Creators not consumers: visualising the radical alternative for libraries

The following post was written in collaboration with Andrew Preater.

We are often presented with two choices within librarianship: a forward-thinking approach and a supposedly old-fashioned approach. These are sometimes characterised as progressive and conservative positions respectively. We argue, however, that this is a mis-characterisation and, in fact, the forward-thinking approach could be best described as conservative.

When considering what is progressive and what is conservative we need to consider our context. We exist in an environment that increasingly focuses on market fundamentalism as the default approach, and assumes markets as the most efficient path to provide solutions, drive progress, and ensure the most equitable outcome for all. Indeed, market fundamentalists argue that where there is a fault, it is due to a failure to make our economic system truly market-oriented. We see this for example in the way the cause of the current economic crisis is presented as rooted in public spending, rather than the failure of free market economics.

For us, this raises a question: what is progressive? Slotting in comfortably with the market consensus, the status quo, or embarking on a path that is visionary and alternative? Surely if we are to ponder what constitutes forward-thinking, we would want to consider alternatives that are original, distinct, and even radical?

The use of language is important. The packaging of certain ideas as “progressive” more easily allow questioning, protesting, or rejection of such ideas to be cast as old-fashioned or even regressive. Alternatives are, by their nature, a block on progress and their proponents unrealistic and outdated – perhaps even luddites selfishly putting their own interest above improvements for their service users. We see this abduction of language played out repeatedly throughout social and political discourse. A particular path – typically one that rejects a sense of ethics – is presented as inevitable, and any opposition can easily be dismissed as the archaic complaints of an isolated and outdated few.

Regarding libraries, a “progressive” approach has increasingly accepted marketised solutions to service provision. As a profession we have broadly accepted the idea of members or users as “customers” or “consumers”, and accepted the need to adopt market strategies to meet their needs. Within the broader context of a societal shift towards neoliberalism, it is hardly surprisingly the societal consensus – the common sense of our time – has been replicated within libraries. This is so accepted that a rejection of this approach, for example rejecting the label of “customer”, has become seen to be old-fashioned and outdated.

This progressive approach to libraries is problematic. It advocates a belief there is a market relationship between the service and the user, with barriers placed between the two, and reduces the relationship between libraries and users to a transactional one with the library supplying information – viewed as a commodity in a market setting. Strategies based on market approaches seek ways to overcome these barriers, to better understand users and research their needs to market the service more effectively and to more efficiently provide commodified information. However, we argue a more radical approach might see library users incorporated into the library service itself in a model of co-creation of service and co-production of knowledge, with librarians challenging dominant, marketised models of service provision. In a model of co-creation or co-ownership users would own the service as much as those running it. This would negate a need to “market” the service or to promote “customer service” as users would already be fully embedded within the service itself.

While not perfect by any means, the approach taken at Mondragon University in Spain offers an example of what can be possible if we re-calibrate the relationship between our services and our users. Rather than making the user distinct from the service, the user (in this case the student) is incorporated into the running of the university. Mondragon realises this through a democratic governance structure with a General Assembly composed of a third staff, a third students, and a third outside interested parties. As David Matthews’ article notes, this Assembly has significant powers from deciding priorities to dismissing senior managers. This is certainly radical in the current climate of higher education in the United Kingdom.

The Mondragon approach is far from ideal. It does, however, point to alternative ways of delivering HE and, potentially, for delivering services to students and our broader publics, and there are lessons we can learn and utilise for delivery of academic and public library services. There is no doubt this sits outside the normative discourse in UK HE. It is, in that sense, a radical and forward-thinking approach in opposition to the conservative marketised approach that dominates.

The problem we face is, increasingly, alternatives to the market-based approach such as that offered at Mondragon, seem so far removed from the dominant ideology as to be almost impossible to imagine within the existing framework. As we have moved further down a consumerist path, the default position of our profession has shifted further towards neoliberalism so alternatives become increasingly seen as too “radical”. Whereas a rejection of a market-based approach was once seen as acceptable, partly due to it being at odds with our professional ethics, such opposition has become seen to act as a barrier or an unnecessary restrainer on progress, and those expressing such moderate views have become irritants that “hold us back”. On the other hand, those enthused by commodification of information and market approaches are motivated and driven to enact changes they feel are necessary.

As once-moderate alternatives are seen as increasingly radical, so that creates a range of problems. Spaces for resistance shrink and the effect is to make a move to an alternative seem so large, that it seems barely possible to realise. Indeed, the effort to engender such change becomes so large as to encourage a sense of hopelessness at the task ahead. This hopelessness itself paralyses opposition to neoliberal approaches and even inhibits engagement with the issues at hand. People feel that the task is so substantial, so difficult, that it is not worth making an effort to challenge the dominant ideology.

This plays out against a backdrop of economic crises and austerity economics that make any form of resistance that much more challenging. For example, in public libraries we see fears that during cuts to public services those who speak against the dominant ideology will be those targeted first as trouble-makers. In higher education we see the use of political policing and other forms of repression of student and trade union protests as a warning not to resist.

The library profession is hampered by a growing apathy at its centre. There is a motivated or ‘activist’ core on both sides, both driven by ideological convictions to realise alternatives in the delivery of services. But there is a disengaged, detached middle who are less motivated. This middle are a powerful weapon for the forces of progression. They can be counted on not to protest or resist because they lack the motivation or will to engage on this level, due either to exhaustion or a more general apathy.

This is not to apportion blame, or pretend we can deliver a radical alternative by being a bit more professionally engaged. Across the board we see a tendency for people to engage less with the forces affecting them, evidenced by declining political party membership and declining trades union and professional organisation membership. Opposition is stymied and alternative paths are inhibited as we lack both spaces and structures within which to organise and the willingness itself to resist.

Herein lies a major challenge for radicals to overcome. The odds are stacked against them both in terms of those driving “progression” and an exhausted or disengaged middle. Disengagement benefits orthodoxy after all, not alternatives: the alternative requires action, progressives merely require a weak, ineffectual alternative to prevail.

