Tag Archives: democracy

One Year In

A very overdue update on what I’ve been up to!

I’ve reached the one year mark in the PhD process and although there’s a very long way to go with a lot of hard work ahead, apparently I’m on track! My research topic’s altered slightly and become more specific, from the role of public libraries in supporting and encouraging democratic engagement, to the ways critical information literacy instruction can enable people to have political agency, which isn’t all that different in the ultimate goal of contributing to a stronger democracy, but is significantly different that I’ve got to connect the dots and make it clear that it does connect to the original proposal somehow.

So, I submitted a written report on my progress so far and where I’m going next, and yesterday I gave a presentation to my supervisors and another member of the department, who made really helpful recommendations and suggestions. It really wasn’t as terrifying or stressful as I was expecting! It was a positive experience and has re-enthused me after a bit of a difficult winter. I have a lot of work to do still, but this is where I am so far:

In terms of presenting on my work and library-related things, I’ve had some great opportunities in the last year, most of which I’ve already written about. Here’s the presentation I gave at the SHARP Conference in Dublin, and updated and gave to some Masters students in the department a couple of weeks ago:

What’s next? My fieldwork starts in April, so I’ve got to get my methodology up to scratch before then, I’d like to make more progress on my literature review and I’ve got a couple of papers to write for the LILAC and Umbrella conferences, both of which I’m really looking forward to. The LILAC paper will focus mainly on my methods/methodology and what I’m aiming towards, and the Umbrella paper is a discussion of professional issues regarding the responsibilities of library and information workers to engage with substantive, political issues in information literacy education. I’ve applied to present at another couple of conferences and I’m going to try for an ESRC internship for the summer/autumn.

2011 in Perspective

I hadn’t intended to write a post summing up what had happened this year or making resolutions for the future (and still don’t!) but then I saw this story in the Independent and thought it was too good a springboard to not use for a little bit of end of year reflection.

A comment that’s sometimes thrown my way when I talk about fighting library cuts and closures is that perhaps I need to get a sense of perspective. It’s only a few books, what am I getting so het up about? Shouldn’t I take my incandescence and direct it at something  worthier, bigger, more ‘important’? In our crazy, messed up world, what’s the point of someone like me spending so much time and energy on library advocacy and activism?

Unsurprisingly, I don’t struggle to construct a fairly comprehensive response about the utter wrongheadedness of that kind of suggestion, which I won’t bore the already converted with here! But now I have this to add to my arsenal. The Independent have named library closures as one of the 12 biggest news stories of 2011:

Library closures: Colin Dexter, 71, author

Libraries became the unexpected social flashpoint of 2011 when the Government cut funding to local authorities and councils responded by proposing library closures.

Local communities, allied with a host of literary stars including Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse, rapidly mobilised to defend them. Judicial reviews challenging the closures were launched across England and Wales. In Scotland, MSPs were petitioned. Private US library service providers moved in for the kill, and many battles are still being fought up and down the land.

“As an older person who has seen libraries through the years, the events of this year are deeply depressing. What has worried me most about the calls for a ‘big society’ solution to the library problem in the past 12 months is the idea that you can cut library services and employ amateurs instead. Librarians have taken years to train up and can tell you what you should and shouldn’t read. Some of the processes are very complicated indeed.

“I think the Government has been surprised by the scale of the response; their actions were taken on the assumption that people would just sit back and let the consultations pave the way for closure. Instead, you saw the people gather and revolt and take their case to the courts instead.

“I would rather turn off every light on the motorway than close our libraries. What we have seen this year will invariably lead to further cultural deprivation.”

I rarely get the sense that what I do is a waste of time. In the darker moments when I get the feeling that everything sucks and The Man is just too big and how can little me and the people I work alongside possibly win this, I always come to the conclusion that I’ve got to do it anyway and try my best and that’s all there is to be done. But knowing that the work that’s been done to get the media aware of the situation and the social and cultural implications of public library cuts has actually had an impact and is listed alongside stories like the fall of Gaddafi, the death of Bin Laden, the NHS reforms and the riots, proves to me that this is the big deal I think it is and that over the last year and a bit, we’ve really managed to get out of the echo chamber and show the world that too. I’m very happy to be part of it and am incredibly proud of the people I work with for everything they’ve achieved.

