Library Politics and Agenda-Setting

I don’t want to alarm anyone…but there’s an elephant in the room.

Elephant in the room

It’s a very political elephant, which is a touchy subject in libraryland, especially in the UK. So I’m mentioning the elephant. I’m going to state, that I have…and I know it might come as a surprise…some views about libraries. I believe that librarians have a crucial role to play in effecting social change, in all sectors. I think they have a role as educators in critical information literacy. I think that public libraries are vital public spaces that need to see people as citizens, not consumers. I think libraries should be accessible. These are political positions. Lots of people, I’m sure, share these views, but there isn’t much substantive debate or discussion about these issues and the barriers we face, and I think in part that’s due to the political naïvety of the library and information profession.

This naïvety is, in many ways, responsible for the giant mess we’re in. Agendas have been set and we haven’t acknowledged how political in nature they are. Librarians and information professionals don’t control the discourse around library and information issues. We haven’t made it clear what values we’re espousing, because a lot of the time we aren’t savvy enough to know. We’ve courted private companies and governments whose values directly undermine the values of librarianship, like free expression of thought, privacy, and equity of access. Many aspects of LIS seek to establish and maintain certain boundaries and espouse certain political values without consciously or explicitly acknowledging that this is what they’re doing.

Playing the Game (Badly)

The political elephant is being ignored across the board, and this is causing serious problems. Attempts have been made to measure value and express it in ways that politicians and purse-holders will understand. Different methods, such as contingent valuation and cost benefit analysis are used to try to demonstrate that services make economic sense1. Library school curricula are influenced by hegemonic forces. Professional bodies are driven by the need for paying members and are directed by the power of corporate influence from stakeholders. They are limited  by their status as charities and are therefore prevented from taking political positions, even when it’s in the interests of their members and the public they serve, to do so. Library services adopt corporate language to appeal to councils and adopt marketing techniques to mimic bookshops. It all seems fairly innocuous and after all, its aim is to protect and promote libraries, so it’s for a good cause.

But playing the game is dangerous. The way librarians refer to the value of the services they provide influences how we’re perceived by society. The values libraries promote in the way they are run and what they do can and do rub off on library users. Power dynamics and the way staff relate to users (and how we refer to people who use library services – customer? patron?) do influence people’s relationships with public services. The way councils value or fail to value public space does send a message to citizens about what’s worth paying taxes for and what’s not. The language used by local and national government to discuss public spending in the popular press does determine the set of beliefs and values that become the dominant thoughts being expressed by the media, by politicians and members of the public.

Sad game piece

The Library Profession

For a long time, there’s been a fight to establish and maintain the professional status librarianship and information work. The promise of “prestige, higher salaries, and an elite employment niche” was a compelling reason for librarianship to fight for recognition as a profession2, but professional bodies are now having a difficult time articulating their policy positions on the replacement of paid staff with volunteers (although the Society of Chief Librarians has now clearly stated that it accepts direct substitution of paid members of staff by volunteers3), and it seems like a lot of the problem stems from hazy distinctions between professional and paraprofessional staff and what counts as professional practice4. Chartership is very much centred around recruitment, becoming “more employable” and “transfer[ring] up through the ranks”5, without much thought about the politics and ethics of librarianship and information work or a clear sense of what it means to be a professional librarian. It feels as if it’s just another professional development box to tick post-qualification. This is a problem because it becomes difficult to articulate why paid, professional staff are a necessity and beneficial to democratic society, and doesn’t help to safeguard the public interest. Not all library workers are members of unions, and unions themselves are focusing on keeping libraries open, and the pay and conditions of workers. Few with loud voices are expressing the issues about the standard of service being lost and the ways this detrimentally affects our society.

Higher Education and Library School Curricula

Failure to engage with social and political issues is also evident in higher education and within departments providing Library and Information Science (LIS) education. Students find themselves under an “economic model of subservience”6, which prevents engagement with social issues:

“there is no future for young people, there is no time to talk about advancing social justice, addressing social problems, promoting critical thinking, cultivating social responsibility, or engaging non-commodified values that might challenge the neoliberal world view.”

