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.

How librarians became Thatcherite and the myth of TINA

Image c/o Simon Q on Flickr.

The end of the Second World War in 1945 saw not only an end to the global conflict, but also to the old economic order. The election of the first Labour government in the UK paved the way for a rejection of the economic policies practiced in the pre-war era, and the acceptance of a new model of economic governance – one based on a belief that government intervention in the economy is necessary to create stability and prosperity. However, this adoption of a new economic approach was not solely the preserve of the Labour party; it was also (broadly speaking) accepted by the Conservative Party in what became known as the post-war consensus.

From 1945 onwards, economic policies formulated by John Maynard Keynes were adopted by both the dominant political parties. There were, of course, tensions on the margins of both, but in the centre (where leadership tends to reside within political movements) there was a consensus that to ensure security and prosperity, the government of the day must adopt:

  1. The goal of full employment;
  2. The acceptance of the role of trade unions;
  3. A mixed economy, with a degree of state ownership of the utilities;
  4. A functioning, equitable welfare state;
  5. An adherence to progressive taxation and redistributive welfare spending.

From 1945 to the late seventies, this consensus remained in place with both parties, to varying degrees, ensuring that Keynes’ economic theories remained at the forefront of government policy. This ultimately led to a great post-war boom and a far greater degree of income equality. However, this “consensus” was not without its tensions, with the right-wing increasingly dismissive of this economic consensus. In the mid to late seventies, these tensions finally burst to the surface and led to the termination of the Keynesian approach to managing the economy.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 led to the final breakdown of this post-war consensus (arguably this began with Callaghan’s government going to the IMF and obtaining a loan which came with a variety of conditions regarding the shrinking of the state). Having been largely dismissive of the post-war consensus and the restrictions it placed on corporate Britain, Thatcher launched a programme of (highly unpopular) reforms to the economy. Assets were sold off, old state industries were attacked and the post-war consensus which had at its heart the notion of the “citizen” and “society” was abandoned, explicitly rejecting the latter and embracing a renewed faith in freedom, choice and the power of the individual. The erosion of the “citizen” had begun, replaced with a belief that we are, effectively, no more than consumers and customers who must be unconstrained by the state in a truly free market economic system.

In 1983, Thatcher underlined this break from the post-war consensus when she gave a speech to the young Conservatives. Mocking the Opposition, Thatcher asked delegates:

“Could Labour have managed a rally like this?”

(The answer from the delegates was, of course, “no”.)

She went on to add:

“Well, in the old days perhaps. But not now. For they are the party of yesterday. And tomorrow is ours.

“We are all here to state our faith in Britain’s future and our determination to keep her strong and free.”

Whilst this was clearly an attack on Labour, it also signified that, under her premiership, the post-war consensus was dead. It was as much a message to her own side as to the opposition. When she refers to “the party of yesterday” she means a party wedded to the post-war consensus, as Labour remained in the early 80s. When she says “tomorrow is ours” she doesn’t just mean the Conservative Party, she means supporters of her particular brand of conservatism. The “tomorrow” evoked is, clearly, a Thatcherite vision and it is the Thatcherite vision of society that will, in her belief, endure. Indeed, as her next sentence makes clear, not only will it endure but it will be fundamental to a “strong and free” future. This vision was part of the overall belief pushed by her administration that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). The only path to prosperity is the Thatcherite path; there are no other viable options (and certainly the ‘old’ approach was not to be considered viable).

For Thatcher, the only path to ensure security and prosperity was a shrinking of the state and an adherence to free market economics, influenced by figures such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. After the economic shock of the 70s and the subsequent IMF bailout, the only way to ensure the country was secure and remained one of the world’s leading economies was to fully embrace the free market, unencumbered by state interference (as they saw it). There was, as far as Thatcher and her supporters were concerned, no alternative. The alternative that was envisioned by Labour was considered archaic, a remnant from a previous age, alien to the realities of the modern world. A rejection of the Thatcherite path was considered a danger to the UK, a manifesto for instability and self-destruction. As far as Thatcher and her supporters were concerned, the monetarist counter-revolution influenced by Friedman’s economic ideas was essential to overturn the Keynesian orthodoxy that had existed in the post-war period.

