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

Surveillance, libraries and digital inclusion


Librarians have a key role to playing in terms of digital inclusion and protecting intellectual privacy. [Image c/o Duca di Spinaci on Flickr – CC-BY-NC license]

Towards the end of last year, I was privileged to be invited to talk at CILIP’s Multimedia Information and Technology (MmIT) Group AGM about digital inclusion as a representative of the Radical Librarians Collective (see the presentation below – which includes a list of recommended reading!). The invitation was well timed in terms of coming up with a focus for my talk as I have spent the best part of 5 months working on a journal article for the Journal of Radical Librarianship on the digital divide (which, pending peer review, will hopefully be published in the early part of this year). Specifically, I’ve been interested in looking at digital inclusion from a slightly different angle, that of the divide in terms of state and corporate surveillance.

As followers of this blog will know, I’ve been talking about surveillance and the Snowden revelations for some time now. Concerned about the gathering of information about us, whilst the state seeks to limit the amount of information we obtain about them, I’ve mainly been focused on the impact this has in terms of our democratic processes. However, since the emergence of the Library Freedom Project (founded by the awesome Alison Macrina), I’ve been increasingly interested in the role that libraries and librarianship has to play in this area. It seems to me, that the disclosures have to expand the terms by which we define what the digital divide is. Whilst there has always been a focus on access, and on skills, there must be greater attention on what people actually do online and, furthermore, the extent to which individuals are able to act freely in terms of seeking information.

Being able to seek out information that offers alternatives to the status quo (indeed, not just “offers” but challenges) is vital in a democratic society. Without the ability to seek out and understand alternatives, it is hard to accept that our society can possibly be described as “democratic”. What is clear from Snowden’s disclosures is that the ability to seek out information and communicate with others whilst ensuring your intellectual privacy is increasingly difficult. Difficult unless you have the skills and knowledge with which to defend your intellectual privacy.

I tend to think that I am fairly skilled in terms of using the internet. I can seek out information quickly and efficiently, I can provide assistance for others, I am fairly innovative in the ways in which I use certain online services. What I lack, however, is the skills necessary to really ensure my intellectual privacy, to defend myself against state or corporate surveillance. I have some skills, I have some basic knowledge, but I don’t know how to protect myself fully. And yet I consider myself reasonably skilled. What about those that have difficulties in using the internet in a basic way? What about those that struggle to do the things that I take for granted? Aren’t they even more exposed to state and corporate surveillance? Isn’t their intellectual privacy even more under threat? Surveillance tends to affect the most disadvantaged to the greatest extent, is intellectual privacy something only for the privileged?

I don’t want to get into this even further here (wait for the longer version!), but I do think there are issues here about the nature of the digital divide and how we should view digital inclusion post-Snowden. There was a time when it was considered fanciful that librarians could even consider to provide the sort of skills that the state may see as a threat to the status quo. However, the efforts by the Library Freedom Project in the United States underlines that this is no longer the case. If librarians in the United States, the home of the NSA, can help people defend their intellectual privacy, why can’t we do the same in the United Kingdom? I’m not suggesting that we can collectively as a profession start setting up Tor nodes in libraries or teaching people how to use encryption technologies, but we need to have the debate about how we ensure the intellectual privacy of everyone in our society, not just the privileged few.

CILIP’s Ethical principles for library and information professionals states that we must have a:

“Commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.

If we are to defend and advance that access to information then we must, in my mind, do whatever we can to defend the intellectual privacy of everyone.

You can also download a PDF version of this presentation here [PDF – 6.29MB].

Recommended Reading

Coustick-Deal, R. (2015). Responding to “Nothing to hide, Nothing to fear”. Open Rights Group.
Gallagher, R. (2015). From Radio to Porn, British Spies Track Web Users’ Online Identities. The Intercept.
Murray, A. (2015). Finding Proportionality in Surveillance Laws. Paul Bernal’s Blog.
Richards, N. M., (2008). Intellectual Privacy. Texas Law Review, Vol. 87.
Shubber, K. (2013). A simple guide to GCHQ’s internet surveillance
programme Tempora. Wired.
@thegrugq. Short guide to better information security.
@thegrugq (2015). Operational Telegram.
Whitten, A. & Tygar, J.D. (1999). Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt: A Usability Evaluation of PGP 5.0.

Library Freedom Project. Privacy toolkit for librarians.
Let’s Encrypt.
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Digital Citizenship and Surveillance Society
Surveillance & Society (OA journal).
The Digital Divide in the post-Snowden era (a micro-blog curating interesting links and resources – by me!)

