Tag Archives: censorship

A Good American

Surveillance, Self-Censorship and Social Justice

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”. https://www.openrightsgroup.org/blog/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. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ali-milani/owen-smith-prevent-strategy_b_11468406.html

PEN American Center (2013). Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor.  https://pen.org/sites/default/files/Chilling%20Effects_PEN%20American.pdf

Renderos, S. (2016). To the next POTUS: For communities of colour, encryption is a civil right. TechCrunch, 6th May 2016. https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/06/to-the-next-potus-for-communities-of-color-encryption-is-a-civil-right/?utm_content=bufferc64aa&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Tucker, I. Ellis, D. and Harper, D. (2016) Experiencing the ‘surveillance society’. The psychologist, 29, pp.682-685. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-29/september/experiencing-surveillance-society

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

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.

newspapers cc by binuri on flickr

Radical Librarians Collective (Part Two)

Part Two of a series of posts on the Radical Librarians’ Collective event that took place on 10th May 2014 at the London Action Resource Centre in Whitechapel, London.

I promised to write in more detail about the sessions I took part in. This post is about the first session on censorship in libraries, which I led, but which was very much a group discussion.

I wanted to discuss what’s gone wrong in terms of library and information workers failing to understand that banning content we disapprove of on political grounds is unacceptable, what we can do to challenge opinions about censorship on a general level and also in the workplace, and discuss other issues of censorship that we need to be aware of as library-related folk. I’m not sure to what extent this was achieved, but the session was certainly very interesting!

What censorship?

The idea for this session came from the recent discussions around the petition to ban The Sun newspaper from public libraries, specifically in the London Borough of Islington. The rationale behind the petition is on three counts:

  • The imagery in The Sun (specifically the Page 3 feature which publishes topless photos of glamour models) promotes sexism in society through the objectification of women.
  • The authors of the petition disapprove of the sexist content of the newspaper in general. 
  • Stocking the newspaper contravenes a number of Islington Council’s policies, including: the Code of Conduct under Equalities Issues 4.6 which states that employees must “never display in the workplace, nor allow others to display, sexist or racist material, or material which people could reasonably find offensive”; the Corporate Equality Scheme and Community Cohesion Strategy which states that  the Council are “committed to tackling discrimination and inequality in all the service areas for which we are responsible, including in our role as employers”; and the Dignity for All Policy, which states that “As 52% of Islington’s population is female, prejudice based on gender stereotyping means that gender discrimination can be very widespread. As a result, women, and sometimes men, can find themselves facing inequality when it comes to pay, access to services, responsibilities, levels of safety and other areas. Such discrimination can directly affect life choices.”

There has been some discussion of this online, and I’d recommend reading Ian Anstice’s comments on Public Libraries News and Ian Clark’s post on banning offensive material in public libraries. I’d also recommend reading this post in support of the idea of boycotting The Sun on the informed blog, but which I very much disagree with, and was my main motivation for discussing the issue at RLC.

But…librarians are against censorship…aren’t they?

I thought so, but apparently not all of them. Or rather, there’s a lack of clarity about what censorship is, and which way the balance of ‘professional’ duties around social justice and access to information should tip. We talked about how library workers have a responsibility to be ‘neutral’, how this is a bit of a misnomer and how professional ethics inherently represent a political stance, but that this isn’t well understood and discussion about it is often avoided.

I get the impression that most, if not all, of us in the session have a low opinion about the kind of content The Sun features, particularly in relation to its support of views that are, well, pretty racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, misogynistic and so on. It understand the temptation to prevent the awful rag from seeing the light of our libraries, but there’s a lot of content in most libraries that conveys similar messages, and we’re not talking about banning that content. There’s the question of how the material is used, too; if the material isn’t there for people to analyse and understand, how can it be criticised? (It’s also worth remembering that not all librarians are politically left-leaning, or even necessarily anti-racism/sexism/homophobia etc., although that’s a whole other issue.)

An issue raised when we were talking about librarians’ opinions on the matter was that if we as professionals are setting this standard, what kind of message does it send to volunteers who are running libraries? A lot of the volunteer groups stepping forward to run libraries when councils threaten to close them are special interest groups and religious organisations. The idea of these groups having control over access to information they deem unsuitable for public use is worrying.