TINA has become so deeply ingrained in our society that the Thatcherite ideology has percolated its way throughout our social and political life. We saw, with the emergence of Tony Blair, that even the Labour party cast aside any remaining adherence to the post-war consensus and accepted broad swathes of Thatcherite policy, dispensing with any remaining notion that they could in any way be considered a party of the socialist left. Under Blair, the party adopted the mantra of the free market and trumpeted its ‘values’, ushering in a new era of corporate influence of state infrastructure (see the infamous “Clause 4 Moment”). It now seems barely possible to consider alternatives (say, for example, the raft of policies that were accepted as part of the post-war consensus) without being painted as either a dinosaur from an earlier age, or a dangerous radical. What was once an accepted position across the political establishment, part of a broad consensus, has become either ‘radical’ or old-fashioned.

This market orientated doctrine has infiltrated all of our public services and is having a damaging impact upon professions. We have seen, as free market ideas have infiltrated public services, a growth of commercial, corporate language within the public sector. We have seen this in the rise of the use of terms such as “customer” and “marketing” in areas where they once had no place. Our language has become corrupted, commercialised in a way that wasn’t conceivable pre-Thatcher. Whereas once the rhetoric was about citizens and their rights, now it’s about consumers and their choices. This has become so deeply ingrained that rejecting the language of the market is considered backward or dangerous.

We have seen this within librarianship. We have had our own TINA moment. The embrace of consumerist language is, as Thatcher’s ideology always insisted, the only game in town. Increasingly we are led to believe that we have to adopt both the language and the approach of the market to ensure our security and prosperity. For example, in a document entitled “What Makes A Good Library Service”, CILIP (the professional body for library and information professionals) advised that for a service to be considered “good”:

Staff should be helpful, knowledgeable, welcoming and well-trained. They should be involved in a workforce development programme. Staff in front line customer service roles should be supported by specialists in service planning and promotion, leadership and management, and those areas of service delivery requiring specialist skills and expertise.

In 2010, the now defunct Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) published a practitioner guidance document called “What do the public want from libraries”. The document contains 31 references to customers. One section, “Expanding the offer – target genuine customer needs, don’t squeeze out books… just add coffee”, advised (with fairly clear implications if not adopted):

Coffee bars should be seriously considered by all libraries who don’t have one already. As well as driving up visitor numbers they can generate income and are an opportunity to build links with a local business.

The Society of Chief Librarians recently trumpeted additional funding from Arts Council England (ACE) by claiming it would be used “locally in areas critical to customers’ lives and well being”. And ACE, recently given the task of overseeing libraries following the disbanding of the MLA, worked with Locality over a six month period last year to:

“…explore existing good practice and assess the potential to further enable income generation to support and enhance as well as to improve the overall resilience and sustainability of library services.”

Again, income generation (whereby citizens become customers) is seen as essential for “resilience and sustainability” (much as Thatcher’s reforms were supposedly, as her supporters presented it, crucial for the resilience and sustainability of the UK econonmy). The consumerist narrative that is a crucial foundation of current economic and political orthodoxy, has become central to the survival of public libraries. The implication of the work between the Arts Council and Locality being that without this “income generation” the future of library services is under threat (there is no alternative.)

Our need to accept this terminology is pushed at us from both within and without the profession. Its use by official bodies (particularly bodies representing the profession) normalises it. The shift to market-orientated approaches that has emerged since the counter-revolution has infiltrated not only our public services, but our professions. The only viable way forward, so it seems, is to accept this reality and orientate our services to ensure a degree of customer services excellence. If we don’t, we risk the stability and long-term future of the service. We are, as the country was in the mid-70s, at a point of crisis. Salvation will come by adopting the language and structures of those that prosper within the free market.

