Surveillance, Self-Censorship and Social Justice

A Good American

This week I took part in a panel discussion and Q&A following the screening of the film A Good American, which tells the story of individuals involved in the development of the ThinThread surveillance programme in the USA and how it was killed off by the NSA in favour of the more expensive, intrusive and ineffective Trailblazer programme. The film was incredibly interesting and educational, and I’d seriously recommend giving it a watch if you can. As someone relatively new to issues around mass surveillance, I thought the film provided a really easy to follow and engaging history and insight into the technology of why and how mass surveillance functions, and the implications for people’s privacy.

We were also honoured to be joined by Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders, as well as Bill Binney, a former NSA Technical Director, and Kirk Wiebe, a former NSA Senior Analyst. Bill and Kirk featured heavily in the film itself and were two of the key individuals behind the ThinThread programme. Being able to ask them questions and hear their views on the UK and the implications of the Investigatory Powers Act was a real privilege, albeit in a very worrying context.

I was asked to talk about the implications of mass surveillance on freedom of expression and access to information, as well as the role of libraries and librarians in helping people protect their privacy. For once, I wrote a rough script! I’ve posted it below.


David McMenemy and I are currently working with Nik and Scottish PEN on a study of Scottish writers’ conceptions of surveillance and its potential impact on freedom of expression. This is a follow-up study to a survey conducted by American PEN and PEN International in other countries. PEN American Center (2013) says:

We know—historically, from writers and intellectuals in the Soviet Bloc, and contemporaneously from writers, thinkers, and artists in China, Iran, and elsewhere—that aggressive surveillance regimes limit discourse and distort the flow of information and ideas. But what about the new democratic surveillance states?

PEN’s original study gave participants the chance to discuss their concerns around surveillance, and the significant themes included writers’ self-censorship and fear that their communications would bring harm to themselves, their friends, and their sources.

They found that writers are self-censoring their work and their online activity due to their fears that commenting on, researching, or writing about certain issues will cause them harm. For example, writers reported self-censoring on subjects including military affairs, the Middle East North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the U.S. government.

The fear of surveillance—and doubt over the way in which the government intends to use the data it gathers — has prompted writers to change their behaviour in numerous ways that curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information.

For example, significant numbers have:

  • Curtailed or avoided social media activities,
  • Deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations,
  • Avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic,
  • Refrained from conducting internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious,
  • Taken extra steps to disguise or cover their digital footprints, or
  • Declined opportunities to meet or speak to people who might be deemed security threats by the government.

We have replicated this study in the Scottish context, and an initial look at the results shows very similar findings. We are seeing that writers are following news stories about government surveillance efforts within the UK, are worried about current levels of government surveillance of Britons, and have concerns about corporate and government surveillance.

The behaviour being described by writers, about the steps they are taking to protect themselves from becoming victims of the surveillance state, in many cases takes the form of self-censorship. They are simply not engaging with areas of intellectual and public life that they otherwise would do.

Implications of self-censorship

One troubling aspect of self-censorship is that it is impossible to know what contributions to society are being lost because of it. PEN (2013) raises the important issue that “we will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if they are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution”. We know that many writers, academics and members of society more widely, are hesitant to communicate their thoughts because of rational concerns around surveillance.

This has implications not only for culture, but for social justice and human rights.

Social justice and human rights

From a social justice perspective, surveillance creates a panoptical environment in which people’s sense of being watched affects their everyday lives. People respond differently to these circumstances; some feeling more secure and safe, and others much less so. We simply do not know enough about the psychological impacts of living under highly surveilled circumstances to anticipate what impact it will have on people throughout the course of their lives. We do know that members of minority groups are more likely to be surveilled (Renderos 2016), thereby adding to the existing conditions of relative disadvantage and increased systemic violence and oppression. As Malkia Cyril states, “lawful democratic activism is being monitored illegally without a warrant” and encryption technologies offer vulnerable groups such as people of colour, immigrants, welfare recipients and political activists who challenge the status quo, the ability to more safely exercise their democratic rights (Renderos 2016).