Radical Librarians and creating a new LIS qualification…

Image taken on Newman Street, London (c/o man_with_beard on Flickr).

Yesterday I went to the monthly radical librarians gathering in London (held at LARC – follow @rlc_se!). This time around we were very fortunate that Alison Macrina of the Library Freedom Project (LFP) was in town and was keen to come along and join us to talk about her work. And I think I speak for everyone when I say we are jolly glad she did!

I’ve followed Alison for a little while now on Twitter and have always been really interested and excited by what she is doing. I have to admit, that I am way less careful in terms of the services I use online and how I use them than perhaps I should be. Certainly hearing Alison talk about the issues has heightened my awareness of the need to be more careful (or at least more aware) of the nature of the ‘free’ tools I take for granted. I don’t think I have the technical skills to take the kind of steps required to minimise my footprint, but I think awareness is important and I am certainly keen to learn more from her in how to take the necessary steps.

By a stroke of luck, Alison’s visit also coincided with the release of a report warning the government that (surprise surprise) the banning of Tor would be “technologically infeasible“. We’ve long known that meddling with internet access to do ‘good’ (in the eyes of the authorities at least) actually does a lot of harm. We see this with filtering, for example, where indiscriminate filtering prevents people from accessing resources that provide support and comfort to those in need. Needless to say, the same goes for Tor. Much of the talk about Tor is that it is used by those wishing to visit the most vile websites without being noticed. Of course, as one study recently pointed out, such “dark web sites” account for only 1.5% of all Tor traffic. The vast majority use Tor to visit entirely legitimate websites. In short, Tor provides no threat to society. Rather it frees individuals to access the internet without the fear of surveillance.

Anyway, Alison can talk about all these issues with far more expertise and knowledge than I can. So head to the Library Freedom Project or follow her on Twitter to find out more…we very much hope she will also come to the Birmingham radical librarian gathering in July…

There were a whole host of other issues discussed, but I won’t go into them all here (partly because we observe the Chatham House rule, partly because this post would become very unwieldy!). Rather I’ll just offer a brief summary of some of the key points of discussion…

There was, as you might expect, some discussion around the next national Radical Librarians gathering in Birmingham on 4th July. This will be the third such gathering that has been organised following the highly successful Bradford and London events. It’s taken quite a while to get it together, but seems like we are well on course to make it happen, which is great. I think one of the things we are all reminded of during these meetings is how important it is that they take place. There are very few places where these kinds of discussions take place, and they are so fundamental to our core ethics that it seems like even having these discussions and changed things somewhat. I certainly always come away from these meetings feeling like the foundations for an alternative are being built. The difficulty is in maintaining the momentum. This is particularly tricky given the cynicism that comes with exploring alternative paths. But I always come away from these gatherings enthused by the energy and positivity of others. Which is why we need more of them!

We also talked about the idea of an online chat akin to the uklibchat/info lit chat club things that are currently taking place. The idea is to pick one OA article each month, post up the details in advance and host a live Twitter chat about the article (with the blog post acting as a place for ongoing discussion or more extensive chat). This has been discussed now for some time without ever really making progress, but hopefully this will happen soon. Ideas of how and when to run it will be circulated to the RLC Jisc list in due course. If you are interested at all, please do voice your interest/comments etc in the comments field below.

Post-gathering, some of us also talked about the state of current LIS programmes. We particularly discussed the idea of creating our own LIS course…the idea of a MOOC was suggested, but there was no consensus on whether this would be a good thing or not. During the process of the discussion, I jotted down some ideas of what kind of things the ideal LIS programme would cover (this list is not exhaustive! It’s just a few initial ideas.)

Digital librarianship
Data protection/freedom of information/copyright
Communication strategies
Ethics – profession and research
History of profession.

A placement.I’d be really interested in hearing the thoughts of current students and the recently qualified about what they think should be included, as well as their thoughts on the above. I personally believe the history aspect is important as it can help to draw links back to our core purpose, which may be helpful in focusing on our professional ethics. I also think such a focus on history would help to reverse the depoliticisation of what is, at its heart, a political profession.

Anyway, I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on this particular aspect of the discussion on Saturday, as well as comments regarding radical librarians in general and the 4th July conference in Birmingham.

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.

My thoughts on the Radical Librarians Collective, London

Getting stuff done at RLC London.

A couple of weeks ago now I attended (and was involved in the ‘organisation’ of) the Radical Librarian Collective gathering in London. Since the day, I’ve been struggling to put some of my thoughts into words. Indeed, I’m not sure I can adequately write about the various discussions that took place (head to Lauren Smith’s blog for that). Rather than attempt to write a comprehensive ‘review’ of the day, I thought I’d just make a few broad brush observations and write about it in more general terms.

