Library A to Z

Just a quick plug for the advocacy toolkit Library A to Z, created by librarians Andrew Walsh, Gary Green and illustrator Josh Filhol, which was launched yesterday.

The Library A to Z is a campaign that highlights the breadth of services, resources and facilities available from libraries, and celebrates their continued importance, value and relevance.

This summer a crowd-funding project was set up to help produce a range of promotional and advocacy materials, centred around a visual alphabet of 27 full colour illustrations. These materials include editable posters, greetings cards and a fully illustrated book. There’s a chapter in the book which I helped to write, about the importance of libraries, and you can read it here.

All of the materials including the original illustrations, are available for free download from the Library A to Z site, and most can be reproduced and re-used by anyone within the terms of the creative commons license shown on the site.

Andy even kindly made me my own P is for Political Literacy badge :D

Screenshot 2014-11-18 11.45.29

I’m going to pop down to my local library to show it to them and see if we can make a display of some kind. If you’ve got any imaginative ideas about how to make use of the resources, leave me a comment! :)


Tips for PhD New Starters

I don’t even want to think about how it became mid-October. The last time I looked up it was the beginning of July. But, it’s just been the beginning of a new academic year and there are lots of new PhD students popping up around the place. I’ve been working from home near Leeds over the summer and I’ve not seen the inside of my department for a while, so I’ve mostly been hearing about the trials and tribulations of the new starters on social media. I’m part of a network (which I’ve mentioned before) on Facebook, the PostgRAD Study Gang, which I have to say has been incredibly helpful in terms of support and gee-ing for me as a student working remotely, and also in terms of being a way to organise meetups and shut up and write sessions in the physical world!

I wanted to offer some suggestions for new students, based on what I’ve found helpful. I’m six and a half months (the half matters) away from scheduled submission on a thesis based in Library and Information Science with a hint of pedagogy, youth studies, politics, personal construct psychology, phenomenography and critical theory, so I hope my experiences so far can be helpful to those at the beginning of their studies in and around the field (and maybe further through and in other areas, who knows).

1) Decide on what software you’re going to use for writing your thesis in now. I’ve used Microsoft Word throughout and it gets to a point, even on a laptop that was new at the start of your studies, where somehow, Word gets creaky and it can’t handle the amount of text and formatting you’re using. You will be told by the more technologically advanced that LaTeX is the way to go and these people will scoff at you and say they told you so when Word stops responding, hangs in mid-air, or even, as mine started doing, starts deleting lines and lines and lines of your work infront of your very eyes when your hands are nowhere near the keyboard and will.not.stop. I decided to divide my thesis into separate chunks in different documents (which I’m sure will be a whole new nightmare when I need to merge it) and keep my cursor as far away from the heading toolbar as possible (which evidently seems to be the root of the problem) rather than changing over to using a whole new piece of software. I weighed up the pros and cons of sticking with Word or changing to LaTeX and I decided that at the point I was at, I’d find it more stressful and upsetting to change over than to handle Word when it played up. You might want to make a decision now to save yourself some strife.

2) As I just mentioned, my copy of Word doesn’t like my use of headings, but I do. If you don’t already have experience of using them, I really recommend you start. It means that if your department requires you to use a numbering system for your thesis sections they (theoretically) update automatically, it makes the layout of your document clearer, and helps you to visualise the structure of your writing both figuratively and literally through the navigation pane. You can jump around your document with ease, and if you use the subheadings you can drag and drop, or delete, entire chunks of writing. Start using this tool straight away and it’ll save you from having to implement it on an existing large document later. I also use it as a way of working out structure when I get to the stage where what I have and what I want to have are very different things.

3) Use your library. I can’t recommend it highly enough, of course, as a librarian…but some features will be a godsend. Different universities use different systems, but if you can’t get hold of a journal article, the library will probably be able to get it for you. Likewise with books, but I also recommend finding out if your department has a budget for staff- and student-driven stock requests. If there’s something they don’t have that they really should, because it’s useful to you (and other students), then ask for it! If the library doesn’t (or no longer) subscribes to a journal that’s core to your field, try finding out why. Which leads me to…

4) Find out what journals are core to your field, and which journals in fields related to your topic are key for you to be aware of. This is useful not just for getting hold of stuff to read (though I do recommend searching through different databases rather than individual journals) but also for planning what journals you’d like to try to publish through. Have a look through the Directory of Open Access Journals as well as subject databases on the library website to find out what’s out there relevant to you.

