Tag Archives: politics

Libraries and the EU Referendum

It’s no surprise that I’ve got some thoughts around the EU Referendum and subsequent…mess… and the relevance of information literacy to political engagement. Here, for what it’s worth, is my two penneth’s. I should probably add the caveat that I voted Remain and am doing very little in this post to attempt any kind of balance.

As the statement from CILIP states, “literacy, creativity, understanding and a respect for evidence” are “more important than ever”. Stéphane Goldstein has written about the issues around poor levels of awareness and understanding, exaggeration, misinformation, myths and fearmongering around the campaigning prior to the Referendum. Emma Coonan also wonderfully highlights the importance of information literacy and an awareness of the emotional as well as academic issues around our making sense of the world through the information we encounter.

If libraries had been doing more about supporting political knowledge and participation, would we have the mess we’ve got now? I don’t know. I do know there’s a lot of talk about how if 16 and 17 year olds had been able to vote then Remain would have won. My old neighbour, a maths professor, has done some modelling around Brexit and insists that if more of the younger age group had voted in general then there’d also have been a Remain result. My gut feeling, which is all I can muster right now, is that if more people had known what they were voting for, or what they needed to get out there and vote against, is that there’d have been a Remain result. A more removed and less biased angle is, I guess, “generally, people ought to know about things and vote for things based on a critical awareness of the issues at hand, so in principle, it is important to support the development of strong information literacy skills regardless of the outcomes of any voting”.

We have seen that people have regrets about not being more informed before they cast their vote. Other people who felt they were very well informed feel betrayed by the politicians they trusted, who they perceive never intended to keep the promises they made. Many people did not vote, and reasons for this include not feeling informed enough or knowing whose voice to trust in all the noise and confusion. What seems clear to me is that people need support to help them find information, filter through the masses of information, make sense of the information, understand the biases and limitations of the claims being made and the purposes of the types of information they are encountering, and then work out what decision they want to make and how to act based on these decisions. These skills and actions are part of what librarians refer to as information literacy.

But we’re not really doing much about it. I’m in the process of publishing work around the research I conducted in Scottish school libraries about what support school libraries provided during the Scottish Independence Referendum and General Election – although some schools do provide political information, much of it is to do with the workings of parliament and little more. Across the UK, political education in schools is minimal. Teachers and other staff, including librarians, feel extremely limited as to what they can do to support the development of political knowledge and awareness. These issues are also relevant to public libraries, where during my Masters research I found that library services are very restrained by what local councils are ‘comfortable’ with them providing in terms of political information, and where the overwhelming pressure to be ‘balanced’ often ends up in providing no information rather than take the risk of facing the wrath of extreme right-wing parties for refusing to house their materials and hold them in the same esteem as other political parties. I’m not alone in believing we’ve got some serious issues around neutrality in public libraries, and as I’ve mentioned, school libraries too. There’s a lot of empty rhetoric around how crucial libraries are for supporting democracy, but I see very little action. This is a systemic issue. Library and information services desperately need to overcome the challenges they face to engage in the important work of actually supporting people to make informed choices about how they participate in society and make decisions about how they vote based on knowledge and considered thought. The problem is, we’ve got a crippled public library system, ably brought about by the deprofessionalisation, remodelling and cuts to library services by not only the Conservative and Coalition governments but the Labour government before them. School libraries in state schools are, largely, on their knees, lucky to have a member of staff working in them, let alone a qualified or experienced librarian. It’s almost as if those in positions of power don’t want an informed and engaged citizenry with the agency to participate meaningfully in democracy. I don’t know to what extent this is true. Maybe we’ve just not done a good enough job of talking up the educational and  civic role of libraries and have been paying too much attention to how libraries can support business and entrepreneurship and so on. Whatever game we’ve been playing, I think we’re losing it, and I find it very worrying.

Anyway. The general gist of this post is that libraries need to do something about the state of political engagement, knowledge and understanding in the UK. It’s not only the role of librarians to do this work, and there are certainly many bodies interested in this issue. But we need to be at whatever tables are discussing it. I feel like I’ve been jumping up and down for nearly seven years shouting “we need to do something about democratic engagement” and even after doing Masters research, doctoral research and further independent research on the topic I don’t feel like we’ve made any progress. I want to do something. I don’t work in a library, and even if I did I wouldn’t be in much of a position to start anything from the bottom up. I’m not in any kind of decision-making position within CILIP, but if I was I’d be fighting hard to get CILIP to provide guidance for library workers who want to do something to support their users and wider communities to make informed and considered decisions. This is political work*. That means it’s ‘dangerous’ territory. Individual library workers can’t be expected to take the personal and professional risks that this entails without feeling adequately supported. Union membership and involvement in local networks can go so far, but won’t provide the advocacy necessary to enable substantive change to take place in our services.