Legal precedent against banning newspapers

One of the first things that was mentioned in the session was that in the UK there is legal precedent relating to local authorities trying to ban certain newspapers from being stocked in public libraries. R. v. Ealing London Borough Council, ex parte Times Newspapers Ltd. (1986) dealt with a case in which the London Boroughs of Camden, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Ealing imposed a ban on the newspapers and periodicals published by Times Newspapers Ltd. 

The councils had decided to stop providing newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, who at the time was supportive of the Conservative Party under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The rationale for banning the newspapers at the libraries was to show “sympathy with the views and activities of the trade unions and its members” during an industrial dispute relating to the relocation of a number of newspaper printing houses. The case report notes:

“Over 30 other local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have taken similar action. The first three applicants have brought applications for judicial review, none of which have been heard so far, against eight of these. A few local authorities who imposed bans have withdrawn them. The remainder refuse to do so. In all the local authorities referred to, Socialist councillors have a majority, and therefore are said to be in control.”

The Divisional court held that:

“The decisions of the respondent local authorities to ban The Times and other publications of the applicants from their public libraries in support of print workers in industrial dispute with the applicants was an abuse of their power as library authorities under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and a breach of their duty under s.7(1) of the Act to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.A library decision taken on purely political grounds is an unlawful abuse of power. In the present case, the ban was inspired by  political views. The respondents’ reason for imposing the ban was solely that it could be used as a weapon in aid of the dismissed print workers to damage the other side in their industrial dispute. Thus, the ban was for an ulterior object and in exercising their duties the respondents took account of an irrelevant consideration. No rational local authority could have thought that such a ban was open to it to impose in discharge of its duty to service libraries.”

The most interesting point from this case to me is the suggestion that “a library decision may be lawful within s.7 [of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964] if the dominant purpose bringing it about could not be said to be unlawful even though to some extent inspired by political motive”. So for example, does this mean that a library service could cease stocking certain newspapers because they don’t agree with the content of them, but use budget cuts as a justification for doing so? This may well be an abuse of power, but cannot be considered illegal. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t be giving people ideas…

But what else?

Aside from the legal issues, we discussed how banning certain materials because the content is offensive and potentially harmful is, for want of a better word, problematic. The main issue for me is that the message that we’re sending when we choose not to stock items because the content is hateful is that we have no faith in our patrons, our learners, the public, to be able to think for themselves. We have no hope that the content they are exposed to will not have a negative effect on them, and that they can read that content, think about it, and realise the biases and attitudes inherent in it which make it hateful.

Of course my own research heavily influences my opinions around this; what I’d like to see is the increased emphasis of critical literacy skills in information literacy education. I do think that there’s weight in the argument that rather than failing to provide a variety of content because we’re afraid of what people might do with it, we should make resources available and have the faith in humanity that people can decide for themselves what they want to be exposed to. However, in the course of my research what’s become clear to me is that a lot of people don’t have the level of awareness about the way the media and politics work to understand the underlying issues such as how messages are presented, what is and isn’t reported, how issues are framed and so on. People’s opinions are formed as a result of what information they are exposed to and how they interpret it, and a lack of understanding can be harmful. I think libraries have a responsibility with regard to this; we should provide courses, workshops, training, whatever, on critical information literacy and media literacy. I’d like to hope that there’s a public interest for programmes like this in UK public libraries as well as academic environments.

The discussion about this led us on to talking about the constraints placed on staff in public libraries. As employees of local authorities, they are prevented from being overtly political, but there was also the sense that they are also prevented from doing anything remotely challenging. Political terrain is very dangerous ground in libraries, for example when it comes to making public information displays about European or UK elections, or book displays about contentious issues. There were also suggestions that as a result of deprofessionalisation, a lot of the remaining library staff now would not feel confident taking on work on such unsteady ground. I personally think there’s a serious issue with staff not having control over their own displays and the pressure to conform to a corporate ‘brand’ as part of councils with an increasing emphasis on what they view as customer service, and there are also issues about staff feeling that they wouldn’t have the support of their employer if they did attempt to inform the public about certain issues even though they are within the remit of public library services. Another major issues is the lack of professionally trained staff in public libraries, both as a result of redundancies in recent years, and a failure to recruit staff trained to postgraduate level in library and information studies to public libraries. It’s less and less seen as a requirement by employers (without good reason) and less and less seen as a viable career path for graduates (with good reason).

