in society, can discuss those issues. It covers all sorts – how we catalogue resources, how we do outreach, how library management is structured, how education is viewed in society, how publicly-funded research is often not accessible…

“Radical Librarians Collective aims to offer a space to challenge, to provoke, to improve and develop the communications between like-minded radicals, to galvanise our collective solidarity against the marketisation of libraries and the removal of our agency to our working worlds and beyond.”

Last year the first RLC event was held in Bradford, and this time round it was held in London. They’ve taken the form of ‘unconferences’, where there’s a general structure to the day but it’s far less formal and planned. I had the pleasure of being involved in the organising and running of the RLC event this time round, and can very much recommend getting involved in whatever capacity you can if this is the kind of thing you’re interested in. I found both events especially positive for lots of reasons.

Attendees were starting on the same page despite the wide variety of industry and work backgrounds they came from and it wasn’t necessary to spend a long time getting past the fundamentals, like the radical notion that access to information is a good thing, or that claiming libraries are democratic needs to be backed up in their actions. At other events I’ve often felt like there’s too much of a leap between the normative and uncritical point the event takes off from to get to the critical and challenging stuff, and it’s great to be able to miss the middle bit and head straight to the meaty stuff.

The question of “what do we do about it?” was very much in focus throughout, and people were happy to share practical examples and suggestions about how they can improve situations. So many ideas were being thrown around and the day ended with a plenary session where we shared what things we can do as individuals and groups to improve the things we want to improve. Mega-positive. Even discussions where I was able to share a negative feeling about something and have someone else not be able to fix it, but say “yeah that’s a thing and it sucks, it’s not just you”, I found really helped me feel less isolated and far more resilient. It sounds obvious but I think I’d forgotten that there’s such power in finding out you’re not alone. However, that certainly wasn’t the main content of the day and productivity far outweighed any sense of hopelessness.

There was a real emphasis on the non-hierarchical nature of the events, and it very much felt like although attendees definitely varied in levels of experience and different backgrounds, everyone’s input was respected and valued. I’m aware that different people have different levels of comfort about participating in discussions, but of all the events I’ve been to, this felt like one where there was a very non-judgemental environment and there was plenty of space for anyone to say pretty much whatever they liked (within the safe spaces policy) without fear of reproach. I was on both sides of discussions that started with things like “oh god I was so intimidated by you but you’re like, a normal person” and “I’m so sorry if I offended you, I was just disagreeing” and it was a complete breath of fresh air to be able to actually disagree with people and them be okay with it and stand up for what they thought and work out where there were differences and commonalities to work from and to just feel comfortable with a bunch of totally awesome people. I really hope that was everyone else’s experience and if not I’d really like to know how I can be part of making things better next time round if anyone did feel uncomfortable. (I harbour fears of coming across as a complete jerk, rightly or wrongly, and being anxious about not being told if I’m a jerk is the suckiest thing.)

All of the things I’ve talked about above are issues that RLC have been very aware of since the beginning and served as part of the motivation for getting started in the first place, so I’m really glad that it seems to have happened in action.

What’s LARC?

The London Action Resource Centre (LARC) is a collectively run building providing space and resources for people and groups working on self-organised, non-hierarchical projects for radical social change. The resources of the building include:

  • a main hall area with chairs and couches, a small kitchenette with tea making facilities, used for meetings or small gatherings
  • an office space with chairs, desks and internet facilities
  • a rooftop garden
  • a radical reference library that overlooks the main hall area
  • a banner-making and tool space in the basement

I was so impressed with this space. The people involved in LARC were so helpful and generous during the planning process and it served our needs really well. I think RLC-folk in London intend to use the space again, and I think that’s a really great idea. The only problem I can think of would be that it’s not an especially accessible building, so that would need to be taken into consideration for any future events. However, it was easy to get to, the wifi held up, there was plenty of space and the rooms were great. For fear of tooting a horn I shouldn’t be, I think the organisers did a grand job of overcoming some of the obstacles that needed sorting before and on the day (chairs! cups! coffee!)

a photo collage from radliblon

What happened on the day?

