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: http://www.shef.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.199926!/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: <http://www.emeraldinsight.com/10.1108/00242530910952828>

3) http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/2012/08/the-scl-spells-it-out.html

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: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4309200

5) http://www.cilip.org.uk/jobs-careers/qualifications/accreditation/pages/default.aspx

6) Giroux, H. (2011) “The Politics of Ignorance: Casino Capitalism and Higher Education”. Counterpunch. Available at: http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/10/31/casino-capitalism-and-higher-education/

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

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

9) http://libcamp.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-co-operative-bank-grant-application.html

10) http://www.libcamp.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/librarycamp-session-proposal-15.html

11) Giroux, H. (2011)

11) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiral_of_silence

Images:

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

LIS DREaM Workshop 2: London (and Library Day in the Life Day One)

Note: This is Day One of my Library Day in the Life (#libday8) activities – I’m unlikely to blog the rest in such detail, but we’ll see!

On 30th January I attended the second workshop in a series of three in the LIS DREaM Project (my blog post about the first is here).

The format was similar to the first, with a combination of presentations about different innovative and unusual research methods people might want to explore, short delegate presentations about their own research projects, and a research ‘practicality’ – this time, about research and policy (which is particularly relevant to the aims of my own research!)

Again, I don’t want to duplicate content that will be provided on the LIS Research site itself, so I’ll just cover the sessions and information that I found the most useful and pertinent to my own work, which now that I’m three weeks back into being a student, I feel far more able to absorb and apply in a meaningful way than I did back in October.

I think first it’s important to mention what is quite possibly the greatest librarian t-shirt I’ve ever seen. Nice work Michael.

Anyway. Onto Conference Report Proper…

The first thing that really struck a chord with me was the minute-long presentation given by research student Ella Taylor-Smith as part of the Unconference Half Hour. Her topic is e-participation. She’s conducting case studies using ethnography and discourse analysis and applying resource mobilisation theory to develop hypotheses about social movements,  which she’ll then use to build technology pilots to test the ideas she’s developed, to see if they’re pointing in the right direction. (Phew, that’s a lot of concepts I’d never come across before…I hope I made them make sense…!)

Ella and I had a chat during lunch and she was kind enough to tweet me some recommended reading afterwards:

I gave a short presentation about my research topic too:

You can watch the video of the session below:

Another session I found really interesting and potentially relevant to my research topic was Professor Mike Thelwall’s Introduction to Webometrics. It covered a few different techniques and he explained how they could be applied to LIS, including using altmetrics instead of/as well as traditional citation index searching, for a number of reasons, including the fact that results can be up to two years more up to date. Initially I didn’t quite understand why this kind of search would be useful, and tweeted that I wondered if it was a more in-depth equivalent of googling yourself, but Professor Hazel Hall explained that this it’s a way of discovering how much impact your work is having, which is important if you’re under pressure to demonstrate your impact for funding or promotion, for example.

Mike also talked about the uses of sentiment analysis and how computational linguistics can be used to explore aspects of online communication. This was really interesting and far more complex than I can do justice, so I’d recommend having a look at the presentation and exploring it for yourself if you’re interested! I think I’ll dig a bit deeper into it in case my methodology does involve analysing online political discussion, but one problem with the method that Mike raised was that exchanges and discussions of a political nature can be problematic to effectively analyse because computers aren’t great at picking up on sarcasm!

The final session of the day was Professor Nick Moore’s presentation Making the Bullets for Others to Fire, which looked at how research can inform policy. He gave a really thorough account of his experiences within the Policy Studies Institute, and great advice about how to understand information policy, not getting too positive too early on, responding to comments and criticism, and planning what you want your research to achieve from the start. It was reassuring to find that the way Nick presented his Information Policy Matrix and described how information is socially important (to understand policies, how to vote and participate) fit in with the way my reading is taking me at the moment. I need to go away and explore the potential ‘gap in the matrix’ in the ‘information and society’ / ‘legislative and regulatory’ box.

Nick raised some really important issues for planning research, including the importance of seeking to inform future policy rather than looking back at policies of the past, and being aware of political agendas in research projects that have been set up by other people/organisations. He also provided a perfect, but difficult to achieve, sign of success:

Express your research aim in one, clear, unambiguous sentence.

