Interview for El Mundo Web Social

(Full image available CC-BY – ijclark.)

The following interview on communications and radical librarianship was conducted with El Mundo Web Social (you can read the original Spanish version here). Many thanks to Fernando Jerez for approaching me to be interviewed on these topics for his site, it certainly got me thinking about the motivations behind some of the things I do, as well as considering what are, I think, the fundamentals of a good communications strategy.

  1. You are working in a university library. What do you think about the situation regarding adaptation (training) of fellow professionals in terms of social networks?

I think social media has come a long way in libraries in recent years. Whereas there has been some reluctance to engage with the medium in the past, I’d argue that we have moved on significantly in the past couple of years. It is no longer seen as a fringe communication tool that we can ignore if we choose, rather it has become an essential tool in our communications armoury.

That said, there are still some in libraries who, whilst seeing the need for it at an organisational level, don’t see the value of it as a professional tool or as a tool that needs to be on their radar. It’s still seen as fringe in a professional context, even if not in an over-arching organisational sense. There are difficulties associated with this, particularly as social networks help to foster professional discourse and enable the profession to progress in a way that perhaps wasn’t possible before when practitioners were so widely dispersed and often remote. I think it is important to talk about and demonstrate the value of engaging in the medium, but ultimately we have to accept that some will not be converted.

  1. Taking a look at your presentation “Designing a better library experience“, you are talking about some concepts to develop, including ‘commitment’ as the basis of strong, open communication. How do you explain to general managers of libraries the need to increase this investment in online communication?

I think it is vital in the current climate that libraries, institutions and users are brought closer together. I am a great believer in flat organisational structures and I believe that, as much as possible, users should be engaged in the overall running of the service. It’ll take some time to get there, but communication is a key element of laying the foundations to enable such integration to take place. I’d argue that close co-operation between users and the service will create a better service that meets their needs and strengthens the bond between the service and the user.

A stronger bond between the user and the service has a number of positive effects, not least a positive perception of the service by those that use it. Through open dialogue and effective communication we can ensure a powerful relationship that benefits the library as well as the overall institution. However, this must be a two way conversation, it must avoid being hierarchical and must ensure that we learn from those we communicate with as much as they “learn” from us. This is particularly important as social media provides a public forum and such public interactions, if employed effectively, can help to ensure greater collaboration and co-operation with those that use the service. Whether we want to succeed in the terms set for us by a competition orientated, marketised HE, or whether we want to move towards a more cooperative model of library service provision, online communication plays a key role in bringing us closer to the user with the subsequent mutual benefits that brings.

  1. In your articles you speak often of progressive marketisation of services in libraries. Do you think public libraries in social networks are directed to the user ‘as a customer’ or ‘as a citizen with rights’?

I’m very critical of the use of neoliberal terms which act as enablers to a damaging and regressive ideology. As a result, I try to avoid terms such as “customer” as I believe that this is an inappropriate term for the people we engage with in our libraries. The term “customer” immediately creates a barrier between us and the user which then has to be overcome, usually through the use of “marketing strategies”.

For me, as someone who has worked in a retail environment for many years, a customer interacts with a service at a very limited level. I find the use of the term “customer” troubling because the relationship between HE and a student is nothing like that of a “customer” and a retailer. A retailer sells a complete product that the user purchases and uses as they please. In HE the relationship is more of a partnership as we work with students, in co-creation of knowledge to ensure that they obtain the best possible education and ultimately create informed, educated citizens. They don’t buy a good education, because to accrue knowledge is reliant on the user as much as it is on the service provider. It’s a collaboration rather than seller/buyer relationship.

This is also true for public libraries. Public libraries are not there to sell a product to a user, they are about helping to ensure a well-informed, literate citizen that is able to play a full role in the democratic process. Whether this is by ensuring all children have equal access to information resources, or whether it is by tackling the digital divide by providing free access to the internet to ensure everyone has equal access to government as services and information shift online.  Public libraries are not about producing and enabling greater consumption, but in ensuring that, as much as possible, all can engage equally with society and the democratic process.

So, I would argue that at present many are orientated to communicate with users as “customers” but, I would further argue, this is a consequence of a shift in local authority to the belief that profit and consumption are primary concerns whilst engagement in the democratic process and people as citizens being secondary concerns (if it is even on the radar at all). This shift is, in my mind, a direct consequence of the ingrained neoliberal ideology that has corrupted our public services and placed concern for the profit motive above that of the public good.

