I wanted to throw a few thoughts together about the role of libraries and librarians during times of civil unrest. It’s not fully formulated and I’m certainly not suggesting that if you chuck a few library buildings into places where people are looting and burning, that suddenly you’ve solved all of society’s problems, but I do think that libraries and librarians have a role to play as part of a much bigger picture. It’s a bit meandery, but here are some thoughts.
“The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.” Audre Lorde
It’s well-documented (and a bit of a no-brainer) that people who can read well are far more likely to be able to get out of cycles of disadvantage, and that good libraries help people to read well. As well as that fundamental role of access to reading and learning resources and support though, librarians and libraries have an important role to play in enabling people to develop literacy skills that go beyond the ability to read well.
Library-related readers will probably be familiar with the concept of information literacy: “knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner”. Transliteracy might be a slightly less familiar term, and is “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks”, and I think that the events of the past few days are an example of how important it is for people to be able to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable sources of information. There’s a lot of information about libraries and transliteracy over here.
There’s a real problem with levels of transliteracy in the UK and I think it’s a major cause of problems like people making snap judgements about the reasons for the rioting, the kind of people involved and what should be done with them (a lot of people are all for water cannons and rubber bullets because they see them as harmless, for example, but don’t seem to have looked into the damage and fatalities they can cause). There are problems with people believing everything the media tells them, and spewing forth opinions they haven’t really thought about and don’t understand the nuances of. Education is an important part of this, but it’s got to be done well, consciously and neutrally. A lot of it, I think, needs to come about through self-education, but that involves having a desire to learn in the first place and knowing where and how to get hold of reliable sources of information. Citizenship education is under threat, democratic engagement is low and people feel far less a part of the society and communities in which they live than they used to. They don’t know how to get involved in the democratic process or why it’s even important for them to do so. They don’t know how to articulate the opinions they have about the world around them. Libraries can help with that.
Twitter has been a major source of information and misinformation about the riots – the NewT Bham Group wrote about it in this blog post and said that it’s clear “we need to teach our young people how to evaluate information and how to use it appropriately in this modern age (the tweets imply that many just believe, repeat and then spread anything they read).” I saw a blog post (and now can’t find it, sorry!) that was talking about how twitter would benefit from some truth-arbiters, as it were, people you could rely on to help distinguish between fact and rumour during events such as riots and protests. I think library and info pros would be good people do this – or at the very least to help people develop the skills to do it themselves. I’ve seen a few librarians on twitter mention this, and some have even gone as far as to point out that it’s very unhelpful to tweet about things if you don’t definitely know they’re true.
Social media has been blamed for being a cause of the riots, which is, frankly, idiotic. Sterling Prentice says a similar thing over on Drop the Reference Bomb:
“Sure, you can blame Facebook or Blackberry, but limiting these services will hardly stop the effect. Egypt is a good example of how this doesn’t work. Scapegoating is often used a quick fix for deeply seeded social problems, but it is not necessarily the best long-term response to over-boiling social issues.”
Social media and mobile devices aren’t going away – so it’s really important for people to know how to a) use them effectively and b) not see them as some kind of force for evil, and in turn demonise them. Librarians can help with that.
An interesting aside: here and here are a couple of posts about the relationship between deprivation and the riots using google fusion tables and deprivation indices data. The government is having a drive to make its data more open and accessible, but not that many people know how to manipulate it into a meaningful form. Open data alone is not enough to make a difference. There’s a problem with the digital divide and a potential problem with a data divide – and librarians can help with that, too.
The problem is…libraries are under threat. School libraries are being closed, and not built at all in new schools. Between 400 and 600 public libraries in the UK will close over the next couple of years (not to mention the cuts to professional/paid/qualified staff who can offer support that volunteers can’t). Areas will be stripped of their assets and become more deprived. People will have less access to information and education resources. People will find it harder to apply for jobs because they don’t have computers at home and their library’s closed, or now charges a membership fee or for use of the internet, or they don’t like going in there because it’s in the police station or church hall. The cycle will continue.
“You can’t just lecture the poor that they shouldn’t riot or go to extremes. You have to make the means of legal redress available.” Harold H. Greene
I’ve been meaning for a while to write a blog post about cuts to legal aid and the impact it’s likely to have on legal challenges launched by people trying to stop cuts to library services. It’s fairly simple – it’ll mean that it’s harder to get legal aid, fewer cases will go to court because a two day judicial review costs about £30,000 and people in general don’t tend to have that kind of money lying around, let alone people in the deprived areas that are being particularly hard-hit by library cuts; their libraries are more likely to close than anywhere else, because they don’t have the kind of communities and people in them who are able to set up or sustain a volunteer-run library system. Of course legal aid cuts won’t just harm those trying to save libraries, it will harm all kinds of people in need of access to legal support, including for employment cases.
It all just seems a bit too deliberate.