Edit: It was also announced today that Voices for the Library has been named an Independent voice of 2011. You can see the full Peer Index rankings here. Another achievement for the team to be proud of!

CC tomroper on Flickr

I’m also happy about the fact that issues about power (and abuses thereof), democracy, access to knowledge and freedom of information are being put together and are starting to have a more prominent position in public discussion. More of this please (not least because it’ll really help with my PhD research…)!

via interoccupy.org

When I think about the things that have happened this year I get a bit dizzy. It’s certainly been a big year and it’s had its fair share of bad as well as good. As for 2012…I can’t even begin to think about that without getting a little bit overwhelmed. I can’t wait to get started on my PhD. I’m looking forward to becoming CILIP VP and doing a lot of work to support the organisation and its members as well as help to make it a stronger and louder advocate for the profession. I’m anxious about what’s going to happen with the local and national public library situation and will be doing everything I can to try and get it to go it in the right direction. It’s National Libraries Day on 4th February, so that’s the first big milestone to work towards next year.

I owe a huge thank you to the people who’ve helped me get through this year without being (too much of) a wreck. Thanks guys, you’re awesome, I’m incredibly fortunate to know you and without the support I’ve had this year I’m pretty sure I’d not be coming back for round two in 2012. As it stands though…

via catmacros.wordpress.com

Online Information 2011 – Day One

What an overwhelming day! I was asked to be an official twitter moderator at the conference, so led on one of the sessions and acted as backup for another – and, inevitably, tweeted heavily throughout!

The conference lasts three days but I could unfortunately only make it to today because of work commitments. The full programme is here. I attended:

Opening Keynote AddressEffective Social Media: Past, Present and Future
Speaker: Craig NewmarkFounder, craigslist and craigconnects, USA

Morning Session: Google+

Google+: Is it a plus or a minus for librarians?

Speaker: Phil BradleyInternet Consultant, UK

Google+: What is it? Who needs it?

Speaker: Brit StakstonAuthor and Social Media Strategist, JMW, Sweden

Afternoon Session: Social Media Strategies

How Westminster Abbey created world-wide audience engagement around the Royal Wedding with online and social media

Speaker: Imogen LevyOnline Editor, Westminster Abbey, UK

The European Union’s Regional Policy, Social Media and Online Collaboration

Speaker: Tony LockettHead of Web Communication, DG for Regional Policy, European Commission, Belgium

If you want to read the tweets for all the sessions have a look at the #online11 tweets. They’re separated by the rooms the events took place in (#aud, #cfrm1 and #cfrm2). I just wanted to note down here some recurring themes and important points made by speakers today:
  • We need to go to where our users/audience want to be and take our content to them (and it’s not that much of an effort to do so using a few different platforms);
  • We need to be brave and take risks with social media and communicating with our users online;
  • It can be very worthwhile to set something up and then ask for permission and forgiveness later! (Heck, if Westminster Abbey and the EU are going to take this kind of risk, then surely libraries can too);
  • It might be worth spending less time being concerned about a ‘brand image’ and more worthwhile  focus limited energy and resources on being useful for our users;
  • Social media is a legitimate and effective method of communicating with users and getting them engaged in learning/discussion/debate/collaboration
  • We need to make sure that our social media presences are interactive – more than just something used to pump out information and updates
  • It’s a good thing for social media accounts to have personality and be fun;
  • This of course needs to be balanced with whatever requirements are placed on the organisation;
  • Responsive Design is the way to go to save a bunch of time and effort rewriting code for different devices;
  • If you’re doing something new and exciting, be prepared for regular tweaks;
  • If you’re doing something new and exciting, don’t muck it up too badly when you launch because you risk losing users;
  • Librarians/Information Professionals have the opportunity to position ourselves as experts in the field of information retrieval, fact-checking and democratisation of information. We need to make ourselves useful, sell ourselves and gain recognition for this.

And the final thing to take home from the day was the reaffirmation that librarians are awesome, knowledgeable and keen to learn how they can improve their services. I have the pleasure of working with some particularly fantastic ones – huge congratulations to my Voices colleague Ian Anstice for winning the IWR Information Professional of the Year Award for his work on Public Libraries News. It’s great to see people who work so hard to protect library services being recognised for the work they do, and Ian certainly puts in the hours!

CC Phil Bradley on Flickr

Just Another Liberal Whinger?