  1. You’re part of the “Radical librarians” in England (and Voices for the Library too), which emerged from the difficult situation facing public libraries due to cuts from the Government. This movement has a good presence in social media. How do you think you are helping to address the situation from the organized events, blogs and social networks?

The radical librarians movement emerged not just out of the so-called “austerity” agenda here in the UK, it is also a reaction against the increased marketisation of libraries in general,  the gradual corruption of the profession as ethics are abandoned in the hope of remaining “relevant” and a renewed focus on the roots of the profession. We have slowly grown and I think we have seen a slight shift in rhetoric across the profession in general since the emergence of RLC (Radical Librarians Collective), although I am realistic about the extent to which this is the case.

It has not been without its difficulties however. Initially there were many dismissive voices that were dispiriting and challenging to those of us that wished to open up spaces for conversations that had hitherto been hidden. There is also, of course, the danger of burn-out borne of unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve. For me, I think it is vital to ensure that you remain idealistic in thought and deed, but realistic in expectations. I think too often the idealistic can be too optimistic about what they hope to achieve and, in doing so, they run the risk of being exhausted and dispirited if their expectations aren’t realised. I think it is important to understand that building a lasting alternative takes time. What is vital is to build infrastructure, whether that be through gatherings (I don’t like the term “unconferences” but I guess that’s the popular term), journals, blogs and social networks. The building of radical frameworks is crucial to achieve what we want to achieve and our minds should be focused on that rather than outcomes.

In terms of RLC, the journal, social media and the gatherings all lay foundations for consolidation of radical ideas within the profession. By providing a platform for radical ideas, we increase the prospects of the ideas spreading and a clearer understanding of what it is to be radical with respect to the information profession. Before RLC, there was little room for such public discourse. The emergence of RLC not only provides a space for such discussion, but leads to an opportunity for it to spread and take root.

I think, by its nature, the emergence of such groundwork is important as, in the long-term, it helps to address concerns and sows the seeds for radical change. It is a long haul, but a continued focus on infrastructure building is our best hope to challenge the status quo.

  1. Librarians, at the library and the social networks, are working to improve access to information for citizens. People can have more knowledge, but … how to be aware of our freedom to change things, in your opinion?

I think it is vital that we (as librarians) facilitate access to information about alternatives. In the current climate, both politically and professionally, we are beset by the myth of TINA (There Is No Alternative). At a political level, this manifests itself in the belief that “austerity” (government spending cuts) is the only logical path to ensure national and economic wellbeing. In terms of our profession it manifests itself in the belief that the only way to ensure our relevance is to adopt the language and strategies of the market. Anyone seeking to espouse alternatives risks being seen as outdated and failing to acknowledge contemporary realities.

I see it as therefore vital that we facilitate a raised awareness of our freedom to change things. Not only in terms of citizenry but also professionally. The myth that we are neutral is a problem that besets our profession and needs to be overcome. We are a political profession that makes political decisions with every book we purchase and every collection we maintain, because our decisions are filtered through our own beliefs and prejudices. There is an imperative to provide the information required for individuals to form their own judgements. Users must not be steered, but we must ensure that the information sources we facilitate access to are valid and have a solid empirical basis and be wary of the dangers of applying equal weight to all resources. We must also make them aware of the risks inherent in the resources they use, but be mindful of overt intellectual direction. In facilitating such access and ensuring we avoid overt intellectual direction, we empower users and encourage greater intellectual freedom and therefore enable greater awareness of the freedom citizens have to engender change.

We must embrace the political nature of our profession. Realise that our core mission is to provide equality of access to information for all. In terms of our democratic systems, this means facilitating access to state information by guiding people on how they can hold the governing to account through Freedom of Information legislation. It also means giving people the tools to ensure they are protected from state surveillance and an abuse of their privacy.

Teaching these skills can undermine the current structures as people become aware of the methods by which they can protect themselves from the state apparatus, capitalist appropriation of their data and a pernicious neoliberal agenda. Providing such skills can help citizens not only understand how they can initiate change, but also ensures their own freedom. Citizen awareness of our freedom to participate and transform the world should be absolutely central to our profession, for without awareness of such freedoms we cannot ever be truly free.

The future for libraries across Europe against a backdrop of ‘austerity’

The following article was originally commissioned by the Russian International Affairs Council (original version here, English version here), who have very kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.

Image c/o Tristam Sparks on Flickr.