Advocates for a radical alternative need to be patient. With the odds so stacked against them, an alternative approach will not be quickly accepted and adopted: it will take time. Radical alternatives must be constructed carefully and persuasively. At this stage, the most significant victory for the radical alternative can have is to open dialogue about the alternatives. Without dialogue, without alternatives being voiced and discussed, there is no hope for a radical alternative. So long as the progressive option is dominant and unchallenged, it will remain ascendant.

We need public discussion about the alternatives because it sparks interest, galvanises those who lean towards a radical alternative, and in doing so, builds momentum for a movement. But in sparking discourse, the radical alternative must capture the language. It has to re-frame the discussion. It has to be made clear that the “progressive” course is not forward-thinking, but rather sits within a conservative viewpoint that accepts the dominant ideology, rather than pushing against it to create something new and alternative. It is not true progression but rather it is drift – in part due to the lack of critical analysis that would accompany serious progression.

It is possible to create an alternative. We have the skill and imagination to construct an alternative vision to that which sits comfortably with the dominant ideology. But to do so we must communicate the alternative clearly and publicly. We must be careful in how we utilise language to ensure that the alternative is not perceived to be simply harking back to the past, but as something new and challenging. Something that has not previously been visualised or realised. Something that is distinct from the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. Something alternative. Something radical.

Libraries – Brought To You In Association With Tesco

(Image c/o Manu Escalante on Flickr.

As you might imagine, I’ve come across many, many daft ideas regarding how public library services should be provided in future. However, I think this is possibly the worst suggestion yet, and one that makes me think even volunteer run libraries might be preferable. Darren Jones, a parliamentary candidate for Bristol North West has made the following suggestion in a letter to the chief executives of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons :

…in Bristol North West there is a significant number of residents with no access to a computer and/or the internet. There is also a significant percentage of older people, who may not have the skills or understanding to access such services. With the ongoing move to digital services it is vital that we tackle this challenge.

This is why I am writing to you today. Online shopping is increasingly popular. Many high streets in Bristol North West are crying out for increased supermarket based competition. Our libraries are in need of investment.

As one of the big six supermarkets you are well placed to help meet this need. By investing in IT equipment and training you could help a significant number of residents in Bristol get online, in modernised digital community hubs (formally known as libraries) undertaking grocery shopping online.

It’s difficult to know where exactly where to begin with this. Of course, commercial interests should have absolutely no involvement in the provision of library services. It risks undermining their very purpose (ie neutral spaces providing access to information). Once they come under commercial influence, the position of the library is compromised. How do we know that, particularly if the large supermarkets are providing “IT equipment and training” that they aren’t also filtering and leading library users down certain paths where they are the beneficiary? And what of all the information these corporations would collect on individuals? Would they be aware of the data they are giving away so that they can use a Tesco sponsored computer in a library part-funded by the supermarket giant? And as for the training itself, this is similar to that which is provided by Barclay’s of course. But which is preferable? A representative from a commercial party training an individual in how to use the internet, or properly trained and remunerated library staff guided by professionals?

No commercial enterprise will stump up the cash for equipment without some sort of return and in this case they certainly will not. The proposals would, in essence, make the library service a cash cow for the big supermarkets. This is not what libraries are about. They are not about lining the pockets of large corporations, bringing them new customers to boost profits. In terms of internet provision and ‘training’, they are there to help support them in terms of education, financial well-being and providing them with the tools with which to engage in society as informed and engaged citizens.

There is no place for commercial interests in our public library system. It compromises libraries and it makes them no better than profit generators for corporations who are already sucking up vast sums of money from the taxpayer with little return. The very last thing we should be doing is allowing them to turn libraries effectively into their satellites, acting as another driver for profit. About the only thing Jones got spot on was his proposal to re-name libraries:

By investing in IT equipment and training you could help a significant number of residents in Bristol get online, in modernised digital community hubs (formally known as libraries) undertaking grocery shopping online.

Because there is no way you could possibly describe the service proposed by Jones as ‘libraries’. They would be anything but.

What if we considered library users as citizens?

(Image c/o Leo Hidalgo on Flickr.)

Over the week-end I came across this interesting piece in The Observer on citizenship and how it is being undermined by the rampant consumerism that is characteristic of the times. One particular paragraph stood out amongst all others:

What if we ask ourselves what we might want, need or use in the town centres near us? And then how does the answer differ if we ask as citizens, rather than consumers?

What would be the result if we applied this thinking to public libraries (or even academic libraries)? If we were to consider library services, how would our answer differ if we asked as citizens rather than consumers? Would there be a difference? I think there would. I think the things we would demand from library services would be completely different if we asked as citizens rather than consumers because our needs as citizens are not the same as our desires as consumers.

Perhaps the most pertinent bit (from a library perspective) was the following:

The growth in coffee shops is interesting: spaces where people can meet and talk and read.

If retail continues to demand our shopping attention, our councils face a planning challenge for our physical high streets. There is already more retail space than there are retailers, so what do councils do with these spaces? We are struggling even to keep hold of our libraries, that rare enough mainstay of our town centres, yet by this community-centric theory of consumer revolution, they should be more relevant than ever.

Have we missed a trick here? In the rush to embrace the consumerist culture that dominates, in our rush to portray users as ‘customers’ have we missed out on what would truly ensure libraries prosper? Perhaps we have. Perhaps our rush to embrace consumerism has made us blind to what was staring us in the face all along. It is not a consumer culture we should be embracing. We should, instead, be facilitating access to the tools citizens require.

Extremism, nudge theory and access to information

Image c/o Albert on Flickr.

What constitutes extremism? Is it espousing views that threaten the lives of fellow citizens? Is it the performance of individual acts of violence? Is it merely holding views that are outside the mainstream? One person’s extremist is, after all, a moderate to others. Extremism is, to some degree, a subjective position. This hasn’t stopped, naturally, the Tory party seeking to define the boundaries of acceptable extremism. Which is, of course, hugely problematic on any number of levels.

