Creators not consumers: visualising the radical alternative for libraries

The following post was written in collaboration with Andrew Preater.

We are often presented with two choices within librarianship: a forward-thinking approach and a supposedly old-fashioned approach. These are sometimes characterised as progressive and conservative positions respectively. We argue, however, that this is a mis-characterisation and, in fact, the forward-thinking approach could be best described as conservative.

When considering what is progressive and what is conservative we need to consider our context. We exist in an environment that increasingly focuses on market fundamentalism as the default approach, and assumes markets as the most efficient path to provide solutions, drive progress, and ensure the most equitable outcome for all. Indeed, market fundamentalists argue that where there is a fault, it is due to a failure to make our economic system truly market-oriented. We see this for example in the way the cause of the current economic crisis is presented as rooted in public spending, rather than the failure of free market economics.

For us, this raises a question: what is progressive? Slotting in comfortably with the market consensus, the status quo, or embarking on a path that is visionary and alternative? Surely if we are to ponder what constitutes forward-thinking, we would want to consider alternatives that are original, distinct, and even radical?

The use of language is important. The packaging of certain ideas as “progressive” more easily allow questioning, protesting, or rejection of such ideas to be cast as old-fashioned or even regressive. Alternatives are, by their nature, a block on progress and their proponents unrealistic and outdated – perhaps even luddites selfishly putting their own interest above improvements for their service users. We see this abduction of language played out repeatedly throughout social and political discourse. A particular path – typically one that rejects a sense of ethics – is presented as inevitable, and any opposition can easily be dismissed as the archaic complaints of an isolated and outdated few.

Regarding libraries, a “progressive” approach has increasingly accepted marketised solutions to service provision. As a profession we have broadly accepted the idea of members or users as “customers” or “consumers”, and accepted the need to adopt market strategies to meet their needs. Within the broader context of a societal shift towards neoliberalism, it is hardly surprisingly the societal consensus – the common sense of our time – has been replicated within libraries. This is so accepted that a rejection of this approach, for example rejecting the label of “customer”, has become seen to be old-fashioned and outdated.

This progressive approach to libraries is problematic. It advocates a belief there is a market relationship between the service and the user, with barriers placed between the two, and reduces the relationship between libraries and users to a transactional one with the library supplying information – viewed as a commodity in a market setting. Strategies based on market approaches seek ways to overcome these barriers, to better understand users and research their needs to market the service more effectively and to more efficiently provide commodified information. However, we argue a more radical approach might see library users incorporated into the library service itself in a model of co-creation of service and co-production of knowledge, with librarians challenging dominant, marketised models of service provision. In a model of co-creation or co-ownership users would own the service as much as those running it. This would negate a need to “market” the service or to promote “customer service” as users would already be fully embedded within the service itself.

While not perfect by any means, the approach taken at Mondragon University in Spain offers an example of what can be possible if we re-calibrate the relationship between our services and our users. Rather than making the user distinct from the service, the user (in this case the student) is incorporated into the running of the university. Mondragon realises this through a democratic governance structure with a General Assembly composed of a third staff, a third students, and a third outside interested parties. As David Matthews’ article notes, this Assembly has significant powers from deciding priorities to dismissing senior managers. This is certainly radical in the current climate of higher education in the United Kingdom.

The Mondragon approach is far from ideal. It does, however, point to alternative ways of delivering HE and, potentially, for delivering services to students and our broader publics, and there are lessons we can learn and utilise for delivery of academic and public library services. There is no doubt this sits outside the normative discourse in UK HE. It is, in that sense, a radical and forward-thinking approach in opposition to the conservative marketised approach that dominates.

The problem we face is, increasingly, alternatives to the market-based approach such as that offered at Mondragon, seem so far removed from the dominant ideology as to be almost impossible to imagine within the existing framework. As we have moved further down a consumerist path, the default position of our profession has shifted further towards neoliberalism so alternatives become increasingly seen as too “radical”. Whereas a rejection of a market-based approach was once seen as acceptable, partly due to it being at odds with our professional ethics, such opposition has become seen to act as a barrier or an unnecessary restrainer on progress, and those expressing such moderate views have become irritants that “hold us back”. On the other hand, those enthused by commodification of information and market approaches are motivated and driven to enact changes they feel are necessary.

