Libraries and the EU Referendum

It’s no surprise that I’ve got some thoughts around the EU Referendum and subsequent…mess… and the relevance of information literacy to political engagement. Here, for what it’s worth, is my two penneth’s. I should probably add the caveat that I voted Remain and am doing very little in this post to attempt any kind of balance.

As the statement from CILIP states, “literacy, creativity, understanding and a respect for evidence” are “more important than ever”. Stéphane Goldstein has written about the issues around poor levels of awareness and understanding, exaggeration, misinformation, myths and fearmongering around the campaigning prior to the Referendum. Emma Coonan also wonderfully highlights the importance of information literacy and an awareness of the emotional as well as academic issues around our making sense of the world through the information we encounter.

If libraries had been doing more about supporting political knowledge and participation, would we have the mess we’ve got now? I don’t know. I do know there’s a lot of talk about how if 16 and 17 year olds had been able to vote then Remain would have won. My old neighbour, a maths professor, has done some modelling around Brexit and insists that if more of the younger age group had voted in general then there’d also have been a Remain result. My gut feeling, which is all I can muster right now, is that if more people had known what they were voting for, or what they needed to get out there and vote against, is that there’d have been a Remain result. A more removed and less biased angle is, I guess, “generally, people ought to know about things and vote for things based on a critical awareness of the issues at hand, so in principle, it is important to support the development of strong information literacy skills regardless of the outcomes of any voting”.

We have seen that people have regrets about not being more informed before they cast their vote. Other people who felt they were very well informed feel betrayed by the politicians they trusted, who they perceive never intended to keep the promises they made. Many people did not vote, and reasons for this include not feeling informed enough or knowing whose voice to trust in all the noise and confusion. What seems clear to me is that people need support to help them find information, filter through the masses of information, make sense of the information, understand the biases and limitations of the claims being made and the purposes of the types of information they are encountering, and then work out what decision they want to make and how to act based on these decisions. These skills and actions are part of what librarians refer to as information literacy.

But we’re not really doing much about it. I’m in the process of publishing work around the research I conducted in Scottish school libraries about what support school libraries provided during the Scottish Independence Referendum and General Election – although some schools do provide political information, much of it is to do with the workings of parliament and little more. Across the UK, political education in schools is minimal. Teachers and other staff, including librarians, feel extremely limited as to what they can do to support the development of political knowledge and awareness. These issues are also relevant to public libraries, where during my Masters research I found that library services are very restrained by what local councils are ‘comfortable’ with them providing in terms of political information, and where the overwhelming pressure to be ‘balanced’ often ends up in providing no information rather than take the risk of facing the wrath of extreme right-wing parties for refusing to house their materials and hold them in the same esteem as other political parties. I’m not alone in believing we’ve got some serious issues around neutrality in public libraries, and as I’ve mentioned, school libraries too. There’s a lot of empty rhetoric around how crucial libraries are for supporting democracy, but I see very little action. This is a systemic issue. Library and information services desperately need to overcome the challenges they face to engage in the important work of actually supporting people to make informed choices about how they participate in society and make decisions about how they vote based on knowledge and considered thought. The problem is, we’ve got a crippled public library system, ably brought about by the deprofessionalisation, remodelling and cuts to library services by not only the Conservative and Coalition governments but the Labour government before them. School libraries in state schools are, largely, on their knees, lucky to have a member of staff working in them, let alone a qualified or experienced librarian. It’s almost as if those in positions of power don’t want an informed and engaged citizenry with the agency to participate meaningfully in democracy. I don’t know to what extent this is true. Maybe we’ve just not done a good enough job of talking up the educational and  civic role of libraries and have been paying too much attention to how libraries can support business and entrepreneurship and so on. Whatever game we’ve been playing, I think we’re losing it, and I find it very worrying.

Anyway. The general gist of this post is that libraries need to do something about the state of political engagement, knowledge and understanding in the UK. It’s not only the role of librarians to do this work, and there are certainly many bodies interested in this issue. But we need to be at whatever tables are discussing it. I feel like I’ve been jumping up and down for nearly seven years shouting “we need to do something about democratic engagement” and even after doing Masters research, doctoral research and further independent research on the topic I don’t feel like we’ve made any progress. I want to do something. I don’t work in a library, and even if I did I wouldn’t be in much of a position to start anything from the bottom up. I’m not in any kind of decision-making position within CILIP, but if I was I’d be fighting hard to get CILIP to provide guidance for library workers who want to do something to support their users and wider communities to make informed and considered decisions. This is political work*. That means it’s ‘dangerous’ territory. Individual library workers can’t be expected to take the personal and professional risks that this entails without feeling adequately supported. Union membership and involvement in local networks can go so far, but won’t provide the advocacy necessary to enable substantive change to take place in our services.

We can’t keep not providing political information because our budgets are directed by perceived ‘demand’. We can’t keep being hyper-defensive about our ability to provide information during purdah, especially when there is so little clarity and consistency around what that actually means for public services in practice. We can’t carry on allowing teachers to take down our displays about political issues, or throw away the newspapers we stock that they disagree with. We can’t not bring political issues up when we’re teaching students about how Google’s algorithms work, or how the media and politicians work together to misdirect the public. We can’t not discuss how neutrality and impartiality are different things. We can’t carry on hoping that students will stop asking us, as respected individuals within our communities, about where we stand on political issues so that they can make sense of where they stand in relation to the people around them. I’m not suggesting it’s easy, by any means. And we can’t do it alone. We also can’t do it without robust and clear support from our professional body for us to engage in vital work around civic/citizen engagement in our workplaces. The likelihood is that the majority of library and information services across all sectors in the UK will be resistant to this kind of work. We need the support of CILIP to authoritatively challenge this resistance.

*But all our work is political work, like it or not.

(Image credit: CC Abi Begum on Flickr)

5 thoughts on “Libraries and the EU Referendum

  1. A good resource for this topic (though from 2012) is a report from George Roe – librarian and winner of the English -Speaking Union and CILIP’s Travelling Librarian Award in 2012. George Roe set out to explore the link between libraries and democracy in the US and visited during the Presidential Elections. “Libraries across different sectors in the US consider that they have an important role to play in enriching democratic society. The link between libraries and democracy was not a difficult one to make for the libraries I visited” (George Roe, 2012) For the full report:

    Click to access travelling_librarian_2012_cilip_report.pdf

  2. I’ve been uneasily wondering if we – public librarians – have failed to provide enough information, in the right format, at the right time. We tend to avoid promoting political information, although I would disagree that it’s about budgets; for me it’s more about the difficulty of providing political information that’s suitably impartial – it’s a minefield, and it’s easier to avoid it than try to navigate through it. And it’s worth noting that over the past ten years the “European Information Centres” that every large service used to host seem to have quietly vanished.

    Personally, I think that the BBC did an excellent job of providing balanced information during the referendum. SCL has good relationships with the BBC. Maybe we ought to be actively partnering with them during elections to make sure that impartial, accurate information reaches as wide an audience as possible.

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