Avoiding mass surveillance is not a simple case of opting out of using certain resources. Even people using the most secure tools that offer protection against surveillance of content (what is being said) cannot protect themselves fully from being surveilled at the level of metadata (when/where/to whom it is being said – which in itself provides a lot of detail about what may have been said). Additionally, many people feel like they can’t avoid engaging with insecure means of communication that the majority of their networks and wider society are engaging with, if they want to avoid marginalisation. However, many people simply do not comprehend the extent of surveillance made possible by these technologies – they do not know the extent of the surveillance they are subject to. Whereas many of the participants in our self-censorship and surveillance survey described their awareness and the steps they have taken to increase their security, writers are largely a relatively privileged group. Members of society more widely do not have the benefits and knowledge that many of us do have.

I think we therefore need to teach the public about surveillance – both to help raise awareness of the fallacy that “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” (Coustick-Deal 2015) and help people to resist it, through challenging policies and laws as well as equipping themselves with the skills and resources to protect their privacy. There is an increasing interest in this work from librarians who want to help their users protect their online security in terms of both corporate and state surveillance. Scottish PEN has been working with the US-based Library Freedom Project to develop a toolkit for libraries so they can advise users on the software and practices they can employ to protect themselves. Libraries and groups like the Open Rights Group and Radical Librarians Collective have held cryptoparties to help people with their ‘privacy checklists’ around encryption and other actions they can take.

We need to do more than this, however. As educators, librarians need to resist policies and interventions such as the Prevent initiative, which asks university and school staff to watch out for the ‘potential radicalisation’ of the students in their institutions. The Government has implemented training on how to spot ‘radical ideologies’ (including Islamic extremism and anti-capitalist agendas) and legally binds them to report these to the authorities who then have the right to question their friends and family, seize any and all academic work by the suspected student, and investigate other aspects of their public and private lives. For example, a student at Staffordshire University on their Terrorism, Crime and Global Security course was questioned by university security after being reported by library staff for being seen reading a book about terrorism, in the library. He subsequently withdrew from his course. This is one of many accounts of actions that Ali Milani (2016) describes as “creating and propagating a narrative of suspicion around an entire community”.

With the rise of the surveillance state, these events are going to become more common, and have more of an impact on people’s rights to education, freedom of thought and freedom of expression. Even without the explicit removal of these rights, the oppressive systems of surveillance we are increasingly encountering will have extremely negative impacts on the universal rights of those who most need them.


Coustick-Deal, R. (2015). Responding to “Nothing to hide, Nothing to fear”.

Milani, A. (2016). Dear Owen Smith – Backing the Racist Prevent Strategy Won’t Win You This Election, It’ll Lose Labour Votes. Huffington Post Blog, 12th August 2016.

PEN American Center (2013). Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor.

Renderos, S. (2016). To the next POTUS: For communities of colour, encryption is a civil right. TechCrunch, 6th May 2016.

Tucker, I. Ellis, D. and Harper, D. (2016) Experiencing the ‘surveillance society’. The psychologist, 29, pp.682-685.

[Image: Still from A Good American, Slingshot Films]


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)

Content Filtering in Libraries

Happy New Year! Just a quick post on this poor neglected blog to signpost to some research done by some people involved in the Radical Librarians Collective on content filtering in public libraries.

The study sought to find out what filtering is in place within public libraries, because there is the potential for excessive filtering to act as a barrier to freedom of access to information. The team felt that although filtering is a very tricky topic and there are often good reasons for libraries to want to filter content, that the methods used to do so may take a very broad brush approach with the potential to do more harm than good. This builds on the MAIPLE study conducted by Loughborough University.

The research team used Freedom of Information requests to ask every local authority in the UK the following questions:

1. Do you employ the use of content filtering software on the PCs
based in your libraries which are connected to the internet and
intended for use by the users of your library?

If answer to 1. is “yes”, please:

2. Provide the name and annual cost of the content filtering

3. Provide a full list of the categories of websites blocked (e.g.
“pornography, gambling, phishing etc.”). If these differ according
to the user profile accessing the PC (e.g. child, student, adult,
staff etc.) please provide a full list of categories of websites
blocked for each user profile.