Of course there are alternatives. We can ensure the survival and prosperity of both the profession and libraries in general through alternatives to market-orientated rhetoric, just as there are alternatives to liberalised free market economies (see Syriza’s rejection of the austerity orthodoxy).  There is a very real danger that we could find ourselves boxed-in, only seeing solutions that have their roots in the market. We wouldn’t be the first profession to make this mistake. Economists themselves made the mistake of believing that the free market, unencumbered by the stabilisation of the state that Keynes advocated, would provide the answers to our economic woes and bring prosperity and stability. As the past seven years have demonstrated, they have been proved utterly wrong. As economist Paul Krugman notes, “Keynesian economics remains the best framework we have for making sense of recessions and depressions.” Economists made a mistake in rejecting alternatives because it believed in the market, we’d do well not to make the same mistake.

The need for information: are the free market and freedom of choice incompatible?

Are we truly free in a free market economy?
(Image c/o Daniel Lobo on Flickr.)

The notion that capitalism and free choice go hand in hand seems to be incontrovertible. For decades we have been led to believe that the two are interdependent. Freedom of choice and individual liberty are only possible in a capitalist society built on the foundations of a free market. As Milton Friedman, the arch-capitalist and God to the economic far-right, once claimed:

“Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.

According to the Friedmanite far-right (and let’s not kid ourselves, Friedmanites are on the far-right), true individual freedom is borne out of a free market. Without such an economic model, there is no freedom, no liberty, no freedom to choose – at least, that’s as they would have it.

It speaks volumes for the times we live in that this ideology is accepted as a given. As we know the dogma of the economic far-right has been broadly accepted as the only theory in town. There are slight deviations from the ideas and models outlined by Friedman and his acolytes, but they are slight. Both the centre-left and the centre-right have adopted the language and ideology of the far-right economists, pushing the notion that if we are to be a truly free society, we need to consolidate the free market economy. But is this really the case? Are we a free society under a free market model?

Fundamental to any definition of freedom is the ability for the individual to be able to choose freely. Without freedom of choice, you have a fairly limited freedom. But to be able to choose you need to have the tools at your disposal to make informed choices. You cannot make a choice if you do not understand the nature and implications of the choices that you make. The ability to choose freely is, therefore, central to any notion of liberty.

I recently stumbled across a blog post by Puffles that underlines a key issue regarding choice:

For ‘choice’ to work, you need the means to exercise it. In neo-liberal world, this particularly means having the money. But it also means having the information, knowing how to use/interpret it and also having the time to do so.

In a free-market economy, true liberty is dependent on both income and access to information. Furthermore, it does not necessarily follow that if you have the means at your disposal to access information that you are also in a position to interpret and utilise that information in order to make free, informed choices. Of course, all of this is dependent on whether the information is available to make those choices in the first place. Very often, the information we need to make rational choices is not publicly accessible.

Whilst it is often suggested we live in an ‘Information Age’, in many respects we still face familiar barriers in terms of the control of the flow of information. Whether it is the state or corporate interests, there still exists forces which attempt to disrupt the flow of information, preventing the development of a fully informed citizenry able to make rational choices. Indeed, in a capitalist economy it is in the interests of both the state and corporations that we do not enter a state of total transparency where citizens have access to information and therefore can make informed choices. The consequences for both corporations and the state of a society entirely transparent would be devastating.

The exposure of the pharmaceutical industry in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma is a case in point. In his book, Goldacre reveals the extent to which ‘unflattering’ negative results are buried by the industry. In fact, as Goldacre points out, ‘trials with positive results are about twice [as likely] to be published as trials with negative results’. As Goldacre wrote in the Telegraph last year:

“…drug companies can hide information about their drugs from doctors and patients, perfectly legally, with the help of regulators. While industry and politicians deny the existence of this problem, it is widely recognised within medical academia, and meticulously well-documented. The current best estimate is that half of all drug trials never get published.”

Goldacre adds:

“…while regulators should be helping to inform doctors, and protect patients, in reality they have conspired with companies to withhold information about trials. The European Medicines Agency, which now approves drugs for use in Britain, spent more than three years refusing to hand over information to Cochrane on Orlistat and Rimonabant, two widely used weight loss drugs. The agency’s excuses were so poor that the European Ombudsman made a finding of maladministration.”