The structure of the day went a bit like this:

Registration and pitches (10-10:25)

Turn up, get your name ticked off, make a name badge, have a cuppa, listen to some session pitches and maybe pitch a session yourself. Some people had added their suggested sessions to the wiki beforehand so we had an idea about how many people wanted to ‘run’ or facilitate a session, but some people (like me!) just suggested something on the day. There was a real emphasis on the fact that if you were interested in a topic, you should pitch it and see if anyone else was interested in talking about it, and preparation was not an issue (in fact, positively discouraged!)

For the sessions, we used three rooms and three sessions ran at the same time. People were welcome to wander in and out of them as they fancied, but I think for the most part people stuck around.

First round of sessions (10:30-11:25)

  • Neoliberal Education: In the context of an ‘employer-led’ education system, and amidst increasing marketisation and penetration of neo-conservative ideology, what can the college or school library do to promote free-thinking and wider reading? Where is the dividing line between promoting open-mindedness and pushing your own beliefs, and are there any professional risks to going ‘off-message’ in a college library service?
  • Censorship: Is it okay for librarians to promote the signing of a petition to ban The Sun from libraries? Spoilers: no – but why and why do some of them think it is? What can we do about it? How can we prevent censorship in general? (I pitched this and will be writing about it later)
  • Libraries as a feminist issue: A discussion about inequality within and without LIS structures. Or, indeed, possible solutions/opportunities for change.

Second round of sessions (11:30-12:25)

  • Public Service Mutuals: The coalition government wants to see public services ‘spun out’ into staff-led mutuals and co-ops as part of their vision for ‘open public services’. York Libraries and Archives have already gone down this route with Birmingham Libraries following closely behind. The implications are that public libraries will have to become more business-like, how does this fit with our ethos? Do SocEnts, trusts and co-operative councils pose the same threats? Is this part of a genuine desire to maintain strong public services, empower workers/users/communities and improve service quality or an ideologically driven desire to shrink the state and cut public spending?
  • Information as Commodity: challenges and implications for libraries and information workers. Using Marx’s analysis of money-commodities cycle in Capital vol. 1 as a starting point.
  • Radicalising the Professional Routes: (Ian won’t mind me saying that the pitch didn’t really reflect the reality of the discussion so I’ll describe what was discussed!) Problems with professional qualifications, vocational vs. theoretical focus and benefits/drawbacks, preparation for the workplace, opportunities for discussion, employer support, how to fix the problems (I went to this session and will be writing about it later)

Lunch! (12:30 – 1:25)

A delicious vegan spread catered by Shambhu’s. I have to say, one of the most valuable things I learned on the day was that cucumber and fresh coriander are a heavenly combination.

After lunch we had a second round of pitching, because we’d deliberately left some space in the afternoon for more sessions that might come out of discussions in the morning.

Third round of sessions (1:30 – 2:25)

  • Critical Theory in LIS: Should employers be training employees and academic courses be encouraging those undertaking LIS studies to be producing and developing critically-founded knowledge? Libraries have a steeped history in social politics and the neutrality that emanates from the contemporary sphere appears to continue a wider narrative of passivity from individuals that have lost agency in the political domain: Is the often assumed objective, neutral position of the profession is a flawed limitation, and is there a lack of critical foundation within the field of LIS? Has this contributed to a depoliticisation (or political apathy) across the field? Without critically aware staff, how can the library and information professions be said to be informing, enhancing, assisting, teaching or training information skills to their patrons? Can we locate and provide relevant information and sources of information without critically evaluating at subjective and intra-subjective levels? (I was involved in this session and will be writing about it later)
  • Surveillance: Discussion about the abuse of digital assets, governments and third parties collecting data and the importance of knowing our digital rights.
  • What is a ‘Professional’?: Discussing issues and problems with the divisions created between ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ staff. What does ‘professional’ even mean?