Such an approach to extremism could be seen as part of an attempt to ‘nudge’ people to an acceptable (as defined by one party political mindset, with all the dangers that entails) range for public discourse. By defining what is an ‘acceptable extremist’, one is virtually determining the acceptable range of political thought. It is this acceptable range that the Tory party seem to be keen to ‘nudge’ people towards. (‘Nudge’ theory is, of course, a very illiberal perspective, setting out an ‘acceptable norm’ and then developing strategies to push people towards that acceptable norm.)

The theorists behind nudge theory (for more on this, see the end of the post) are certainly untroubled by its use to close down discussion and to water down entirely legitimate, non-mainstream opinion. In a piece on The Atlantic,  Evan Selinger explored the possibility of ‘nudging’ people towards civil engagement online using specialist software. Richard Thaler, one of the architects of ‘nudge’ theory, embraced the concept, tweeting: “A Nudge dream come true”. A dream come true for nudge advocates  perhaps, a nightmare for anyone who opposes any effort to narrow debate to a government approved ‘norm’. With such moves by the government to expand on its definition of terrorism, can we expect such ‘nudges’ in increasing areas of public debate and discussion?

This rush to define extremes has implications in terms of access to information. Information is, after all, a key factor in radicalising individuals. Expect, with such a policy as outlined by Theresa May, that this will come coupled with the shutting down of ‘extremist’ websites, as well as restrictions on public speech. As the terms of what is regarded ‘unacceptable extremism’ are extended, does this mean that literature on the fringes of mainstream thought may be susceptible to pressure to remove by the general public? Will books once considered ‘extremist’ yet ‘harmless’ suddenly be found to be unacceptable and unsuitable for public consumption? What would be the consequences of this shift in public perception of what is ‘extremist’?

Libraries are, of course, hugely important repositories of information. They contain written materials that are purchased free from political prejudice (to an extent, one might argue that the collections reflect a Western liberal, neo-classical economic model, rather than an entirely balanced political outlook – bit we’ve gone over this ground before). The bulwark against any kind of censorship of such materials are professional librarians. Any attempts to influence or control the purchase of collections would, one would hope, be met with stiff resistance by the profession (both individually and through the professional body). Whether such professional opposition would be successful is a different matter. It would not, however, go without being vehemently challenged. What would happen if professional librarians were stripped away and an alternative model for delivering library services was pursued. We may not have to wait long to discover the answer…

We already know that libraries are being hollowed out. Professional stuff are culled and replaced with volunteers (often forced to take on the role of amateur librarian because their council has threatened them to do it or lose the service – blackmail that is laughably painted as local people taking control of their services), libraries are increasingly falling into private hands, or the hands of local groups. What would be the consequence of government encouraging an environment where certain ideas are considered outside of the norm? Would this create a climate in local communities where certain ideas (and therefore resources) are unacceptable? Where a Trust is in place (an alternative that is becoming increasingly popular), would the Trust be able to resist pressure from the local community and stick to the principles of free and open access to information for all?  There is a particular additional problem for charitable trusts – that of being in any way openly political.

In recent years, charities have come under increasing pressure from central government regarding their political activities. Charities have been attacked by such senior political figures as Iain Duncan Smith, Eric Pickles and Chris Grayling. This has been followed by new legislation restricting campaign spending by charities during election periods. A charitable trust would, it appears, be vulnerable to any attempt by government to clamp down on ‘extremist’ (ie non-mainstream political) works that they hold within their collections.

Librarians should be able to resist such pressures (to an extent). So long as the pressure comes from local communities rather than the government (we’re unlikely to see the government calling for outright bans of books, at least it seems unlikely at present), librarians will be in a position to resist. However, information access in libraries isn’t just about books. A shift in what defines extremism (and therefore what is mainstream and ‘acceptable’) would have an impact in terms of internet use and filters employed online. This is where it becomes more difficult for librarians to have any say in ensuring equitable access to information.

This is a problem that will extend beyond public libraries, of course. Academic libraries also have to contend with the issue of internet filtering, often down to arbitrary decisions made with no recourse to the library itself. When what is considered ‘dangerous extremism’ is expanded, there is potential for universities to expand filtering of the internet to prevent dissemination of materials which the state has argued now falls under the definition of extremist. This raises huge questions in terms of access to information for academic study, as well as academic freedom and freedom of expression (something that universities should be at the forefront of, for the good of not just academia, but society in general).

As the government ‘nudges’ individuals towards a predetermined ‘norm’, so we face greater threats in terms of access to information and free expression. As public libraries face de-professionalisation, they become vulnerable to environmental shifts that are hostile to the core ethics of the professional librarian (ie the free and open exchange of information, without prejudice). This nudging towards a norm limits free expression, debate and access to information. The impact of nudging people towards this government approved norm extends beyond public libraries and towards higher education. Cynical efforts to create ‘acceptable’ terms of opinion and public discourse ultimately limits individual freedoms and threatens to restrict our exposure to non-mainstream ideas (with all the dangers that entails). The consequences of government ‘nudging’ us towards what it defines as civil engagement (with apparent due deference to our democratic system) will lead to greater censorship and a restriction on free expression. Not only does this threaten our individual liberties, but it is also a threat to the values that librarians seek to defend and consequently threatens the existence of any meaningful library service.


 

What is nudge theory? Nudge theory proposes that people can be subtly persuaded to change their behaviour by influencing the choices individuals make. The school cafeteria is an oft used example positing that if healthier food is placed at eye-level, individuals may be more likely to choose that over junk food, even though the junk food is readily available.

Who originated the theory? Nudge theory first came to prominence in the book Nudge, written by the behavioural economist Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who acted as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Barack Obama.