Last year, I got together with a few like-minded folk who shared the same sense of longing for something a bit different. From my own personal perspective, I have been alarmed by some of the discourse across the profession for a few years now. There has been a rapid process of depoliticisation of the profession that has become increasingly noticeable in recent years (although arguably it has been part of a long-term trend – as it has been with most professions). There has been a general shift towards the rhetoric of ‘the market’ without serious consideration of the implications of doing so. We have perhaps become increasingly uncritical and, as I have noted recently, perhaps have not paid enough attention to the implications of the language that is increasingly utilised in professional discourse. For me, discussions that challenge this are welcome, and so I was really grateful for the opportunity to gather with like-minds and, as they say, ‘unpack’ some of these issues.

Bradford was, I think, a great success. It sprung together from nothing and turned into something that I think we were all really proud of. It was something new, something fresh, something that many of us who were there on that day felt was much needed. I think it’s fair to say that many people came away from it both reassured that there were others that felt the same, and keen to take ideas forwards. That said, I feel that London appears to have been the real catalyst to start building stuff.

As with any effort to actually do stuff, organising RLC London was not without its sneering. If there’s one thing I have learnt about people, it’s that people are happy to complain about various issues but should anyone step up to tackle them, they effectively become a target to be shot at. I’ve personally experienced this several times over (with Voices, Informed and RLC), try to actively do something rather than just moan and you will be a target for cynicism and sneering. To the extent where you begin to wonder whether there is an issue of prejudice at play (educated working classes should pipe down and know their place etc – and if you are an educated working class woman, you are in for some serious sneering). Sometimes it’s difficult to keep the sneering at bay. There will always be cynics trying to smash down your optimism, the trick is to remain optimistic and focus on the positives.

RLC London was, without doubt, an inspiring day. It helps, I think, that everyone in attendance was on roughly the same page. Sure a bunch of radical minded folk in an enclosed space could turn into a massive, dare I say, ‘echo chamber’ reflecting and entrenching existing viewpoints as everyone nods along in agreement. There were, however, some really engaging and challenging conversations throughout the day helped, perhaps, by a smattering of people who perhaps wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘radical’ but had certain perspectives that, in the current climate, might well be described as such.

In terms of the sessions (again, I’m not going to go into these in great detail), I attended discussions on censorship, a session on the LIS qualification, critical theory, a session on how to take the discussions and ideas back to the workplace and finally a plenary session to discuss how we take things forwards as a collective. What I found really interesting and valuable about the day was how themes ran through all the sessions. You could have a discussion about censorship which would then feed into discussions on the qualification which would then feed into discussions on critical theory. Everything was linked, helped by the event itself being broadly themed I guess.

With regards to my session, I wanted to look at the qualification and how both libraries and the professional body can and should be constructed in line with our professional ethics. This was too much for one session as I soon discovered. I ultimately decided to divide it up into three discussions, but there was only time in the day to explore one (the other two will have to be explored another time!). The discussion itself was really interesting (from my perspective) as we wrangled over the extent to which the qualification should focus on practical, vocational stuff and the theoretical/ethical side. There was much discussion about the way the LIS qualification is increasingly losing the theoretical/ethical aspects and focusing on things that will ‘get you a job’.

For me the qualification has to be built on strong foundations, which means a strong theoretical and ethical underpinning that the other stuff can be built on top of. There needs to be an element of practical stuff that can be applied within in the workplace, but there also needs to be a fundamental understanding of the ethical underpinning. Which takes us back to the start of this post, the depoliticisation of the profession. This starts on LIS courses. If we don’t tackle the problems at the heart of the qualification collectively, then we will continue to depoliticise ourselves and devalue our profession (this does not mean we all have to be radical political types, it just means we need to have an understanding of some of the socio-political issues that affect every aspect of our work). It is for this reason I think there needs to be serious discussion about what we want from our LIS programmes.

Back to the day itself (after promising not to go into great detail on any of the sessions and finding I already have)…I think what I took away from London more than anything else was the enthusiasm to build on the discussions. To build networks. To create stuff. To tackle issues in whatever way we could as a collective. There was a real will to take these discussions and not just walk away, patting ourselves on the back for having a jolly good chat, but to actually construct networks and seriously address some of the concerns that had been raised. This made me feel really positive and really excited about where the discussions might lead. Already local networks are being organised, a “Declaration on open access for LIS authors” has been collaboratively developed, and who knows what else will emerge from these discussions. Yes, when it comes to stuff like RLC London, it is very hard to smash the optimism. After all, as I now like to remind myself:

If not now, when? If not you, who?

