Dundee, Radical Librarianship and changing the world

The view on Dundee’s waterfront out across the River Tay.

A little while back I was approached to deliver a session at the CILIP Scotland conference on the concept of radical librarianship. I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to speak at the conference, not least because it also afforded me the opportunity to meet up with some of my favourite people on the internet (well, and generally some of my favourite people – hi Jennie, Lauren and Lisa!). I should make it very clear right from the start: I am not a spokesperson for the Radical Librarians Collective. If you are interested in someone coming to talk at your event about radical librarianship, then please do contact the Collective directly rather than me! Whilst I was delighted to be asked, we don’t want (I certainly don’t want) any one person to become the public face of the Collective. Ok, now that’s established, I guess I ought to talk about my talk and the conference itself…

As noted above, I was asked to basically do a talk explaining what radical librarianship is. Even for someone involved in it from the start, this was a fairly daunting task. I would argue that all of us engaged within the Collective have slightly different perspectives about what radical librarianship actually is. Not wildly different, but marginally different. This is probably not surprising, we come at this from different experiences, different backgrounds and environs, it’s not much of a surprise that we might have slightly different perspectives on the concept. For me, I hold to Angela Davis’ definition of “radical” – that it is about grasping things at the root. I see this in two respects: understanding the root causes of the issues we face (ie capitalism and, in particular, the neoliberal orthodoxy) and the roots of the profession (ie professional ethics and the values which are fundamental to the profession). So it was this dual interpretation that I decided to focus on.

I won’t go into the presentation itself in too much detail (I have a rough outline of a script here [ODT] and the slides are available below and original PDF is here – fonts render better on the original PDF compared to Slideshare), but I will explain the rationale behind the structure/content etc. Unlike some of my fellow RLC-ears, I’m not so good at the theory/philosophical stuff. For me, having come from an English Literature/History background, I tend to very much take an historical approach to my thinking. I look at and interpret historical events and use those to form the basis of my views and perspectives. For example, in my presentation I used the example of Chile, the coup against Allende and the policies of Pinochet to inform my views on neoliberalism, rather than the theories of Hayek and the economic thinking of Milton Friedman. I guess, ultimately, I’m more interested in the actual outcomes of political ideas than the theories and ideas that underpin them. I like to think (and I very much hope this is the case) that providing a historical perspective can be easier to engage with than heavy theory (although I appreciate not everyone is as enthused by history as I am).

The oppressed penguins of Dundee.

In terms of the structure, I decided early on I want to lay out a few themes and define them clearly to help establish some foundations on the talk. To that end I decided to outline how I interpret the word “radical” as well as explaining what “neoliberalism” is. Fortunately with the latter I came across an excellent article exploring neoliberalism which had a neat summary explaining the difference between laissez-faire, a planned economy and neoliberalism. It’s probably, for me, the clearest explanation I have come across and really underlines how it operates as a thing (hopefully if you read it you’ll agree!). As with other sources I used in preparing my presentation, I decided that I would add this to a list at the end of the presentation, highlighting not only resources I used in preparing it, but also other resources on related issues that I think people might be interested in. It did take up five slides, but I hope people find at least one text there of interest that they hadn’t come across before.

I also wanted to explore things such as surveillance and the myth of neutrality, as well as giving some examples of things that we have done in the Collective since it emerged. Surveillance in particular is a topic I’m very keen on us as a profession engaging in (this seems like a good place to plug my recent article…). Indeed, I was really pleased that that issue came up a few time throughout the conference in a number of different sessions and keynotes.

In terms of the other talks during the two day conference, all the keynotes were interesting in a variety of different ways. I was very much interested in the issues raised by Colin Cook, head of Digital Public Service for the Scottish government – I particularly liked the use of the term “digital participation” rather than “digital inclusion”. The former, for me, speaks of the importance of activity rather than just equal access. There’s something deeper and more meaningful about the notion of individuals participating rather than just being included. Again, this raises the question of surveillance and the impact of this upon the extent to which people can participate (marginally, because of the divide between those who can seek information online and those that cannot).

Gary Green talking about the most excellent Library A-Z Project.