As once-moderate alternatives are seen as increasingly radical, so that creates a range of problems. Spaces for resistance shrink and the effect is to make a move to an alternative seem so large, that it seems barely possible to realise. Indeed, the effort to engender such change becomes so large as to encourage a sense of hopelessness at the task ahead. This hopelessness itself paralyses opposition to neoliberal approaches and even inhibits engagement with the issues at hand. People feel that the task is so substantial, so difficult, that it is not worth making an effort to challenge the dominant ideology.

This plays out against a backdrop of economic crises and austerity economics that make any form of resistance that much more challenging. For example, in public libraries we see fears that during cuts to public services those who speak against the dominant ideology will be those targeted first as trouble-makers. In higher education we see the use of political policing and other forms of repression of student and trade union protests as a warning not to resist.

The library profession is hampered by a growing apathy at its centre. There is a motivated or ‘activist’ core on both sides, both driven by ideological convictions to realise alternatives in the delivery of services. But there is a disengaged, detached middle who are less motivated. This middle are a powerful weapon for the forces of progression. They can be counted on not to protest or resist because they lack the motivation or will to engage on this level, due either to exhaustion or a more general apathy.

This is not to apportion blame, or pretend we can deliver a radical alternative by being a bit more professionally engaged. Across the board we see a tendency for people to engage less with the forces affecting them, evidenced by declining political party membership and declining trades union and professional organisation membership. Opposition is stymied and alternative paths are inhibited as we lack both spaces and structures within which to organise and the willingness itself to resist.

Herein lies a major challenge for radicals to overcome. The odds are stacked against them both in terms of those driving “progression” and an exhausted or disengaged middle. Disengagement benefits orthodoxy after all, not alternatives: the alternative requires action, progressives merely require a weak, ineffectual alternative to prevail.

Advocates for a radical alternative need to be patient. With the odds so stacked against them, an alternative approach will not be quickly accepted and adopted: it will take time. Radical alternatives must be constructed carefully and persuasively. At this stage, the most significant victory for the radical alternative can have is to open dialogue about the alternatives. Without dialogue, without alternatives being voiced and discussed, there is no hope for a radical alternative. So long as the progressive option is dominant and unchallenged, it will remain ascendant.

We need public discussion about the alternatives because it sparks interest, galvanises those who lean towards a radical alternative, and in doing so, builds momentum for a movement. But in sparking discourse, the radical alternative must capture the language. It has to re-frame the discussion. It has to be made clear that the “progressive” course is not forward-thinking, but rather sits within a conservative viewpoint that accepts the dominant ideology, rather than pushing against it to create something new and alternative. It is not true progression but rather it is drift – in part due to the lack of critical analysis that would accompany serious progression.

It is possible to create an alternative. We have the skill and imagination to construct an alternative vision to that which sits comfortably with the dominant ideology. But to do so we must communicate the alternative clearly and publicly. We must be careful in how we utilise language to ensure that the alternative is not perceived to be simply harking back to the past, but as something new and challenging. Something that has not previously been visualised or realised. Something that is distinct from the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. Something alternative. Something radical.

The future for libraries across Europe against a backdrop of ‘austerity’

The following article was originally commissioned by the Russian International Affairs Council (original version here, English version here), who have very kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.

Image c/o Tristam Sparks on Flickr.

Libraries across Europe are currently facing very serious challenges in the face of the wave of austerity sweeping across the continent. As governments sell to their people the notion that public spending needs to be curtailed to overcome the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, public libraries are increasingly seen as an easy target, one that is unlikely to rally the people in quite the same way as cuts to other services where the outcomes of such cuts appear more immediately tangible.

But libraries continue to play an important role in our communities across Europe. They facilitate access to knowledge free at the point of use in a way that is increasingly threatened as we move towards a word where access to information comes at a price. They are the great leveller in democracies, ensuring everyone has access to the same quality of information. Where, for example, those without internet access (around 30% of the European population do not have a broadband internet connection) still have somewhere to go to ensure they have access to the same information as those that do. This provision is not only important to support children in their education but also the unemployed and those who rely on social security, particularly in the UK where those least likely to have a home internet connection are increasingly being forced to use such technology for their own financial security.