The free market, with its insistence on light touch regulation or ineffective regulators, enables an environment where information about trials is withheld from doctors, professionals who rely on information to make crucial decisions affecting the lives of their patients. Where there is regulation, it is so loose as to allow regulators to conspire with those they are supposed to be regulating. By withholding this information, not only are doctors not able to make the appropriate choices, but patients’ lives are put at risk. And for what reason? Because it would damage corporate profit, as Cory Doctorow underlines in an article on Goldacre’s book:

Paroxetine, a drug that was known to be ineffective for treating children, which had a risk of suicide as a side-effect, widely prescribed to children, because GlaxoSmithKline declined to publish its research data after an internal memo stated “It would be commercially unacceptable to include a statement that efficacy had not been demonstrated, as this would undermine the profile of paroxetine.

In a free market system, control over the flow of information is paramount. Transparency may enable true freedom of choice, but it can also damage business interests and profits. In a free market system, if access to information can damage profits, access must be controlled and the flow of information must be restricted. Where access to information is controlled, freedom of choice clearly cannot be possible. For how can one make a truly ‘free’ choice if one does not have the information at one’s disposal to make that choice effectively?

The food industry is another example of the gap between what free market advocates claim and the reality of liberty in a free market economy. For several years there have been calls to better regulate the food industry. Ultimately, all previous attempts have failed because corporations have argued very strongly that any such regulation would actually hurt consumers rather than ensure they are better informed. As a result, instead of ensuring strictly applied regulations, governments have encouraged voluntary systems that they believe are sufficient to protect the consumer and provide the information they require to make those informed choices.

As I wrote back here, intense efforts were made by the food industry to prevent the EU from introducing a mandatory traffic light system, a system that would have enabled the consumer to make a more informed choice about the food they bought. Rather than adopt a system that would provide the consumer with more information, the food industry spent €1bn lobbying to maintain the status quo. Again, the reasoning is clear. Regulation designed to make the industry more transparent will hurt profits and so, as with the pharmaceutical industry, the needs of the business come before the needs of the consumer. With government unwilling to legislate, corporations will ensure that their profits are protected by resisting any call for transparency. Strictly appplied regulation can enable corporate transparency, the free market prevents it. In essence, the free market inhibits the individual’s freedom of choice by placing corporate profit above transparency.

Is the free market compatible with genuine freedom of choice? I would argue that it is not. It is clear that transparency is a threat to corporate interests and, therefore, it is crucial that citizens are not prevented from accessing information with which to make informed choices – a mark of true liberty. You cannot exercise freedom of choice if you do not have access to the information with which to make that choice. In order to do so, you must have both access to information and the means with which to understand it. If corporate interests are unwilling to provide such information to ensure informed choices, it is incumbent on government to ensure that information is made available via the levers available to them. The introduction of strictly applied regulation, enforced transparency across the corporate sector and the death of far-right free market economics will enable true freedom of choice. The free market never can.

Designing a better library experience

A few weeks back I was asked by a CPD25 Task Group member if I would be willing to talk about the use of social media as a tool for engaging with students and obtaining feedback, primarily as a result of this blog post I wrote a while back.  The presentation would be one of four looking at how universities and libraries can obtain feedback from students. Other presentations included a representative from Anglia Ruskin talking about their ‘Tell Us’ scheme, Jo Aitkins from the award winning University of Leicester and Niru Williams (University of East London) on the International Student Barometer (I’ll try to write all of these up at some point).

My presentation was split into three main parts:

  • definining the current HE environment
  • how social media can assist in the challenges this new environment brings
  • our experiences of using social media at Christ Church.


The final slide contains a list of references made throughout the presentation which hopefully will be of interest.  That said, if you would like to see the script, do feel free to drop me a line.  One article that isn’t listed but influenced the title of the presentation and reinforced some of my beliefs, was “Students tweet the darndest things about your library – and why you need to listen” [PDF] by Steven Bell of Temple University, Philadelphia. It was this article that led to the discovery of some interesting stats related to Twitter use that are quoted in the presentation and I agree wholeheartedly with his concluding paragraph.

Finally, my presentation touched on some theories around ‘relationship marketing’, indeed they provided the foundation for much of the presentation.  If you are interested in this area, I’d really recommend Service Management and Marketing by Christian Grönroos.  I used it quite heavily when completing the marketing module on the MSc and I think it has some interesting ideas.  That said, ‘marketing’ is a controversial term in LibraryLand, and rightly so.  Some of the terminology associated with it is, I think, inappropriate for public sector institutions.  Some of the ideas are sound, but certain aspects are not a comfortable fit.