These themes were again picked up by Stuart Hamilton, Director of Policy and Advocacy at IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions). It was interesting to hear of the work of IFLA in this area, the importance of intellectual privacy and information rights in general. I think it’s fair to say Stuart’s talk was the one I really got a lot out of. If you could design a keynote that hits all my buttons, then Stuart’s was pretty close to nailing it. So much so that, contrary to my standard conference tactic, I actually pitched a question after his talk (an actual question too, not one of those “I am going to wrap my question up in a point that I think will make me look good because I’m less interested in your perspective and more interested in grabbing a platform for myself” type things…):

Given the #ipbill is going through parliament today and the historic issue around individual liberty/privacy in the UK, what do you see we can do to protect intellectual privacy here?

Stuart’s response was basically we need to keep engaging and pushing in this area…particularly working with other groups (for example Open Rights Group) to help push forwards with this. I certainly think collaboration with ORG could lead to some very profitable developments for the profession, and I really hope something can move forward and develop in this area.

Other keynotes included Jan Holmquist (who I finally met having first made contact with him back in about 2009 when my local authority were looking at introducing ebooks and I was charged with investigating the possibilities), who talked about some of the interesting initiatives he has been involved with, particularly emphasising the notion that we should “think globally and act locally”. And we also had author James Robertson who delivered an entertaining talk with some interesting reference points, not least the reference to v. by Tony Harrison (not the pink bladder from the Mighty Boosh obviously…).

Other sessions I attended during the conference included Scottish PEN talking about some of the assaults on free expression across the world (again, the Investigatory Powers Bill came up here), which was very interesting yet depressing at the same time. I also got to see my good friend and colleague Gary Green delivering a talk on the Library A-Z Project, how it came about, how it was delivered and where it is now. It’s a great project and one that deserves a huge amount of credit, not least in the original way in which it seeks to advocate for libraries with key influencers and decision-makers (to use those rather euphemistic terms we use to describe people that wield power).

I’ve not been to many CILIP conferences over the years (although I have been to a fair few conferences now), but I really did enjoy this one very much. There seemed a good atmosphere and everyone seemed positively engaged in the conference as a whole. I certainly came away with plenty to think about, which is always a good sign about a conference (who likes a conference where you come away never thinking about the issues raised?).

Couple of additional things I’ve been contemplating as a consequence of the conference…

Libraries as safe spaces

This came up a lot during many of the talks I attended. Now, I don’t want to disparage this idea too much. I understand the safety that libraries offer. What I would argue, however, is that they offer a particular kind of safe space – a safe space free from violence that manifests itself physically. I’d argue, however, that libraries are more vulnerable to the kind of abstract violence against the individual employed by the state and its actors. So, for example, I would argue that libraries are not (currently) immune from mass surveillance. As a consequence then, is the space offered in the library no longer a safe one? Because you are ultimately protected from physical violence by person[s], but you are not immune from state violations upon you mentally. In a library you can only ever be safe from physical violence, not other forms of violence, perhaps?

Changing the world

One of the questions that cropped up was one that I had pretty much expected: isn’t it already too late – too late to tackle neoliberalism and the state we are in? To which I return to my history (because that’s ultimately how I try to understand the world). In Chile during the height of the Pinochet regime, change seemed nothing but a hopeless dream. But change happened. Although progress is slow, the forces of opposition to the Pinochet reforms are gaining strength. Reversal of reforms looks like a realistic possibility at last. The same is true throughout history. Societies are never static, they are ever changing. The challenge is to ensure that we are the ones that seize the opportunity to achieve change. I think that is possible.

In addition to this the broader picture regarding professionals also cropped up (I forget where this came up, I think possibly this was also at the end of my talk, but forgive me if the detail is hazy). My wife works in a different profession and I see the same issues there. Professionals have been the biggest culprits of our current malaise. They have broadly become (you could argue they always have been) apolitical in nature. The politics has been completely stripped out of our professional existence. Some might argue this is a net consequence of neoliberalism which, ultimately, seeks to replace ethics and values with one sole consideration: market exchange (I would subscribe to this). What I see RLC doing is tackling this head on within our own profession. Forcing people to confront our values and seek out ways to ensure that our ethics are defended against an assault by an ideology hostile to ethics, values and principles (because they obstruct the process of market exchange). Librarians can’t save the world, but they can save their profession. Further, if all professions were to vigorously defend their values and principles and seek solidarity with others across professions then, yes, maybe we could effectively block some of the hostile forces ranged against us and our communities. Who knows, maybe collectively we could halt the progress of neoliberalism, push back and reclaim territory. Maybe. Can librarians change/save/liberate the world? No, emphatically not. Can people? Absolutely.