But libraries aren’t simply important in terms of providing access to new technologies, they are also vital for helping to raise literacy standards, and encourage children to develop their reading skills. The importance of libraries to children is perhaps best exemplified by the statistics that demonstrate that children are increasingly using public libraries, despite the internet and the proliferation of a range of competing activities. Over the past eight years in the UK, children’s fiction borrowing as risen year upon year, underlining how important public libraries are for supporting the educational development of the next generation.

In terms of the future for the library service, we are already seeing hints of how it might develop and, perhaps, how it should develop. In the UK, there has been a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’. The terminology appears harmless, but the reality is quite different. In order to support the drive to austerity, libraries are increasingly being forced upon communities who are then compelled to run them against their will. Whilst the majority of library users would prefer their public library to be run by the local authority, policy makers are more interested in reducing costs and passing these costs directly onto the community, effectively increasing their tax burden.

This ‘plague’ is sweeping across the UK and has been noticed elsewhere across Europe. In Spain, for example, volunteer run libraries are increasingly being seen as an option, at least in part due to their ‘commonality’ in the UK. Ideas that spring up in one European nation are sure to be experimented with elsewhere, particularly when it appears that the idea helps to support the austerity agenda that is so prevalent across the continent. It seems not far-fetched to say that volunteer libraries could, over the coming years, spread right across Europe and be seen as a standard way of delivering library services, complemented by large city ‘super-libraries’ such as that that opened in Birmingham in 2013.

If this is to be the future for public libraries across Europe, it is fair to say that the future looks bleak and there is likely to be only a small number of libraries fit for purpose across Europe as smaller libraries disappear and community libraries close due to their unsustainable nature. It would appear that one future is to have a well-funded, flagship library in each major city, but a steady decline in the number of small libraries serving local communities. In the UK alone we could see the number of public libraries shift from the thousands to the hundreds between now and the next century.

Whilst this is how things might develop, it is not necessarily how things should develop. Recent elections have shown just how important the internet has been in influencing the results. President Obama’s election campaign in 2008 showed how the internet could be harnessed to drive a successful presidential election. Not only is it the case that elections have become increasingly fought over the internet, but the battle between political parties has increasingly sought to channel the power of the internet as politicians increasingly see the internet as a vital weapon in the information wars. But this ‘war’ is not only being fought between politicians, there are other actors that influence the political information flow. Websites such as Full Fact, What Do They Know? and They Work For You have provided the tools to make it easier for those with an internet connection to hold their elected representatives to account, as well as to get to the truth about their activities. It is far easier to engage in the political process now than it has ever been. Provided you are connected to the internet.

We know that many people do not have an internet connection. We also know that, as with literacy standards, there is always likely to be a minority of the populace who cannot either access or make use of the information and tools that are at our disposal. We know that despite many years of effort to address literacy standards, there are still many who struggle with literacy (one in six according to the UK’s National Literacy Trust). For those that do struggle, the internet will present additional problems. Issues around literacy do not disappear once you sit in front of a computer. They persist, ensuring that a divide remains between those with good levels of literacy and those without.

So perhaps this points the way to an alternative role for libraries, how things should develop in the next one hundred years. Perhaps libraries should increasingly become gateways to our democracy, helping people to hold their elected officials to account, ensuring that the electorate are well informed and able to influence the political sphere. As well as supporting them through the provision of access to government portals as governments increasingly adopt a ‘digital by default’ strategy, maybe they can also help to ensure the people can watch over the state and ensure it can be held to account. It may require a different model across Europe, one that is more independent of state and therefore at enough of a distance to ensure it can hold governments to account.

Perhaps the volunteer model that is rapidly being adopted is a hint to a better alternative that is being ignored on the basis of political ideology. Rather than ‘community libraries’ run by people with a gun held to their head, maybe a closer, stronger partnership between the community and the professionally delivered service is the answer. Maybe the example of the University of Mondragon suggests an interesting, more desirable alternative.

Mondragon operates on a co-operative model that is highly de-centralised and engages all partners in the delivery of education. It also has a highly democratic governance structure:

Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team.