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.


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.


The How (by @ijclark and @jaffne)

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Propaganda, ethics and the information profession

Just over a week ago, I headed up to London to visit the Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition at the British Library with a bunch of friends and fellow professionals. I had been eagerly anticipating the exhibition ever since I caught the live stream of an audience with Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Freedland a couple of months prior to its opening.  Needless to say, the exhibition was right up my street and thoroughly enjoyable. Indeed, it could have been twice the size and I still would have been left wanting more.  In short, if you can get there before it closes in September, I would seriously recommend making every effort to do so.  As well as providing much thought provoking material on the nature of propaganda, it also led to much pondering on critical thinking and its importance both in terms of the profession in which I belong, and in a broader context.

Critical thinking has been a crucial part of my educational life. History was perhaps my strongest subject at both GCSE and A-level and went on to form part of my degree (alongside English Literature – although the head of history did make repeated attempts to get me to switch my major from literature to history, to no avail). Critical thinking is a crucial component of the study of history. At a basic level, history requires that you analyse and evaluate source material. This evaluation and analysis then informs any research into particular historical events or historic social conditions.  If you are unable to process information in a critical way, you will not excel in the study of history. This is not to say that other subjects do not place equal importance in the ability to apply critical thinking (that would be absurd), but I do know that through studying history I have developed a good standard of critical analysis skills. Of course, when it comes to evaluating information in a historical context, the role and impact of propaganda must be a key consideration.

The Oxford dictionary defines propaganda as:

…information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.

Typically propaganda is politically skewed information designed to persuade or educate the populace, normally in an effort to disseminate a particular ideology. Generally when one considers the impact of propaganda throughout modern history, one tends to think of figures such as Lord Kitchener, Norman Rockwell, Josef Goebbels or Leni Riefenstahl (albeit in slightly different ways). Each in their own way helped to communicate a particular set of ideas, whether it be mobilising support for war or by demonising an ‘enemy within’ to consolidate political power, propaganda is a crucial weapon in winning ‘hearts and minds’.

Propaganda itself is, obviously, not solely restricted to the political sphere.  Whilst governments churn out propaganda by default (one need only look at the propaganda being forced upon us every day regarding the need for ‘austerity’), corporations are also responsible for a large volume of propaganda, more commonly known as advertisements.  Propaganda can be used to influence people’s perceptions of a product or brand, subverting existing realities to present a positive brand image that then encourages people to purchase such products. There are many examples one can call upon in examining this type of propaganda. The rebrand exercise conducted by BP is one such example.

Back in 2000, BP embarked on a rebranding exercise.  The aim was to present BP as an “environmentally aware energy and general services company.” As they put it on their website:

Since ‘BP’ petrol first went on sale in Britain in the 1920s, the brand has grown to become recognised worldwide for quality gasoline, transport fuels, chemicals and alternative sources of energy such as wind and biofuels. We are committed to making a real difference in providing better energy that is needed today and in the changing world of tomorrow.

The reason for its need to rebrand? The emergence of the global environmental movement. The rise of this movement resulted in increased scrutiny of energy companies and their actions across the world. Not least because of the damaging effect of resource extraction by the industry in countries across the world. Needless to say, the rebrand had little effect on the global environmental movement but it did appear to have an effect on consumers:

After the rebrand exercise, research revealed that BP was seen as the most “environmental” oil brand with more than half the market now agreeing that BP had become “more green” in the past five years. BP’s brand awareness shot up and in a poll of UK marketers BP was rated one of the top 10 green brands, finishing higher up the ranking than Greenpeace.

Pretty effective propagandising. Of course, the effect of such propaganda can be somewhat undermined by very visible, and environmentally damaging, short-comings.

Of course, the BP example is a relatively crude one in demonstrating the ways in which propaganda is utilised by large multinationals. Know-more, for example, is perhaps a slightly more worrying example of corporate propaganda used to mobilise public support in the face of potential government legislation. Know-more is a website sponsored by Philip Morris and is designed to share ‘information’ about the impact of legislation upon smokers. Philip Morris is, of course, a large tobacco company with a vested interest in halting government legislation that might impact upon its business model. The tobacco industry has a long history of lobbying law makers to prevent legislation that would impact upon its customer base (to adopt their parlance), Know-more is just the latest example of the determined efforts by corporate interests to protect their bottom lines.

