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.

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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

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

Say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.

This Mail article filled me with so much rage that I had to channel it into something that might be useful for people, which is better than spending an hour dissecting the piece on my Facebook wall, right? I’ll just dissect it here.

Libraries too middle class and we’re right to be shutting them says Redwood
Former Tory leadership contender John Redwood said it was right to consider shutting many libraries

Libraries pander too much to the middle classes, John Redwood claimed yesterday.

Yes yes, nothing new here. Roy Clare’s already been there. “Strive to thrive; recognise the width and breadth of the social opportunities and fight hard to nourish change and embrace development that can serve the whole community, not simply the privileged, mainly white, middle class” wrote Clare in January. I don’t have a problem with this. I do have a problem with his false assumption that people fighting for libraries are all white, middle class and conservative (small c) but that’s another issue. The point is, that libraries shouldn’t pander too much to the middle classes. But do they? I’ve never found that to be the case. Should they close if they do? No, don’t be stupid. If something’s not very well, make it better. I have images of him at the vets with his a St. Bernard that saved his life on the Swiss Alps, being told it’s got a cold. “Put it down”, says Redwood, callously.

The former Tory leadership contender said it was right to consider shutting many of them because they did not serve their communities properly.

See above. Local authorities cannot legally shut down a library if it fails to serve its communities properly. In fact, they have a legal duty to ensure that it does serve its community properly. If the local authority fails to do that, the Secretary of State has a legal duty to intervene and make sure they do.

He suggested that universities and secondary schools could open up their libraries to the public instead.

There are many reasons this is a Terrible Idea. Here are three:

1) Universities and secondary schools stock very different materials to public libraries. There is some cross-over, like cds, if the university has a music department, and children’s fiction in a secondary school say. However, you can’t just fling open the doors and assume that all information needs of the public will be met by an academic or school library. I’m not sure Bob the mechanic would be able to find that manual he needs to get his start-up business off the ground at his local secondary comp.

2) Running with the brainwave, though – ok, so we make academic and school libraries open to the public. There are so many security issues with this. If a student wants to use another academic library, they’re able to do so through the incredibly useful SCONUL scheme, where basically, the home institution gives a nod to the other university that this borrower is a good one and doesn’t steal items or bring them back really late and so on. There’s a lot of very expensive stock in academic libraries, which is why for the most part, universities don’t allow any Tom, Dick or Harry in off the street. (They have enough issues with stock theft from their own students…) On the school library front, parents I’ve spoken to have been up in arms about the idea of the public being able to wander in off the street and use the school library. I’m not 100% up on my child safety laws, but I’m pretty sure there are some fairly solid grounds for that not being a possibility.

3) A lot of people who use libraries to learn as adults didn’t perform well at school, which is why they have a need to do something about it now, through improving their literacy, numeracy, ICT skills etc. Removing the only neutral, non-judgemental space they have and telling them that if they want to learn, they’ve got to go back to school, isn’t going to work. I wrote a piece for the National Institute of Continuing Adult Education about public libraries and adult learning, in which I said “For many adult learners, schools are associated with negative learning experiences and do not encourage engagement. Libraries, on the other hand, are more often seen as neutral spaces that are not designed for education at only one age, and as a result, can be seen as more conducive to adult learning.” Making people use a university library has similar issues. There are a lot of emerging readers who have a real issue with higher education, because they didn’t get to go to university, for example. A surprising amount of the public library users I served took issue with me because they (rightly) assumed I was a student – and they hate students. If I’d asked them to start using the university library from now on, I’d have been laughed at – “you want me to go where and be with who?”

Writing on his blog, Mr Redwood rejected the argument that libraries helped disadvantaged people access learning – pointing out that many filled their shelves with fiction.

1) The assumption that reading fiction doesn’t constitute learning demonstrates an ignorance of the learning process and one of the many roles of literature.

2) The assumption that reading for pleasure is of no social/cultural/individual value demonstrates…ignorance.

3) The assumption that ‘disadvantaged people’ have no right to access shelves full of fiction is disgusting.

And we all know what it makes of us to assume, Mr. Redwood.

Mr Redwood said that in a half-hour visit to one he did not see anyone borrow a book.

This is an example of the problem we have when we measure the use and impact of libraries through book borrowing alone. What of the people reading newspapers? Those people using books for reference, not needing to take them home? Those who can’t take items home because the item they’re using is reference only? Those who are too scared to take library books home because they or the books will be damaged if they do? Those who aren’t allowed to join the library because they have no fixed abode so can’t borrow books but can read them in the library? Those using PCs to apply for jobs or read something or look something up? Those little children exploring the space and resources in the library, developing a love of reading and sharing that experience with their carers or other children or librarians or (safe) strangers? Do they not count?