5) Start thinking about getting published early. The process often takes a long time, so it’s good to think ahead, but it also helps to have in the back of your mind an idea about how your thesis could be turned into publications. So far I’ve had publications from my literature review, methodology and initial findings, and I’ve had a book chapter about how my methods and findings can be used in practice accepted. Not all of these are peer reviewed, and not all of them need to be, but it helps. There’s value in finding out about the different kinds of publication that there are, working out how you feel about open access, how you want to communicate your work to other students, academics, people working in whatever field you’re in, the wider world etc.

6) Get to know people, particularly other students (in your department, online, elsewhere) because they have a kind of empathy you won’t find elsewhere. Also the people working in the office in your department, they will save your life one day sooner than you expect.

7) Get to know your supervisor. Don’t be afraid of them, they are human too. Probably a very stressed human, but one with responsibilities for you nonetheless. Find out what they expect of you and have a chat about what you can expect from them. This will change throughout the process – in my first year I had a weekly meeting with my supervisor, then it became less when I needed less guidance about the direction of my reading and instead had my head down analysing data. Books like this can be really useful – this one in particular has a section on supervision.

8) Don’t worry about your topic changing, either immediately or a few months in. At some point it’s inappropriate to change your topic wildly of course, but there are lots of good practical and theoretical reasons for it being necessary in the early days. Mine was going to be about how public libraries support democracy, but it became apparent early on that public libraries in the UK are bad places to do fieldwork in right now, democracy is a complex concept, the methodology I was going to use wasn’t informed by enough theory, the theories that had been used in related work were too flawed for me to accept, and that the topic was too broad to handle. It’s now using a different research site, a specific notion of democracy, looking at a specific area of LIS (information literacy) and using (too many) strong theories. Talk all this through with your supervisor and always make sure they know what direction you’re heading in.

9) Don’t worry about wasting time reading things that later become irrelevant. Also don’t read too much. This sounds like an awful truism and is an abstract thing to think about balancing before you’ve really started, but keep it in mind. It’s one of the most valuable things my supervisor told me.

10) Keep an up to date document of things you’ve done, like training, publications, presentations, conferences attended etc., including dates and brief details. This will be invaluable for putting together upgrade or progress reports and your CV.

Image: CC by Joachim Schlosser


IFLA Limerick

A couple of weeks ago I presented at the IFLA Information Literacy Satellite in Limerick. As well as presenting, I had the opportunity to attend some really informative and useful sessions, some of which touched on critical pedagogy, critical theory, and citizenship.

Bill Johnston, Sheila Webber and Shahd Salha’s round table session in which Professor Johnston drew on Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed to discuss the possibility of a community of practice amongst librarians, educators and activists to support the development of citizens aware of the relationships between information and power.

Dr. Webber discussed the ways in which being considered an ‘active citizen’ in relation to health care necessitates a certain level of information literacy in order to make informed choices, but also how the notion of an ‘active citizen’ can be problematic when it comes to making informed choices which make the lives of healthcare providers more complicated (for example, questioning their recommendations) or which challenge the government’s decisions relating to collecting, storing and sharing data relating to you. Dr. Webber also drew upon Freire’s theories, noting that “attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building”, stressing the importance of involving people in the development of information systems and provision in order to best meet the needs and interests of those being served.

Dr. Salha gave a very interesting account of her doctoral research and ongoing work supporting Syrian activists. The works she does includes helping activists to develop information literacy skills such as learning how to use google maps and other tools to find safe routes across borders, helping people find the resources and information they need to work out what vegetables they can grow in contaminated soil in order to grow food to feed their families, and providing psychological support for activists affected by their experiences. This presentation really put information literacy work into context and provided a valuable example of how in this case it really is a matter of life or death.

The slides used in the presentations are below:

I thoroughly enjoyed all of the papers in the track my paper was presented in (Track 4: Information literacy models and theoretical approaches), but particularly relevant to my interests were ‘Crossing the Threshold: The Information Cycle as a Metacognitive Cultural Tool’ by Amanda Clossen, a librarian at Pennsylvania State University, and ‘Information Literacy in Early Childhood’ by Maria Henkel, a researcher at Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf. Sheila Webber blogged about both Amanda and Maria’s presentations, so I shan’t duplicate efforts!