Defining the library and information discipline as scientific is positivistic and confers non-political and value-free status upon it, which is both impossible and counter-productive. The LIS curriculum tends to shy away from social issues, leaving graduates ignorant about key political issues. Christine Pawley writes:

“…the deepening division of society between information haves and have-nots is widely discussed in the general press. Does the LIS curriculum participate in this debate, or does it rather contribute to the information apparatus’s aim of avoiding social criticism?

Where are the courses on information politics? On the production and distribution of information? On the ownership of information? On the stratification of information? Such courses do exist in some schools, but, for the most part, curricular consideration of these questions lurks in what are sometimes stigmatized as “airhead” or “philosophical” (that is, nontechnical) areas: courses in LIS foundations service to or aimed at low-status populations such as children or the elderly or taught from a feminist or multicultural perspective.

From a class perspective, this failure of LIS education to confront societal questions is itself a sign of the power of the dominant class to exercise hegemony. Traditionally, LIS studies both the institution of libraries and the broad phenomenon of information largely through pluralist and managerial lenses as questions of service delivery, technical efficiency, and managerial effectiveness. One result is a politically naive profession.” 6

Library Conferences and Events

Conferences and events organised by professional organisations and other groups often instil certain values in those who attend them, especially if they don’t think critically about their experiences and the information they’re exposed to, and aren’t conscious of the impact and influence aspects of the middle-class professional agenda:

“For example, when professional people attend conferences and publish scholarly papers, they are taking part in this ongoing process of establishing and maintaining the boundaries of middle-class conduct and values.” 7

Events such as LibraryCamp say that they aim to provide a “politically neutral arena for debate”8, but take inevitably political stances on censorship and make political choices about corporate sponsors, who have their own agendas when it comes to influencing policies and services9. It’s simply contradictory to claim to be non-political but explicitly state that an event aims to save libraries and return them to mass public use. Access to and use of public libraries is political. Wanting to keep them is political. Making a conscious effort to make the event accessible for people with disabilities is a political choice. These aims are valuable, and it’s more than just important, it’s imperative, that the inherent, unavoidable, political values being promoted are acknowledged. These are good things and we shouldn’t be scared to talk about them. We need a vocabulary to discuss the substantive issues, through the language of public discourse10. We don’t currently have it and we desperately need to develop it.

Doing this, however, makes it difficult to be seen as legitimate by those in power – you immediately face being branded as a troublemaker, a tub-thumper, or at the very least, someone who challenges the status quo and oughtn’t be listened to. It places some kind of social responsibility on you as an individual to seek to effect change, and think about the impact of the decisions you make and the messages you send through the actions you take and the things you say, and that’s hard work. Although sold as an arena to facilitate debate, it’s questionable how authentic that debate can be when most of the attendees all know each other on twitter, and the majority of them are qualified or soon to be qualified, and female. Even if there was a more mixed group of attendees, there’s the spiral of silence to contend with11, especially when there’s the strong chance that corporate sponsors (who as far as I’m concerned have had their thoughts heard quite enough, through the various avenues they already have open to them, thanks) will be running sessions, immediately creating an environment where discussion becomes led, rather than shared, by the members who have more experience in selling and influencing. When you start thinking about all that, it stops being a nice day out with friends and tea and cake. Which is all it’s meant to be, I’m sure, and that’s fine in and of itself. I do think events like this have some value, and I respect anyone who’s gone to the hard work of organising something. I don’t want to be a cake-smashing party pooper.

Smashed cake

But, we need to be conscious of the language we use and the messages we send to attendees, the library profession, and the outside world. I haven’t got a shovel big enough to clear up the mess that our elephant’s making. I don’t have a solution to get people to acknowledge it’s there or work out how to deal with it. I just know that we have to acknowledge it, and not pretend it isn’t there and that isn’t causing an almighty great stink.


