Tag Archives: public libraries

Content Filtering in Libraries

Happy New Year! Just a quick post on this poor neglected blog to signpost to some research done by some people involved in the Radical Librarians Collective on content filtering in public libraries.

The study sought to find out what filtering is in place within public libraries, because there is the potential for excessive filtering to act as a barrier to freedom of access to information. The team felt that although filtering is a very tricky topic and there are often good reasons for libraries to want to filter content, that the methods used to do so may take a very broad brush approach with the potential to do more harm than good. This builds on the MAIPLE study conducted by Loughborough University.

The research team used Freedom of Information requests to ask every local authority in the UK the following questions:

1. Do you employ the use of content filtering software on the PCs
based in your libraries which are connected to the internet and
intended for use by the users of your library?

If answer to 1. is “yes”, please:

2. Provide the name and annual cost of the content filtering
software.

3. Provide a full list of the categories of websites blocked (e.g.
“pornography, gambling, phishing etc.”). If these differ according
to the user profile accessing the PC (e.g. child, student, adult,
staff etc.) please provide a full list of categories of websites
blocked for each user profile.

4. Confirm whether you also block specific URLs in addition to
categories, and provide a complete list of these URLs.

5. Provide the relevant policy document or written documentation
which outlines the procedure a user must follow in instances where
they would like to gain access to a website that is blocked.

6. From January 2013 until the present day, please provide a list
of the URLs where users have requested access to despite them being
blocked by the content filtering software.

7. Of the list provided in 6., please detail which URLs access was
granted for and which were denied.

Most local authorities provided information (although some did refuse). The data was collated and has now been published on figshare.

The aim of the research team is to do some analysis of the key trends and write an article around it, as well as to present the work at the LILAC Conference in Dublin in March.

The data has been picked up by The Register and I was asked to talk to them about it for an article they published today.

library wifi

Sieghart’s Independent Library Report for England

Libraryland and the media are abuzz with the newly (finally) released Independent Library Report for England. The recommendations from the report can be broadly summed up as:

  • build a ‘national digital resource’
  • write a strategic framework for libraries in England (Wales have already done this and Scotland are working on one right now)
  • have national strategic leadership (led by councils)
  • appeal to everyone
  • get wifi in all libraries
  • improve library spaces so they’re up to “retail standard”
  • share best practice through guidelines for volunteers and community-led libraries
  • remember libraries are about learning and literacy
  • support digital literacy
  • use central government funding allocations for related services
  • (perhaps) national library cards
  • get copyright law changed so that public libraries can lend ebooks better than they can now (remote loans)
  • strengthen the workforce especially through new recruits and graduates

Unsurprisingly I’ve got some thoughts about this, some of which I’ll be talking about in various radio interviews in the coming days, but a quick and dirty summary:

The talk about a digital network for libraries is grand, and I’m pleased there’s also an emphasis that this should not be to the detriment of physical stock.

None of this is new. Being more like retail outlets, encouraging community involvement etc. are all recommendations that have come out of previous reports and things that librarians have been talking about for years. Some local authorities responded to the recommendations from the last umpteen reports, but some of them had already experienced such budget cuts that it was impossible to actually do the things they wanted and knew they needed to do. How will it be different now, with the next round of cuts coming up? I don’t see a big pot of money emerging from anywhere for doing things that don’t obviously contribute to the current administration’s neolibprivatisationcitizenconsumerbigsociety agenda, so I expect the majority of libraries – that will probably have to compete with each other to get the necessarily limited funding, which somewhat contradicts the ‘we’re all in this together let’s have a standard level of service nationally’ – will only be able to get wifi, redecorate, put a coffee bar in and get self service machines if they don’t already have them. Money won’t as easily be made available to invest in the qualified staff trained in supporting information and digital literacy, digital fluency, whatever different stakeholders are calling essentially the same thing. As a result, emphasis is going to be made on the how libraries contribute to employability agenda rather than the concept of libraries as an intrinsic public good. And that’ll be disappointing, and probably not help with the goal of articulating the value of public libraries that Sieghart talks about. Spending a bunch of cash on helping libraries deliver services associated with the digital by default agenda of government doesn’t really help libraries, it just helps government deliver services unrelated to libraries, through libraries. It might force a few more people to enter the library building against their will, but it’s not going to get them invested in the notion of the public library.