To that end, I came across a fascinating article a couple of days ago exploring this particular area.  Marketing and Public Sector Management [PDF] by Kieron Walsh may have been written back in 1994, but I think it is one of the most intelligent articles on ‘marketing’ in the public sector that I have come across.  I’ve always been taught never to end a piece of writing with a quote, but I think this is an appropriate point to end on:

Marketing is a dangerous language for the public service to begin to speak, because the way that we think is influenced by the language that we use. However ill-defined the public service ethic may be, we do need to distinguish between the values that guide the public and private sectors. It is already apparent that the language of commercialism fits ill with that of service…If marketing is to be developed for the public realm, then it will need to develop a language that is defined by the specific character of that realm, not negatively, by contrast with the private sector.

Opening the floodgates – Library Land and the perils of the free market

Lauren Smith recently wrote an excellent post on the “political elephant in the room” in libraryland.  She hits the nail bang on the head in terms of the need to be conscious of the language that is used and how this impacts upon both the profession and beyond.  For me, one of the biggest concerns in this regard is the influence and power of the rhetoric of the market, particularly the creeping impact of free market ideologies and where this will ultimately lead.

 

It is important to be clear that the free market is not a benign force that can be easily manipulated.  On the contrary, it is a dangerous force that threatens to destroy professions and create a culture of amateurism.   The profit motive is not one that drives up standards, instead it diminishes them substituting the ideals of quality for “cost-effectiveness” and supposed ‘efficiency’.  Some might argue that, handled with care, free market ideology can be ‘humanised’ and adapted to make it benign and acceptable.  I would argue, however, that this is at best naive and at worst highly dangerous, particularly in the field of information production and consumption.  There is a pressing need to be aware of the nature of market forces and be prepared to confront them, but adopting the mannerisms and ideologies of the free market is not the way to do so.

In his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel provides a number of examples of the consequences of permitting the market to gain a foothold in areas where it was previously anonymous. For example, Sandel points to the impact the market has had on baseball paraphernalia and memorabilia.  According to Sandel, the collection of baseball memorabilia and autographs went from being an innocent activity to satisfy an individual collector, to a ruthless marketplace where people literally fought for the right to own highly marketable and valuable property.

The turning point came in the 1980s when such memorabilia became viewed as “marketable goods”, bought and sold by a growing number of collectors. Seeing the growth of this market, baseball players jumped in and began offering their autographs for a fee (sometimes for as much as $20 per autograph).  By the end of the century, the market was such that fans literally fought over memorabilia.  In one case, a ball hit for a record breaking home run led to a mass brawl and months of legal wrangling in the courts.

It is unlikely that baseball players trading their autographs knew the consequences of their actions, but they certainly hastened the extent to which baseball memorabilia became a highly lucrative business.  It is interesting to note that whilst many baseball players did play the game of selling their autographs for money, a minority did not.  That minority found the notion of selling their autographs for money obscene and undermined the relationship between themselves and their fans.  However, it is clear that due to the actions of the majority, the market corrupted this relationship and those who did refuse to open up to the market were unable to stem the tide.  Those who did “play the market” very quickly found that the market ended up playing them.

However, such naivety when it comes to markets is not restricted to sports. Troublesome though that undoubtedly is, there are areas where a failure to grasp the danger of playing with market forces can have an even more serious impact on society.  This is particularly the case in the field of information.  Where the information sector has been opened up to the market, there have been disastrous consequences and where it has not yet had an impact the prospects are bleak.

Education, for example, has increasingly been forced to open up to the marketplace.  Again, Sandel relates the potential impact that commercial interests can have on the education sector.  In relation to its impact in America, Sandel points out that whilst there has been a degree of commercialism in schools for some time (he points to the use of Ivory Soap in soap-carving competitions in the 1920s and ads in high school yearbooks), this influence has steadily risen since the 1990s.  A particularly good example of this is the rise of Channel One.

