Freedom of Information and getting things done

Last night I was very privileged to have been invited to the 30th anniversary celebration of the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CfFoI). I have to concede, that I was more than a little surprised to have received an invite, I am not someone who works within the field and therefore have no first-hand experience of dealing with the Act or any real expertise in the area. That said, as a librarian I am passionate about the importance of an informed citizenry that can both engage fully in the democratic process and hold elected officials to account. For this reason, I am a great believer in the Act and believe that the CfFoI is a vital force for good in a country that has a history of keeping citizens in the dark.

Listening to those who have been working for 30 years to firstly establish a Freedom of Information Act, then to keep the pressure on to ensure that an imperfect Act is improved and defended from efforts to try to water it down and diminish it (and we know full well there will be repeated efforts by agents of the state to diminish the Act and undermine its credibility) was particularly inspiring. As someone involved in various campaigns and groups, a lot of the words really rang true.

Campaigning is hard. It’s all graft and grind with very little reward. Indeed, the fact that it took 20 years for the CfFoI to be successful in getting an FoI Act on the statute book underlines how difficult it is to be successful. It takes years of dedication, a whole host of sacrifices, very little glory and perpetual optimism. As one speaker said last night, campaigning is not about photo ops and marches, it’s about the daily grind, doing the grotty (and often tedious) work that takes your campaign forward and that, ultimately, leads to success. Successful campaigns are built on years of hard work.

From my perspective, I always argue that it is best not to get bogged down in believing that you will get results quickly. That what you aspire to will come to fruition within a short time frame. It won’t. It’ll take years. Some of the change you may aspire to will probably not even happen within your lifetime. The important bit is to do the graft and lay the groundwork. So long as you are realistic, I believe you can maintain that dedication and enthusiasm for whatever cause you are involved in. If you are too unrealistic, you will very quickly find yourself burnt out and disillusioned. Fight for what you believe in, but be aware that it will take time, effort and dedication. Change does not come easy.

The people behind CfFoI have kept that dedication, that determination to be successful in effecting real change in terms of how we are governed. By creating an environment where at least there is a chink of light where before there was only darkness. The challenge now, in my view, is to turn that chink of light into something bigger.

Ian Hislop speaking at last night’s event.

One other thing that was re-emphasised for me last night was the importance of building connections across the information profession. I certainly find within the world of the librarian we often seem to exist in a silo that is detached from other information professionals. I struggle sometimes to understand this. Of course we all have our individual areas of expertise, but I think it is important for librarians (who after all are concerned with facilitating access to information) to be aware of and engaged with such discussions across the profession. As librarians we should be engaged with the fight for freedom of information, we should be helping citizens to utilise the tools available to them to hold their elected officials to account. We should be engaged in data protection, particularly in a world where data is increasingly being bought and sold, often without the awareness of those who the data is extracted from. As librarians we should be engaged in making information and data more accessible with regards to the state, whilst protecting individuals from the commodification of their personal data. When one considers the ethics that underpin our profession, it is clear that we should be engaged in these areas.

The last ten years are not an end with regard to the battle to ensure transparent governance, they are a beginning. With further funding cuts in the pipeline, the growth of private sector contracts to deliver public services presents new challenges. As government seeks to outsource public services, so we lose our right to know. It is clear that the Freedom of Information Act will need to be expanded and adapted in the years to come. To have any hope of achieving that, groups such as the CfFoI need to continue keeping the pressure on. But for them to do so requires all of us who believe in their aims to show our support in whatever way we can to ensure that not only does the Act continue to remain relevant but that the light it shines on how we are governed gets brighter rather than dimmer. The efforts of those who have led the campaign over the past 30 years demonstrates that whilst it won’t be easy, we can be optimistic.

You can find out more about the Campaign for Freedom of Information here. I’d urge you to support them in whatever way you can.

Is it time for a new space for information professionals?