4. Confirm whether you also block specific URLs in addition to
categories, and provide a complete list of these URLs.

5. Provide the relevant policy document or written documentation
which outlines the procedure a user must follow in instances where
they would like to gain access to a website that is blocked.

6. From January 2013 until the present day, please provide a list
of the URLs where users have requested access to despite them being
blocked by the content filtering software.

7. Of the list provided in 6., please detail which URLs access was
granted for and which were denied.

Most local authorities provided information (although some did refuse). The data was collated and has now been published on figshare.

The aim of the research team is to do some analysis of the key trends and write an article around it, as well as to present the work at the LILAC Conference in Dublin in March.

The data has been picked up by The Register and I was asked to talk to them about it for an article they published today.

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

Sieghart’s Independent Library Report for England

Libraryland and the media are abuzz with the newly (finally) released Independent Library Report for England. The recommendations from the report can be broadly summed up as:

  • build a ‘national digital resource’
  • write a strategic framework for libraries in England (Wales have already done this and Scotland are working on one right now)
  • have national strategic leadership (led by councils)
  • appeal to everyone
  • get wifi in all libraries
  • improve library spaces so they’re up to “retail standard”
  • share best practice through guidelines for volunteers and community-led libraries
  • remember libraries are about learning and literacy
  • support digital literacy
  • use central government funding allocations for related services
  • (perhaps) national library cards
  • get copyright law changed so that public libraries can lend ebooks better than they can now (remote loans)
  • strengthen the workforce especially through new recruits and graduates

Unsurprisingly I’ve got some thoughts about this, some of which I’ll be talking about in various radio interviews in the coming days, but a quick and dirty summary:

The talk about a digital network for libraries is grand, and I’m pleased there’s also an emphasis that this should not be to the detriment of physical stock.

None of this is new. Being more like retail outlets, encouraging community involvement etc. are all recommendations that have come out of previous reports and things that librarians have been talking about for years. Some local authorities responded to the recommendations from the last umpteen reports, but some of them had already experienced such budget cuts that it was impossible to actually do the things they wanted and knew they needed to do. How will it be different now, with the next round of cuts coming up? I don’t see a big pot of money emerging from anywhere for doing things that don’t obviously contribute to the current administration’s neolibprivatisationcitizenconsumerbigsociety agenda, so I expect the majority of libraries – that will probably have to compete with each other to get the necessarily limited funding, which somewhat contradicts the ‘we’re all in this together let’s have a standard level of service nationally’ – will only be able to get wifi, redecorate, put a coffee bar in and get self service machines if they don’t already have them. Money won’t as easily be made available to invest in the qualified staff trained in supporting information and digital literacy, digital fluency, whatever different stakeholders are calling essentially the same thing. As a result, emphasis is going to be made on the how libraries contribute to employability agenda rather than the concept of libraries as an intrinsic public good. And that’ll be disappointing, and probably not help with the goal of articulating the value of public libraries that Sieghart talks about. Spending a bunch of cash on helping libraries deliver services associated with the digital by default agenda of government doesn’t really help libraries, it just helps government deliver services unrelated to libraries, through libraries. It might force a few more people to enter the library building against their will, but it’s not going to get them invested in the notion of the public library.

WiFi. Yes, god, yes. It blows my mind that all public libraries don’t already have WiFi, but it’s for two reasons: 1) there’s no money 2) local authorities make it an absolute nightmare for libraries to install it. I’d like to see a whole bunch of money for it, and I’d like to see the government write a standard document for councils to use as a policy for installing wifi, and one standardised document that can serve as an Acceptable Use Policy for all of the library services to ask users of the computers and library WiFi. Scotland’s already working on this, I recommend England get on board. Similarly, elending as it stands is a complete shambles so I can only support efforts to make DRM less restricting and make ebooks through libraries fit for purpose, which they currently categorically are not.