1) Walker, C., Halpin, E., Rankin, C., and Chapman, E. (2011) “Measuring the Value of Public Libraries: The fallacy of footfall and issues as measures of the value of Public Libraries – Summary Report”. Available from:!/file/Measuringthevalueofpubliclibraries.pdf

2) O’Connor, L. (2009) “Information literacy as professional legitimation: The quest for professional jurisdiction”. Library Review, 58 (4), pp.272-289. Available from: <>


4) Pawley, C. (1998) “Hegemony’s Handmaid? The Library and Information Studies Curriculum from a Class Perspective”. The Library Quarterly, 68 (2), pp.123-144. Available from:


6) Giroux, H. (2011) “The Politics of Ignorance: Casino Capitalism and Higher Education”. Counterpunch. Available at:

7) Pawley, C. (1998) p.132

8) Pawley, C. (1998) p.129



11) Giroux, H. (2011)



The elephant in the room CC licensed John Mallon Iphoneography on Flickr
Lost CC licensed by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr
Cake Aftermath CC licensed by jasonsisk on Flickr


18 thoughts on “Library Politics and Agenda-Setting

  1. Hi Lauren,
    I feel I should leave a reply, as you directly quote me in your post. I feel I shouldn’t leave a reply because I don’t think I’m qualified to! My education effectively ended at GCSE level, I tried and failed A Levels and have only recently dipped my toe back in the sea of knowledge through the OU.
    I don’t consider myself incapable, I do think that you’ve over-estimated me. I struggled with your phrases and to follow the initial course of your post. I admit I was forced to skip through to the later sections where you quote me.
    I can’t argue with you here either as I agree with you. Library Camp does struggle ‘offline’. I have had only a little success in attracting my non-tweeting peers in Lancashire. We’re keen to overcome this challenge and are actively seeking advice from established Library campaigners like John Dolan, Ian Clark etc to steal some of their ideas.
    If you have over-estimated me, you are under-estimating the Camp itself. You may feel it’s a nice day out. I can assure you that for me, working under difficult conditions and the ever present threat of closure in Accrington and Burnley libraries, it’s a lifeline. You recognise the time, energy and money we, volunteers, have invested in this project so don’t be a cake smashing party pooper and come along.
    I’m glad your concerns are being aired, even if I’m going to have to get my thesaurus out before answering them. I hope they can spur on debate more in depth than I can provide.
    Richard Veevers

    1. Hi Richard, thank you for commenting. My intention in the post was to try to string some thoughts together about a common theme/problem I’ve come up against in different areas (quickly and in a few hundred words) and in doing so I’ve not necessarily tied it together in the clearest way. I certainly don’t want to make people excluded from a discussion about something because of the way I’ve expressed what I think.

      I’m on the waiting list for the event so I’m not sure at the moment if I will be coming along.


      1. Thanks for that Lauren,
        If that was you “stringing some thoughts together” “quickly and in a few hundred words” Your dissertation must be humongous, respect is due not only to you but also to your prof;)
        if you can put together a tl;dr I’ll certainly try to address your concerns to the best of my ability.

  2. I’m confused by the whole neutrality bit. When Richard said librarycamp wasn’t political he didn’t mean participants wouldn’t be addressing political issues. How boring would that be? Doesn’t he mean the event is open to all sides? The unconference movement itself is political. For me, (cant speak for other librarycamp organisers, as we usually disagree!) I don’t think it’s unethical or dangerous to invite a political opponent to sponsor or participate in an unconference. I think it’s healthy and necessary to avoid navel gazing, which librarians do too much of, IMO.

    My worst nightmare would be a conference solely full of librarians and library school students banging on about “professionalism”, a day in the life and their rivetting journey to chartership. We’ve tried to avoid that – aren’t there yet, but last year I met and learnt from museum staff, archivists, wikipedians, marketing people, app developers, local gov comms staff and a social media surgeon.

    I think librarycamp does have an agenda and it’s pretty radical. As with any unconference or bar camp style event we’re trying to open the floor to all workers, qualified and unqualified, plus anyone who is interested in libraries, whether you work there or not. The aim is to offer a level playing field for library assistants, shambrarians, facilities staff, librarians, cilip bigwigs, campaigners, library customers and employees of businesses who have an interest in libraries which includes LMS vendors, publishers and even consultants.