Libraries across Europe are currently facing very serious challenges in the face of the wave of austerity sweeping across the continent. As governments sell to their people the notion that public spending needs to be curtailed to overcome the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, public libraries are increasingly seen as an easy target, one that is unlikely to rally the people in quite the same way as cuts to other services where the outcomes of such cuts appear more immediately tangible.

But libraries continue to play an important role in our communities across Europe. They facilitate access to knowledge free at the point of use in a way that is increasingly threatened as we move towards a word where access to information comes at a price. They are the great leveller in democracies, ensuring everyone has access to the same quality of information. Where, for example, those without internet access (around 30% of the European population do not have a broadband internet connection) still have somewhere to go to ensure they have access to the same information as those that do. This provision is not only important to support children in their education but also the unemployed and those who rely on social security, particularly in the UK where those least likely to have a home internet connection are increasingly being forced to use such technology for their own financial security.

But libraries aren’t simply important in terms of providing access to new technologies, they are also vital for helping to raise literacy standards, and encourage children to develop their reading skills. The importance of libraries to children is perhaps best exemplified by the statistics that demonstrate that children are increasingly using public libraries, despite the internet and the proliferation of a range of competing activities. Over the past eight years in the UK, children’s fiction borrowing as risen year upon year, underlining how important public libraries are for supporting the educational development of the next generation.

In terms of the future for the library service, we are already seeing hints of how it might develop and, perhaps, how it should develop. In the UK, there has been a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’. The terminology appears harmless, but the reality is quite different. In order to support the drive to austerity, libraries are increasingly being forced upon communities who are then compelled to run them against their will. Whilst the majority of library users would prefer their public library to be run by the local authority, policy makers are more interested in reducing costs and passing these costs directly onto the community, effectively increasing their tax burden.

This ‘plague’ is sweeping across the UK and has been noticed elsewhere across Europe. In Spain, for example, volunteer run libraries are increasingly being seen as an option, at least in part due to their ‘commonality’ in the UK. Ideas that spring up in one European nation are sure to be experimented with elsewhere, particularly when it appears that the idea helps to support the austerity agenda that is so prevalent across the continent. It seems not far-fetched to say that volunteer libraries could, over the coming years, spread right across Europe and be seen as a standard way of delivering library services, complemented by large city ‘super-libraries’ such as that that opened in Birmingham in 2013.

If this is to be the future for public libraries across Europe, it is fair to say that the future looks bleak and there is likely to be only a small number of libraries fit for purpose across Europe as smaller libraries disappear and community libraries close due to their unsustainable nature. It would appear that one future is to have a well-funded, flagship library in each major city, but a steady decline in the number of small libraries serving local communities. In the UK alone we could see the number of public libraries shift from the thousands to the hundreds between now and the next century.

Whilst this is how things might develop, it is not necessarily how things should develop. Recent elections have shown just how important the internet has been in influencing the results. President Obama’s election campaign in 2008 showed how the internet could be harnessed to drive a successful presidential election. Not only is it the case that elections have become increasingly fought over the internet, but the battle between political parties has increasingly sought to channel the power of the internet as politicians increasingly see the internet as a vital weapon in the information wars. But this ‘war’ is not only being fought between politicians, there are other actors that influence the political information flow. Websites such as Full Fact, What Do They Know? and They Work For You have provided the tools to make it easier for those with an internet connection to hold their elected representatives to account, as well as to get to the truth about their activities. It is far easier to engage in the political process now than it has ever been. Provided you are connected to the internet.

We know that many people do not have an internet connection. We also know that, as with literacy standards, there is always likely to be a minority of the populace who cannot either access or make use of the information and tools that are at our disposal. We know that despite many years of effort to address literacy standards, there are still many who struggle with literacy (one in six according to the UK’s National Literacy Trust). For those that do struggle, the internet will present additional problems. Issues around literacy do not disappear once you sit in front of a computer. They persist, ensuring that a divide remains between those with good levels of literacy and those without.

So perhaps this points the way to an alternative role for libraries, how things should develop in the next one hundred years. Perhaps libraries should increasingly become gateways to our democracy, helping people to hold their elected officials to account, ensuring that the electorate are well informed and able to influence the political sphere. As well as supporting them through the provision of access to government portals as governments increasingly adopt a ‘digital by default’ strategy, maybe they can also help to ensure the people can watch over the state and ensure it can be held to account. It may require a different model across Europe, one that is more independent of state and therefore at enough of a distance to ensure it can hold governments to account.