But these are relatively obvious examples of propaganda by large corporations, examples that informed, educated people will spot and dismiss readily.  There are many others, of course, who will not (obviously as some appear to believe that BP is an energy company more identifiable as a “green brand” than Greenpeace), and perhaps others who believe the protestations of the tobacco industry – although that is perhaps a diminishing segment of society as we become more aware of the harm tobacco causes.  What about the examples that are harder to spot, that require more…effort?

Toward the end of the exhibition at the British Library I caught a rolling video clip with various talking heads exploring the growth of social media and the state of propaganda in the 21st century. One anecdote by John Pilger stood out above all others, and underlined to me both the nature of propaganda now and the importance of critical thinking. Pilger referred to a meeting he had with a dissident in the old Czechoslovakia, before the fall of the Iron Curtain.  The dissident noted the difference between how people in the West and in the East process propaganda, telling Pilger that in the West:

“You believe everything you see on the TV or read on the papers, but we’ve learnt to read between the lines.”

And that is what is so crucial in the modern era, the ability to read between the lines (or critical thinking) and it is an ability, I believe, that should be a fundamental skill for information professionals generally, and librarians specifically.

The use of propaganda raises an increasing number of ethical questions in our current economic and social environment. We live in a society where neoliberal economicsdominates political life. As such, the private sector is increasingly creeping into areas that had long been either the domain of the state or, broadly speaking, independent of the state.  As a result, we are seeing the corporate sector increase its influence in both public and academic libraries. This encroachment raises a number of serious concerns. For example, recent tweets from the @voiceslibrary (not by the current tweeter of the account by the way) account highlighted a particular ethical dilemma many of us will increasingly face in just such a neoliberal environment. What if a course was provided by a private sector corporation with a dubious ethical background and if the course materials provided were wholly uncritical of that corporation? Is it ethical for us to provide materials that effectively act as propaganda for the course sponsor? How do we deal with the dilemma presented to us of choosing between pleasing our employer and maintaining an adherence to professional values and ethics?  Should we reluctantly accept propagandising for the company providing the course as part of our obligations to our employer, or place our professional ethics above the perception that it may do harm to our careers?

This question of propagandising for large corporations cuts across both our personal lives and our professional lives. By identifying ourselves as librarians (or information professionals) we are proclaiming an adherence to a certain set of ethical values. Regardless of whether we are acting in a professional or a personal capacity, these values must surely still apply. In the medical profession, for example, your professional and ethical values do not end the minute you leave the surgery/hospital/pharmacy, you carry them with you at all times. As there are serious ethical considerations when asked to prepare uncritical course materials for a corporate funded education programme, so we must be careful about the information we disseminate publicly. This means avoiding propagandising for corporate interests where we receive financial (or other) benefits directly in return, or at least ensuring a disclaimer is clearly provided. For if, as an information professional, we lack transparency in our provision of information, how can we possibly be trusted in providing clear, unbiased information? By propagandising for a corporate entity for either our own benefit or our employers, we have become a conduit for that corporation. And once an information professional acts as a conduit for corporate interests, without doing so in a transparent fashion, our professional ethics are compromised. Once compromised we can no longer be seen as impartial providers of information, but as effectively something little more than a ‘sponsored link’ on a Google web search.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am fortunate in that critical thinking formed the backbone of most of my educational life. But it did not form a crucial component in the completion of the MSc in Information and Library Studies qualification. Admittedly there was a module requiring critical analysis of a research article for the Research in the Profession module, but there was little to encourage critical thinking, in my view, or to teach the fundamental skills required to do so. As a result, I wonder to what extent critical thinking should be ‘taught’ in a Masters (or a bachelors for that matter) in information science?  Is it adequately covered in existing LIS programmes? Or is there a greater need for learning the tools and skills required to, as the aforementioned Czech dissident put it “read between the lines”?  I’m not convinced that it is, although others may well disagree. Regardless of the extent to which it is or is not covered in existing LIS programmes, critical thinking is absolutely fundamental to the profession and never more so than now, at a time when our values are increasingly challenged and undermined. Ultimately, how can you be an information professional without being able to effectively critically analyse information?

In short, in my personal view, it is a professional duty to ensure that we always “read between the lines” and ensure that those we serve do not have to in their engagements with us. For if we do not challenge and breakdown propaganda and misinformation, who will?


Anarchy and the role of control in the library

Would students welcome greater collaboration and the illusion of control?
(Image c/o Roberto on Flickr.)

