Radical Research

This post is about a discussion that was had at the Radical Librarians Collective gathering 2015 in Huddersfield, on the potential for small-scale research into ‘radical’ issues in library and information work.

I suggested this session with the hope that people would have some ideas about what kinds of topics might be valuable to the ‘profession’ and society (and enjoyable personally) to explore and writing about, and to consider what practical and theoretical issues need to be considered when embarking on research without working under the banner of an academic organisation.

One of the (many!) reasons I suggested discussing this topic was that some people involved with RLC have been working on a Freedom of Information Request based study into filtering software on PCs in libraries. I won’t go into too much detail about why filtering is problematic, but people like Louise Cooke have written and researched around the issues and I’d recommend Filtering the Net as a good article that covers some of they key concerns:

“Filtering software in public libraries seems,” she wrote, “To have ‘crept in through the back door’ with little more than a murmur on the part of librarians.”

So, this project is starting with academic and public libraries and potentially expanding further into other sectors, including schools and FE colleges. The requests are being made through What Do They Know (which is an incredibly useful website through which you can make FoI requests really transparent), the data is being entered into a google spreadsheet, tidied up, and then will be made available on figshare (an online repository) in a format that will hopefully be useful for other people.

The aim is to identify trends across libraries in terms of what filtering software is used, how much is being spent on it, what categories of website are blocked, what policies are in place for when users want to access blocked sites, how often users make requests to have sites unblocked and what happens if and when they do. We’re planning to write up our findings for the RLC site as well as for potential publication in an academic journal, because this kind of data isn’t readily available and is potentially pretty useful. Personally, I’d like to see it be used to argue the case that filtering isn’t helpful but is costly, both financially and in terms of the relationship it builds (or destroys) with potential users.

This kind of work is something I think has the potential to raise awareness of what practices are actually taking place in library spaces, and connected to writing around the theoretical issues about why these practices can be harmful or regressive I think the empirical data may offer a compelling case for change at policy level. And if it doesn’t, at least the information is out there, and in the future hopefully it can be used to document what went wrong and why!

Although the topic of filtering is something that does get researched within LIS departments at academic institutions, there are lots of more ‘radical’ topics that are under-researched as well as more mainstream topics that don’t often get looked at from a ‘radical’ angle. One suggestion in the session was to make a list of possible topics for Masters students who might be looking for an interesting dissertation topic, which I think is a great idea – please do comment here or contact RLC if you’ve got any suggestions.

Other concerns raised included how to balance the issue that really ideally this kind of thing would be publicly funded and done by people for a living, against the issue that realistically this is unlikely to happen and seeking to influence policy (for example) in whatever way you can might be worth it. Another concern was the extent to which this is at all realistic and if the focus should be on exploring topics out of interest and enjoyment rather than the hope of (directly) changing anything at all. The Freedom of Information Act, although not the only method of gathering information, is also under threat. This poses challenges because it’s one of the most useful and least challenging methods of collecting data for use in work like this. It’s also already limited in scope in terms of what kinds of organisations are obliged to respond to FoI requests.

We talked about other methodological approaches too, and about how through even writing reports or case studies on radical libraries themselves might help share examples of ways to put ideas and goals into practice.

To my shame I’d completely forgotten that the #critlib research matchmaking form exists. This is a resource for people who are interested in doing LIS research from a critical perspective, and you can send information about what you’re interested in looking at with the hopes of being matched up with people to collaborate with.

As far as I remember it came out of similar discussions within a (predominantly) US context through the twitter #critlib community. When I was reminded of this I got a bit over-excited about the potential for inter-continental research collaboration, and now the more I think about it the more I think it might also have the potential to help with the barrier of lack of affiliation to an academic institution with robust research ethics requirements (and many other things), which was an issue discussed in the session at RLC.


Collaborative research also offers the opportunity for people affiliated with LIS departments and academic institutions to work with people in other sectors to explore issues in those sectors that otherwise might be more difficult to research and write about, or work out how to approach on your own.

This is the kind of thing I love the most about RLC events and discussions – actual things to have a go at to make things better. So yeah! If you’ve got any suggestions about topics of interest then we’d love to hear them. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed to the discussion on the day and I’m looking forward to whatever might come out of it.


Edited to add:

The notes from the session are available here and the flip charts that were used to make suggestions about research areas are here. The ideas for possible research and methods mentioned in the session and afterwards were:

  • Conceptions around what is taught at library school – what isn’t on the syllabus and why, what alternative practices exist that could be studied, how courses could be adapted, and what kinds fof things students want to learn about;
  • Radical libraries as a phenomenon – what they are, how they can be studied (ethnographically etc.), who might be interested in radical practices, opportunities for small grant funding for research projects (such as EFF), getting in touch with non-library people doing research in radical groups to help flesh out ideas and collaborate on work;
  • Policies of exclusion:
    – what groups are being excluded from library spaces (offline and online) e.g. non-digital citizens, homeless people in Manchester.
    – Are there bylaws and policies which exclude people and are these readily available to use as a source of research data?
    – How do we provide evidence of exclusion? Gather policy documents that explicitly or implicitly exclude. Quantify services that aren’t available offline and find out who that effects.
  • What kind of impact would be sought from research and what audiences would be interested:
    – policy changes e.g. membership requirements
    – ways of communicating with communities

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