Perhaps the volunteer model that is rapidly being adopted is a hint to a better alternative that is being ignored on the basis of political ideology. Rather than ‘community libraries’ run by people with a gun held to their head, maybe a closer, stronger partnership between the community and the professionally delivered service is the answer. Maybe the example of the University of Mondragon suggests an interesting, more desirable alternative.

Mondragon operates on a co-operative model that is highly de-centralised and engages all partners in the delivery of education. It also has a highly democratic governance structure:

Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team.

Perhaps this is a model that libraries across Europe should be exploring. A professionally delivered service run in partnership with its users and other co-operative libraries. The potential for such a service is great, but the idea itself could be easily corrupted. Efforts to expand on mutuals in the UK have already raised alarm amongst interested parties such as Co-operatives UK and the Trades Union Congress. As such, this alternative future should perhaps be handled with care and one that advocates should be careful to ensure the idea is not corrupted and abused.

There is certainly the potential to build an alternative future for public (and, indeed, academic) libraries in the future. At present the future appears to be developing in a way that will result in the slow destruction of a public library network across Europe. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Libraries should develop as institutions that can help the people of Europe engage in democratic processes, they should be at the centre of a drive towards transparency across the continent. A well-funded and well-resourced library service should enhance democracies throughout Europe. The future might look bleak, but it should look transparent.

Neoliberalism, language and ‘The Alternatives’

Neoliberalism n. a political philosophy that argues in favour of privatisation, deregulation, and shrinking of the state to the benefit of the private sector.

(Image c/o Michael Thompson on Flickr.)

Neoliberals have a peculiar belief system. They believe that neoliberalism is about shifting power away from the state, freeing us from its “oppressive” influence on every aspect of our lives. It is about freedom and liberty. It is about the individual having more control over our lives. Of course, this doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. Whenever neoliberals are in a position of power, they have to deceive the people to ensure that their political philosophy can be put into action. Deception because, ultimately, the people will often reject the reforms proposed if they were offered to them in advance and with total transparency (see the NHS). It’s why very often the most extreme neoliberal reforms take place under authoritarian regimes (Chile being the obvious example).

Deceit is one weapon they deploy frequently and with ease. But more broadly, their weapon is language. It is through language that they are most effective in winning arguments and closing down perfectly rational opposition to their political philosophy. It is their chief weapon against dissent.  As Greene and McMenemy argue (£):

“The introduction of the concept of choice for individual public service users is an example of a neoliberal rhetorical tool used to overcome any foreseen resistance to marketisation and restructuring of the public sphere.”

Terms such as ‘choice’ are deployed in such a way as to ensure that opponents of neoliberal philosophy are seen as somehow opposed to ‘choice’, opposed to the individual being able to exercise their right to ‘choose’. Thus any dissent is effectively neutered. After all, what right-thinking person could be opposed to the inalienable right for an individual to choose?

This neutering of debate and hijacking of language is apparent in much of the language we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Presenting a new initiative as ‘efficient’ or ‘progressive’, for example, ensures that anyone who disagrees with these positions is easily labelled as somehow ‘anti-progress’ or as a defender of inefficiency (it’s worth noting that in the UK and US the term ‘progressive’ is used in very different ways by the right-wing. In the UK it is a term embraced by the right for political expediency, the US right-wing sees it as a term of abuse). Neoliberal maneuvering can, therefore, ensure that opponents are seen by the majority as old-fashioned and out-of-touch, even when the opponents are perhaps even more radical and forward-thinking.

We see this frequently across society in general and in terms of our own profession. Those who object to certain language or who question certain new ideas are seen as obstructive, outdated refuseniks who merely hold back both the profession and the institution as a whole. However, I would argue that such voices are not merely naysayers, refusing any hint of ‘progress’. They can and do hold ‘forward-thinking’ ideas that are often truly radical in the sense that they offer an alternative path that sits outside established orthodoxies.

One example of the infiltration of neoliberal ideology is the growing use of the word ‘customer’. This is a problematic term for a public service to utilise. Reflecting on an interaction in an art exhibition with a representative of “customer liaison”, Doreen Massey notes in her article “Neoliberalism has hijacked our vocabulary”:

“The message underlying this use of the term customer for so many different kinds of human activity is that in all almost all our daily activities we are operating as consumers in a market – and this truth has been brought in not by chance but through managerial instruction and the thoroughgoing renaming of institutional practices. The mandatory exercise of “free choice” – of a GP, of a hospital, of schools for one’s children – then becomes also a lesson in social identity, affirming on each occasion our consumer identity.”