Who have they influenced? Both David Cameron and George Osborne are big advocates of nudge theory. Whilst both are believers in the power of ‘nudge’, even they found some ideas proposed by behavioural economists a step too far, particularly in terms of healthcare (a proposal to move away from free healthcare by ‘nudging’ individuals caused even Cameron to re-asses his opinion).

It sounds a little problematic. What do critics say? Critics of ‘nudge’ theory argue that it is somewhat cynical, particularly as nudges can “infantilise individuals by taking away their moral maturity”. A psychologist named Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Centre for Cognition and Adaptive Behaviour at the Max Planck institute in Berlin, has been one of the key (and persistent) critics of ‘nudge’. Gigerenzer argues that rather than manipulating people, they should be taught and given the tools to inform their decisions. Gigerenzer argues that ‘nudge’ theory frames people as “basically hopeless when it comes to understanding risk”. Gigerenzer takes a more optimistic view that provided with the information and the tools to understand it, people will make the ‘right’ choices. I tend to side with Gigerenzer rather than Thaler and Sunstein.

Why are behavioural economists viewed as having a better insight into human behaviour than psychologists? Good question.


 

In support of #TeamHarpy

Image via sciencesque on Flickr.

You may have heard by now that two women are currently being sued for alleging that a male librarian has been a “sexual predator” and that the plaintiff has been responsible for the sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women. You can read the defendants’ full statement here. There are a few things I want to say about this, so rather than write a long post, I’ll just list my main points.

1) This is, for me, a very dangerous move. It will, I believe, inhibit women coming forward at future conferences if they have been victims of sexual harassment. The fear of being issued with legal proceedings if they are to disclose such harassment would surely prevent women from coming forwards, thus reinforcing the power of any individual responsible for such harassment. This cannot be permitted. Any action that makes a woman think twice before speaking out about the harassment she has been subjected to is dangerous and misogynistic.

2) There has been some confusion over the legal processes here. It’s important to note that the statement of claim was issued in Canada which, like the UK, has particularly regressive libel laws meaning that the accusers have to prove that their claims are factual, rather than the plaintiff proving that they are not. As such, the defendants in this case (and therefore the ones for which “innocent until proven guilty” must apply) are nina and Lisa.

3) I am really disturbed by the claims of bullying that have been made by some observers which seems to have come down to a serious misreading of one of Lisa’s tweets here:

Personally, and not that it is my place to validate Lisa’s tweet, I believe this is an entirely fair comment. Too often men will express sympathy with women who have been victim to sexual harassment, but will either not actively do anything to support the victims, nor will they challenge such behaviour when they encounter it in future. Thus I think it is entirely fair for Lisa to call out the men who profess support but do little to challenge the behaviours that elicit such support. To label this as ‘bullying’ (as some have done) is absurd. There is no bullying, there is merely a request for men to not merely voice support, but to be active in their support for victims of sexual harassment and for the defendants in this case.

4) Linked with above, I think it is vital that men both express their support for Lisa and nina as defendants in this case, but I also think it is vital for men to challenge those who harass women, not to turn away but to confront it. It’s all very well to make a donation, voice support etc etc, but we need to do what we can to ensure that no-one is ever the victim of sexual harassment, whether it be at a library conference or anywhere else. As I said above, it is not enough for men to just offer words of support, these words need to be backed with action.

5) Finally, I think it is essential that all conferences, gatherings, meetings etc have a clear and binding safe space policy. Such policies should not just be there to soothe some kind of liberal mindset, they should have a purpose and be enforced by everyone within that safe space. That means when behaviour that undermines the safe space policy is observed, it must be confronted, challenged and publicly exposed. Only by adopting such a strategy can we ensure that everyone feels safe and that unacceptable and dehumanising behaviour is eradicated. (And of course I would say it as an RLC affiliated person, but do check out the safe space policy utilised at RLC events.)

I would urge everyone to visit nina and Lisa’s website, make a donation and show your support. As a community we must show zero tolerance for any behaviour that makes any of us less safe. And that, in my view, includes zero tolerance for a lawsuit that puts women in a very dangerous position indeed.

Why I think we need to speak out against media assaults on public libraries

Image c/o Stew Dean on Flickr.

Another day, another attack in the media on public libraries. This time by Tim Worstall, fellow at the Adam Smith Institute (so you can pretty much already guess which line he will take), in an article provocatively titled “Close The Libraries And Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription“. I’m not going to dwell too much on the article itself – suffice it to say it contains the usual logical failings (it is clearly not cheaper to give everyone an Amazon subscription and purchase all the equipment needed for those who are not connected etc etc – frankly it’s astounding a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute is advocating greater public spending). But it did bring to mind, once more, the constant refrain of “ignore this, it’s not worth engaging in”. Which, I think, is a mistake.

Every now and then, a piece arguing for the closure of public libraries emerges that causes consternation and outrage. In some respects, this is what the author intends. Whip up a frenzy, get your name out there, ego stroked, job done, who really cares about libraries? This frenzy, however, results in a kind of split in the library world. There are those who, for example, argue that a counter-attack on such a piece is a sign of a lack of confidence, a sign of weakness. By arguing against such assaults we are overly defensive and we would be better not engaging with these kinds of attack. I, unsurprisingly, disagree.

The problem is that such assaults aren’t really attacks on libraries. Look closer at the arguments and you see this is part of a broader pattern. Often the argument is that libraries are no longer required, that they are irrelevant as everyone is online. Worse, that the amount of money spent maintaining them could be more ‘efficiently’ utilised elsewhere. Is this really a specific attack on libraries? Irrelevance and inefficiency? Is that argument only deployed in relation to public libraries? Of course not. This is a standard strategy when it comes to attacking all public services. They are not required any more, there are more efficient ways of delivering what this service delivers. You see this argument deployed in relation to many public services. And here is the problem: it’s a strategic assault on public services. It is a mistake, I believe, to characterise such attacks as “attacks on public libraries”. It’s a very narrow interpretation of an over-arching political strategy.