We can’t keep not providing political information because our budgets are directed by perceived ‘demand’. We can’t keep being hyper-defensive about our ability to provide information during purdah, especially when there is so little clarity and consistency around what that actually means for public services in practice. We can’t carry on allowing teachers to take down our displays about political issues, or throw away the newspapers we stock that they disagree with. We can’t not bring political issues up when we’re teaching students about how Google’s algorithms work, or how the media and politicians work together to misdirect the public. We can’t not discuss how neutrality and impartiality are different things. We can’t carry on hoping that students will stop asking us, as respected individuals within our communities, about where we stand on political issues so that they can make sense of where they stand in relation to the people around them. I’m not suggesting it’s easy, by any means. And we can’t do it alone. We also can’t do it without robust and clear support from our professional body for us to engage in vital work around civic/citizen engagement in our workplaces. The likelihood is that the majority of library and information services across all sectors in the UK will be resistant to this kind of work. We need the support of CILIP to authoritatively challenge this resistance.

*But all our work is political work, like it or not.

(Image credit: CC Abi Begum on Flickr)

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

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.

Library Politics and Agenda-Setting

I don’t want to alarm anyone…but there’s an elephant in the room.

Elephant in the room

It’s a very political elephant, which is a touchy subject in libraryland, especially in the UK. So I’m mentioning the elephant. I’m going to state, that I have…and I know it might come as a surprise…some views about libraries. I believe that librarians have a crucial role to play in effecting social change, in all sectors. I think they have a role as educators in critical information literacy. I think that public libraries are vital public spaces that need to see people as citizens, not consumers. I think libraries should be accessible. These are political positions. Lots of people, I’m sure, share these views, but there isn’t much substantive debate or discussion about these issues and the barriers we face, and I think in part that’s due to the political naïvety of the library and information profession.

This naïvety is, in many ways, responsible for the giant mess we’re in. Agendas have been set and we haven’t acknowledged how political in nature they are. Librarians and information professionals don’t control the discourse around library and information issues. We haven’t made it clear what values we’re espousing, because a lot of the time we aren’t savvy enough to know. We’ve courted private companies and governments whose values directly undermine the values of librarianship, like free expression of thought, privacy, and equity of access. Many aspects of LIS seek to establish and maintain certain boundaries and espouse certain political values without consciously or explicitly acknowledging that this is what they’re doing.

Playing the Game (Badly)

The political elephant is being ignored across the board, and this is causing serious problems. Attempts have been made to measure value and express it in ways that politicians and purse-holders will understand. Different methods, such as contingent valuation and cost benefit analysis are used to try to demonstrate that services make economic sense1. Library school curricula are influenced by hegemonic forces. Professional bodies are driven by the need for paying members and are directed by the power of corporate influence from stakeholders. They are limited  by their status as charities and are therefore prevented from taking political positions, even when it’s in the interests of their members and the public they serve, to do so. Library services adopt corporate language to appeal to councils and adopt marketing techniques to mimic bookshops. It all seems fairly innocuous and after all, its aim is to protect and promote libraries, so it’s for a good cause.

But playing the game is dangerous. The way librarians refer to the value of the services they provide influences how we’re perceived by society. The values libraries promote in the way they are run and what they do can and do rub off on library users. Power dynamics and the way staff relate to users (and how we refer to people who use library services – customer? patron?) do influence people’s relationships with public services. The way councils value or fail to value public space does send a message to citizens about what’s worth paying taxes for and what’s not. The language used by local and national government to discuss public spending in the popular press does determine the set of beliefs and values that become the dominant thoughts being expressed by the media, by politicians and members of the public.

Sad game piece

The Library Profession

For a long time, there’s been a fight to establish and maintain the professional status librarianship and information work. The promise of “prestige, higher salaries, and an elite employment niche” was a compelling reason for librarianship to fight for recognition as a profession2, but professional bodies are now having a difficult time articulating their policy positions on the replacement of paid staff with volunteers (although the Society of Chief Librarians has now clearly stated that it accepts direct substitution of paid members of staff by volunteers3), and it seems like a lot of the problem stems from hazy distinctions between professional and paraprofessional staff and what counts as professional practice4. Chartership is very much centred around recruitment, becoming “more employable” and “transfer[ring] up through the ranks”5, without much thought about the politics and ethics of librarianship and information work or a clear sense of what it means to be a professional librarian. It feels as if it’s just another professional development box to tick post-qualification. This is a problem because it becomes difficult to articulate why paid, professional staff are a necessity and beneficial to democratic society, and doesn’t help to safeguard the public interest. Not all library workers are members of unions, and unions themselves are focusing on keeping libraries open, and the pay and conditions of workers. Few with loud voices are expressing the issues about the standard of service being lost and the ways this detrimentally affects our society.

Higher Education and Library School Curricula

Failure to engage with social and political issues is also evident in higher education and within departments providing Library and Information Science (LIS) education. Students find themselves under an “economic model of subservience”6, which prevents engagement with social issues:

“there is no future for young people, there is no time to talk about advancing social justice, addressing social problems, promoting critical thinking, cultivating social responsibility, or engaging non-commodified values that might challenge the neoliberal world view.”