It is easy to be disheartened in the battle for change. The forces defending the status quo are very strong. Here in the UK, we very much exist in a country that has rarely seen dramatic change and has instead drifted down a particular course with very little deviation (I can think of maybe two real examples in the last century – the immediate post-war Attlee government and the Thatcher government). As I said in my talk, I know that the world I want to see won’t emerge in my lifetime (if at all). The important thing for me, and the thing that keeps me prepared to battle, is to remain idealistic in my goals, but realistic in my expectations. It’s the expectations that will kill you, it’s the idealism that makes you feel alive.

Further Reading

DEFINITION OF A RADICAL:   Davis, A. Y. (1984). Women, culture and politics, London: The Women’s Press Ltd

CORE PRINCIPLE OF NEOLIBERALISM: Fox, J. (2016). “Neoliberalism” is it? Retrieved from: opendemocracy.net/uk/jeremy-fox/neoliberalism-is-it

WHAT IS NEOLIBERALISM?: Martinez, E. & Garcia, A. (nd). What is Neoliberalism? A Brief Definition for Activists. Retrieved from corpwatch.org/article.php?id=376

FREE MARKET LIBERALISM: Smith, A. (1776). The Wealth of Nations.

NEOLIBERALISM AS TERRORISM: Letizia, A. (2012). A Conversation with Henry A. Giroux. Retrieved from: http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/13030-a-conversation-with-henry-a-Giroux

LIBRARIES AS APOLITICAL INSTITUTIONS: Annoyed Librarian (2006). Libraries as Liberal Institutions. Retrieved from http://annoyedlibrarian.blogspot.co.uk/2006/12/libraries-as-liberal-institutions.html

ALL LIBRARIANSHIP IS POLITICAL: Jaeger, P. T. & Sarin, L. C. (2016) All Librarianship is Political: Educate Accordingly. The Political Librarian. 2(1), Article 8. Retrieved from: openscholarship.wustl.edu/pollib/vol2/iss1/8

NEUTRALITY: nina de jesus (2014) Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression. In the library with the lead pipe. inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/locating-the-library-in-institutional-oppression/

PROFESSIONAL ETHICS: CILIP (2015) Ethical Principles. Retrieved from: http://cilip.org.uk/about/ethics/ethical-principles

LIBRARIES AND PERSONAL DATA: Travis, A. (2016). Snooper’s charter: cafes and libraries face having to store Wi-Fi users’ data. Retrieved from: http://theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/13/snoopers-charter-theresa-may-cafes-wifi-network-store-customers-data

FEAR OF SPEECH BEING MONITORED: President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. (1967). The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, (February), 1–342. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=42

DECLINE OF WIKIPEDIA VIEWS: Penney, Jon, Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use (2016). Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 2016. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2769645

THE CHILLING EFFECTS: National Telecommunications and Information Administration (2016). Lack of Trust in Internet Privacy and Security May Deter Economic and Other Online Activities. Retrieved from https://www.ntia.doc.gov/blog/2016/lack-trust-internet-privacy-and-security-may-deter-economic-and-other-online-activities

CITIZENS AS CONSUMERS: Mobiot, G. (2016) Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot

VOCABULARIES: Massey, D (2015). Vocabularies of the economy. Retrieved: https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/soundings/kilburn-manifesto

MORALITY OF NEOLIBERALISM: Amable, B. (2011). Morals and politics in the ideology of neo-liberalism. Socio-economic Review, 9(1) 3-30. DOI: 10.1093/ser/mwq015

NEOLIBERALISM IN CRISIS: Peck, J., Theodore, N. and Brenner, N. (2010), Postneoliberalism and its Malcontents. Antipode, 41: 94–116. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2009.00718.x

IMMEDIATE RESULTS: Luxemburg, R. (1900). Reform or revolution? Retrieved from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/ch05.htm

WHITENESS IN LIBRARIANSHIP: Hathcock, A. (2015). White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS. In the library with the leadpipe. Retrieved from: http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/lis-diversity/