I won’t go over the nature of this political ideology as such (see previous posts on this topic). But we need to be clear that an ideological war is being conducted here. It is not a war on libraries. It is a war on public services. Ideological warfare is being conducted and we (by ‘we’ I don’t just mean librarians) must confront this ideological assault. Pretending that these sorts of attacks will go away if we ignore them is equivalent to an ideological war with one side disarmed. The consequences are stark. Ideological wars are not, generally, won with silence. Yes, we need to express our “value” with confidence, but we also need to confront this ideological war head on.

These assaults are not even restricted to public services, they are also an assault on those that rely on public services: the most vulnerable in our society. As professionals (again, I’m talking about all professionals, not just librarians here) we know that there are many that rely on our expertise. We know that there are many who, without our expertise, would suffer even greater hardship. We know, also, that the most vulnerable are often voiceless. As librarians, we are well aware that there is a large minority of people who rely on us and yet also do not have a platform to express that reliance. I strongly believe that it is our responsibility as a profession to speak up in defence of those without a voice. I would argue this applies to all professionals and, I would also argue, this is something that the professional class have largely failed at in the current political climate (it’s amazing, in fact, the extent to which the professional class will remain silent in the face of an assault upon those they should protect). Rather than speaking out strongly on behalf of those who rely on us, we have been largely complicit or unwiling to speak out.

None of this is to say that everyone needs to speak out. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t suggest that collective silence is an option. That turning the other cheek is a logical choice. That if we just ignore these assaults the problems will go away and public libraries will continue as before, unaffected by the words of someone writing a provocative piece on a website that is bound to host such views. This is not about public libraries. This is about an ideological assault with multiple targets determined to undermine and weaken our public services. Libraries are one of these targets, but to think it is a target in isolation is a mistake. The arguments against libraries are variations of the same as those used against other public services. Likewise the arguments for libraries are the same as for other public services. By speaking up, we are not only defending public libraries but the entire notion of public services. Silence is not how we defend ourselves against an ideological battle, it is how we surrender.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

Martin Niemöller

How librarians enable neoliberalism and inequality, and what we can do to resist it

Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange, by David Edwards on Flickr

We live in an era dominated by the corrosive ideology of neoliberalism. Since the abandonment of the postwar settlement just over forty years ago, neoliberalism has become the dominant socio-economic ideology. The notion that an unconstrained private sector (via the profit motive and supposed greater efficiency) is best placed to deliver public service has been broadly accepted by the political establishment. Its successful dominance of political thought was confirmed with the arrival of Tony Blair and his embrace of a liberal economic agenda, casting aside the virtues upon which the Labour Party had been founded in favour of the market. But how has this ideology come to dominate? There is no single solitary component that has enabled its acceptance, rather a series of complex and varied factors that have been complicit in its dominance.

Neoliberalism disenfranchises citizens, converting individuals from citizens to consumers. No longer does the individual have ‘rights’ as citizens, rather they have the gift of “choice”. Choice in so far as the capitalist economic system permits. As Doreen Massey argues in Vocabularies of the economy [PDF]:

“It is one of the ghastly ironies of the present neoliberal age that we are told (as we saw at the outset of this argument) that much of our power and our pleasure, and our very self-identification, lies in our ability to choose (and we are indeed bombarded every day by ‘choices’, many of them meaningless, others we wish we didn’t have to make), while at the level that really matters – what kind of society we’d like to live in, what kind of future we’d like to build – we are told, implacably, that, give or take a few minor variations, there is no alternative – no choice at all.”

Image c/o Alex Proimos on Flickr.

The shift away from citizenry to a consumerist culture is one that particularly benefits those with the financial means with which to engage in such a culture (enabling access to the best healthcare, the best education and so on). It follows, therefore, that such a culture penalises those who lack the financial means with which to make the choices available to those who do. This, obviously and inevitably, breeds inequality. Neoliberalism is, essentially, a system that creates and entrenches inequality (and, arguably, inefficiency as a result) – see Piketty’s much reported (if little read) analysis.

Of course, neoliberalism needs a foundation upon which to grow and thrive. Arguably, no system would be able to do so without certain institutions of power enabling its spread. Without the enabling of such institutions, neoliberalism as an ideology would barely sprout roots. It needs the nourishment that only vital, trusted, public institutions can provide.

In Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser argues that dominant ideologies are enabled primarily through the non-violent operation of “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs). Chief amongst the ISAs referred to is the “educational apparatus”. Althusser argues that:

“…behind the scenes of its political Ideological State Apparatus, which occupies the front of the stage, what the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one, i.e. as its dominant Ideological State Apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant Ideological State Apparatus, the Church.”

Althusser argues the educational apparatus is key to consolidating the influence of the dominant ideology, and drawing on Gramsci’s (Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 1971) concept of cultural hegemony, that it plays a role in ensuring that the establishment worldview is accepted as a cultural norm, as universally valid. Education is not the sole enabler of a neoliberal, consumerised society, but it plays a key and fundamental role in ensuring it remains dominant. When the language becomes embedded within an educational apparatus that is perceived to be apolitical in nature, the dominant ideology is strengthened. As Althusser goes on to argue:

“The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology…”

This lends itself to the defence utilised when employing neoliberal language: the terms are harmless as they are used in a neutral context, purged of ideology. We can employ these terms because we are not political and we’ve stripped away all political context.

In their article, The Counterhegemonic Academic Librarian: A Call to Action (Progressive Librarian #40), Stephen E Bales and Lea Susan Engle contend that higher education institutions are well positioned to perform this indoctrination considering their “place of high authority in western society”. They go on to argue that the academic library is a “necessary and inseparable component of the educational ISA, reproducing the political milieu through its collections and library staff or faculties”. The effect of this normalisation is a student class that is “steeped in the norms of the dominant culture that ultimately controls the means of production”. As David Sweeney, director for research, innovations and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, recently argued, the UK has:

“…comprehensively failed to get away from the social elite in higher education…Do we want people like us leaving universities? Do we want our graduates to be engaged with society or part of an elite? Would it not be good to act as models for people who will tackle the big global challenges?”