What are the concerns for the future?

We talked about internet filtering and how in attempting to protect users from harmful content we can often do more harm than good. Filters are ineffective and insensitive, often failing to block content that they intend to and blocking content they aren’t meant to. They act as a barrier for people researching sensitive topics, and the result is that a lot of people don’t go to the library staff to ask to have the ‘innocent’ but sensitive content (such as information about sexual health, female genital mutilation, sexuality etc.) unblocked. When people who are confident enough to go to the staff to ask for the block to be removed, this has to be done on a page by page basis by technical staff off-site, and is far from instantaneous.

Another question we considered was about changing stock selection policies and the increased involvement of library users in these decisions. If the focus of libraries is to provide what users say they want, and they explicitly state that they do not want money to be spent on certain newspapers, should we stop buying them? Conversely, if they say they want us to buy newspapers we don’t currently stock, should we start, regardless of how extreme or hateful the content?

What can we do?

Aside from trying to encourage public libraries to run workshops about media and/or critical information literacy, the idea of notice boards was discussed. Perhaps every so often making a display showing the different ways the different newspapers reported the same issue in the headlines, as an informative but ‘neutral’ presentation for visitors to see and interpret for themselves. As far as getting our colleagues to understand the problems with censorship, challenging them gently may be the best way, especially when their intentions are clearly well-meaning, but a little skew-whiff. This kind of discussion needs to go on not only in environments like RLC where a lot of people are on the same page, and not only on LIS courses where few people will ever be in positions where they’re affected by this kind of issue, but at ‘ground level’, where library workers are more likely to come into contact with colleagues or members of the public who like the idea of censorship, well-intentioned or otherwise.


Image: CC by binuri on flickr

2014-05-10 15.39.22

Radical Librarians Collective (Part One)

Part One of a series of posts on the Radical Librarians’ Collective event that took place on 10th May 2014 at the London Action Resource Centre in Whitechapel, London.

This post discusses what RLC is, where it was held and what sessions happened. I’ll be writing more posts about the sessions I attended soon!

What’s the Radical Librarians Collective?

It’s both an online and physical space, where people who are starting off from the general point of view that there are some problems in the way that libraries and information services of various kinds function in society, can discuss those issues. It covers all sorts – how we catalogue resources, how we do outreach, how library management is structured, how education is viewed in society, how publicly-funded research is often not accessible…

“Radical Librarians Collective aims to offer a space to challenge, to provoke, to improve and develop the communications between like-minded radicals, to galvanise our collective solidarity against the marketisation of libraries and the removal of our agency to our working worlds and beyond.”

Last year the first RLC event was held in Bradford, and this time round it was held in London. They’ve taken the form of ‘unconferences’, where there’s a general structure to the day but it’s far less formal and planned. I had the pleasure of being involved in the organising and running of the RLC event this time round, and can very much recommend getting involved in whatever capacity you can if this is the kind of thing you’re interested in. I found both events especially positive for lots of reasons.

Attendees were starting on the same page despite the wide variety of industry and work backgrounds they came from and it wasn’t necessary to spend a long time getting past the fundamentals, like the radical notion that access to information is a good thing, or that claiming libraries are democratic needs to be backed up in their actions. At other events I’ve often felt like there’s too much of a leap between the normative and uncritical point the event takes off from to get to the critical and challenging stuff, and it’s great to be able to miss the middle bit and head straight to the meaty stuff.