JOURNAL OF RADICAL LIBRARIANSHIP: Barron, S. (2015) A radical publishing collective: the Journal of Radical Librarianship. In the library with the leadpipe. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/a-radical-publishing-collective-the-journal-of-radical-librarianship/

CRITICAL THEORY: Smith, L. (2014). Radical Librarians Collective (Part Three): Critical Theory. Retrieved from: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/

RLC GATHERINGS: Radical Library Camp: in the fight over information, librarians start to get organised. Open Democracy UK. Retrieved from: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/bradford-radlibcamp-collective/radical-library-camp-in-fight-over-information-librarians-

COMMODIFICATION OF INFORMATION PROFESSION: Lawson, S., Sanders, K. & Smith, L., (2015). Commodification of the Information Profession: A Critique of Higher Education Under Neoliberalism. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication. 3(1), p.eP1182. DOI: http://doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.1182

RLC OVERVIEW: Arkle, S., Brynolf, B., Clement, E., Corble, A. & Redgate, J. (2016). Radical Librarians Collective: An Overview. Post-Lib, 79.

CRITICAL INFORMATION LITERACY: Tewell, E. (2015) A Decade of Critical Information Literacy: A Review of the Literature. Communications in Information Literacy. 9(1), pp. 24-43. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10760/28163

DISASTER CAPITALISM: Klein, N. (2008). The Shock Doctrine. Penguin.

LATIN AMERICA: Guardiola-Rivera, O. (2011) What if Latin America ruled the world? Bloomsbury | Galeano, E. (2009). Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Serpent’s Tail.

CHILE: Guardiola-Rivera, O. (2014). Story of a death foretold. Bloomsbury

SURVEILLANCE & LIBRARIANSHIP: Clark, I. (2016). The Digital Divide in the Post-Snowden Era. Journal of Radical Librarianship, Vol. 2. Retrieved from: https://journal.radicallibrarianship.org/index.php/journal/article/view/12


CRITICAL THEORY: Critical Theory in Library and Information Studies reading list https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OJVC40-SPRKlw02ck2FBMySGHdtMAjan9m30IEa6GVg

INFOLIT: The IL Articles That Blew Us Away in 2015-16. Retrieved from: https://rlc.sandcats.io/shared/ejgPhpxK_gnyDuJi1fNajEMQT_npy1rpywfHgeOXgjY

Why librarians need to act on mass surveillance

We need to speak out as a profession against mass surveillance. Image c/o floeschie on Flickr.

Today the Investigatory Powers Bill has its second reading in parliament. The introduction of the Bill is not only a threat to society in general, it poses a serious threat to our profession and, in particular, our commitment to defend the intellectual privacy of our users. We must speak up as a profession to defend the rights of our users and, wherever possible, seek to defend their intellectual privacy.

Ever since the disclosures by Edward Snowden in 2013, I’ve been concerned about the impact of mass surveillance both on our society, and on us as professionals. Disappointingly, there seemed to be little in the way of action by the profession (particularly in the UK – hampered by a professional body that cannot be overtly political), until the Library Freedom Project came along and started making waves in the United States. Inspired by Alison Macrina’s work, I started to consider more deeply the impact of mass surveillance on our communities and the various issues it raised. For me, alongside concerns about intellectual privacy, it highlighted a further aspect of the digital divide: autonomy of internet use. Given the limited amount of literature on the relationship between the digital divide and surveillance, I decided this was an important area to explore more extensively. So, I started reading around and pulling together an extended piece for the Journal of Radical Librarianship on the topic.

The main inspiration for the piece was the article Intellectual Privacy by Neil Richards (which is available OA here and is highly recommended). For me this really crystallised some of the key issues around surveillance and the protection of intellectual privacy (the ability to read, communicate and seek out information without being observed doing so). Aside from the very crucial focus on intellectual privacy and its importance, Richards also highlighted the role of librarians in supposedly developing some of the “norms” of the concept itself. This role seems particularly strong in the United States (where Richards drew most of his examples), with even the ALA taking a role in advocating for the intellectual privacy of individuals through a variety of initiatives.