Last week I pondered what a library would look like if the hierarchies were dismantled and, rather than being a library service provided by professionals with a limited amount of engagement in the delivery process by its users, it would be a collaborative process between the two. Professionals would work in partnership with users to provide a truly collaborative library service.  The service would neither be controlled by users, not would it be controlled by the professionals, it would be controlled collaboratively, with professionals making the ultimate decisions but with users playing an active, rather than passive, role in the delivery of the service.

When thinking about the possibilities for partnership, I got to thinking about the success of social media.  Here are a bunch of services, created by experts, that are then made available to users for free…these services subsequently become incredibly popular.  But what makes them so popular with users?  Is it simply because they are free (doubtful as many free services never catch on) or is it because, as I would argue, they provide a service the user sees as valuable and that provides them with an “illusion of control”?

All social media provides users with a certain degree of control.  You control your privacy, the content you post and, to a certain extent, you control how it works for you.  This illusion of control bestowed upon the user is what, I think, helps to maintain loyalty.  As long as they feel that there is an element of control, they are content with the service and will continue to use it, building their networks and finding new ways of using the technology.  The problem starts when the limits to our control become apparent.

Whenever there is a slight change in service, users tend to take to the social media platform affected and loudly complain about the change, or the loss of control.  Take, for example, the continual changes to Facebook’s privacy settings.  Initially they were clear and easy to understand then, as the need grew for Facebook to monetise the data it has on users (the data the user has been led to believe they control), so came multiple changes to the privacy functionality.  With each change to this functionality came less control and increased dissatisfaction with the service (to the extent that many have left due to the loss of control of their data).  Of course, the service still remains incredibly popular, but with each loss of user control the service loses another slither of users.

Similarly, Twitter receives a great deal of criticism from users whenever it reduces the level of control users have on the service.  One of Twitter’s great strengths early on was that people could build on it and enhance the user experience (I’m thinking services like Tweetdeck which served a very useful function for many when it was first released…and continues to do so).  Other users would then utilise these additional services feeling that they had a degree of control over how they interact with Twitter, they could choose which app they utilised and didn’t need to restrict themselves to ‘official’ applications.  However, as with Facebook, there has been a growing need to monetise content/data which has resulted in third party apps rapidly diminishing as Twitter seeks to control content and, therefore, its users.  Users increasingly have no choice but to use ‘official’ Twitter applications to make effective use of the service.  From making the service one that the users built on and controlled (albeit in collaboration with the people behind Twitter), it has increasingly become one that Twitter fully controls, reducing the role of the user in its development.  This, in turn, has led to a low rumbling of discontent amongst service users as the tools that they utilise have gradually been taken away from them, taking control out of their hands and putting it in the hands of the service provider.

More recently, the furore over Google Reader demonstrates the response when a useful service that users can build upon, control and use in a way that meets their needs is taken away from them.  Indeed, as one commentator points out, there is now a trend away from user control as services increasingly come to the realisation that money is more important.  What we have seen is that services grow quite rapidly on the basis of this illusion, at a key point control is then shifted back to the service creators, away from the service users, which then leads to a (modest admittedly) degree of negative rumbling about the service.  In other words, users are fine with the service so long as the illusion remains.  Shatter the illusion and people begin to question why they use the service and may even stop using the service altogether.

In terms of social media, therefore, removing an element of ‘control’ from the user can lead to a substantial degree of dissatisfaction with the service.  But the key thing to remember is that there was a high degree of satisfaction initially leading to a kind of evangelism, preaching the value of such tools to friends and acquaintances, massively increasing the user base and encouraging others to build tools on top to add value to the service  And it was, in my view, the illusion of control that created this sense of devotion and affection for these services.

And perhaps it’s this illusion of control that libraries can take advantage of.  Rather than simply handing over the reigns to the user, a degree of collaboration between the user and the service could be developed that empowers the user.  Provide the illusion of control whilst also ensuring that the user is permitted to exercise this control within a narrow framework.  So, for example, patron driven acquisition (PDA), which has already been utilised in a significant number of libraries, is one component in this illusion of control.  Enabling PDA whilst ensuring that the professionals have ultimate control provides the illusion of control, makes for a more responsive service, yet also keeps within permitted boundaries of control.

Another example is cataloguing.  I am a big fan of folksonomies as a cataloguing tool in libraries (caveat: whilst information retrieval was my highest scoring module, I am no cataloguer!).  Rather than a librarian classifying an item using their terminology and a formal classification scheme, why not enable the users to classify items using their own language?  Such a system would be more democratic, less hierarchical and ensure that classification is derived from the users’ language rather than that of an authoritative, hierarchical taxonomic scheme subjectively employed by a librarian.  However, the system would have its own limited controls to ensure preservation of the illusion of user control.