You can read my paper about critical information literacy and the role libraries can play in helping young people to develop a sense of political agency (developing the identity of people with a right to have rights and the capacity to make decisions and to govern, not just to be governed) here for now, and hopefully it will be published in the conference proceedings. And here are the slides:

Another excellent session was the workshop ‘Transformational Information Literacy Instruction: Using Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Universal Design to Build an Inclusive Classroom Community’ run by Dave Ellenwood (University of Washington Bothell, USA), Althea Lazzaro (University of Washington Bothell, USA) and Rebecca Bliquez (Seattle University, USA). The session introduced us to the concepts of transformational instruction, culturally responsive pedagogy and universal design, and the organisers gave really informative and helpful examples of how they’ve used the ideas successfully (and more importantly, unsuccessfully). I took the handouts we used during group discussions home with me with the intention of reading up on them and using the templates to develop my own hypothetical information literacy instruction sessions! The resources are here on Althea’s website.


What I Do When I Do Conferences

I started off writing about the latest couple of conferences I’ve been to and then realised what I could really do with writing about is why I do what I do when it comes to conferences. They’re the thing I think I write about the most on here, and although I try to write about not just what I saw but what I took from the overall experience, I don’t think I’ve written about why I go to them, which might be useful to people who are starting out or thinking about things they can do for professional development. (I’m now experiencing déjà vu so maybe I have written something similar before…consider this a refresher.) This post is also a contribution to a Blog Challenge I’m taking part in as part of a facebook study group I’m in, I’m writing with not just libraryandinformationscience-folk in mind.

What conferences?

Library-land is not short of conferences, and there’s a lot of variety in terms of content and topic. Over the last six years (since starting a graduate traineeship) I’ve been to quite a few local and national ones, and handful of international ones, with focuses on different things, but mostly librarianship, public libraries, academic libraries and information literacy. I’m now in the third and final year (argh) of my doctorate, and at the moment am analysing my data and writing research findings. My choice of conferences has been dictated by their relevance to my research and how useful I think I can be by presenting at them.

I’m presenting at quite a few conferences this season. I’ve already done iFutures 2014 in Sheffield, then IFLA Limerick, then next week I’ve got ISIC: The Information Behaviour Conference in Leeds where I’m taking part in a doctoral workshop, and then in October I’m presenting at the European Conference on Information Literacy (ECIL) 2014 in Dubrovnik. For each of these I’m presenting something slightly different for different audiences and focuses, which necessitates reworking and sometimes starting from scratch with what I’m doing. So…the amount of analysis I hoped I’d get done this summer isn’t really happening, but I’m hoping that by ‘promoting’ my work and getting to know people I’m contributing to my development in other (equally?) valuable ways. Although I make the most of online networks (okay, twitter), there’s a lot to be said for meeting people in person. And I think maybe even some people aren’t on twitter?!

Whyfor all the conferences?

Kind of by accident. I probably wouldn’t recommend this many events in short succession to someone in my position! Over the spring, I thought it would be a good idea to send out some conference paper proposals so that I could present my initial findings and discuss how I think the methodology and various methods I’ve used could be really useful in my field and beyond. It turns out my topic is more relevant and interesting to conferences than I was expecting (this year’s sexy words in LIS are social justice, citizenship and democracy – jackpot), so I’ve been accepted for more than I anticipated. The calls for papers all went out at a similar time and had similar turnover times so I found out about them all at once (otherwise I’d not have put myself forward for so many!) I also didn’t realise how much time each of the events, even local ones, would eat my writing and analysis time. I’m considering this a learning curve, and I hope others may benefit too! Pick a couple you really want and go for them, maybe. Or pick a couple more and then say no to the ones you think are the least valuable to you?

All the money

I’m very fortunate that my ESRC funding also provides me with an amount of money per year that allows me to attend conferences and receive training of relevance to my PhD, which is what I draw on for a lot of the events I attend. However, before I started the doctorate, I used to get into conferences through:

  • Offering my services (administrative stuff, mic-running, helping on the registration desk, publicity, live-tweeting, writing a conference report) in exchange for a free place. Nobody has ever been rude to me for asking, and I can’t remember a time when I’ve actually been turned down.
  • Applying for bursaries and other funding. I still do apply for funding, because my ESRC money doesn’t stretch that far. This year I won a grant from cilip to attend the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Lyon. There are grants out there for LIS conferences, and where it isn’t immediately obvious it’s also worth contacting the organisers to ask if there is anywhere to apply for funding or a free place, and where there isn’t, to ask them if they’d set something up.
  • I’ve also got into conferences by asking sponsors if they have a place going spare, because sometimes only one of their representatives can go but they might have two places as part of their sponsorship arrangements.