The question of “what do we do about it?” was very much in focus throughout, and people were happy to share practical examples and suggestions about how they can improve situations. So many ideas were being thrown around and the day ended with a plenary session where we shared what things we can do as individuals and groups to improve the things we want to improve. Mega-positive. Even discussions where I was able to share a negative feeling about something and have someone else not be able to fix it, but say “yeah that’s a thing and it sucks, it’s not just you”, I found really helped me feel less isolated and far more resilient. It sounds obvious but I think I’d forgotten that there’s such power in finding out you’re not alone. However, that certainly wasn’t the main content of the day and productivity far outweighed any sense of hopelessness.

There was a real emphasis on the non-hierarchical nature of the events, and it very much felt like although attendees definitely varied in levels of experience and different backgrounds, everyone’s input was respected and valued. I’m aware that different people have different levels of comfort about participating in discussions, but of all the events I’ve been to, this felt like one where there was a very non-judgemental environment and there was plenty of space for anyone to say pretty much whatever they liked (within the safe spaces policy) without fear of reproach. I was on both sides of discussions that started with things like “oh god I was so intimidated by you but you’re like, a normal person” and “I’m so sorry if I offended you, I was just disagreeing” and it was a complete breath of fresh air to be able to actually disagree with people and them be okay with it and stand up for what they thought and work out where there were differences and commonalities to work from and to just feel comfortable with a bunch of totally awesome people. I really hope that was everyone else’s experience and if not I’d really like to know how I can be part of making things better next time round if anyone did feel uncomfortable. (I harbour fears of coming across as a complete jerk, rightly or wrongly, and being anxious about not being told if I’m a jerk is the suckiest thing.)

All of the things I’ve talked about above are issues that RLC have been very aware of since the beginning and served as part of the motivation for getting started in the first place, so I’m really glad that it seems to have happened in action.

What’s LARC?

The London Action Resource Centre (LARC) is a collectively run building providing space and resources for people and groups working on self-organised, non-hierarchical projects for radical social change. The resources of the building include:

  • a main hall area with chairs and couches, a small kitchenette with tea making facilities, used for meetings or small gatherings
  • an office space with chairs, desks and internet facilities
  • a rooftop garden
  • a radical reference library that overlooks the main hall area
  • a banner-making and tool space in the basement

I was so impressed with this space. The people involved in LARC were so helpful and generous during the planning process and it served our needs really well. I think RLC-folk in London intend to use the space again, and I think that’s a really great idea. The only problem I can think of would be that it’s not an especially accessible building, so that would need to be taken into consideration for any future events. However, it was easy to get to, the wifi held up, there was plenty of space and the rooms were great. For fear of tooting a horn I shouldn’t be, I think the organisers did a grand job of overcoming some of the obstacles that needed sorting before and on the day (chairs! cups! coffee!)

a photo collage from radliblon

What happened on the day?

The structure of the day went a bit like this:

Registration and pitches (10-10:25)

Turn up, get your name ticked off, make a name badge, have a cuppa, listen to some session pitches and maybe pitch a session yourself. Some people had added their suggested sessions to the wiki beforehand so we had an idea about how many people wanted to ‘run’ or facilitate a session, but some people (like me!) just suggested something on the day. There was a real emphasis on the fact that if you were interested in a topic, you should pitch it and see if anyone else was interested in talking about it, and preparation was not an issue (in fact, positively discouraged!)

For the sessions, we used three rooms and three sessions ran at the same time. People were welcome to wander in and out of them as they fancied, but I think for the most part people stuck around.

First round of sessions (10:30-11:25)

  • Neoliberal Education: In the context of an ’employer-led’ education system, and amidst increasing marketisation and penetration of neo-conservative ideology, what can the college or school library do to promote free-thinking and wider reading? Where is the dividing line between promoting open-mindedness and pushing your own beliefs, and are there any professional risks to going ‘off-message’ in a college library service?
  • Censorship: Is it okay for librarians to promote the signing of a petition to ban The Sun from libraries? Spoilers: no – but why and why do some of them think it is? What can we do about it? How can we prevent censorship in general? (I pitched this and will be writing about it later)
  • Libraries as a feminist issue: A discussion about inequality within and without LIS structures. Or, indeed, possible solutions/opportunities for change.