Our system of higher education does not produce students who challenge the status quo, rather it produces graduates that will protect it, perpetuating and reinforcing the over-arching ideology of the political establishment. The educational ISA is a powerful tool in perpetuating the dominant ideology, ensuring its dominance and primacy. Any attempt to breakdown this dominant ideology, therefore, relies on challenging the status quo in our education system. Only by weeding this ideology out of our education system can we hope to breakdown the structures that create division and inequality.

Image c/o Pierre Metivier on Flickr.

This causes a number of problems in terms of the role of the librarian within the educational ISA. Our position as “neutral” figures of professional standing is a fallacy. Whilst we may strive to be “neutral” our actions are anything but. For example, as Bales and Eagle argue, the ALA “Code of Ethics” can be interpreted to mean that librarians must take a neutral stance on social justice issues, giving equal access to items that preserve the status quo and those that promote the advancement of marginalised groups (this is also reflected in point 7 of CILIP’s Ethical Principles – that we should remain “impartial” and avoid “bias”). The logical conclusion of such equal weighting, appearing to remain impartial, is to create a kind of equilibrium whereby to maintain inequality is as valid as to challenge it. When explored to its logical conclusion, is maintaining neutrality truly fitting with our ethical values? By giving an equal platform to materials that entrench social division, are we not taking a political position? In doing so are we not also undermining the very values we espouse?

Bales and Engle go on to argue that our position should not be of neutrality as imagined by the ALA “Code of Ethics”, but rather it should be:

“…one of social and moral responsibility to challenge the academic library as an ISA, to contribute to the creation of authentic knowledge and history, not simply the reiteration of canonical indoctrination.”

One of the key ways in which we can challenge the academic libraries as an ISA is through awareness of the language we utilise. The growing adoption of neoliberal language, normalises and legitimises it, reinforcing the consumerist culture. Through this use of language we endorse the use of words that are neoliberal by nature and have meaning that is contrary to our ethical values. Endorsement leads to acceptance of the terms as normal modes of language, as orthodox terminology. Using terms such as “customer”, “brand” etc imply an acceptance of the neoliberal driven transformation of citizens into consumers. This is, of course, problematic on a number of levels, not least because this normalisation embeds the discourse of the market in the minds of those who will join the ranks of the social elites, ensuring the consolidation of the dominant ideology. It also causes problems in terms of both our professional ethics and the future of the profession in general. As John Buschman argued in an address at Rider University in 2004, as such “business buzzwords” become ubiquitous:

“Thus does a privatized and economic vision of the library come to dominate discussions and assumptions about its future and define its purposes.”

The transformation of citizens into consumers results in the corruption and, ultimately, the destruction of publicly funded higher education (which has been privatised “further and faster than anywhere else“) and our public services. This transformation results in the adoption of market strategies, gradually eroding the notion that we are entitled to free education, healthcare etc.; instead convincing us that we are consumers without rights, only choice. For a profession steeped in the values of free and unimpeded access to information without discrimination, such an ideology presents a serious threat. A move towards marketisation means a move away from a service provided free and without discrimination, and towards a service for the few. We cannot tolerate a situation whereby we discriminate against those without the means to access the services we provide. Aping the language of business will not, as Buschman concludes:

“…save libraries, it transforms them into something else. We’re a profession and an institution in crisis because we have a structural contradiction between our purposes and practices as they’ve historically evolved and our adaptation to the current environment.”

Without challenging the use of the language of the dominant elite, we essentially become agents of the ruling bourgeois elites. The neutral academic librarian becomes, effectively, an agent ensuring that the dominant ideology is reinforced. As Massey points out [PDF]:

“The vocabulary we use, to talk about the economy in particular, has been crucial to the establishment of neoliberal hegemony.”

In Education Under Siege, Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux (quoted in Bales and Engle) described academics that work passively in the service of the controlling interests of society as “accommodating intellectuals” (expanding on Gramsci’s distinction between “organic” and “traditional” intellectuals). These “accommodating intellectuals” stand:

“…firm within an ideological posture and set of material practices that support the dominant society and its ruling groups. Such intellectuals are generally not aware of this process that they do not define themselves as self-conscious agents of the status quo, even though their politics further the interests of the dominant classes.”

Image c/o Daniel Horande on Flickr.

Such “accommodating intellectuals” are essentially, unaware that their posture reinforces and strengthens the status quo. They would not recognise, Aronowitz and Giroux argue, that that is what their actions enable, but they are working passively and, perhaps, unwittingly in the service of the elites, employing their language and ideology within the dominant ISA. The same might be said of the neutral academic librarian who through their passivity reinforces the ideology of the dominant classes. Whilst they might consider their passivity “neutral” it is, on the contrary, overtly political. They take a political position through the adoption of “material practices that support the dominant society and its ruling groups”. The normalisation of the language of the dominant class legitimises it, that process of legitimising is a political act because it validates language that is a key part of the political agenda. By utilising their language, the librarian demonstrates acceptance of the ideology of a political movement that wishes to transform citizens into consumers. They have, effectively, become active enablers, reinforcing the dominant ideology and ensuring its normalisation.

So, if the neutral academic librarian, or “accommodating intellectual”, is an agent of the dominant classes, what is the alternative? The alternative must surely be to position ourselves as, what Aronowitz and Giroux describe as “transformative intellectuals”? According to their definition, “transformative intellectuals” are those who:

“…earn a living within institutions that play a fundamental role in producing the dominant culture… [but] define their political terrain by offering to students forms of alternative discourse and critical social practices whose interests are often at odds with the overall hegemonic role of the school and the society it supports.”