Perhaps this is a model that libraries across Europe should be exploring. A professionally delivered service run in partnership with its users and other co-operative libraries. The potential for such a service is great, but the idea itself could be easily corrupted. Efforts to expand on mutuals in the UK have already raised alarm amongst interested parties such as Co-operatives UK and the Trades Union Congress. As such, this alternative future should perhaps be handled with care and one that advocates should be careful to ensure the idea is not corrupted and abused.

There is certainly the potential to build an alternative future for public (and, indeed, academic) libraries in the future. At present the future appears to be developing in a way that will result in the slow destruction of a public library network across Europe. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Libraries should develop as institutions that can help the people of Europe engage in democratic processes, they should be at the centre of a drive towards transparency across the continent. A well-funded and well-resourced library service should enhance democracies throughout Europe. The future might look bleak, but it should look transparent.

Neoliberalism, language and ‘The Alternatives’

Neoliberalism n. a political philosophy that argues in favour of privatisation, deregulation, and shrinking of the state to the benefit of the private sector.

(Image c/o Michael Thompson on Flickr.)

Neoliberals have a peculiar belief system. They believe that neoliberalism is about shifting power away from the state, freeing us from its “oppressive” influence on every aspect of our lives. It is about freedom and liberty. It is about the individual having more control over our lives. Of course, this doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. Whenever neoliberals are in a position of power, they have to deceive the people to ensure that their political philosophy can be put into action. Deception because, ultimately, the people will often reject the reforms proposed if they were offered to them in advance and with total transparency (see the NHS). It’s why very often the most extreme neoliberal reforms take place under authoritarian regimes (Chile being the obvious example).

Deceit is one weapon they deploy frequently and with ease. But more broadly, their weapon is language. It is through language that they are most effective in winning arguments and closing down perfectly rational opposition to their political philosophy. It is their chief weapon against dissent.  As Greene and McMenemy argue (£):

“The introduction of the concept of choice for individual public service users is an example of a neoliberal rhetorical tool used to overcome any foreseen resistance to marketisation and restructuring of the public sphere.”

Terms such as ‘choice’ are deployed in such a way as to ensure that opponents of neoliberal philosophy are seen as somehow opposed to ‘choice’, opposed to the individual being able to exercise their right to ‘choose’. Thus any dissent is effectively neutered. After all, what right-thinking person could be opposed to the inalienable right for an individual to choose?

This neutering of debate and hijacking of language is apparent in much of the language we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Presenting a new initiative as ‘efficient’ or ‘progressive’, for example, ensures that anyone who disagrees with these positions is easily labelled as somehow ‘anti-progress’ or as a defender of inefficiency (it’s worth noting that in the UK and US the term ‘progressive’ is used in very different ways by the right-wing. In the UK it is a term embraced by the right for political expediency, the US right-wing sees it as a term of abuse). Neoliberal maneuvering can, therefore, ensure that opponents are seen by the majority as old-fashioned and out-of-touch, even when the opponents are perhaps even more radical and forward-thinking.

We see this frequently across society in general and in terms of our own profession. Those who object to certain language or who question certain new ideas are seen as obstructive, outdated refuseniks who merely hold back both the profession and the institution as a whole. However, I would argue that such voices are not merely naysayers, refusing any hint of ‘progress’. They can and do hold ‘forward-thinking’ ideas that are often truly radical in the sense that they offer an alternative path that sits outside established orthodoxies.

One example of the infiltration of neoliberal ideology is the growing use of the word ‘customer’. This is a problematic term for a public service to utilise. Reflecting on an interaction in an art exhibition with a representative of “customer liaison”, Doreen Massey notes in her article “Neoliberalism has hijacked our vocabulary”:

“The message underlying this use of the term customer for so many different kinds of human activity is that in all almost all our daily activities we are operating as consumers in a market – and this truth has been brought in not by chance but through managerial instruction and the thoroughgoing renaming of institutional practices. The mandatory exercise of “free choice” – of a GP, of a hospital, of schools for one’s children – then becomes also a lesson in social identity, affirming on each occasion our consumer identity.”