Some conferences (few and far between mind) are free. The Library CampRadical Librarians Collective and Mashlib events, for example, run on the principle of free attendance, and the ‘unconference’ format of them is a breath of fresh air. The format exists beyond LIS, too – the Scottish Comics Unconference in Glasgow in February 2015, for example!

Organising conferences

It can be good for your CV to get involved in organising conferences and events, and the unconference is one way of doing that, either by getting some people together and setting it up yourself, or getting involved with an existing group or event. (I’d be happy to give pointers if anyone from any field is interested.)

It’s not just for your CV, obviously – one of the most valuable aspects is being able to bring together people who are interested in the same things, often across different areas. I heard about the Youth Activism and Resistance Conference in Leicester through a friend on facebook who was looking for people to present and take part in a panel discussion. Meeting people from areas like political science and gender studies was really valuable and it meant as well as getting loads of ideas I might not otherwise have come across, I could share my perspectives and research with people who wouldn’t have imagined librarians are relevant to their kind of work. That conference is also a good example of organising conferences – the organisers (who are PhD students) were pleased and surprised that their funding body (the ESRC) was willing to give them money to cover costs for food and venue hire (out of term-time university lecture theatres are much cheaper) and offer travel bursaries to attendees. It’s always worth a punt! The ESRC are hot on making their researchers employable just now, and the skills you can develop and demonstrate through organising events are one of the areas they want to support.

How to do conferences

My top tips for how to do conferences when you get there:

1. If I learnt anything from being away at conferences for ten days straight it’s this: take time off. Don’t feel guilty, wherever or whoever has paid for you to go, to not be at the conference all the time. It’s better to duck out of a morning or afternoon to wind down a bit, than to go to a session you’re not interested in and can’t concentrate on anyway. I have a really hard time with being constantly ‘on’ when I’m away, even when I’m not in the conference venue itself. Removing myself from the outside world to slop around a hotel room in my PJs is pretty much the only way I can not feel like I’m at risk of doing or saying something awful or ridiculous, for at least a few hours.

2. Get chatting to people. Don’t be intimidated by who they potentially might be. Ignore the thing I just said about being worried about embarrassing myself – I also think it’s really valuable to just be yourself. I found myself chatting to someone super-duper important and hadn’t got a clue who they were until I googled them later. If I’d have known, I wouldn’t have had half as valuable a conversation with them. Also I figure if they’re offended by my lack of hero worship they’re probably not worth it (happily this person was utterly lovely).

3. Find a conference buddy (or two). Last year I went to CoLIS 8 and hit it off with a couple of PhD students. One (from North America) has since been to stay at my house in Glasgow when they came to the UK to teach in London and we’re co-writing a paper together, and I’m planning a possible conference with another one and our topics are sufficiently relevant to each other that he’s a very valuable sounding board for theoretical stuff. Last week at IFLA I met up with that conference buddy and another friend, and then met their friends, and my international conference buddy network is building! For me it makes finding places, eating out and complaining about awful sessions much more do-able when you’re not alone.

4. Tweet. I like to tweet from conferences as well as make paper notes because I know I have followers who do appreciate it (honest, they tell me so). I use the official conference hashtag where possible (unless it’s too long and therefore I object…) so that people who follow me who really don’t care and don’t want flooding, can mute it. I also let people know when normal service will resume so they can mute me in general and then unmute me when the torrent is over! Following the hashtag also means I can find people on twitter who are at the conference, or interested in things that I am (and, in some cases, have a bit of a vent with people through a back-channel). When I tweet, I try (but I’m sure I don’t always manage) to obviously adequately represent what’s being said to minimise misunderstandings for people who aren’t there so don’t have the context, and only tweet things that actually mean something. By that I don’t just mean make the sentence make sense, but also only tweet things that aren’t blindingly obvious, buzzwords or contentless truisms. I’ve started taking photos of slides to add interest for people following at home, and to minimise misunderstandings (although people still do willingly misinterpret visualisations of concepts even when the full paper is made available, so…)

5. Take notes and place bookmarks. I’ve only just got back from IFLA but things are already fading into the background. I made sure to write down key points that were being raised, favourite tweets with links to things I want to think about or read more about later, make nots about authors I need to read more of and so on. It’s probably a bit of a no-brainer last recommendation, but I think it’s worth saying: you might think you’ll remember that important thing but you probably won’t, if you’re anything like me.