I was disappointed to read this article this morning (warning: Telegraph). It might be because it was before my first cup of tea, but it made me really very cross. Which is, of course, what it was supposed to do. Instead of getting madder and madder about it, here’s why John McTernan is completely and utterly wrong. Same as with The Mail Redwood Monstrosity, the article’s in green and my responses are in black. It should be fairly obvious which is which…

When did you last go to a public library? No, really, when? It’s probably a good few years – and if so, you’re not alone. From one year to the next, nearly 60 per cent of us don’t go to libraries at all. In fact, fewer than one in five adults in England go more than once a month.

A couple of weeks ago, since you ask. Far less often than when I was a child and went on a weekly basis. I relied on the library for books that were more challenging than the ones available to me at primary school and to allow me to read wider than my secondary school library allowed me to – they only had one Gabriel García Márquez book, for example – the library had far more. But children still need libraries. Far less than when I wasn’t a student or working in a university and was fortunate enough to have access to academic libraries. People who can’t access academic libraries can benefit from public libraries – and far fewer people will be able to go to university now. And far less than my grandparents and the elderly people I know, who rely on them for large print books that they can’t buy at the supermarket, and can’t afford in the numbers they get through. The elderly rely on services like libraries to keep them engaged and active. We’ve got an ageing population. 

Nearly 60% of us don’t go to public libraries? 40% seems to a pretty good proportion of the population to make a service valid. I wonder what proportion of the population uses schools each year? And the emergency services? I think more people should be using libraries, absolutely – but because there is a very real need for them. People who aren’t using them now could benefit from them – the children whose parents don’t encourage them to read, the old people who can’t get out and about enough to get to the library and might not have access to a home delivery service, the unemployed young people who can’t go to university or college but want to train and can use the books and online resources available through the library. Heck, the middle class white males who might be able to save a few quid now that they’ve been made redundant but still want to be able to go for a hike using the OS maps they can borrow, or use the car manuals, or some other terribly gender-stereotyped example I could provide.

The news that councils are closing libraries has prompted sickly and sentimental pleas from all corners of the nation: a long and star-studded campaign to stop Brent Council closing six of them is now set to go to the Court of Appeal. No less a figure than Brian Blessed recently described such closures as the “act of Philistines… atavistic nonsense… the nemesis of our country”.

John, you’re right. Some of the responses from celebrities have been horribly sentimental. Many very dramatic. Is this surprising? It’s what they do for a living. Librarians and information professionals are providing less dramatic and more evidence-based reasons that library cuts are stupid. You can’t just dismiss celebrity condemnation because it’s dramatic, or because they themselves might not use libraries. In with all the hyperbole they also make important points, that you seem to be ignoring: “Not every family has a computer. Many of them are quite poor. The only way they can keep up with their classmates and have access to a computer and books as well is at the library.” These things are true, there is statistical evidence.

In one sense, this is a phenomenon familiar to anyone who’s ever had to cut public services: people will fight to the death to protect things they never use. But there’s something bigger going on here. This is a fight by middle-class liberals to keep libraries open not for themselves, but for the less fortunate. This is partly out of condescension, and partly guilt – because the protesters don’t use libraries either, and feel they may have precipitated the closures by their neglect.

People will also fight to the death to protect things they appreciate are of real value to society. I haven’t had to use the NHS for a year or so. But I’m glad it’s there. It’s such a specious argument to claim that if you don’t use a service you have no right to defend it. This is aside from the fact that it categorically isn’t just middle class liberals defending library services, and across the country people from all walks of life and all political persuasion are up in arms about disproportionate and counter-productive cuts to a service which is seen by politicians as anachronistic, complicated and not worth their time or (our) money.

What this debate needs is some honesty. Yes, public libraries have been of huge benefit in helping us educate ourselves over the past 150 years. It’s an honourable tradition – but it’s over. Their defence depends on a deficit model, the argument that they fill a unique gap. But that’s simply no longer true.

Thing is, John, it is still true. I know it’d be nice to think that everyone has access to all the education they need through schools and universities, but they don’t. Many children go to schools without libraries, because they aren’t statutory (but absolutely should be). Many people didn’t succeed at school but want to improve their level of education and standard of life now. Many adult learners rely on public library services. And society as a whole benefits from full participation in a democratic society, access to excellent writing and trusted and accurate information. Tell me modern society doesn’t need those things, I dare you. Oh, you’re about to? Sugar.