Indeed, as the late Tony Benn explained in an interview for Michael Moore’s Sicko, the term ‘customer’ implies a financial transaction, one where money must pass hands. The implication, therefore, is that if you do not have money you cannot be a customer as you do not have the means to pay for the service. This, of course, gets to the heart of neoliberal doctrine – that everything has its price. The risk of employing such terminology is that it validates neoliberal ideology. Not only validates, but also opens the door to commercial influences and, ultimately, commercial “expertise” (this is why language should be carefully deployed, it ultimately erodes the influence of the professional). After all, if you are going to argue that concepts such as ‘customer services’ are integral to the delivery of library services, why not get in the ‘experts’? However, there are alternatives visions to the relationship between the user and the service. Visions that are not old-fashioned and archaic, but fresh and “forward-thinking” (to adopt clumsy terminology).

Take, for example, Noam Chomsky’s view of on an alternative future for higher education:

“First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.”

That seems to me to be a truly forward-thinking and radical idea. Although it is radical only in the sense that the current social and political climate makes it appear radical. Who could argue that this is not a ‘forward-thinking’ proposition? It rejects standard orthodox thinking, replacing a hierarchical system with something more democratic. Replacing a traditional approach with something alternative, untested and, ultimately, revolutionary.

The alternative path to a customer/service relationship need not be old fashioned and traditionalist. It can be radical, bold and resolutely non-traditional. Rejecting the customer/service relationship need not mean that the refusenik lacks a radical, alternative vision. Indeed, the alternative may be more radical than that which accepts traditional hierarchical structures and operates within broader environmental and political norms. To a certain extent, this radical alternative to the neoliberal customer/service relationship is already being tested in Spain.

Whilst not a perfect example of the kind of structures that could exist as an alternative to the neoliberal model, Mondragon University does offer a more democratic, co-operative system. In comparison to the neoliberal model, it is somewhat radical in that it rejects orthodox hierarchical structures. As Times Higher Education discovered last year:

“The university has a highly democratic governance structure. Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation [note: Mondragon Corporation is the overall federation of workers cooperatives which includes Mondragon University]. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team. (It last used this power in 2007 when one manager was dismissed, according to Altuna.)

“Mondragon is also highly decentralised. “We say that the chancellor [also known as the rector] has less power than the deans,” says the current holder of the top post, Iosu Zabala Iturralde. (Zabala appears to be the only member of staff who wears a tie – but he does not go as far as wearing a suit jacket.)”

This alternative to the neoliberal model is forward-thinking in outlook. Embracing a system that enables all stakeholders to be actively involved in the governance of the institution. The alternative to neoliberalism is not, therefore, backward or ‘anti-progress’. It is clearly more forward-thinking and ‘progressive’ than the neoliberal model that merely shifts hierarchies whilst factoring in cynical exploitative economics.

Opponents of increasing neoliberal language and ideas are not always, therefore, regressive unreconstructed dinosaurs. The alternative vision is not necessarily one that sees a return to an old fashioned way of delivering a service. It can be just as forward-thinking and ‘radical’, if not more so as it abandons the hierarchies beloved of traditionalists and neoliberals. And yet still to question neoliberal language and ideas is to be seen as a defender of an ‘old order’. As an ‘obstacle’ to progress. As someone that is holding back the profession and the institution. Why should this be?

There is an alternative to the neoliberal model. We can create a system that rejects neoliberal ideology and embraces something new, alternative and radical, something that is distinct from existing norms.  We can create a system that is co-operative, democratic and that ensures all stakeholders have an equal say in the delivery of services. This alternative is forward-thinking and radical. The problem is, how to deploy language?

At present there is a lack of clarity regarding what makes a radical, non-traditional alternative to the customer/service or neoliberal models that seem so dominant at present. It is difficult to coherently express this vision when the terms of debate and language have been co-opted by a neoliberal agenda. But it is vitally important to ensure that those that reject the current terms of the debate are not dismissed as irrelevant or as a block on ‘progress’. The alternatives are radical. The alternative is a break from existing orthodoxies. It just hasn’t yet been communicated effectively. If we can communicate the alternative effectively, maybe it could be possible to construct a model that re-casts the relationship between the institution and the user as less cynical and more co-operative.