This post is a collaboration between myself and @jaffne and is essentially a very rough outline of something that has been variously discussed between myself, @jaffne and @ellyob. It is rough but we think it might be worth taking forward as an idea and we were hoping others could pitch in and help develop it, potentially bringing it to fruition. Ultimately, we need your input to help refine this idea and, perhaps, to help us get it off the ground.

The Why

In the past year I have twice been approached to host guest blogs on my site about generally information based issues that touch on our professional expertise.  Whilst I am obviously quite chuffed that my site is seen as a suitable place to post such content, it has prompted me to wonder if perhaps this suggests the need for a place to host such content.  There seem to be very few websites out there where librarians and information professionals can share their thoughts on such issues where perhaps their blog isn’t an appropriate place, or doesn’t afford them the protections they perhaps require to enable public comment on particular areas.

I’ve recently got to talking about this idea with both @jaffne and @ellyob, who have both suggested an interest in something along these lines (although in what form we are not really sure at present!). I know others have also discussed this with me and think this might be something of possible interest across the profession and beyond, I guess the question is what would this look like and how do we go from here? I am particularly keen on something that is outward looking and expansive, that would tackle issues that are of interest to non-librarians. I feel strongly about this because I think reaching out in this way can go some way to addressing concerns about the profession being considered unnecessary and obsolete. And if not, well, maybe it’s worth a try?

Below @jaffne explains her perspective on this and we have both outlined roughly what we think this could look like. We hope this kicks off some discussion and we’d certainly love to hear people’s thoughts on whether this is an idea worth pursuing and, if so, how we go about pursuing it.

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As a librarian who worked in a commercial law firm, I was very sensitive to the fact that any public statements of opinion made by me, on any topic, could be interpreted by my employer or clients as a breach of my employment contract. This was especially true if they could be seen to contradicted my firm’s stance on certain sectors or were overtly political. This meant that I had to be careful not to involve myself online with any contentious issues, and had to restrict myself to commenting only on library sector issues which couldn’t possibly reflect badly on the aims of, or be misinterpreted by my employer or their clients. I also couldn’t comment on the working practices I personally experienced, or any challenges I felt I was encountering in my career, as again this could be seen to reflect on my employer negatively, and could threaten my continued employment with them.

Unsurprisingly enough though, I did actually have opinions, on all sorts of things! Things I wanted to talk about, processes and systems I encountered that were not working well, or in areas where I felt there were developments that would have an impact on my work and approach to it.

To tackle this desire to speak when I had no place to put my words safely, I have previously blogged anonymously. I have done this as a representative of my local professional group, the Scottish Law Librarians Group, on an international legal information professional group blog (On Firmer Ground) and as a guest on Ian Clark’s Infoism blog. I found the opportunity to be able to speak about professional issues “safely” liberating, and allowed me to speak more freely without fear of repercussions from my employers. I believe I’ll also continue to need a “safe place” for me to discuss issues in, as my own blog is linked to my LinkedIn profile, and thus my workplace (and any discussion of it) is identifiable.

However, as far as I know, there isn’t really a “neutral” space available to me. When I say neutral, I mean somewhere that isn’t controlled by a specific body (e.g. CILIP, SLA or any other information professional group in the UK), somewhere that it would be possible to discuss any professional issues, without feeling that it had implications relating to membership of professional bodies. I feel that there is a need for a place to speak freely, one not controlled by any specific interests, or with a feeling that it could only be used by people to say the profession is perfect!

I initially suggested Ian’s Infoism blog, as I had previously been allowed to post material there, and Ian was interested in the idea of creating a forum, and was happy to give up his blog for the benefit of the profession. However, it’s been mentioned that as a long-standing blog with a defined purpose, it could be seen as not fulfilling the neutral element, which is understandable: it was initially proposed as a shortcut, a way to get a platform that was already established and had a large number of readers, but for the purposes of transparency and neutrality, it’s clear that a new site would be more appropriate.

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The How (by @ijclark and @jaffne)

So, how should a proposed UK information professionals blog or website be structured, and run?

Name

If this is to be run as a group site, then a name should be decided among the group. This would be something to be decided on as a first step, as it would allow the creation of all associated materials. A decision on a name could be made by first canvassing suggestions from interested parties, via publicity on blog posts and Twitter, and then running a poll to choose the most popular option.