What to pack?

International conference? Don’t forget your adapter! Oh and currency! Planning on reading a lot of books? Yeah not likely. Take your laptop or tablet and load it up with journal articles or ebooks. And even then you’ll not read them. Don’t take a notepad and pens unless you’re working your way through a series of notepads; there will always, always be free stationery. Take something to do in your hotel room (for me that’s a series of a popular medical drama and a pile of knitting). Always pack a spare pair of pants. Always. Beyond that? Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, hairbrush, shampoo, conditioner (probably don’t bother with shower gel, there’ll be some in the hotel room), enough outfits to wear if it’s a dry and medium-warm day, then an extra outfit in case of spillage, and something to wear if it’s ridiculously hot, and something to wear ontop of your normal outfit if it’s chilly. PJs. Ear plugs and an eye-cover thing if you sleep lightly, something to keep you warm, something to keep you dry. Smart shoes and comfy more casual shoes. Don’t forget your phone charger.

What to wear?!

I pretty much always wear what could loosely be classed as ‘smart-casual’, that horribly vague of terms. For me that’s pretty much whatever I’d wear to the office, minus what I’d stick ontop of it to make it ‘smart’ (i.e. obvious makeup, fancy scarf/shawl, some semblance of an updo). I currently feel like I inhabit a liminal space between graduate and adult – at 27 I feel like I’m wearing my mum’s work clothes if I try to wear a shift dress and jacket, but I’m not petite or young enough to pull off what might look quite smart/’edgy’. on someone else. My current conference wardrobe includes a trio of Get Cutie dresses, which work well for post-conference dinners because I can put on a shinier pair of shoes and a belt and whatnot and that’s me away. I wore an elephant-print a-line dress to a conference dinner and ceilidh and felt The Bomb and people didn’t notice I was wearing elephants and tweetybirds until they’d spent long enough talking to me to work out I was Quite A Serious Person. I’ve never got changed inbetween conference and conference dinner apart from one time when I was staying in the hotel where the conference was and where the dinner was being held, because I don’t often factor in time for going back and getting changed. Some people do, for example if they’ve been wearing a smart suit-dress during the day and then wear a fancy evening dress at dinner time, but I’ve never noticed it as being the majority of people and it’s definitely not something PhD students tend to do. The extent of my dressing up for dinner is a change of shoes and an extra coat of eyeliner and eyeshadow. It’s about how you feel most comfortable.

I have this dress. What I said about not dressing like a child? Erm, yeah.

For the more mature and less overwhelmingly twee dress-wearer, I’d recommend something along the lines of a nice knee-length Boden number or a smartish pair of trousers and a nice top or sweater. I often try on things in the shops to see if they suit me and I feel comfortable in them and then go find it on ebay or in charity shops (recent finds include some very nice Hobbs, Saltwater and People Tree things for much-reduced prices). Even though IFLA actually had a dress-code that was casual, there was a wide variety of levels of smart from jeans and t-shirts through to suits. I guess it depends on what you’re doing. When I present I like to wear something I know isn’t going to cause me a wardrobe malfunction and makes me feel nice. (For those in my department, you know how we turn up to iLab? Like that.)

Oh and layers. Layers are crucial. When I’m a bit nervous I get rosy-cheeked and too warm, so long-sleeved dresses and tops are a no-go. Short sleeved with a cardi on top, and then a scarf to wrap around myself when I accidentally get sat under an air-conditioning vent, are key. And a hat, or an umbrella, for the inevitable downpour between the conference and the dinner.

The Conference Dinner

It will probably involve three courses and enough wine to make you possibly feel slightly silly the next day, but then you’ll meet or email someone who was there a few weeks later and they’ll probably not remember anything you thought might be devastatingly embarrassing (or, they’ll forever be too polite to say anything to mortify you). It turns out academics and library-folk are most often very nice, and conference dinners often involve sitting on a table of mixed backgrounds and levels of experience, some who you know and some who you don’t. People just kind of sit themselves down anywhere (although there may be an unofficial ‘most important and serious people’ table which is quite noticeable if it does exist). Although potentially quite formal in terms of cutlery (outside to inside, outside to inside), conversation is quite relaxed. It’s a good chance to find out what interests people share, who knows who and how they do x, y and z, but this just kind of happens, rather than being a formal and serious thing.

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: <>.
  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!


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