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

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

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

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

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

Image c/o Alex Proimos on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image c/o Pierre Metivier on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image c/o Daniel Horande on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

The income divide and its impact on digital exclusion

The internet has massively changed the information landscape.  It’s development has led to an explosion in the availability of information.  There is more information available to the average citizen now than there has ever been.  However, whilst it is accessible for many, there is still a significant proportion of people who either do not have the equipment or the skills required to take advantage of this development.

Take, for example, the most recent Internet Access Quarterly Update for Q4 published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).  These quarterly reports produce a wealth of information about the state of the digital divide in the UK and if you are interested in understanding the extent of this divide, they make essential reading.  Included amongst this report are internet access statistics in relation to age, gender, disability and earnings.  If you believe that everyone has access to the internet, these statistics provide a welcome reminder that this is far from the case.

The statistics in relation to earnings particularly demonstrate the extent of the divide between those that can be defined as ‘information rich’ and ‘information poor’.  As you can see from the graph below, there is a stark difference between higher and lower wage earners.  As you move up the scale from low to high earners, the proportion of those who have never used the internet (not just do not have access at home, but have never even used the internet) drops dramatically.  So much so that the proportion of people earning over £800 per week who have never accessed the internet dramatically drops to virtually 0% in each subsequent pay scale.

%age of those who have never used the internet by gross weekly wage.

Now, 8% of low earners may not seem a significant figure, but it is still a sizeable proportion considering this represents a section of society that has never accessed the internet. And when it is compared to the proportion of higher earners it is clear that there is a very substantial divide.  But, of course, the higher you go up the payscale the more likely you are to have the funds to be able to afford the equipment.  It is particularly easy for higher earners to assume that everyone has access to the internet or has at least used it.  After all, if everyone around you is connected, why should you believe that there are people out there who are not?  Which perhaps explains why it is always middle-class commentators who argue that libraries are irrelevant in the age of the internet.  Their friends all have a connection so of course that meanseveryone has.

The nature of this divide raises a number of concerns.  For example, given that 8% of very low earners have never utilised the internet, what is the likely impact of transferring the benefits process online?  In these times of increasing unemployment, this is likely to be a very real issue for many.  Whilst assurances are made that a “minority” of claimants will be dealt with face-to-face, can we be sure that those without access will not be severely disadvantaged due to both a lack of access and skills?  As I mentioned in a previous post, literacy and numeracy levels are such that, even if access was provided there are still barriers to overcome.

This also raises questions about the programme of library closures that are taking place across the country.  For those earning less than £200 per week there are a multitude of concerns that take priority over the ownership of a computer and an internet connection, not least putting food on the table.  As long as their gross income remains so low, it is highly unlikely that they are going to invest in the technology required to connect to the internet.  Furthermore, given their restrictive budgets, it is highly unlikely that they would be prepared to spend any of their money on making use of high street internet facilities if doing so requires payment, no matter how seemingly insignificant the fee.  Which is where libraries come in.

Admittedly, public libraries probably haven’t been as successful as they might be in attracting users from the lower end of the income scale.  However, they do provide free internet access (in most cases) and trained staff to support them.  For people on such a restrictive budget, the local public library is their best and most feasible means of connecting to the internet.  Take that away and there is nothing left for them.  Yes they can pay for access via another service provider (as the free market would expect them to), but when you have a choice between paying the bills and putting food on the table or connecting to the internet, it is not hard to see which side they would come down on (despite the economic benefits of access to the internet – which I’ll come to in a later post no doubt!).

The question for public libraries and library authorities is how to address this problem and how to ensure that they do not further exclude entire communities (and yes, it is depressing that this question is still being posed).  Closing libraries certainly isn’t the answer and will not only lead to entrenching the digital divide, but will also kick the ladder away for many making it harder for the currently disconnected to join the ranks of the “information rich”.  Furthermore, there is a risk of this being entrenched across the generations.  As has been demonstrated, children with internet access at home are at a significant advantage to those without, achieving better grades and, therefore, enhancing their prospects.  For those on low incomes then, the impact of the divide will also be felt by the next generation, destined to remain excluded from the connected majority, harming their future prospects and consolidating their isolation.

Clearly, if as many as 8% of low earners have never used the internet, public libraries have been unsuccessful in getting this particular section of the community connected.  But the failure to attract the socially excluded is something that libraries have particularly struggled with for many years (sub required).  Despite the intentions of the People’s Network to connect the socially and digitally excluded, it is clear that many remain excluded.  But if libraries are closed, how will this problem be addressed?  Will it just result in permanent isolation of the unconnected? Condemning generations to digital exclusion.  Shouldn’t more effort be put into public libraries getting the “information poor” connected?  And, if so, how?  Sophisticated social networking marketing will clearly not have any impact on this section of society.  So what strategies can and should be employed?  Public libraries are in the ideal position to connect the unconnected.  Closing them suggests we have given up and are prepared to accept there will always be the connected and the excluded.