Aim

Then the site needs an aim. So often, it seems that information professional blogs end up navel gazing and focussing only on insular issues, complaining to librarians about librarians, or people not understanding librarians, so that’s something we’d like to avoid if possible. Where possible, content should be written keeping in mind an audience beyond libraries and the profession. Of course, we want to be able to write about the profession and its issues, but it would be a far more useful blog if it focussed on how the skills of the information profession impact more widely on society, and issues arising around that topic. So, posts could cover everything from how we can aid information gathering, in all its guises, to our understanding of a range of concerns about the information society. However, rather than just focusing on instructional, ‘how to’ type posts, we’d rather focus on outward looking content that demonstrates relevance, how skills and knowledge can support other professions and/or sectors and the broader impact our profession has, or can have, on society in general.

Structure

For our purposes, the format of a group blog with editors managing the upload of materials would be sensible. It would allow contributors who wished to remain anonymous to send materials to the editors to be posted on their behalf (as long as the material was within certain guidelines, as listed below), or materials could be posted by the editors with an introductory block of text, crediting the author. It would also allow an element of risk management, as allowing materials to be posted without some measure of vetting could open the group to the risk of being held liable for the comments and activities of users. Content should be tagged consistently by subject area, and relevant content tags could be agreed upon by crowdsourcing suggestions.

Acceptable use policy and post management

The site would need acceptable content guidelines for materials to be posted, the core probable guidelines are listed below, although as with most other management of the site, they would need to be decided and agreed upon by the editors prior to the blog launching.

Core acceptable content guidelines:

  • Nothing libelous
  • Nothing slanderous
  • Anonymity does not allow ad hominem attacks

Materials submitted for publication on the blog which did not meet the requirements of these basic guidelines would be rejected: either entirely, or returned to the author for amendment before resubmission.

Rules would also apply for those commenting on posts, in order to maintain a professional and respectful atmosphere on the site. Those breaching the principles outlined above for content would be deleted, and/or blocked from further comment if they were seen to be deliberately inflammatory without foundation. It would need to be decided whether comments would require approval before publication, or whether they could be posted without checking.

Editors would need to understand that some of the posts they would be responsible for managing may propose viewpoints which they personally do not agree with. However, the editors must remain neutral, and maintain the blog as a place to share ALL viewpoints, within the guidelines outlined above.

Management of the blog

If the above approach to the site structure is used, it would need a team of editors to manage the site. Despite the use of the word “editors”, they would not be responsible for actual editing of the submitted content. The editors would upload the posts/content, monitor the comments to ensure they were not breaching any of the stated guidelines, and possibly write content, if they felt they had relevant material to contribute. It would be best if the editorial team came from as varied backgrounds as possible, in order to be able to give input and the benefit of experience from a variety of working situations. A team of at least 6 voluntary editors would provide a balance of workload, and the required spread of experience to effectively oversee the site. Core site management reference materials would need to be hosted centrally in a space where all editors could access them, most likely in cloud storage such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or if the materials are more extensive, on a wiki. This would need to be decided based on the needs of the initial editorial team.

A public call would be needed for volunteers in the information profession to become editors, with @ijclark and @jaffne as a core team initially.The timescale of commitment to the editorial role would be flexible, dependent on the editors personal needs.

Hosting

It would be preferable to host the site on a named domain, this would ensure it has a more professional appearance than ‘just another blog’. A WordPress.org installation would be preferable as it is easy to manage and maintain. However, hosting fees would also need to be taken into consideration. How would this be accounted for? It is not a substantial sum of money that needs to be paid on a monthly basis, but it will need to be paid nonetheless. Would this be covered by the editors, donations…how would we approach this? Again, this is something that can be decided once we have a group of volunteers in place to take this forwards. And obviously the URL would be determined by whatever name was given to the website, so that would need to be established first before proceeding.