In completing one of my assignments on information organisation and retrieval [PDF], I looked at how folksonomies could be deployed in libraries with particular reference to Delicious, a tool that allows users to categorise articles on the internet (quite effectively until it experience a serious decline).  Picking an article by Peter Merholz, it was clear that whilst there was a wide range of tags applied, there appeared to be a general consensus amongst users about the subject of the text.  Bookmarked (at the time) by 56 Delicious users, it had 61 different tags applied to the item.  However, what was clear was that after the first three tags applied there was a steep drop off in popularity of the remaining tags.  What emerged was a consensus around three main tags: “metadata”, “tagging” and “folksonomy”.  What this suggests is that not only did users identify common themes, but that it is possible to develop a controlled vocabulary at a certain point which could then be utilised to ‘encourage’ users to tag the item in a particular way.  This could be achieved by either adding the most common tags by default to the user’s classification, or by indicating that they are “suggested tags” (as it does on Delicious).  This ensures that there is a certain degree of ‘control’ whilst also enabling the user to add further tags that are relevant to them. As I concluded in my assignment:

This combination of controlled vocabularies and user-based tagging is not only useful for indexing information materials on the internet, it could also be use to allow library users to search photos within library collections, as well as books that are available through the OPAC. User-based tagging does have its limitations, but in combination with the principles of a controlled vocabulary, the possibilities of providing a service more relevant to the end user should outweigh any concerns about its application.

As with social media, giving the user illusion of control over elements of the service may increase their engagement, increase their loyalty and turn them into evangelists for the service.  Working in collaboration with users to a greater extent may result in substantial benefits for both user and service.  They buy into a service that is much more responsive to their needs, able to adapt and create more flexible services, and the service builds loyalty and increased usage.  But, do users really want this level of collaboration?  Are they happy for the service to determine how they interact with it, with limited input other than when the library permits it?  Or do they actually want more input and a greater sense of ‘control’ of the resources they are using?  I guess it would be ironic to impost a system of collaboration upon users if they had no interest in collaborating with the service.  But then again, maybe they would be interested in closer collaboration…

Anarchy! In the library!

Should libraries be more…anarchistic?
(Image c/o seven resist on Flickr.)

One of the things I have been mulling over for some time now, is the idea of overturning the hierarchical structures in libraries.  That sounds rather grand…probably grander than it actually is.  I guess what I have been pondering is whether we can turn the library service from being run in a ‘top down’ fashion to one that is more of a collaboration with users.  One where the professionals and the users work in tandem rather than professionals selecting resources and then telling the user what is available and how to use it.

It’s hardly a radical idea, much of what would constitute a non-hierarchical library service is already in action.  Take patron driven acquisition (PDA) for example.  PDA is, essentially, a method by which materials are purchased for the library based on known patron demand.  This has been used in a number of academic libraries already and is probably no longer the radical new idea that it was when it was first rolled out.  However, the idea is not restricted to academic libraries, teenagers have also been involved in the stock purchasing process in public libraries (again, not something massively new despite the spin in Surrey’s press release).  But what if this level of involvement by users in the purchasing process was extended across the whole of the library?  From books to databases to equipment…could this even work?

Instead of the library saying to the user we have purchased this resource for you, why not ask them what resources we should purchase, which we should stop subscribing to and which we should expand?  Rather than making the library a hierarchy with the professional librarian sitting at the top, occasionally seeking feedback from the library user, why not make it a collaboration between user and professional?  Why not build a library service where the professional and the user are equal partners in the process?

I’m not even clear myself how a non-hierarchical library would operate or whether it is even feasible to enable a situation whereby both the user and the professional have equal control over the library service, how it is delivered and what resources it makes available.  Could you ever, in either public, academic or school libraries, allow the user to have complete equal say in the running of the library service?  Is it possible for user and professional to work in real partnership?  How would it work if such a relationship was developed?  Maybe some people feel that their library service already works fully in partnership with its users.

But it’s not just in terms of working in partnership with users, a non-hierarchical library wouldn’t levy fines for late returns (what is more hierarchical than inflicting a punishment on a user to control and influence behaviour?).  Again, this is not a new idea (this article on the initiative dates from 2006), there is nothing radical or revolutionary about introducing such a system.  But it is another step towards creating a hierarchy free library service. One in which the service is not seen so much as us (the professionals) and them (the users), but as an equal partnership, with no divide between the two and no hierarchy to assert authority.