Second round of sessions (11:30-12:25)

  • Public Service Mutuals: The coalition government wants to see public services ‘spun out’ into staff-led mutuals and co-ops as part of their vision for ‘open public services’. York Libraries and Archives have already gone down this route with Birmingham Libraries following closely behind. The implications are that public libraries will have to become more business-like, how does this fit with our ethos? Do SocEnts, trusts and co-operative councils pose the same threats? Is this part of a genuine desire to maintain strong public services, empower workers/users/communities and improve service quality or an ideologically driven desire to shrink the state and cut public spending?
  • Information as Commodity: challenges and implications for libraries and information workers. Using Marx’s analysis of money-commodities cycle in Capital vol. 1 as a starting point.
  • Radicalising the Professional Routes: (Ian won’t mind me saying that the pitch didn’t really reflect the reality of the discussion so I’ll describe what was discussed!) Problems with professional qualifications, vocational vs. theoretical focus and benefits/drawbacks, preparation for the workplace, opportunities for discussion, employer support, how to fix the problems (I went to this session and will be writing about it later)

Lunch! (12:30 – 1:25)

A delicious vegan spread catered by Shambhu’s. I have to say, one of the most valuable things I learned on the day was that cucumber and fresh coriander are a heavenly combination.

After lunch we had a second round of pitching, because we’d deliberately left some space in the afternoon for more sessions that might come out of discussions in the morning.

Third round of sessions (1:30 – 2:25)

  • Critical Theory in LIS: Should employers be training employees and academic courses be encouraging those undertaking LIS studies to be producing and developing critically-founded knowledge? Libraries have a steeped history in social politics and the neutrality that emanates from the contemporary sphere appears to continue a wider narrative of passivity from individuals that have lost agency in the political domain: Is the often assumed objective, neutral position of the profession is a flawed limitation, and is there a lack of critical foundation within the field of LIS? Has this contributed to a depoliticisation (or political apathy) across the field? Without critically aware staff, how can the library and information professions be said to be informing, enhancing, assisting, teaching or training information skills to their patrons? Can we locate and provide relevant information and sources of information without critically evaluating at subjective and intra-subjective levels? (I was involved in this session and will be writing about it later)
  • Surveillance: Discussion about the abuse of digital assets, governments and third parties collecting data and the importance of knowing our digital rights.
  • What is a ‘Professional’?: Discussing issues and problems with the divisions created between ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ staff. What does ‘professional’ even mean?

Fourth round of sessions (2:30 – 3:25)

  • Libraries and Youth: Discussion about how insights from youth work can help us get youths using libraries and more. Do youths need to be using libraries? What does effective outreach look like?
  • How do we put these discussions into practice in the workplace and how can we deal with problems in the workplace?
  • How can we do things as citizens and get more people involved? The little and big things we can do to try to make a difference.
Plenary (3:30-4:30)

Round-up of the key things that had come out of the sessions, working out what to do next. The organisers of this event would very much like to just be able to attend the next one, and really don’t want to create the sense that it’s a small group of ‘usual’ organisers who are in charge of anything. This belongs to everyone and it’s someone else’s go to do it next! It’d also be great to get smaller, more regular little meet-ups going on a regional basis, and the @RadicalLibs twitter account can help put people in touch with others in their area. There’s going to be a delegate list where people can add their regional and contact details on the wiki. If anyone needs help with using a wiki, @RadicalLibs can help there too.

And then we had a lovely time having some drinks and playing some music and talking about skate videos of the 1990s.

 There’ll be plenty more written about what happened on the day (not just by me!) so do let us know if you’ve written something so we can put a link to it on the wiki.


Challenging Censorship in Scottish Libraries

Just a brief post to plug an event being run by my supervisor David McMenemy at the end of April. Although its focus is on Scottish libraries, the talks will be of interest and relevance to a UK-wide audience and we’re hoping that there’ll be some good discussions.

Challenging Censorship in Scottish Libraries
Towards a Collaborative Solution

Tuesday, 30th April 2013 (5:30 pm – 8:30 pm)
Venue: SIPBS Hamnett Wing
Room: 112-114

Research by the University of Strathclyde has highlighted issues around censorship in public and school libraries in Scotland that affect provision of both paper and digital services.  Evidence suggests that an over-riding factor is the lack of a coordinated national policy approach to censorship issues in libraries.