    I’d like to propose a session (but I think I’ll be too busy) asking why someone with a 9 month distance learning MA in librarianship is more ‘professional’ and better qualified to work in my local library than say an experienced local community worker, youth worker, ICT teacher, baby bouncer, homework club staffer, engagement and outreach officer or the library users themselves. But that’s just my agenda 😉

    Maybe next year new organisers will come forward (please!) and decide not to accept sponsorship from consultants – thats fine and entirely up to the organisers. Last year other organisations and sponsors (I’m looking at you CILIP and OCLC) did sessions or distributed literature which were blatant pitches/advertising/agenda-setting. They’re all at it! We’d be naive or stupid if we thought they weren’t, but I credit the participants with enough intelligence to recognise that fact and not be brainwashed.

    Oops – that’s a bit longer than I expected. I hope you do come this year and take the consultants to task. You can call them to account and they can’t run away!

    1. As a consultant with one of the sponsors, and an attendee at librarycamp, I feel the need to chip into this excellent debate. My first question is whether it is ever possible NOT to have an agenda? Even “not having an agenda” can be arguably an agenda in itself! And I agree with Heather (below) that everything can be construed as political too. So I won’t go down that route, as I could end up writing another blog rather than a simple comment. So, a few specific points …

      Before I was a consultant I worked in a government agency (MLA), and before that in a couple of different local authorities. Wherever I worked, I had to, as an employee, subsume my own political views to the Politics (deliberate big P!) of my employer, as does everyone else. Within that context, I did all that I could to run, manage, lead and develop the best possible library service – in that authority, or in the country as a whole. I didn’t always succeed, either through my own shortcomings, or lack of funding and other resources, or competing priorities, or because what I believed was the best way to achieve this was not compatible with the political stance of the authority/authorities, to which I had to bow.

      That was then, this is now, Now I am a consultant. I earn my income however from the same sources – local authorities pay me to help improve their library service. The fact that they pay me as a consultant rather than an employee doesn’t change a lot of the above – I may have views that align with theirs, or possibly not, but they pay my wages. As it happens, I am lucky to have worked for many great authorities, where those leading the library service in difficult times are doing their level best to ensure that the service is as good as it possibly can be – finding efficiencies to minimise cuts, responding to what users and non-users really want, working more creatively with partners, looking at new models that could improve the service and so on.

      I am also lucky to be working with the consultancy that I do. Let’s name them – RedQuadrant. Proud to be supporting librarycamp for the second year in a row. Would we like to get work as a result? Yes, to be honest, we would – just as many of those attending will add “librarycamp attendee” to their CV in the hope that a potential future employer might be impressed. Do we expect to get work as a result? No, probably not.

      So why do it? Well, partly because we think it’s a good thing to do – we want libraries to grow and thrive too (believe it or not, it’s possible to be a consultant and still care about what you do!), and partly because it is interesting and fun and helps our own personal growth and development as people who work in this exciting and challenging world.

      So I look forward to seeing many of you there, including (I hope) Laura – it would be great to pick up this debate in person.

      Oh, and by the way, all views expressed above are my own and not necessarily those of RedQuadrant (collectively or as individuals) or of any authority I have previously worked for or may in future do so!

  3. I can’t comment on librarycamp – but thanks to Lauren for her post and saying something that, she’s right, doesn’t get said often enough. Of course everything we do in and for libraries and information is political. If you make the “p” in politics small enough, EVERYTHING we do is political, even down to the choice of whether to buy your newspaper from the supermarket or the corner shop.
    Suppliers, professional organisations, groups within the profession and outside it, all have a more or less overtly political agenda. Because politics is about beliefs and opinions, and we all have those. And all these groups consist of people who are like each other and who tend to reinforce each other’s views. Lauren is quite right to say that we forget the politics all too often and it would be good to open up the debate so we are all more aware of it.
    Day by day, though, I reckon that all an individual can do is, THE BEST YOU CAN DO IN THE CIRCUMSTANCES. That isn’t about being cowardly or ignorant or supporting the status quo. It all comes down to the old adage of having the courage to change what can be changed, the grace to accept what cannot be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.