Fourth round of sessions (2:30 – 3:25)

  • Libraries and Youth: Discussion about how insights from youth work can help us get youths using libraries and more. Do youths need to be using libraries? What does effective outreach look like?
  • How do we put these discussions into practice in the workplace and how can we deal with problems in the workplace?
  • How can we do things as citizens and get more people involved? The little and big things we can do to try to make a difference.
Plenary (3:30-4:30)

Round-up of the key things that had come out of the sessions, working out what to do next. The organisers of this event would very much like to just be able to attend the next one, and really don’t want to create the sense that it’s a small group of ‘usual’ organisers who are in charge of anything. This belongs to everyone and it’s someone else’s go to do it next! It’d also be great to get smaller, more regular little meet-ups going on a regional basis, and the @RadicalLibs twitter account can help put people in touch with others in their area. There’s going to be a delegate list where people can add their regional and contact details on the wiki. If anyone needs help with using a wiki, @RadicalLibs can help there too.

And then we had a lovely time having some drinks and playing some music and talking about skate videos of the 1990s.

 There’ll be plenty more written about what happened on the day (not just by me!) so do let us know if you’ve written something so we can put a link to it on the wiki.

ESRC Final Year Conference

On Friday I attended the ESRC Final Year Conference in Edinburgh, which was hosted by the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science. I just wanted to write about some of the key points that were made in various sessions and what I took away from them.

  • I need to be able to demonstrate that my research has impact beyond a contribution to changing theory and discourse in the academic field I’m working in. Thankfully this is a bit more obvious in the topic I’ve chosen, and it was always the aim that my work would contribute to the development of information literacy in practice, and hopefully it will. However, I need to do more about getting it out there and communicating its value and how worthwhile it could be.
  • The ESRC Research Data Policy is “based on the principle that publicly-funded research data are a public good, produced in the public interest and, therefore, should be openly available to a maximum extent possible.” I need to work out how I can make my data available!
  • Career-wise, it’s approaching the time I need to be looking at applying for postdoctoral research and other options. The session on how that actually works and the practicalities of it was incredibly useful, and it’s made me feel a bit less terrified of it.
  • Although I found the careers session and the statistics about employment a bit sketchy, I do intend to work my way around the Researcher Development Framework wheel and its lenses, and identify areas I need to strengthen, as well as create a little portfolio grid of the skills I have and examples to justify them. This includes working out ways my academic skills are transferable, as well as the ways work I’ve done in non-academic areas does count within academia.
  • As a librarian, I’m part of a huge network of people who are social media users, and I was surprised (again) to find that in other disciplines there’s a lot of reluctance to use social media and the recurrent comment “oh but it’s such a waste of time, you must spend forever on it and it’s pointless”. I spent a lot of time in Hazel Hall’s session responding to that kind of response with the challenge “go on then, tell me your research topic and I’ll give you an example of how using social media can be useful!” As always, Hazel’s session was well-structured and fun and I still took something away from it.

Of course, the most valuable part of the day was being able to meet people with similar interests in different academic fields and talk to them about what they do. I was so pleased to meet people researching young people’s political engagement and literacies from different angles. I almost didn’t end up submitting a poster, but I’m very glad I did because I chatted to people throughout the poster session about my fieldwork and the methods I used, which is always good practice. I also got to talk to people about what they were doing, which is always interesting!

poster for the esrc conference

(Click through for full-size poster on my research for the ESRC Final Year Conference 2014)

I’d also like to thank everybody involved in the organising and presenting, because it was a brilliant day. I’m so glad I didn’t wimp out of the evening do out of tiredness because prosecco, a beautiful three-course dinner and a ceilidh in the National Museum of Scotland, overlooked by a T-Rex, was a complete treat.

trex

food

Information ‘Obesity’: an offensive metaphor?

I’m very conscious that I’m inexperienced about writing about this topic and am very keen to not be insensitive and cause offence. I’m very happy to be corrected about my use of language and am happy to make changes where necessary, so please either comment or email me.

I bought a book the other day on the recommendation of a senior colleague of mine who was making some recommendations for content I’ve not yet covered in my literature review in relation to concepts in information literacy. It’s Digital Dieting: from information obesity to intellectual fitness by Tara Brabazon. This kind of language is also used by academics like Drew Whitworth, whose book Information Obesity has played a central role in my engagement with concepts of critical information literacy. I want to briefly write about the problem of the use of this kind of metaphor in relation to information, because I find it offensive and I don’t think it’s helpful, but I’m not completely certain about the degree to which it is offensive (and I certainly don’t think it was intended to be) but would like to discuss it with people so I can work out where I stand.