Conclusion

So what do you think? Is this something that would be of interest? Would you be interested in getting involved? Where do we go from here? Add your comments below and let us know what you think! You can also contact us via email (ukinfoprofs@gmail.com) or tweet at @ijclark or @jaffne.

When is a librarian not a librarian?

(The following was posted in 2013 and had been lost due to a problem with my database. Thankfully I managed to retrieve it via the Internet Archive, so I’ve reproduced it in full here, alongside the original comments.)

During completion of the MSc ILS, particularly towards the end, I got into the mindset that job opportunities were limited to public, academic or school libraries (I never even thought about corporate, law etc).  This particularly troubled me as I felt that my options were very narrow and either highly competitive (academic) or rapidly diminishing (public and schools).  So, I got to thinking a while back (around the time I started this blog actually), that I need to broaden my horizons a little and look beyond what was immediately obvious as a career path having bagged the Masters (um, although I’ve not actually received my certificate yet…).

Regular readers (both of you…yes, I know, predictable ‘gag’) will not be surprised to learn that I have lately taken an interest in Freedom of Information and related areas.  This is partly because of my regular use of FoI for library campaigning stuff, and partly my long-standing interest in political matters.  Recent discussions with people working in the field have made me realise that this is a potential career path for me, and it is one that I am currently exploring (although whether it will come to anything is another matter – more study, more courses and, most importantly, more cost).  Maybe it’s an aspiration that will come to nothing, but it is good to know there are other options.

Which brings me to the point of this post (at last).  Last week, I decided to find out what other possibilities are out there for someone with a MSc in library and info studies.  So I asked people on Twitter to get in touch if they have such a qualification and it is ‘desirable’ for their job but don’t work in a library nor are they considered a librarian (I mean both in the traditional sense).  I got a fair amount of job titles thrown at me over the course of the day (and the week-end thanks to my continued pestering), and I have listed them all below. But, before you read them, caveat alert!

This list is not exhaustive and I have probably missed one or two that were sent at me (sorry!). I also discounted any that were essentially traditional librarian jobs, but had just been given a fancy new name as part of a re-branding exercise. Also, some of the titles alone are fairly vague and give little clue as to what the role entails…I’ll blame that on Twitter as both my specific question and the details of a particular post are a little too awkward to summarise in 140 characters. So, yes, this is highly flawed and probably too vague. Sorry about that!

If you can think of any more that fit the criteria (information professionals who are not ‘librarians’ or librarians who do not work in libraries, essentially), please add them in the comments and maybe outline the specifics of the job a little, it may be of use to current and future students. Oh, and one other thing, if you are interested in this area and going toLibCamp London, you may like to know that @ellyob has proposed a session called ‘Librarians without libraries‘, so definitely check that out!

  • Information specialist
  • Data and Information Process Officer
  • Online Information Manager
  • Information Specialist
  • Research Specialist
  • Research and Information Officer
  • Project Analyst (for a library based project)
  • Information Specialist (careers service)
  • Freedom of Information Officer
  • Assistant Commissioner for Wales (Information Commissioner’s Office)
  • Evidence Advisor
  • Genealogist
  • Knowledge Management Systems Manager
  • Global portal content manager
  • Communications and Social Media Officer
  • Learning centre assistant.
  • Manager of Education and Library projects at a survey company
  • Business Development Executive (using information for business development)
  • Health & Social Care Governance Facilitator
  • Computerised Records Trainer
  • Clinical Auditor
  • Information assistant
  • Executive Officer in civil service
  • Information Advisor
  • Information Officer (Trading Standards Dept)
  • Information specialist (work with R&D – patent searching, competitive intelligence,  knowledge management, records retention).
  • Information Governance Officer
  • Records Assistant
  • Researcher at Financial Times
  • Research Support Assistant
  • Info Services Administrator
  • Technical Information Specialist (Centre for Diseases Control)
  • Content Development Officer, Library & Archival Services
  • Research Executive in a Business Info service
  • Film Researcher at the BBC
  • Docketing Administrator (catalog and classifies visa documents for a business immigration practice group)