In order to be consistent with our professional values and to work to create the conditions for an alternative to the dominant ideology that asserts information as a commodity, we must surely become “transformative librarians”? Rather than adopting the language and strategies of the dominant class, we should be challenging or rejecting it. The language of the market has become the dominant discourse within our profession, our libraries and higher education in general. We are too accommodating of neoliberal ideologies that are at odds with our ethical values. Remaining “neutral” is no longer an option. “Neutrality” makes us both accommodating intellectuals and enablers of the dominant ideology. Why should we enable an ideology that is in conflict with our values?

Neoliberalism is a corrosive, destructive ideology. It leads to an unequal society that transforms, without consent, citizens into consumers. Adopting the language of this dominant ideology legitimises and normalises it, ensuring a steady flow into the establishment of graduates “steeped in the norms of the dominant culture that ultimately controls the means of production” [Bales and Engle, PDF]. Rather than passively and uncritically accepting the use of terminology that is alien to our professional values, we should challenge its use and instead of accepting the language of the dominant ideology, we should offer students forms of alternative discourse that reject and challenge it. The prevalence of what Buschman terms as “business buzzwords” legitimise this dominant discourse and therefore cannot be considered neutral, but purely political. It is up to us to refuse to act as passive agents that reinforce the power of the dominant classes and to reject the legitimisation of language that act as tools of inequality. When neutrality reinforces a dominant ideology that runs counter to our values, we are no longer neutral. There is a choice before us: we either act as enablers or we act as transformative agents.

Questioning professional vocabulary

I’m currently in the process of writing a post about how librarians and libraries can act as enablers for the dominant culture (yeah, not really selling it there am I?). One of my key thoughts on this topic is the use of language and how it enables dominant ideologies by normalising certain terminology (ie by making certain words ubiquitous, we make them seem acceptable in contexts where they perhaps they should not be acceptable). Language is a big bugbear of mine for this reason. Corrupt the language and you corrupt the ethos.

Anyway, all of this got me to thinking what questions we should ask of language utilised in our professional discourse to help identify whether they are appropriate to use within the context of our professional values. In a not very well thought through process, I sort of came up with the following questions that we could (should?) ask:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. What are its origins?
  3. In what context is it usually deployed?
  4. Who does this language benefit?
  5. Does it reflect our values?

I sort of think they are a good starting point when considering the use of language across the profession. I’m sure there are better questions to ask. Would be interested to hear if anyone has any advance on these as a way to help us unpick some of the language we often see utilised.

Q. Why does Francis Maude hate the elderly?

“So, you see, either buy one of these or we will ensure you cannot access the services you require and have paid for.” (Image c/o The Cabinet Office on Flickr.)

There is nothing wrong with moving government services online. Undoubtedly it has made a whole range of services much easier to use and access for the majority of citizens. I can now go online and purchase my car tax disc in a matter of seconds rather than having to dig out a load of paperwork, complete a paper form and stand in a long queue at the Post Office. I can access information about a range of government services relatively quickly and painlessly (well, considering it’s gov.uk), and I wouldn’t swap that for doing things the ‘old’ way for anything. However, this is where Francis Maude and I depart in terms of understanding the digital world (obviously in broader political terms we depart much earlier than that). Because I understand that it’s a majority not because the minority can’t be bothered to get online, but because for many it is simply not possible to take advantage of digital services.

It’s for this reason that Francis Maude appears to have launched a rather bizarre crusade to get the elderly online. Rather than persist with a mixed approach to government services (ie digital and ‘analogue’ in tandem), Maude is determined to move towards an online policy and if the elderly or the poor are unwilling to get on the internet, then they will lose access to key government services. It is unclear how exactly his government will then provide these people with the support they need, he appears to believe that they can be sidelined and ignored without having an impact on society in general.

There are any number of things wrong with Maude’s rather blinkered approach to digital services. The most obvious is, of course, that to get online costs money. Not only does it cost money to buy the initial start-up equipment (computer and other equipment), but it also costs money every month to have a connection to the internet. When one considers that Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures demonstrate that 13% without an internet connection point to equipment costs as the reason and 12% say access costs are too high (all age groups), it’s clear to see that the reason why they are not online is not down to a proportion of citizens being, as Maude terms it, computer “refuseniks”. They are not refusing, they are unable to choose to get online. Quite a substantial difference, and one that is often overlooked by the comfortable middle classes who assume that, because they have a computer and an internet connection, everyone must be online (it’s this same middle-class assumption that leads to the old “we don’t need libraries anymore because everything is online” nonsense).

And it’s not just the cost of getting online that prevents pensioners from getting online. The ONS figures also reveal that 20% claim that a “lack of skills” is the reason why they are not online. Again, these people are not “refuseniks” they are people who simply do not have the skills to get online and make use of the many services the rest of us take for granted. If we are going to effectively force these people to get online, where is the support going to come from (aside from the paltry ‘one-off’ ‘assisted digital option’ proposed by Maude)? Public libraries seem to provide the most obvious mechanism for addressing this lack of skills but, well, they are being closed, hollowed out and stripped of their ability to provide the kind of support that would benefit those that are digitally excluded.

All of this rather begs the question: what will the government do about those that are excluded? It’s all very well talking ‘tough’ as Maude occasionally likes to do, but what does this mean in real terms? For those who cannot afford to purchase the equipment or to obtain the skills necessary to get online and utilise public services, what are their options? Will they just be left, excluded from important government services with the subsequent knock on effects and additional costs to the taxpayer (to adopt standard Tory terminology for a second…I promise it won’t happen again)? Or will the government purchase the equipment and the connection for those without in perpetuity (highly unlikely given the ongoing costs)? Nowhere in Maude’s grand scheme does he explain how the government will ensure that those who cannot afford the equipment will not be left behind. Perhaps he doesn’t care.