Take reference services, once the core of the public library’s educational role. Access to information has been transformed by the internet. Google a subject and you can become ridiculously well-informed ridiculously quickly. Engrossing lectures from the planet’s best minds are freely available on university websites, from the TED conference series, or on BBC iPlayer. Channels such as BBC Four or Sky Arts provide a wide range of high-quality documentaries across a multitude of subjects. We live in an information-rich society – so we should celebrate its availability, not yearn for a time when you had to go to the central library for it.

Where to start?

  1. Google a subject and you can be come ridiculously well-informed ridiculously quickly, if you have an appropriate level of information literacy and the skills to find what you need and work out what’s reliable and what isn’t. Maybe that Masters in Librarianship helps you find what you need to ridiculously quickly. Other people need a bit more help. Without the level of ability, it’s easy to Google a subject and become ridiculously mis-informed ridiculously quickly.
  2. Not everything is available on the internet. Honest.
  3. Not everything is televised. Sorry.
  4. Not everyone can afford a tv and/or satellite tv – no, seriously. And not everyone wants one either.
  5. We live in an information-rich society – so we should ensure that everyone has access to information and make it more available, not yearn for a time when there were places people could access information, in the good old days when people gave a toss about other people and wanted a successful society with good levels of literacy, employment and engagement.

In recent years, libraries sought to reinvent themselves as information hubs. Hundreds of millions were spent to provide them with computers. What happened? Technology advanced, and soon the library computers were too old and too slow. That led to a demand for more investment. But why? Fast, cheap computing had spread to most homes, and to our whizzy new mobile phones. Where on earth is the gap that libraries are meant to plug?

Yep, libraries got computers. And rightly so – after all, libraries provide information, and as you rightly say, a lot of information is available on the internet. This was probably around the time you stopped working in libraries, John, so I can forgive your ignorance about anything that’s happened since. But it might have been a good idea for you to keep schtum about stuff you have no idea about. Or done some research for your piece on your whizzy new mobile phone.

Here is where we’re at: there is a problem with the standards of library computers, and issues with blocked sites on council networks. They aren’t as up to scratch as they desperately need to be – yes, desperately need to be – because guess what? They’ve never been in such high demand. Up and down the UK, people who don’t have a computer, or a smartphone, are using libraries to access PCs and the internet. Here are some figures:

This is a big social problem, and it’s known as the digital divide. There’s even a national campaign.

Then there’s the argument that your local library is the gateway to a national and international network of literature and education. So it is – but so is your computer. Time was, to get hold of a particular book, you would have to go to a library and ask. Now, with Abebooks and Alibris, almost all the second-hand bookshops in the world are available to search. This is as true for new books as for old: more than 130,000 titles were published in the UK in 2009, and 330 million new books were purchased.

I think I covered this bit with the whole “this only works if you’ve got a computer and millions of people haven’t” argument. Time still is, to get hold of a particular book, you have to go to a library and ask. This is also ignoring all the other things that libraries do – help people get hold of books they didn’t know how to ask for other than “it’s got a red cover and the story goes a bit like this”; help people learn how to use computers and new technologies; help people find information about their local area and how to get involved in local and national democracy; a million other things. Online book stores are brilliant, but they don’t meet every information need, and a lot of people can’t use them. A significant number of people don’t even have a bank account, so that’s online transactions out the window.

The final defence of the public library is that it is a place for the pupil who has nowhere else to study and revise. Once again, this is the 21st century. Virtually every kid has a desk at home – even if it often has a games console on it. And libraries at secondary schools are, in my experience, uniformly good and open places for young people.

Spend some time in a public library near a school or residential area after school hours, or in the holidays. You’ll soon realise this point is completely inaccurate. Recent research suggests that 52% of young people use libraries. Although public libraries do not disproportionately attract young people from more or less affluent backgrounds, 47.8% of the children in the National Literacy Trust study received free school meals, which is a crude indicator of socio-economic background. Of the children who receive free school meals (and a lot of those entitled to do not), a lot of them will be living in poverty. Newsflash, John: the UK has one of the worst rates of child poverty in the industrialised world. Nearly 4 million children are living in poverty in the UK. So forgive me when I continue to argue that libraries are needed by children who don’t have a desk at home, or a space in which they can work without fear, in peace and quiet, somewhere that they feel valued, and worth something, and like there might be a way out of the situation they’re in.