    1. I completely agree with you about pretty much everything we do being political in some way, and that it’s about doing the best we can in the circumstances we find ourselves in, as individuals. Being aware of the forces around us helps us, when we can, to resist and challenge the ones that result in injustice – for the benefit of ourselves and others. That’s why I think we can’t keep ignoring the negative implications of the decisions that have been made above and before us – having an understanding of why we are where we are now and what that means for the future (and what we can do about it) is really important.

  4. Its a really great post and I have re-read it a few times and it gets better with each read. I agree with the lack of debate on agendas that have been taken, more worryingly is the agendas have been taken without any shred of evidence to back up whether those positions taken actually work or not. As a young person I grew up believing in the power of libraries and I imagined senior librarians would take positions on policies based on fact not the current short term political wind. If senior librarians are not going to use evidence to make decisions and inform debate then no wonder we are in this mess. It would also be nice if they lead the debate in public rather than just in conferences with ministers who we know are not listening anyway. There is also far too much jargon, it just further distances the people using it from the people they are supposed to be working for.

  5. Thought provoking post Lauren but I’m with those who point out that EVERYTHING can have a political aspect but not be defined as such as Political. I confess that I had to look up what “hegemony” meant (and that I used Google to do this) but I worry that you enable people to pigeonhole what you say by using such politically charged terminology. We all work within the confines of one system or another and sometimes they measure results in ways that seem inexpliable to us but it seems to me that the best way to effect change is not to be increasingly vocal in criticising those in control but to work hard to get into a position where you CAN effect change – call me a sell-out but I just think there’s an allure to being the rebel that’s self-defeating in the long-run.

    1. As I say, I agree that everything can have a political aspect – and I think we have a responsibility to be aware of that and to challenge it where we see it causing problems.

      I think you might be more concerned with my being ‘pigeonholed’ than I am, Phil, which is borne out of kindness I’m sure, but I do worry you’ve interpreted a post about critical consciousness from a (vaguely) academic angle as being an act of rebellion without a cause. It’s not about criticising individuals in positions of control, but highlighting aspects of structures and systems of power that cause problems. I certainly think it’s counter-productive to keep quiet about this kind of thing and ‘work hard’ to get into a position of power – it can take an awfully long time and the issues are pressing – that’s assuming that one can ever work hard enough to effect the level of change on such a systemic level. I do think we are where we are partly precisely *because* people have thought it’s safer to sit down and shut up and hope that one day they’ll get to somewhere they can change something – and I think that itself is self-defeating.

  6. Yes. An important post, and can I say that some of it (and even more the comments) exemplify the political naivety that Lauren refers to. After all, if chief librarians now accept the substitution of trained/paid staff with volunteers, how long before politicians see no need to have chief librarians (or anyone else) to run libraries? For a long time, our ‘profession’ has been dominated by these same people and this gives a clue why it/they has/have been diluting the needed political responses that have been only too clear.
    As for ‘Lib Camp’, it sounds like another example of the kind of ‘inclusive discussion’ that can have a kind of abstract use in establishing ideas, but is too often ‘smoothed down’ by the spokespeople of the status quo to a bland discussion. Philosophers have explained the world, the point now is to change it (as someone once said). To do that requires political positions to be taken, campaigned for and, yes opposing positions to be challenged in many different ways. Unions (and other campaigners) are at least focussing on keeping facilities open, and the living standards of people providing them. It seems that others prefer to debate who should provide library services.

  7. I have a lot to say on this topic,
    but I also know that my employer studies social networks for examples of dissent and hey, who wants to lose their job in this climate?
    The changes to libraries and their change from civic, cultural and educational centres to a library-lite, supermarket, or anonymous drive-in with no social cohesion is a political change.
    The senior librarians, the caring staff, and the readers are being tossed around and many are jumping ship.
    The rest are counting the days.
    There is a fatalism.
    However we all still strive with what we have and make sails from our bed sheets.
    The good ship public library; long may she sail.

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