‘I lingered over the non-fiction shelves,’ he said. ‘The books seemed oriented to middle-class hobbies like antiques and foreign travel.

1) I don’t have a problem with books being oriented to the communities the library serves. I assume the library he went into is in a fairly affluent area, because well, he’d not be seen dead somewhere rough, would he?

2) Do working class people not go abroad, now?

3) Even if these hobbies are solely pursued by the middle class (which they’re not), libraries are aspirational places where people can find out about all kinds of things they might like to get involved in but aren’t yet, in the hope that one day they can. Foreign travel might be too expensive for Mrs. X right now, but perhaps she’s thinking about saving up and wants to find out about where she could go. And so on and so on.

‘I guess the book buying had been well judged to cater for the demand of a fairly affluent local community.’

Sure, fine, if the local community is fairly affluent and there’s no mix of people. I think where we’re getting to here is that he also doesn’t think middle class people should have access to a local library, which is wrong. Public libraries are (supposed to be) equitable public spaces where people from all backgrounds can go to access a comprehensive range of resources. That includes people who are financially better off. There are lots of reasons that people who could otherwise afford to buy books might need to use a library:

1) It’s more environmentally friendly to borrow than buy

2) It’s less individualistic to want to share resources that you’ll only use once and other people can use too

3) Not all resources are available on Amazon (e.g. large print, audiobooks, specialist books)

Oh yeah, and if I’m paying up to £20 a year in tax for it, I expect to be able to access the service I’m paying for and have a legal right to. I also expect it to meet the needs of everyone, just as the NHS does.

‘Some defenders of every public library imply they are for a different clientèle. They conjure images of children from homes living on low incomes developing a passion for reading serious books borrowed from the local library.

We imply it because they are. But not exclusively, and we’d never imply that. In fact, we make a serious effort not to. And yes, we conjure these images because they’re true to life. We conjure them up from places like the Voices for the Library blog and stories pages, where people share real-life, contemporary experiences.

‘The library is seen as a force for self improvement and the pursuit of knowledge. I fear that in many case this is no longer true, if it ever was.’

It was, which is why Carnegie set them up. Well, it was also so the poor people would spend less time in the pub, but that counts as self-improvement. And yes, it still is true, albeit in a slightly less paternalistic way. I’d argue that the fact that libraries are seen as a force for self improvement and the pursuit of knowledge is the very reason people like Mr. Redwood get so antsy about them…

Mr Redwood said that, when university and school libraries are included, there may be too many libraries in many communities – meaning that councils could safely cut costs by closures.

This is specious logic. If we went down this route, the House of Lords library and the House of Commons library could be merged, or better yet, closed and we could make the Lords and the MPs go to the local Westminster public library down the road. Fair’s fair.

Edit: Actually, if we follow Redwood’s logic, members of the public should be allowed to use the Houses’ libraries – even better!

My point is, different libraries have different roles, different users and different resources. They’re also funded by different people, or certainly will be now that the government has changed the school system and higher education funding structure. Can you imagine what’d happen if the students paying £9,000 a year were told that the resources they help to pay for were to be opened up to the public? What’s the point of going to university then? Oh wait…

He wrote: ‘Maybe at a time of tighter spending controls, we need to think again about how many libraries we need in each community, where they are best placed, and how the educational libraries can be used by those who do not go to those institutions.

I’m ok with this, really, except the bit about how ‘educational libraries’ can be used by those who don’t go into them. See my point above about those who don’t go into them being the ones who don’t pay for the right to use them. Yes, we need to look at the number of public libraries we have, but we need to look at it without the pressure of ‘tighter spending controls’. If the only reason you’re getting rid of libraries is because you don’t think there’s the money for them, you’re not looking at the issue objectively and you’re not doing it right. There is a very real need for the vast majority of the libraries currently under threat of closure, and local authorities are doing a shocking job of demonstrating that need. Even if they could, they have no choice but to close them because of the huge (ideological and unnecessary) spending cuts being forced upon them at breakneck speed.

‘A system of book transfer, holiday loans and the like might ease any book shortage and cater for those who wish to read well.

Oh I’m so glad we have a libraries expert coming up with these novel and previously unconsidered issues. Thanks John.

Here is my two-penneth's worth.
Strive to thrive; recognise the width and breadth of the social opportunities and fight hard to nourish change and embrace development that can serve the whole community, not simply the privileged, mainly white, middle class.

MMU Lecture

I thought I’d put up the slides I used in a guest lecture I gave to MMU students today. It was broadly about library advocacy, Voices for the Library, UK public library cuts, politics, the role of libraries and librarians and how we can fight for our public library service.

There’s no script, so if you want to know what the heck it’s about, you’ll have to buy me a wine and get me rambling 🙂