But there’s another element to this that is deeply troubling. The switch to digital also puts the emphasis on the citizen paying to access government services – government services that they have paid for through taxation. Whereas accessing government services would have come at no cost to the citizen but would be met by the government agency (eg leaflets, consultation time etc etc), the cost is now borne by the citizen. Twice. Once through taxation and once in accessing the government service online (which although does not require payment in and of itself, requires the citizen to make a payment to a corporate entity in order to access those same services). Now, that might be fine for people like myself and Maude, but I would argue that the most vulnerable and the poorest in our society should not have to expect to pay twice to access government services. They should be free and accessible to all in whatever format suits their needs. This may cost the government a bit extra, but better that than costing the citizen extra. Government services must be free to access, not effectively placed behind either state or corporate paywalls.

For some time now Maude has been pontificating about the need to drive government services online. Of course it is of great benefit for the majority of us that these services are available online and facilitate quick and easy access to government services. However, there remains a minority who, should the move towards a digital only policy take effect, will be marginalised and excluded from our society. The needs of the people must take precedence over the need to save money, the consequences of getting these priorities in reverse order will be felt for decades to come. The government would do well to remember that, not just in terms of the move towards digital only but also in terms of their broader economic and social policies. But I won’t hold my breath.

My thoughts on the Radical Librarians Collective, London

Getting stuff done at RLC London.

A couple of weeks ago now I attended (and was involved in the ‘organisation’ of) the Radical Librarian Collective gathering in London. Since the day, I’ve been struggling to put some of my thoughts into words. Indeed, I’m not sure I can adequately write about the various discussions that took place (head to Lauren Smith’s blog for that). Rather than attempt to write a comprehensive ‘review’ of the day, I thought I’d just make a few broad brush observations and write about it in more general terms.

Last year, I got together with a few like-minded folk who shared the same sense of longing for something a bit different. From my own personal perspective, I have been alarmed by some of the discourse across the profession for a few years now. There has been a rapid process of depoliticisation of the profession that has become increasingly noticeable in recent years (although arguably it has been part of a long-term trend – as it has been with most professions). There has been a general shift towards the rhetoric of ‘the market’ without serious consideration of the implications of doing so. We have perhaps become increasingly uncritical and, as I have noted recently, perhaps have not paid enough attention to the implications of the language that is increasingly utilised in professional discourse. For me, discussions that challenge this are welcome, and so I was really grateful for the opportunity to gather with like-minds and, as they say, ‘unpack’ some of these issues.

Bradford was, I think, a great success. It sprung together from nothing and turned into something that I think we were all really proud of. It was something new, something fresh, something that many of us who were there on that day felt was much needed. I think it’s fair to say that many people came away from it both reassured that there were others that felt the same, and keen to take ideas forwards. That said, I feel that London appears to have been the real catalyst to start building stuff.

As with any effort to actually do stuff, organising RLC London was not without its sneering. If there’s one thing I have learnt about people, it’s that people are happy to complain about various issues but should anyone step up to tackle them, they effectively become a target to be shot at. I’ve personally experienced this several times over (with Voices, Informed and RLC), try to actively do something rather than just moan and you will be a target for cynicism and sneering. To the extent where you begin to wonder whether there is an issue of prejudice at play (educated working classes should pipe down and know their place etc – and if you are an educated working class woman, you are in for some serious sneering). Sometimes it’s difficult to keep the sneering at bay. There will always be cynics trying to smash down your optimism, the trick is to remain optimistic and focus on the positives.

RLC London was, without doubt, an inspiring day. It helps, I think, that everyone in attendance was on roughly the same page. Sure a bunch of radical minded folk in an enclosed space could turn into a massive, dare I say, ‘echo chamber’ reflecting and entrenching existing viewpoints as everyone nods along in agreement. There were, however, some really engaging and challenging conversations throughout the day helped, perhaps, by a smattering of people who perhaps wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘radical’ but had certain perspectives that, in the current climate, might well be described as such.

In terms of the sessions (again, I’m not going to go into these in great detail), I attended discussions on censorship, a session on the LIS qualification, critical theory, a session on how to take the discussions and ideas back to the workplace and finally a plenary session to discuss how we take things forwards as a collective. What I found really interesting and valuable about the day was how themes ran through all the sessions. You could have a discussion about censorship which would then feed into discussions on the qualification which would then feed into discussions on critical theory. Everything was linked, helped by the event itself being broadly themed I guess.

With regards to my session, I wanted to look at the qualification and how both libraries and the professional body can and should be constructed in line with our professional ethics. This was too much for one session as I soon discovered. I ultimately decided to divide it up into three discussions, but there was only time in the day to explore one (the other two will have to be explored another time!). The discussion itself was really interesting (from my perspective) as we wrangled over the extent to which the qualification should focus on practical, vocational stuff and the theoretical/ethical side. There was much discussion about the way the LIS qualification is increasingly losing the theoretical/ethical aspects and focusing on things that will ‘get you a job’.

For me the qualification has to be built on strong foundations, which means a strong theoretical and ethical underpinning that the other stuff can be built on top of. There needs to be an element of practical stuff that can be applied within in the workplace, but there also needs to be a fundamental understanding of the ethical underpinning. Which takes us back to the start of this post, the depoliticisation of the profession. This starts on LIS courses. If we don’t tackle the problems at the heart of the qualification collectively, then we will continue to depoliticise ourselves and devalue our profession (this does not mean we all have to be radical political types, it just means we need to have an understanding of some of the socio-political issues that affect every aspect of our work). It is for this reason I think there needs to be serious discussion about what we want from our LIS programmes.

Back to the day itself (after promising not to go into great detail on any of the sessions and finding I already have)…I think what I took away from London more than anything else was the enthusiasm to build on the discussions. To build networks. To create stuff. To tackle issues in whatever way we could as a collective. There was a real will to take these discussions and not just walk away, patting ourselves on the back for having a jolly good chat, but to actually construct networks and seriously address some of the concerns that had been raised. This made me feel really positive and really excited about where the discussions might lead. Already local networks are being organised, a “Declaration on open access for LIS authors” has been collaboratively developed, and who knows what else will emerge from these discussions. Yes, when it comes to stuff like RLC London, it is very hard to smash the optimism. After all, as I now like to remind myself:

If not now, when? If not you, who?