Challenge accepted! I might be some time…

The general lessons were these:

  • Critical comment is really important and researchers mustn’t be afraid to do it. There’s no point doing the work if you don’t express your views and provide critical comment. This can be a scary prospect, but in Britain we’re lucky because we have a big enough mass to enable critical comment to be heard. We’re not as huge as the US, for example, so aren’t invisible. We’re also big enough, however, to not damage our entire career by being openly critical in our research findings and publicising them.
  • Interest and passion are essential, especially if you want to inform policy. You have to be able to keep going, because it’s not a short term thing and takes time! You need the motivation to keep powering on.
  • You need to be able to try to work out what is the next big issue and what will be important in 2, 5, 10 years time. Consider what small issues haven’t yet been addressed.
  • However, it’s important that you don’t get too far ahead of the curve and find that nobody’s ready to look at the work you’re doing.
  • It’s important to consider role of universities – you need to be in a department that has a reputation and is geared up to informing policy if you want to do that yourself.
  • You need to be able to retain your independence in order to be listened to.
Nick’s key tips were:
  • Focus and specialise – pick your area of specialism and become a real expert
  • Carry others with you – make use of professional and academic networks
  • Pick your allies and find ways of working with them
  • Don’t look too far ahead – elected politicians seldom look beyond the next election
A very informative day with lots to take in. So, in the style of true library and information scientists, we hit the pub.
I left early to sneak in a cup of tea with a friend based in Oxford who’d been lecturing at Middlesex University and then to go for dinner with some London friends. If you like Mexican food, have a go on Wahaca – awesome! I’m going to get hold of the cookbook so I can try it out at home.

A Bit of Reflection

I’ve already written about some of what I got up to at Umbrella, but the most valuable aspect of attending the conference was the opportunity to talk to CILIP members and other attendees about what we’ve all been up to, how we think things are going with libraries and CILIP, and what the future might hold. Consider this a practical application of Thing 5, as well as a bit of an announcement…

Over the past year I’ve done a lot of work in public library advocacy, which has been an incredible insight into how the media works. Doing the work I’ve been doing (public speaking, writing articles, giving media interviews, attending conferences and events as a representative of Voices for the Library, helping local campaigns get up and running) – especially during a period of unprecedented threats to libraries – has made me realise even more that libraries of all kinds are important – fundamental to a successful society, in fact – and more relevant than ever before. We need to keep advocating and campaigning, wherever possible, to as many people as possible. We need to raise the profile of libraries, which I believe Voices for the Library has and continues to do successfully, to the public, policy-makers and stakeholders.

As a profession, we’ve got a lot more work to do. Every so often I hear or read someone say that it’s not just public libraries under threat. And they’re right. But public libraries are the first to face the cuts and challenges. Public library staff are the first facing redundancy, cuts to pay and working hours, changes to their employment rights and working conditions. Public library users are the first to face having to fight for their access to vital information and cultural services. The whole profession has a lot to learn from the work that’s already underway and the issues that have already been raised, and all libraries have a lot to learn from each other, the skills of their staff and the needs of their users.

With the benefit of being a sprightly young thing, I’ve been able to devote a lot of energy to the cause. I’d love more newcomers to the profession to consider what they can do in a way that fits with their lifestyles, skills and personalities, find out how they can get involved and play an active role in protecting and developing library and information services. I’ve been involved at a level that I certainly didn’t expect to be able to be a part of at so early a stage in my career. I hope this sends the message that it’s possible, valuable and of a significant degree of impact to get out there and do something, anything, to advocate for and promote the profession and the services we provide.

The work we’ve done so far has been time-consuming, complex and, to be honest, at times gut-wrenching. But I love it. I think it’s fairly obvious to everyone I meet that I love it with a (healthy!) passion. I very much intend to continue to be involved, and when I start my PhD in January I’ll be able to do so in a more flexible way. I’d also like to be more involved in CILIP. I could do this by getting involved with a new branch or getting more involved with the groups I’m already part of, but I wouldn’t be able to carry on being vocal at a national level and the impact of my involvement would be limited.