Channel One was launched in 1989 by Chris Whittle.  Whittle offered schools free television sets and video equipment in return for an agreement that the school will show the program every day and require all students to watch it.  As well as broadcasting a twelve minute news program, Channel One was also packaged with two minutes of commercials.  Due to its reach, it was able to charge corporations such as Pepsi, Taco Bell and the Army up to $200,000 per slot.  According to Sandel, Channel One effectively paved the way for corporations to have a significant presence in US schools, including corporate sponsorships and product placement.

This market ultimately extended to the distribution of “sponsored educational materials” to schools and a host of promotional materials sent to teachers.  As a result, students could learn about nutrition from materials supplied by McDonalds.  This is troublesome in many respects.  Schools should be a space free from bias and a place to encourage critical thinking, this is seriously compromised when the commercial sector has such an influence.  Indeed Sandel points to the example of Proctor and Gamble offering an environmental curriculum explaining that “disposable diapers were good for the earth” (Sandel, pp. 197-198).

Whilst these examples are restricted to the United States, they should cause alarm in terms of the existing plans for the education system in the UK.  The training of professional teachers is already seen as an expensive luxury.  Michael Gove has previously made it clear that a teaching qualification is not necessary to teach in academies.  As far as he and the government are concerned, teaching is not a skill to be acquired.  Whilst some might argue that education in our schools at present is severely lacking in applying critical thought in teaching, the introduction of unqualified teachers will surely exacerbate the extent of the problem.  Without a background in training and an ability to impart critical thinking, the role of the teacher merely becomes one of imparting unfiltered information and providing “crowd control”.  De-professionalisation is the ultimate aim, primarily because professionals are expensive and amateurs are, almost by definition, cheap.  The government are keen to encourage those from business and the private sector to get involved and teach, the removal of the need for a teaching qualification makes this significantly easier.  How long before corporations have members of staff on the payroll teaching in our schools and distributing materials that amount to nothing more than free publicity for our corporate elites?

Of course, the ultimate goal is to significantly reduce the traditional role of the teacher (some might argue to remove the teacher altogether).  The first step in this process is the de-professionalisation enacted by Gove.  The next stage is to automate the teaching process.  Think this is a far-fetched notion that is a long way off into the future?  Think again.  The latest Private Eye reveals that one corporation is already taking steps to make this a reality.

Rupert Murdoch recently announced that he was planning to “take on the education establishment and empower pupils” (words like “empower” are always utilised when the opposite is true).  The aim is to replace teachers with tablet computers in each of the schools with which Amplify (formerly known as Wireless Generation) has a contract.  Indeed, Amplify has announced it is developing its own “tablet-based platform” to “bundle curricular and extracurricular content” and “facilitate personalised instruction and enable anywhere, anytime learning”.  The tablets themselves would be paid for by reducing teacher budgets.  This is all happening in the United States but, of course, with deprofessionalisation a key government education strategy, it is not far-fetched to imagine that the technology would be adopted here at some point in the relatively near future.  With budgets effectively squeezed, pre-loaded digital content provides an attractive and cost-effective alternative. After all, you won’t need a teaching qualification if you are merely presenting pupils with pre-loaded content on a digital device.  As Private Eye comments, this is a “real world nightmare, where digital learning is used to turn schools into closed, captured markets for Murdoch.”

As for advertising in schools, now schools have been granted control over their own budgets, how long before headteachers desperate for money start selling advertising space within their schools?  Indeed, the US experience is instructive and deeply troubling.  Where schools have struggled financially, the market has offered a ‘neat’ solution.  But is this welcome?  And, more importantly, where is the debate?  Rarely is there any real debate or discussion about the impact that such commercialisation will have on our education system.  And yet the consequences of such developments are severe.  Are we really content to allow the commercial sector a significant presence in our school system?  Surely we want our children to experience an education system that encourages critical thinking and debate rather than brainwashing them with commercial messages provided by our school’s sponsors?