Sorry, this has been a bit of a rambly post, but I’d be interested to hear what other people think. Can we develop a true, hierarchy free library service?  Are we already working in true partnership with users?  Do we require a hierarchy to ensure an effective library service?  Would ceding control to library users diminish the service, or would it enhance it?  Is it fair to say that we (as professionals) still ‘own’ the service and should we continue to do so?  I’d be interested to hear what other people think…not least because it will help my vague pondering.

Facilitating consent: whither the radical librarian?

Last night I watched the live stream of Noam Chomsky in conversation with Jonathan Freedland at the British Library (YouTube clip embedded below).  Billed as an introduction to the upcoming exhibition, ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’, it was a rare opportunity to listen to the thoughts of perhaps one of the most influential political activists of the post-war era.  Indeed, Chomsky has probably been the biggest influence on me in terms of how I view the state, the use of state power and the role of the media (alongside Naomi Klein, whose No Logo andShock Doctrine have also had a substantial impact upon the way in which I view the world).

One of the main themes in Chomsky’s work is the role of the media and how it reinforces the actions and beliefs of the intellectual class.  Information is a tool used and abused by the state and the intellectual class to reinforce agendas and to encourage a certain world view amongst its citizenry.  The media itself plays a critical role in reinforcing these agendas.  As Chomsky himself notes here:

Now the elite media are sort of the agenda-setting media. That means The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major television channels, and so on. They set the general framework. Local media more or less adapt to their structure.

And they do this in all sorts of ways: by selection of topics, by distribution of concerns, by emphasis and framing of issues, by filtering of information, by bounding of debate within certain limits. They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict — in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society.

The New York Times is certainly the most important newspaper in the United States, and one could argue the most important newspaper in the world. The New York Times plays an enormous role in shaping the perception of the current world on the part of the politically active, educated classes. Also The New York Times has a special role, and I believe its editors probably feel that they bear a heavy burden, in the sense that The New York Times creates history.

The media, a prime source of information for much of the population, is designed to serve the interests of the elites. It then follows, obviously, that the media applies a filter to information, selecting what information reinforces existing structures, and filtering out that which damages those same structures.

Of course, given that it was a discussion about information and propaganda held in the British Library, libraries themselves entered the discussion (Chomsky argued that the establishment of the public library network had a far deeper, more profound impact on society than the introduction of the internet).  Which got me thinking about librarians, the profession and the institution of the library.

It is clear to me that the role of the librarian in society is a radical one.  We provide access to information in a society that is subjected to both filtered information from the media, and growing corporate control of the flow of information.  With the growth of neo-liberalism, the institution of the public library has increasingly become a radical idea.  After all, in a neo-liberal society, everything has its price, including information.  An institution that provides free access to anything in a neo-liberal society is by default an anomaly and a radical one at that.  It therefore follows that the role of the librarian is equally radical.  After all, a professional librarian provides access to information without discrimination, a dangerous concept in any society where information is majority controlled either by the state or by corporate interests.

It is interesting to note, however, that the radical roots of the profession are often hidden away.  Increasingly, they are hidden away under a mountain of corporate speak and superficial obsessions.  In some way this is understandable. Market forces have been imposed on much of the sectors in which librarians operate.  Where they have been imposed, it is natural to assume the mantras of the neo-liberal elites.  After all, an animal rights activist will not refuse a gun if dumped in the middle of the African plains.  But sometimes I wonder if amongst the corporate language, the core principles of the librarian aren’t being lost.

I often despair when librarians warmly enthuse about Amazon.  Primarily, this despair stems from the belief that a company like Amazon transparently does not share the values that we espouse as a profession.  They are a corporate entity who, like all corporate entities, does not put benevolence at the core of its business.  They are motivated by profit.  And if that profit comes from majority control of one of the means by which we obtain information, then they will seek to consolidate control.  Not only are their intentions anti-competitive, but they also do severe damage in terms of access to information.

I also tend to disagree with those who do not believe that values should be at the centre of the profession.  For me, without values we have no right to consider ourselves ‘professionals’. Indeed, anyone who signs up to the professional body also signs up theprofessional values that it espouses.  Personally speaking, I cannot understand how it is possible to sign up to a set of professional values and subsequently view them as an optional extra.

From my point of view, the profession stands for providing access to information to enable an informed citizenry, standing against the tide of corporatisation of information and the radical assault on the notion of free and equitable access to that information.  In a way it is sad that arguing for the very things that are the foundation of the profession is, in some way, seen as ‘radical’.  But then, if it makes us ‘radical’ in arguing for equitable access to information and ensuring consolidation of an informed citizenry, so be it.