I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the authors aren’t making valid or important points in their work, because an awful lot of it is completely spot on and I find it challenging and I do use a lot of it myself. However, it seems wrong to let the problem pass me by without saying something about it. I’ll certainly be including a critique of it in my literature review, and thought it was worth maybe opening up a conversation about it here because I haven’t come across many criticisms of this kind of language use so far.

For Whitworth, information obesity is defined as “a failure to turn information into knowledge, and thus use it to sustain our minds, bodies, lives and communities. But just as physical obesity is not simply the result of too much food, so information obesity is caused by more than just “information overload”.” He says that other factors responsible are:

  • reductions in the quality of information
  • problems with mental “fitness”, that is, a lack of skills, training etc. in the consumer of information
  • external pressures, whether from “information industries”, peers, or organisations within which we work, to consume information before we have properly judged its worth.

The problems associated with information obesity are:

  • a lack of creativity and flexibility in graduates or employees
  • plagiarism at school and university
  • the “dumbing down” of TV and other media
  • counterknowledge, such as conspiracy theories, creationism, health panics, and so on
  • an increasing lack of privacy and state control over information, instead of individuals having control over the information which is important in their homes, communities, environments, workplaces and cultures.

Similarly, Brabazon discusses the need for a “digital detox” (p.16) or “digital diet” (p.30), in order to encourage students to use better sources of information and improve their media and information literacy.

Writing about information obesity tends to draw links between unhealthy relationships with food and unhealthy relationships with information. This is problematic on a few levels. There is judgement about people who are fat or obese. It is presented as bad, dysfunctional and the opposite of the ideal state of being. It is presented as outside of the norm and outside of what it is to be healthy.

A common fatphobic stereotype is that fat people are intellectually inferior. Cecilia Hartley suggests that fat women are typically seen as “sloppy, careless, lazy, and self-indulgent” (2001, p. 65). The idea that laziness is a cause of information obesity seems to sit too closely to that. For example, in her closing statement Brabazon (2013, p.316) says: “if each of us spends less time eating and more time reading, then…we can fight for intelligence rather than ignorance, and wisdom rather than gluttony.” The juxtaposition of these ideas reproduces this idea.

The metaphor conflates issues of obesity, disordered eating, dieting, detoxing and unhealthiness. The assumption is made that people who are obese are obese because they eat too much, not because of other possible reasons. Being obese is bad and the solution to becoming good or ideal is dieting and detoxing. Dieting and detoxing are seen as mutually exclusive, which they are not. An example of the way concepts are conflated is this section of Digital Dieting: from information obesity to intellectual fitness:

“Returning to the metaphor of this book, consider the nature of fitness and exercise. I wrote much of this book while living in Eastbourne…I would go for daily walks along the coast. The terrain was flat and well-paved. It was easy. But there is a moment each day where I would make a choice between continuing on the flat surface on the promenade or turning right and commencing a 25 degree incline up to the summit…Going up the incline for 15 minutes is difficult…But once at the top of Beachy Head I view a landscape that was not revealed from the coast. Without the effort, the extraordinary vista would remain obscured.” (p.44)

The thing is, the metaphor of this book isn’t quite clear, because of the fact that health is possible at every size. The idea in this passage seems to be that making the effort pays off. This works in an information context, in that making the effort to find better quality information that isn’t always the first thing that turns up on google (or subject databases, for that matter) can pay off in terms of better information to produce better assignments. However, it doesn’t seem to work within the metaphor itself. There are other ways of getting up that hill, for example. But the value judgement here is that getting up there by walking is the only acceptable way of doing it. (Actually, this is making me think about the judgements that are made by librarians and academics – that unless you’ve sweated your way into the dusty journal stacks or searched through complex advanced search functions, the information you’re using isn’t virtuous.) The idea is that what you’re doing should be hard but that’s okay because the pay-off is a beautiful view. I don’t know, the “returning to the metaphor of this book” just sits wrong. The idea that the ‘fitness’ that is being sought cannot be achieved without daily walks up hills and the outcome is that you are no longer ‘obese’. It has also been pointed out to me that there is an intersection with disability, in that somebody might not be able to walk up the hill because for example they may use a wheelchair. This applies to the issues relating to information – a lot of information is presented in ways that many people may not be able to get hold of or use because of accessibility issues.