So. With all that in mind, I’ve decided what I’m going to do about it.

I’m going to stand for election as the Vice-President of CILIP.

The nominations will open at the beginning of September and close at the beginning of October. Ballot papers will be sent out on 13th October and the voting ends on 30th November. If I were to be successful, I’d be Vice-President for 2012 and President for 2013. I want to be able to represent members at a national level, so even though it’s a few months away I thought I’d write about it now because in the next few months I’ll be doing a lot of talking and thinking about my position on things in order to write a nomination statement. The discussion starts here! Let me know your thoughts.

Umbrellas, Windows and Voices

I was given the opportunity to go to a day of the Umbrella conference thanks to sponsorship from Credo Reference for Voices for the Library. I had a fantastic time and thoroughly enjoyed the sessions, catching up with people, making new acquaintances and finally meeting people I really should have met in person before now! I found some sessions particularly valuable, most notably Christine Rooney-Browne’s talk on measuring the value of libraries (there are some really useful links that she shared on the Voices site). Some of the themes that emerged from discussions in John Pateman and John Vincent’s session about the Big Society, social justice and public libraries were thought-provoking, such as the concept of ’empowerment’ from above, accountability, accessibility and engaging core, passive and non-users. My focus was inevitably on public libraries, with my Voices hat on, but I also found the talk by David Hunter, the Strategy and Performance Manager at the National Library of Scotland very interesting too. He discussed the bibliometric evaluation method that the NLS has been experimenting with, to try and discern the ways in which library users benefit from the library’s resources. There’s much work to be done, but I’m excited about its potential.

So much of what Gerald Leitner, EBLIDA President and Secretary General of the Austrian Library Association, the keynote speaker on Tuesday morning, had to say about the need for library and information professionals to take control of emerging digital copyright issues and negotiate with publishers made a lot of sense. I agree with his assertion that now is the time for LIS professionals to work together, cross-sector and internationally, to develop a unified library policy. Libraries provide access to culture, resources for lifelong learning and methods to counteract the most demoralising aspects of current economic and social crises. Gerald pointed out that the problem of legislators not understanding the value of library and information services and their lack of understanding about the difference between print and electronic copyright issues is not just a UK issue, it’s Europe-(if not world)wide. This needs to be addressed and it’s important for librarians to set it high on policymakers’ agendas. An issue he raised that was particularly relevant to my research interests was that a high proportion of children and young people in Europe are illiterate, which means that they can no longer be reached with written information. They are therefore more likely to become (or continue to be) marginalised and unengaged and vulnerable to radicalisation. This is something that libraries are in a key position to tackle.

The focus of the conference this year was on six themes, (skills and professionalism, promotion and advocacy, technologies and access, libraries in the Big Society, digital inclusion and social change, tools and techniques) the majority of which are relevant to the advocacy, campaigning and media work that I do. Tomorrow at the Windows on the World event at the West Yorkshire Playhouse I’ll be talking about the risk to UK public libraries, current legal challenges, what councils are doing in order to implement the cuts imposed on them and the implications these changes have in relation to access, universality, digital inclusion, education and social change.

It was lovely to meet so many people at the conference who knew about Voices for the Library, what we’re doing and why it’s not just important for the public library sector, but for the whole profession. I’m so grateful for the support that we have from so many people within the profession as well as members of the public, authors and other campaign groups. As Ian’s mentioned, we’d really like to get some more contributions from people, whether they’re working in libraries or just using them, to spread the message about the great work that public libraries do. It’s always been one of our key aims, but with all the campaigning against things that needs doing it’s hard to keep up the advocacy message for things. Please write to us at stories@voicesforthelibrary.org.uk with anything you’d like to share.

Edinburgh Has The Edge (2010): Day One

I don’t want to write too much about The Edge 2010 conference, because I’m going to be submitting a piece to the Public Library Journal, but I do want to get a bit down about it, because it really was a brilliant two days. Here are a few highlights.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle, the conference venue

Susan Benton is the President and CEO of American Urban Libraries Committee and gave a fantastic keynote speech about the value of the work of public libraries. She emphasised the need for leadership, partnerships and publicity to send this message loudly and clearly to local authorities, national governments and communities. As well as the need for leadership in terms of promoting and advocating our services, public libraries could act as physical examples of sustainability in the community; working out of green buildings and being actively involved in recycling, etc. as well as offering involvement opportunities for local businesses and educational establishments would enable libraries to take the lead in an increasingly important area. Susan also expressed the thought that public libraries are trusted by communities and are often the first place people go to for information, advice and support. This is something that libraries need to be aware of and use to their benefit in serving their communities.