Indeed, as the late Tony Benn explained in an interview for Michael Moore’s Sicko, the term ‘customer’ implies a financial transaction, one where money must pass hands. The implication, therefore, is that if you do not have money you cannot be a customer as you do not have the means to pay for the service. This, of course, gets to the heart of neoliberal doctrine – that everything has its price. The risk of employing such terminology is that it validates neoliberal ideology. Not only validates, but also opens the door to commercial influences and, ultimately, commercial “expertise” (this is why language should be carefully deployed, it ultimately erodes the influence of the professional). After all, if you are going to argue that concepts such as ‘customer services’ are integral to the delivery of library services, why not get in the ‘experts’? However, there are alternatives visions to the relationship between the user and the service. Visions that are not old-fashioned and archaic, but fresh and “forward-thinking” (to adopt clumsy terminology).

Take, for example, Noam Chomsky’s view of on an alternative future for higher education:

“First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.”

That seems to me to be a truly forward-thinking and radical idea. Although it is radical only in the sense that the current social and political climate makes it appear radical. Who could argue that this is not a ‘forward-thinking’ proposition? It rejects standard orthodox thinking, replacing a hierarchical system with something more democratic. Replacing a traditional approach with something alternative, untested and, ultimately, revolutionary.

The alternative path to a customer/service relationship need not be old fashioned and traditionalist. It can be radical, bold and resolutely non-traditional. Rejecting the customer/service relationship need not mean that the refusenik lacks a radical, alternative vision. Indeed, the alternative may be more radical than that which accepts traditional hierarchical structures and operates within broader environmental and political norms. To a certain extent, this radical alternative to the neoliberal customer/service relationship is already being tested in Spain.

Whilst not a perfect example of the kind of structures that could exist as an alternative to the neoliberal model, Mondragon University does offer a more democratic, co-operative system. In comparison to the neoliberal model, it is somewhat radical in that it rejects orthodox hierarchical structures. As Times Higher Education discovered last year:

“The university has a highly democratic governance structure. Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation [note: Mondragon Corporation is the overall federation of workers cooperatives which includes Mondragon University]. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team. (It last used this power in 2007 when one manager was dismissed, according to Altuna.)

“Mondragon is also highly decentralised. “We say that the chancellor [also known as the rector] has less power than the deans,” says the current holder of the top post, Iosu Zabala Iturralde. (Zabala appears to be the only member of staff who wears a tie – but he does not go as far as wearing a suit jacket.)”

This alternative to the neoliberal model is forward-thinking in outlook. Embracing a system that enables all stakeholders to be actively involved in the governance of the institution. The alternative to neoliberalism is not, therefore, backward or ‘anti-progress’. It is clearly more forward-thinking and ‘progressive’ than the neoliberal model that merely shifts hierarchies whilst factoring in cynical exploitative economics.

Opponents of increasing neoliberal language and ideas are not always, therefore, regressive unreconstructed dinosaurs. The alternative vision is not necessarily one that sees a return to an old fashioned way of delivering a service. It can be just as forward-thinking and ‘radical’, if not more so as it abandons the hierarchies beloved of traditionalists and neoliberals. And yet still to question neoliberal language and ideas is to be seen as a defender of an ‘old order’. As an ‘obstacle’ to progress. As someone that is holding back the profession and the institution. Why should this be?

There is an alternative to the neoliberal model. We can create a system that rejects neoliberal ideology and embraces something new, alternative and radical, something that is distinct from existing norms.  We can create a system that is co-operative, democratic and that ensures all stakeholders have an equal say in the delivery of services. This alternative is forward-thinking and radical. The problem is, how to deploy language?

At present there is a lack of clarity regarding what makes a radical, non-traditional alternative to the customer/service or neoliberal models that seem so dominant at present. It is difficult to coherently express this vision when the terms of debate and language have been co-opted by a neoliberal agenda. But it is vitally important to ensure that those that reject the current terms of the debate are not dismissed as irrelevant or as a block on ‘progress’. The alternatives are radical. The alternative is a break from existing orthodoxies. It just hasn’t yet been communicated effectively. If we can communicate the alternative effectively, maybe it could be possible to construct a model that re-casts the relationship between the institution and the user as less cynical and more co-operative.