WiFi. Yes, god, yes. It blows my mind that all public libraries don’t already have WiFi, but it’s for two reasons: 1) there’s no money 2) local authorities make it an absolute nightmare for libraries to install it. I’d like to see a whole bunch of money for it, and I’d like to see the government write a standard document for councils to use as a policy for installing wifi, and one standardised document that can serve as an Acceptable Use Policy for all of the library services to ask users of the computers and library WiFi. Scotland’s already working on this, I recommend England get on board. Similarly, elending as it stands is a complete shambles so I can only support efforts to make DRM less restricting and make ebooks through libraries fit for purpose, which they currently categorically are not.

The development of a library taskforce will in many ways be duplicating various other fragmented groups and communities of practice that already exist, but fine, whatever. My main concern with this is the recommendation that it be led by councils, who, in my experience, are possibly the least informed, least knowledgeable and least engaged stakeholders in the whole shebang. The representatives from councils usually haven’t set foot in a library in the last 30 years, if ever, know little about the ethos of public services let alone the specifics of public library ethics, and aren’t motivated to connect the strategic aims of the council’s wider services and duties to public libraries. When you have to spend half your time explaining to the council members that public libraries are a statutory duty, how they’re about more than just books and how they contribute to literacy, community, and the general public good, you’re on to a loser. If the council members involved in the taskforce are the ones who’ve already been converted or have always been on ‘our team’, then fine, but I’m not sure how the message is going to be communicated to the council members who’ve never given a hoot. If the DCMS doesn’t mandate a national set of standards and actually hold councils to those standards, nothing’s going to change in those authorities that are running poor services. (I get the impression from the report that trying to compel the DCMS to do its job was decided to be a bad move politically – Vaizey’s thrown his toys out of the pram before and libraries are a sore spot.)

I’m also concerned about the idea that working “in partnership with others interested in the sector” – if these interested parties have the same amount of power and influence as those in the taskforce who actually spent time learning about libraries, and use experience, research and evidence to inform their opinions and approaches, rather than principles from retail or some kind of profit motivation – then that’s going to be a problem. Support from other areas will be of benefit, no doubt, but it’s the voice of the profession that needs to have the ultimate say, not individuals and groups with ulterior motives and less knowledge. I don’t have (much of) an issue with the organisations listed (apart from the LGA who still don’t acknowledge that libraries are a statutory service and don’t understand the first thing about libraries), it’s the “amongst others” that concerns me.

If you want greater cross government recognition you need to fund research to produce evidence about the educational role of libraries, for example. You also need researchers who can do this. We’re losing our library schools in universities, and the researchers who work in them. The two aren’t especially compatible.

If you want your 21st century librarian to have digital and commercial expertise you already have those, but there aren’t any jobs for them. You also, by the way, need to teach them about how commercial principles can only be applied so far in public services where there isn’t a profit motive, and that kind of critical engagement isn’t done enough on librarianship courses (although some places do and that’s great)*. If you want these wonderful impresarios to work for a service, you need to pay them properly. Public librarians get paid very low wages. You need to pay them for their expertise.

What exactly is it that makes people in positions of power think communities could or should be responsible for the management of public services? Fine, get opinions and make sure consultations are actually meaningful, don’t ask for opinions if you’re not prepared to actually act on the feedback if it’s strongly for or against something. Fine, get communities involved in making decisions about colour schemes for decorating or new book stock, but the ultimate decisions need to be made by people who’ve actually learnt about what colour schemes aren’t going to work with the principles of universal design, and what book stock should or shouldn’t be included in a collection because not stocking it for political or religious reasons would be censorship, or stocking it would be harmful to individuals and groups within a community. This is stuff communities mostly won’t know or think about, and do you know, I don’t necessarily think they should have to. I think that’s what taxes are for – paying for public services that are run by people who know stuff about how to do it properly, in the public interest.

Encouraging community involvement in library management “through a variety of models” surely just adds to the inconsistencies across England (and the UK more widely) in terms of library management. They already sit in several different directorates across different local authorities, there’s already a mishmash of different service structures that are the result of differing approaches to salami-slicing cuts for the last twenty-odd years. Asking for different models of management at the same time as asking for increased consistency is a contradiction.

There is hardly any attention given to the role of libraries in supporting literacy and learning, be that for school-aged children or older learners. Schools are mentioned three times – once to do with how TeachFirst has been good, once to mention that school libraries exist, and once to mention in passing that partnerships with schools and public libraries would be good. The fact that there’s so weak a relationship between the education system and libraries is something that continues to baffle me, but I think it’s probably linked to the lack of research and evidence for something that ought to be a given.

So yes, that’s my initial take on it, but I may well change my mind on things the more it’s discussed!

* Pedronicus has written a post on the precarious position of librarianship education in the UK which is well worth a read.