Nicky Parker and Councillor Mike Amesbury from Manchester City Council presented the plans and developments for Manchester Library and Information Services, which are considered an important political priority in the area. The libraries were given a poor report six years ago, which prompted action to improve their services drastically with an investment of £255 million, being spent on, amongst other things, 2 new buildings, widespread renovation and a virtual library. The challenge in Manchester was to decide which buildings to rebuid and which to adapt; this has been met innovatively with the decision to never build a standalone library again, instead to co-locate with other services such as adult learning centres. Strategically locating libraries in the heart of communities alongside other public services, near transport links, schools and homes, will hopefully make the library service more a part of the community.

Manchester Central Library
Manchester Central Library (CC by harshilshah100 at Flickr)

Mancester Library and Information Services are also investing in new technology such as RFID, automated storage and retrieval, self service and return and book vending machines. I hope that the introduction of these will make the service more widely used and not discourage people from using the Central and City libraries. Although the automated storage system is meant to make access to books easier and because of the current layout of the Central Library does not reduce the amount of open shelving, I am concerned that in public libraries, automated storage may not be as suited as it is in the British Library. Much of the book lending in public libraries seems to take place after time spent browsing the shelves and coming across something they were not deliberately seeking – I worry that taking this away will reduce the chances of someone serendipitously borrowing something wonderful and unexpected. A benefit of the self service borrowing system, though, is the ability to borrow books anonymously – this may have the opposite effect and encourage more people to borrow the items they want or need but are too embarrassed to take to the counter. I would be interested to see the results of any studies conducted!

I particularly enjoyed the speech from The Leader of Newcastle Council, Councillor John Shipley. His conviction that public libraries with their add-on services have become an essential public service that people should pay taxes for other people to borrow books and use libraries was inspiring. Libraries are cheap for the services they provide, efficient and effective – and if they are accused of being high cost – they should be proud, because it means that a valuable service is being provided. Bravo! There’s more about what he had to say on Ewan McIntosh’s blog. As he says, it truly was profound.

Edinburgh’s new virtual library, Your Library, was introduced by Liz McGettigan, Head of Edinburgh Libraries & Information Service and Jim Thompson, Quality Development Manager. Although 97% of Edinburgh’s population live within walking distance of a library, 97% of the population choose not to visit a library. The new Virtual Library is not designed to replace physical libraries, but to work alongside it and serve those who cannot or do not want to make the trip down the road, offering a Talis OPAC, image database, e-newsletter, community organisations database, full text ebooks and audiobooks. Citizens will be able to become members of the library online, and the website features Browsealoud support for the visually impaired, making the service more accessible.

This is by no means everything I found interesting, but I have too much uni work to be doing to be able to write a longer post, and as I say, I’ll be writing a big thing later.

Edge 2010

I am very very fortunate to have been offered  a complimentary place at Edge 2010, a conference taking place on 25th & 26th February at Edinburgh Castle. I’m very excited about it because it’s going to be invaluable to my studies and generally really interesting. There will be all sorts of speakers talking about various aspects of digital inclusion, learning and e-government.

I will be writing up the event, so if anyone has any recommendations as to journals or publications that might be interested in receiving it, please let me know!

Libraries vs. Recession

A while ago I went to a cracking SINTO seminar about what public libraries can do during These Economic Times to support their patrons/customers/clients/service users/human beings (delete as appropriate to whatever your LA has decided to call them) and what they can do to keep themselves afloat (which is going to get even more difficult by the looks of things) through partnerships and/or communication with less-explored avenues such as The Media and businesses.

Anyhow. I wrote it up for the Public Library Journal and it was published a week or so ago. It’s possibly going to be put online, but until it does, you can read it here.