This event will present the evidence, consider professional ethical codes and practitioner experiences, and aims to propose workable solutions to take forward collaboratively after the session.

Who should attend?

  • Library and information professionals
  • Authors
  • Publishing professionals
  • Students and researchers in library and information science or freedom of expression 

Benefits of attending

  • Open a debate in the sector on this hot topic
  • Build relationships with University of Strathclyde researchers
  • Build relationships with future funding partners
  • Promote collaboration between practitioners
  • Promote freedom of expression


T: +44 (0)141 548 3045

The event is free to attend and you can register online through the event page.

Banned Books

We’ve just had a lecture on children and young people’s library services, which included a section about banned books. It reminded me of this letter that I came across a while ago, and thought it was so wonderful I’d repost it here. 

It’s a truly brilliant letter; comprehensive, respectful, with so many important points.

Dear Ms. Patron:

Thank you for working with my assistant to allow me to fit your concerns about “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” by Sarah S. Brannen, into our “reconsideration” process. I have been assured that you have received and viewed our relevant policies: the Library Bill of Rights, the Freedom to Read, Free Access to Libraries for Minors, the Freedom to View, and our Reconsideration Policy.

The intent of providing all that isn’t just to occupy your time. It’s to demonstrate that our lay Board of Trustees –- which has reviewed and adopted these policies on behalf of our library — has spent time thinking about the context in which the library operates, and thoughtfully considered the occasional discomfort (with our culture or constituents) that might result. There’s a lot to consider.

Here’s what I understand to be your concern, based on your writings. First, you believe that “the book is specifically designed to normalize gay marriage and is targeted toward the 2-7 year old age group.” Your second key concern is that you “find it inappropriate that this type of literature is available to this age group.” You cite your discussion with your daughter, and commented, “This was not the type of conversation I thought I would be having with my seven year old in the nightly bedtime routine.”

Finally, you state your strong belief, first, “in America and the beliefs of our foundingfathers,” and second, that “marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman as stated in the Webster’s dictionary and also in the Bible.”

You directed me to the SarahBrannen.com site, which I also reviewed. I got a copy of “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” today, and read it. I even hauled out my favorite Webster’s (the college edition, copyright 1960).

First, I think you’re right that the purpose of the book is to show a central event, the wedding of two male characters, as no big thing. The emotional center of the story, of course, is Chloe’s fear that she’s losing a favorite uncle to another relationship. That fear, I think, is real enough to be an issue for a lot of young children. But yes, Sarah Brannen clearly was trying to portray gay marriage as normal, as not nearly so important as the changing relationship between a young person and her favorite uncle.

Your second issue is a little trickier. You say that the book is inappropriate, and I infer that your reason is the topic itself: gay marriage. I think a lot of adults imagine that what defines a children’s book is the subject. But that’s not the case. Children’s books deal with anything and everything. There are children’s books about death (even suicide), adult alcoholism, family violence, and more. Even the most common fairy tales have their grim side: the father and stepmother of Hansel and Gretel, facing hunger and poverty, take the children into the woods, and abandon them to die! Little Red Riding Hood (in the original version, anyhow) was eaten by the wolf along with granny. There’s a fascinating book about this, by the bye, called “The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,” by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. His thesis is that both the purpose and power of children’s literature is to help young people begin to make sense of the world. There is a lot out there that is confusing, or faintly threatening, and even dangerous in the world. Stories help children name their fears, understand them, work out strategies for dealing with life. In Hansel and Gretel, children learn that cleverness and mutual support might help you to escape bad situations. In Little Red Riding Hood, they learn not to talk to big bad strangers. Of course, not all children’s books deal with “difficult issues,” maybe not even most of them. But it’s not unusual.

So what defines a children’s book is the treatment, not the topic. “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” is 27-28 pages long (if you count the dedication page). Generally, there are about 30 words per page, and each page is illustrated. The main character, and the key perspective, is that of a young girl. The book is published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, “a division of Penguin Young Readers Group.” The Cataloging in Publication information (on the back side of the title page) shows that the catalogers of the Library of Congress identified it as an “E” book – easy or beginning reader. Bottom line: It’s hard for me to see it as anything but a children’s book.