Featured image CC by interactivesomerville

Library A to Z

Just a quick plug for the advocacy toolkit Library A to Z, created by librarians Andrew Walsh, Gary Green and illustrator Josh Filhol, which was launched yesterday.

The Library A to Z is a campaign that highlights the breadth of services, resources and facilities available from libraries, and celebrates their continued importance, value and relevance.

This summer a crowd-funding project was set up to help produce a range of promotional and advocacy materials, centred around a visual alphabet of 27 full colour illustrations. These materials include editable posters, greetings cards and a fully illustrated book. There’s a chapter in the book which I helped to write, about the importance of libraries, and you can read it here.

All of the materials including the original illustrations, are available for free download from the Library A to Z site, and most can be reproduced and re-used by anyone within the terms of the creative commons license shown on the site.

Andy even kindly made me my own P is for Political Literacy badge 😀

Screenshot 2014-11-18 11.45.29

I’m going to pop down to my local library to show it to them and see if we can make a display of some kind. If you’ve got any imaginative ideas about how to make use of the resources, leave me a comment! 🙂

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

censorship

Challenging Censorship in Scottish Libraries

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

Challenging Censorship in Scottish Libraries
Towards a Collaborative Solution

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

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

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

Who should attend?

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

Benefits of attending

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

Contact

T: +44 (0)141 548 3045

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

Internet Access and Public Libraries

There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter about Barking Library (run by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham) introducing annual fees for internet access:

It’s not gone down very well. The main arguments are that charging for internet access prevents those on low incomes (the people who need it the most) from accessing the service, that there’s a clear divide between the haves and have nots of Barking (wifi appears to be free for those with their own devices) and that it undermines the public library ethos and the spirit in which the People’s Network was set up.

Barking aren’t the first library to start charging for access, but from my memories of collecting information for the national Fines and Charges database, and the information I’ve been able to find online, there aren’t many that don’t at least offer an hour or so free for all users per day – in 2010, 79 per cent of library services in English Local Authorities did not charge for internet access at all and a further 12 per cent did not make any charge for the first hour (The Information Daily). I have issues with any charging for internet access after a certain time limit, so needless to say that I completely disagree with charging outright. Phil Bradley sums it up excellently, as does Leanne.

I have some other half-formed thoughts that I wanted to get down in blog form very quickly, so this isn’t by any means fully thought through, but what strikes me is that there are serious issues about equity of access to information here. By introducing a financial barrier, library services are directly preventing people from having equal access to information resources. Along the lines of Gorman’s Eight Central Values of Librarianship, I really do think that librarians and library services should be resources to level the playing field when it comes to access to electronic resources of all kinds. (As an aside, the digital divide isn’t just about economically poor vs. rich, it’s about information poverty too, which can affect anyone, and is why libraries need to offer information support and educational resources for everyone.) There are issues about ensuring that everyone has access to information in order to be able to participate fully in the democratic process (whether or not they want to or intend to is another matter, but there’s a duty to make sure that people can at least inform themselves), and issues about people who don’t have home access to the internet being able to conduct financial and governmental transactions and processes that are (or will be) online only.

This is something that needs to be taken seriously, and that libraries and local authorities should be prepared to convincingly justify if they decide to charge. Whether or not you agree that access to the internet should be a human right, it already is in several countries. The UN declaration stated that access to the internet enables “individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life”. I’m not sure I want to live in a country that doesn’t fully endorse that view and ensure that its social policies and public resources reflect it.

Libraries and Vinyl

I’m giving a talk on public library cuts and closures at an art exhibition held by Golau Glau on Saturday 12th November at Test Space in Leeds.

Golau Glau are an anonymous collective of artists, photographers and musicians, with particular interests in social history, not-silences & environments under threat – both urban and natural. Their body of work to date has examined themes of domestic, social and sexual politics; popular culture; scandal; folk  history and Anglican and pagan rituals.

Thursday 10th – Exhibition launch with live sounds from Hookworms and DJ sets from Runners and A Negative Narrative

Saturday 12th – Vinyl only DJ set from Sonic Router and Lauren Smith from Voices for the Library giving a talk about public library cuts and closures”

It’s a bit of a departure from what I’m used to, which is scary and exciting at the same time. I’m planning on connecting what’s happening to the public library service to some of the themes that the collective deal with – for example the politics of knowledge, and public libraries as some of the last remaining non-commercial spaces we have. I’m hoping to reach a wider audience than I would at a library-specific event, and hopefully get people thinking about the value of libraries in ways they might not have before.