The point of challenging ‘information obesity’ is about making sure people use information properly/effectively. It feels unpleasantly ironic that this relates to the problem of “counterknowledge”, which includes health panics, and that the rhetorical device used, that of fat shaming, directly contributes to that. It also sits very uncomfortably that Brabazon talks about how as a result of writing a book that some people found offensive, she received unpleasant messages which were “invariably about [her] nationality, gender, body shape or qualifications” (p.4), but the central problematising metaphor for this book seems to stigmatise people because of their body shape.

I must say that both authors do discuss wider cultural and social issues regarding the causes of information overload, and talk about how it’s not always the fault of the learner that they have problems with sifting through an abundance of information and have values that run counter to those of academia. However, there isn’t an acknowledgement of social issues such as poverty, capitalism and mental ill-health that all have an influence on obesity. Brabazon does say that obesity is a moral panic rather than a real menace, and talks about how we live in a culture surrounded by and obsessed with food (p.52). Whitworth (2009) talks about how a culture of blame will not help to shift patterns of behaviour. There seems to be the idea, though, that instead of shaming individuals for their body shape, that we should teach them how to get rid of that body shape through exercise. This seems to me to be a reductive and simplistic presentation of issues surrounding obesity, its causes and ‘solutions’. It’s more complex than someone who is obese deciding to walk up that hill. It might work for some people, but there are far more issues at play that are not addressed for the sake of being able to use a metaphor. There is a repeated sense that ‘good’ information use and ‘good’ eating are a simple choice – salad isn’t as appealing as cake so we choose cake, for example (Brabazon 2013, p.60). There is no engagement with issues such as the affordability of healthy foods and relationships between obesity and socioeconomic status.

I think it’s really important to be conscious of the kind of language we use as information professionals, especially if we’re trying to encourage critical engagement with information. I’m not suggesting that the writers are deliberately trying to cause offence, I think it’s more likely that the metaphor seemed like it would be engaging and something that people could understand. The fact that the ideas aren’t developed far beyond being used as book titles, section headings and a basic concept of something to be overcome indicates that isn’t intended as a complete and well thought out criticism. However, I think it’s assumed that people will understand the metaphors used in section headings etc. and that their use is acceptable precisely because of the fat-shaming that is so dominant in our culture. I might have missed something huge, and am happy to stand corrected, but I think in the future we need to be more careful about our choice of metaphors because they can be powerful but incredibly unhelpful.

References:

  • Brabazon, T. (2013). Digital Dieting: from information obesity to intellectual fitness. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Hartley, C. (2001). Letting ourselves go: Making room for the fat body in feminist scholarship. In K. LeBesco & J. E. Braziel (Eds.), Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (pp. 60-73). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Whitworth, A. (2009). Information Obesity. Oxford: Chandos.

Post-script: I must admit that I have not read widely around the origin of terms such as information obesity, media gluttony and binge searching. I intend to read Wright, A. (2007) Glut: mastering information through the ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. I’m keen to read more, so if anyone has any library and information science related articles or books that use this kind of language that they could recommend, please do.

Image CC Attribution-Sharealike by Ted Bigham

Two(ish) Years

I just gave a presentation to the department about my research so far (although strictly my two year review is in April because of the three month internship I did over the summer). I talked about what I’ve achieved in the last year, what I’d found out in the literature review, how it shaped my research approach and methods, what I actually did in terms of my methodology, how it went, what data I’ve got and what I think I might have found out about. I’m not sure, I’m knee deep in transcription and don’t want to make any sweeping generalisations based on hunches before I do any actual coding. However!

If you’re vaguely interested in the ramblings of someone who’s not entirely sure where things are going right now, the presentation’s below.