The impact of the market has already had a significant impact on the ways in which information is distributed.  One only need cast a glance at the impact the market has had on journalism to see that our access to quality information has been severely compromised.  As commercial pressures have grown, so have the media sought to reduce costs and protect their bottom line.  This has led to a move away from expensive investigative journalism (with the odd honorable exception) and towards a culture of churnalism.  To be a truly informed citizen in the so-called information age, one has to be more than just a consumer, one needs to actively seek out accurate and reliable information.  It is easy, however, to be complacent – to accept the information we are given without question, particularly when it is presented as authoritative and reliable.  Finding accurate, reliable information is time consuming, and that is before we even contemplate the dearth of critical analysis skills.

In short, the extent of the market has had a significant impact upon us in terms of the quality of information that is available to us as adults, and there is a serious threat to the quality available to our children.  Our sources of information are increasingly commercialised and subject to the whims of the market.  As Chomsky wrote in What Uncle Sam Really Wants:

“The media are only one part of a larger doctrinal system; other parts are journals of opinion, the schools and universities, academic scholarship and so on.” (Chomsky, How The World Works, pg 69)

In order to challenge these doctrinal systems and the systems of power, Chomsky reinforces the power of the library to connect people with original sources and thus circumnavigate the doctrinal systems that are in place.  Libraries, as repositories of information and providers without bias, enable the populace (with a bit of work admittedly) to access the materials that the larger doctrinal systems and power structures ignore.  They offer, effectively, the last bulwark against the influence of commercial interests in the dissemination of information and, therefore, the only institution standing that can ensure effective, participatory democracy (that is, true participation of the populace in our democratic institutions rather than the effective fig leaf that presently exists).  However, they only have the potential to do so. As Steven Harris noted back in 1999:

“Librarians should start recognizing that there are inequities in both the production and consumption of information, and that libraries themselves can reinforce those inequalities.”

There are inequalities (created by the doctrinal systems of education and the media) and both libraries and librarians can either reinforce them or challenge them.  It is fair to say, I think, that at present they are failing to challenge them.

The institution of the library and the role of the librarian are now under unprecedented ideological assault.  As the profession has failed to communicate its value, so it has seen its value greatly diminished.  As Lauren points out in her post:

“Agendas have been set and we haven’t acknowledged how political in nature they are. Librarians and information professionals don’t control the discourse around library and information issues. We haven’t made it clear what values we’re espousing, because a lot of the time we aren’t savvy enough to know. We’ve courted private companies and governments whose values directly undermine the values of librarianship, like free expression of thought, privacy, and equity of access.”

This is exactly the problem.  The power elites and the market (private companies) have no interest in the provision of access to information equitably and without bias.  Indeed, they are interested in the opposite, to preserve the status quo and ensure that the existing doctrinal systems are both broadened and consolidated.  It serves the interests of the market to ensure that these doctrinal systems are not undermined.  To ensure this, institutions that presently exist outside the realms of the market need to be brought inside.  Which is why we are witnessing the de-skilling of the library network, both through privatisation and amateurisation (ie volunteer run libraries).  The market cannot function effectively whilst there are elements existing outside it.  Control of all aspects of information dissemination (through education, the media and the public library network) ensures a world in which information is truly controlled by the market and there is no telling where this might lead. Whilst it is true that librarians have been slow to address the inequalities of the production and consumption of information, will the success of the assault on the profession make it more or less likely that these inequalities will be addressed?  The answer is, I think, self-explanatory.

 

The only way to limit the perils of the free market and its entrenchment of the doctrinal system is to ensure that it is confronted head-on.  This means debating openly and honestly about the institutions that we value and confronting the impact that the market will have. As Sandel concludes in his book:

“Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square.  But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided.  It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades.  The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance.  Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.” (Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, pgs 207-208)

But it is not enough to simply deliberate about the meaning of the social practices we prize, we also need to confront and challenge those that seek to control and widen the doctrinal system and consolidate the systems of power.  Again, as Chomsky notes:

“One of the things they want is a passive, quiescent population.  So one of the things that you can do to make life uncomfortable for them is not be passive and quiescent.  There are lots of ways of doing that. Even just asking questions can have an important effect…any system of power, even a fascist dictatorship, is responsive to public dissidence.” (Chomsky, How The World Works, pgs 71-72)

We need to question, we need to stop being passive and quiescent.  We need, ultimately, to confront the elephant in the room.