The development of a library taskforce will in many ways be duplicating various other fragmented groups and communities of practice that already exist, but fine, whatever. My main concern with this is the recommendation that it be led by councils, who, in my experience, are possibly the least informed, least knowledgeable and least engaged stakeholders in the whole shebang. The representatives from councils usually haven’t set foot in a library in the last 30 years, if ever, know little about the ethos of public services let alone the specifics of public library ethics, and aren’t motivated to connect the strategic aims of the council’s wider services and duties to public libraries. When you have to spend half your time explaining to the council members that public libraries are a statutory duty, how they’re about more than just books and how they contribute to literacy, community, and the general public good, you’re on to a loser. If the council members involved in the taskforce are the ones who’ve already been converted or have always been on ‘our team’, then fine, but I’m not sure how the message is going to be communicated to the council members who’ve never given a hoot. If the DCMS doesn’t mandate a national set of standards and actually hold councils to those standards, nothing’s going to change in those authorities that are running poor services. (I get the impression from the report that trying to compel the DCMS to do its job was decided to be a bad move politically – Vaizey’s thrown his toys out of the pram before and libraries are a sore spot.)

I’m also concerned about the idea that working “in partnership with others interested in the sector” – if these interested parties have the same amount of power and influence as those in the taskforce who actually spent time learning about libraries, and use experience, research and evidence to inform their opinions and approaches, rather than principles from retail or some kind of profit motivation – then that’s going to be a problem. Support from other areas will be of benefit, no doubt, but it’s the voice of the profession that needs to have the ultimate say, not individuals and groups with ulterior motives and less knowledge. I don’t have (much of) an issue with the organisations listed (apart from the LGA who still don’t acknowledge that libraries are a statutory service and don’t understand the first thing about libraries), it’s the “amongst others” that concerns me.

If you want greater cross government recognition you need to fund research to produce evidence about the educational role of libraries, for example. You also need researchers who can do this. We’re losing our library schools in universities, and the researchers who work in them. The two aren’t especially compatible.

If you want your 21st century librarian to have digital and commercial expertise you already have those, but there aren’t any jobs for them. You also, by the way, need to teach them about how commercial principles can only be applied so far in public services where there isn’t a profit motive, and that kind of critical engagement isn’t done enough on librarianship courses (although some places do and that’s great)*. If you want these wonderful impresarios to work for a service, you need to pay them properly. Public librarians get paid very low wages. You need to pay them for their expertise.

What exactly is it that makes people in positions of power think communities could or should be responsible for the management of public services? Fine, get opinions and make sure consultations are actually meaningful, don’t ask for opinions if you’re not prepared to actually act on the feedback if it’s strongly for or against something. Fine, get communities involved in making decisions about colour schemes for decorating or new book stock, but the ultimate decisions need to be made by people who’ve actually learnt about what colour schemes aren’t going to work with the principles of universal design, and what book stock should or shouldn’t be included in a collection because not stocking it for political or religious reasons would be censorship, or stocking it would be harmful to individuals and groups within a community. This is stuff communities mostly won’t know or think about, and do you know, I don’t necessarily think they should have to. I think that’s what taxes are for – paying for public services that are run by people who know stuff about how to do it properly, in the public interest.

Encouraging community involvement in library management “through a variety of models” surely just adds to the inconsistencies across England (and the UK more widely) in terms of library management. They already sit in several different directorates across different local authorities, there’s already a mishmash of different service structures that are the result of differing approaches to salami-slicing cuts for the last twenty-odd years. Asking for different models of management at the same time as asking for increased consistency is a contradiction.

There is hardly any attention given to the role of libraries in supporting literacy and learning, be that for school-aged children or older learners. Schools are mentioned three times – once to do with how TeachFirst has been good, once to mention that school libraries exist, and once to mention in passing that partnerships with schools and public libraries would be good. The fact that there’s so weak a relationship between the education system and libraries is something that continues to baffle me, but I think it’s probably linked to the lack of research and evidence for something that ought to be a given.

So yes, that’s my initial take on it, but I may well change my mind on things the more it’s discussed!

* Pedronicus has written a post on the precarious position of librarianship education in the UK which is well worth a read.

Featured image CC by interactivesomerville

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 😀

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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