Defining the library and information discipline as scientific is positivistic and confers non-political and value-free status upon it, which is both impossible and counter-productive. The LIS curriculum tends to shy away from social issues, leaving graduates ignorant about key political issues. Christine Pawley writes:

“…the deepening division of society between information haves and have-nots is widely discussed in the general press. Does the LIS curriculum participate in this debate, or does it rather contribute to the information apparatus’s aim of avoiding social criticism?

Where are the courses on information politics? On the production and distribution of information? On the ownership of information? On the stratification of information? Such courses do exist in some schools, but, for the most part, curricular consideration of these questions lurks in what are sometimes stigmatized as “airhead” or “philosophical” (that is, nontechnical) areas: courses in LIS foundations service to or aimed at low-status populations such as children or the elderly or taught from a feminist or multicultural perspective.

From a class perspective, this failure of LIS education to confront societal questions is itself a sign of the power of the dominant class to exercise hegemony. Traditionally, LIS studies both the institution of libraries and the broad phenomenon of information largely through pluralist and managerial lenses as questions of service delivery, technical efficiency, and managerial effectiveness. One result is a politically naive profession.” 6

Library Conferences and Events

Conferences and events organised by professional organisations and other groups often instil certain values in those who attend them, especially if they don’t think critically about their experiences and the information they’re exposed to, and aren’t conscious of the impact and influence aspects of the middle-class professional agenda:

“For example, when professional people attend conferences and publish scholarly papers, they are taking part in this ongoing process of establishing and maintaining the boundaries of middle-class conduct and values.” 7

Events such as LibraryCamp say that they aim to provide a “politically neutral arena for debate”8, but take inevitably political stances on censorship and make political choices about corporate sponsors, who have their own agendas when it comes to influencing policies and services9. It’s simply contradictory to claim to be non-political but explicitly state that an event aims to save libraries and return them to mass public use. Access to and use of public libraries is political. Wanting to keep them is political. Making a conscious effort to make the event accessible for people with disabilities is a political choice. These aims are valuable, and it’s more than just important, it’s imperative, that the inherent, unavoidable, political values being promoted are acknowledged. These are good things and we shouldn’t be scared to talk about them. We need a vocabulary to discuss the substantive issues, through the language of public discourse10. We don’t currently have it and we desperately need to develop it.

Doing this, however, makes it difficult to be seen as legitimate by those in power – you immediately face being branded as a troublemaker, a tub-thumper, or at the very least, someone who challenges the status quo and oughtn’t be listened to. It places some kind of social responsibility on you as an individual to seek to effect change, and think about the impact of the decisions you make and the messages you send through the actions you take and the things you say, and that’s hard work. Although sold as an arena to facilitate debate, it’s questionable how authentic that debate can be when most of the attendees all know each other on twitter, and the majority of them are qualified or soon to be qualified, and female. Even if there was a more mixed group of attendees, there’s the spiral of silence to contend with11, especially when there’s the strong chance that corporate sponsors (who as far as I’m concerned have had their thoughts heard quite enough, through the various avenues they already have open to them, thanks) will be running sessions, immediately creating an environment where discussion becomes led, rather than shared, by the members who have more experience in selling and influencing. When you start thinking about all that, it stops being a nice day out with friends and tea and cake. Which is all it’s meant to be, I’m sure, and that’s fine in and of itself. I do think events like this have some value, and I respect anyone who’s gone to the hard work of organising something. I don’t want to be a cake-smashing party pooper.

Smashed cake

But, we need to be conscious of the language we use and the messages we send to attendees, the library profession, and the outside world. I haven’t got a shovel big enough to clear up the mess that our elephant’s making. I don’t have a solution to get people to acknowledge it’s there or work out how to deal with it. I just know that we have to acknowledge it, and not pretend it isn’t there and that isn’t causing an almighty great stink.

———————————————————————————————–

1) Walker, C., Halpin, E., Rankin, C., and Chapman, E. (2011) “Measuring the Value of Public Libraries: The fallacy of footfall and issues as measures of the value of Public Libraries – Summary Report”. Available from: http://www.shef.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.199926!/file/Measuringthevalueofpubliclibraries.pdf

2) O’Connor, L. (2009) “Information literacy as professional legitimation: The quest for professional jurisdiction”. Library Review, 58 (4), pp.272-289. Available from: <http://www.emeraldinsight.com/10.1108/00242530910952828>

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

4) Pawley, C. (1998) “Hegemony’s Handmaid? The Library and Information Studies Curriculum from a Class Perspective”. The Library Quarterly, 68 (2), pp.123-144. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4309200

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

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

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

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

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

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

11) Giroux, H. (2011)

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

Images:

The elephant in the room CC licensed John Mallon Iphoneography on Flickr
Lost CC licensed by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr
Cake Aftermath CC licensed by jasonsisk on Flickr

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 🙂