Edit: Lizzie Poulton has done some digging and has this information from The National Literacy Trust. In 2010 they asked over 18,000 children whether they had a desk of their own. “The statistic from the 2010 omnibus survey is that only 52.8% of young kids say that they have a desk of their own, which is down considerably from 2005 (72.3%). Particularly children who get FSM are less likely to say that they have a desk of their own compared to their more privileged peers (43.2% vs 55.2%)”

                                              By daveograve on flickr

Libraries at secondary schools are often great places, but as I’ve mentioned, a lot of schools don’t have a library. A lot of pupils also refuse to use school libraries but will use public libraries instead, for a number of reasons, including stigma, or practical reasons such as having to go home straight away after school because of travel arrangements.

Few institutions are timeless. Most reflect the period when they were created, and have to change as society changes if they are to survive. The crisis in our libraries is not because of the “cuts” – it’s because they are needed less.

Libraries do have to change as society changes – and in many ways have (see: online catalogues, electronic resources, computers and so on). The crisis in our libraries is only partly because of the cuts (though why you felt the need to put cuts in speech marks is beyond me – they’re very real), and partly because councils have failed for a number of years to adequately invest in and promote their library services. There’s been a lack of leadership and a lot of mismanagement. But that does not mean that libraries are no longer needed. They’re needed now more than ever.

Keith Michael Fiels from the American Library Association sums it up brilliantly:

“Sure, the library is an old fashioned concept. So is democracy. So is equal opportunity. So is getting your facts right.”

March Against the Cuts

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” – Andrew Carnegie

I couldn’t make it to March for the Alternative on Saturday, so as one of the armchair activists on this occasion, here’s a little collection of my favourite bits and pieces from the internet. There were lots of librarians and people fighting to save libraries who went along. Proud is the wrong word, but it makes me feel happy to know there are some brilliant people out there who aren’t prepared to put up with this rubbish.

Top to Bottom:

  1. By @Usernametaken10
  2. By Debbie Hyde
  3. By @Foyles
  4. By @funktious
  5. By Johanna Anderson
  6. By Tom Roper
  7. By @ReadingYA
  8. By Tom Roper

Some posts from librarians about the day:

Occupy for the Alternative video (UKUncut)

And an account of what really happened in Trafalgar Square, from Laurie Penny.

Don’t Be Quiet Please

I was interviewed by Red Pepper Magazine a couple of months ago, and the article’s now available here.

red peppersI’m really happy about the way they’ve covered a wide range of the different services available through public libraries, because a lot of the reporting around it recently has continued to peddle the old “libraries are just about books” line, which is fine to an extent, but isn’t accurate and is pretty simplistic and reductive.

Anyhow, here’s the bit that’s got me in it 😉

According to Lauren Smith, passionate Doncaster librarian and member of the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign group, ‘Libraries are more relevant and innovative than ever before. Especially in times of recession, libraries can be like sanctuaries where people can come and access information for free.’ Lauren emphasises that despite vast amounts of information being available online, there are materials such as historical documents and reference books that are only available at libraries. Indeed, a recent innovation in libraries is to have expensive software and subscription databases available free to members, including online databases such as family genealogy, NewsUK, and the Oxford/Grove online art and music encyclopedias.

Another innovation in libraries is their intention to reach out to those who can’t get to a library or don’t have the time. ‘Soon it may well be possible for members to download e-books from the library website. It will also be possible to download audiobooks straight to your iPod,’ says Lauren.

The advent of self-checkout points is a development that has freed librarians to spend more time engaging with the public and assisting with in-depth research. But this role is forgotten as councils look to the technology as an excuse to get rid of librarians altogether.

‘It is a worry that professional librarians are being phased out,’ says Lauren. ‘It is essential that libraries are run by qualified staff with the right ethical grounding to provide a wide and balanced variety of information to the public. If libraries are run solely by volunteers, or by private companies, the information provided and the training courses offered may become skewed and biased.’

I really wish more reporters would mention the social value of libraries and the importance of equity of access,  as well as the wide variety of information and leisure resources available, all of which are totally relevant and valid in a public library service. It was lovely to see how much effort had been put into this piece, and I’m really grateful to Donald for listening so intently as I rambled down the phone to him about all the things that libraries do and why it’s vital they do them properly.