You suggested that the book could be “placed in an area designating the subject matter,” or “labeled for parental guidance” by stating that “some material may be inappropriate for young children.” I have two responses. First, we tried the “parenting collection” approach a couple of times in my history here. And here’s what we found: nobody uses them. They constitute a barrier to discovery and use. The books there – and some very fine ones — just got lost. In the second case, I believe that every book in the children’s area, particularly in the area where usually the parent is reading the book aloud, involves parental guidance. The labeling issue is tricky, too: is the topic just homosexuality? Where babies come from? Authority figures that can’t be trusted? Stepmothers who abandon their children to die?

Ultimately, such labels make up a governmental determination of the moral value of the story. It seems to me – as a father who has done a lot of reading to his kids over the years – that that kind of decision is up to the parents, not the library. Because here’s the truth of the matter: not every parent has the same value system.

You feel that a book about gay marriage is inappropriate for young children. But another book in our collection, “Daddy’s Roommate,” was requested by a mother whose husband left her, and their young son, for another man. She was looking for a way to begin talking about this with son. Another book, “Alfie’s Home,” was purchased at the request of another mother looking for a way to talk about the suspected homosexuality of her young son from a Christian perspective. There are gay parents in Douglas County, right now, who also pay taxes, and also look for materials to support their views. We don’t have very many books on this topic, but we do have a handful.

In short, most of the books we have are designed not to interfere with parents’ notions of how to raise their children, but to support them. But not every parent is looking for the same thing.

Your third point, about the founders’ vision of America, is something that has been a matter of keen interest to me most of my adult life. In fact, I even wrote a book about it, where I went back and read the founders’ early writings about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. What a fascinating time to be alive! What astonishing minds! Here’s what I learned: our whole system of government was based on the idea that the purpose of the state was to preserve individual liberties, not to dictate them. The founders uniformly despised many practices in England that compromised matters of individual conscience by restricting freedom of speech. Freedom of speech – the right to talk, write, publish, discuss – was so important to the founders that it was the first amendment to the Constitution – and without it, the Constitution never would have been ratified.

How then, can we claim that the founders would support the restriction of access to a book that really is just about an idea, to be accepted or rejected as you choose? What harm has this book done to anyone? Your seven year old told you, “Boys are not supposed to marry.” In other words, you have taught her your values, and those values have taken hold. That’s what parents are supposed to do, and clearly, exposure to this book, or several, doesn’t just overthrow that parental influence. It does, of course, provide evidence that not everybody agrees with each other; but that’s true, isn’t it?

The second part of your third point was your belief that marriage was between a man and a woman. My Webster’s actually gives several definitions of marriage: “1. the state of being married; relation between husband and wife…; 2. the act of marrying, wedding; 3. the rite or form used in marrying; 4. any close or intimate union.” Definitions 2-4, even as far back as 1960, could be stretched to include a wedding between two men. Word definitions change; legal rights change. In some parts of America, at least today, gay marriage is legal. If it’s legal, then how could writing a book about it be inappropriate?

Finally, then, I conclude that “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” is a children’s book, appropriately categorized and shelved in our children’s picture book area. I fully appreciate that you, and some of your friends, strongly disagree with its viewpoint. But if the library is doing its job, there are lots of books in our collection that people won’t agree with; there are certainly many that I object to. Library collections don’t imply endorsement; they imply access to the many different ideas of our culture, which is precisely our purpose in public life.

As noted in our policies, you do have the right to appeal my decision to the Board of Trustees. If you’d like to do that, let me know, and I can schedule a meeting. Meanwhile, I’m more than happy to discuss this further with you. I do appreciate many things: your obvious value of reading, your frank and loving relationship with your child, your willingness to raise issues of importance to you in the public square, and more. Thank you, very much, for taking the time to raise your concerns with me. Although I suspect you may not agree with my decision, I hope it’s clear that I’ve given it a great deal of thought, and believe it is in accordance with both our guiding principles, and those, incidentally, of the founders of our nation.

Best wishes to you and your family