As well as Richards’ works, David Lyon also played a key role in forming my views. Lyon is a leading figure in surveillance studies and has written a number of invaluable pieces on the topic that, as with Richards, helped to clarify my thinking (see, for example, his paper on understanding surveillance today). For example, Lyon’s definition of surveillance was particularly useful in understanding how surveillance operates upon individuals. For Lyon, surveillance is about the “focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for purposes of influence, management, protection or direction”. It’s interesting (yet unsurprising in some respects) the extent to which surveillance within the UK is seen as primarily about protection, with little consideration with regards to how mass surveillance controls or “manages” individuals (or maybe we just don’t care that it controls us). What I also found particularly useful here is that Lyon’s definition doesn’t solely apply to the mass data collection by the state, it also relates to that growing phenomenon: corporate surveillance.

Surveillance and ethics

Clearly, there is a conflict between intellectual privacy and mass surveillance. If you exist in the conditions of the latter then you clearly cannot have the former. For society it presents a serious issue – for librarians it presents a critical issue that gets to the core of our professional ethics. If we cannot (or do not) protect the intellectual privacy of our users, then we are failing as professionals. Indeed, given we exist in a state of mass de-professionalisation, where volunteers are seen as adequate replacements for “expensive professionals”, we are rather making the case for our own extinction. If we do not have a set of ethics and professional values that we not only espouse but actively promote, what makes us any better than a volunteer?

In terms of the profession in general, there are clear guidelines from organisations representing our profession regarding the conflict between mass surveillance and our ethics. In 2005, for example, the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) produced a “Statement on intellectual freedom, access to information and censorship” and endorsed the Council of Europe’s ‘Public access to and freedom of expression in networked information: Guidelines for a European cultural policy’. The Council of Europe’s guidelines clearly stated that individuals are to “decide for themselves what they should, or should not, access” and that those providing the service should “respect the privacy of users and treat knowledge of what they have accessed or wish to access as confidential”. Furthermore, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) advised in their ‘Statement on Privacy in the Library Environment’ that information professionals have a responsibility to “reject electronic surveillance”, provide training on “tools to use to protect their privacy” and “respect and advance privacy at the level of practices and as a principle”. The message is clear, we have an obligation to ensure the privacy of our users and to provide them with the tools necessary to enable them to ensure the can defend their intellectual privacy.

Tackling the digital divide

This task is made even more urgent given the nature of the digital divide. We know well enough that access isn’t merely enough, but that individuals also require the skills with which to exploit the internet to their own advantage. In a report published in 2014, the BBC found that 1 in 5 adults lacked the four basic skills (send and receive emails, use a search engine, browse the internet, and fill out an online application form). Given that the most disadvantaged are most likely to be affected by mass surveillance it’s clear there is a need to provide the necessary support to ensure that everyone is able to ensure their intellectual privacy, not merely those with the means by which to do so. What is clear, post-Snowden is that the digital divide is as much about the gap between those who can protect their intellectual privacy and those who cannot, as it is about having the skills to be able to use the internet to benefit individuals economically, educationally and in terms of healthcare.

We, as a profession, have a clear commitment to tackle the digital divide. We play a crucial role in levelling the playing field, ensuring both access to the internet and support as individuals seek to exploit it to their own advantage. This crucial role is, of course, being undermined by the delivery of such support by the private sector, in particular banks (see Barclays Digital Eagles). Of course, corporations have no interest in ensuring privacy of the individual online, because greater privacy results in the exposure of less personal data which large corporations can exploit to drive profit. We, as a profession, are not beholden to share-holders. We have no reason to expose our users’ personal data for exploitation. We have ethical obligations not to expose the reading habits of our users. It is this that distinguishes us from banks and from volunteer run libraries.

It is, therefore, incumbent on us as library and information professionals to develop our skills with regards to online intellectual privacy, to seek to defend the intellectual privacy of our users and, more broadly, to speak out against government legislation that attacks our professional values as well as posing a threat to society in general. We have an obligation as professionals to defend intellectual privacy and to ensure that it is not only a value afforded to those endowed with social, cultural and economic capital, but also to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our communities. If we are serious about tackling the digital divide in all its manifestations, then we need to be serious about ensuring autonomy of use for all. So long as our communities are vulnerable to mass surveillance we will not achieve true equality of access to the internet and the wealth of information it provides. That is why we must act.


Clark, I. (2016). The digital divide in the post-Snowden era. Journal of Radical Librarianship, 2, 1-32. Retrieved from https://journal.radicallibrarianship.org/index.php/journal/article/view/12/24