Why “better advocacy” won’t make any difference…

Better advocacy will not free us… (image c/o Edward Badley on Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0)

A few years back, I wrote about the need to capture the narrative when it comes to public libraries. In the face of the challenges put before public libraries and librarians, it was clear that a change was needed. Librarians needed to seize the narrative and make it their own. However, I do not think I went nearly far enough.

There has been a growing trend in the past couple of years to use the language of radicalism and revolution in librarianship. I’m obviously a part of that having got involved in a group of self-identifying radical librarians. However, I would contend that most of the rhetoric has been misused and is, potentially, damaging because it presents a solution that doesn’t really exist.

The problem with much of the rhetoric is that it takes a somewhat liberal left position. Not a surprise in a profession that is dominated by those that sit on the liberal left of the political spectrum.  Those appropriating the language of radicalism and revolution contend that the system itself is not at fault, we have just failed to fully exploit the opportunities that it presents for us. There are two levels on which I find this train of thought problematic.

First, it implies that it is our fault. That if only we communicated our value better, we would thrive and prosper. The failure to take advantage of the opportunities presented to us is down to a lack of imagination on our part. If we came up with better strategies to communicate the value of libraries, we would find ourselves in a much better position. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the implication it is my fault, rather than the system. I’m not enamoured with the notion that I actually need to embrace the system to ensure a better environment for libraries and the profession.

Second, it implies that the current system is fine. That the neoliberal environment in which we exist is a good model. That we don’t need to change an inequitable economic system that sits at odds with our ethics and values. For how can a system that embraces profit over public good sit comfortably with a profession that fundamentally believes in free access to information? A profession that embraces the notion that all should have equal access, regardless of financial circumstance? The underlying message is clear: don’t rock the boat, you don’t really need to.

It is, without doubt, hugely naive to believe that if we just communicated better, the political elite would cast aside their deeply engrained political ideology and embrace the idea of the commons. This is a fairly standard position taken by the liberal left: the system is fine, let’s make the most of it. Such a position is understandable, the easy option is often the more attractive. The alternative is hard work, exhausting, unrewarding and will not be achieved in our lifetimes. Better to just accept the system and make the best of it.

Except that is exactly the position that plays into the hands of those that wield power. If we accept that the system is fine, doesn’t need changing and that we only need to take better advantage of the opportunities it affords, then we can be pushed a little further. Step by step those in power can push us into accepting the need for the system to expand. We may grumble but, ultimately, we will accept and work within the structures because we believe that we can make the best of it.

Better communication and better advocacy won’t save the day. They might make us feel better (in contrast to the alternative, they take little effort), but they will achieve nothing of any substance. Politicians will not be convinced by great advocacy because they have fully embraced an economic train of thought that rejects the belief in the public good in favour of private ownership and profit. Those schooled in the economics of Friedman and the ‘philosophy’ of Rand (such as it can be described as a philosophy), will not be convinced by some imaginative advocacy/communication/marketing. A lifetime of propaganda is harder than that to dislodge.

We need to stop ploughing the same liberal left, anti-intellectual furrow. It does not matter how well we communicate, how much better we advocate for public libraries, they will not reverse an overall political agenda that touches every aspect of public life on the basis of some great advocacy for libraries. Because the ideology that drives our politicians is not restricted to libraries, but applies to all public services. It is not that they can be persuaded by great library advocacy alone that they will retreat from a broader political belief that there is no such thing as a public good. That may have been true 10 or 20 years ago, it’s not true now. What needs changing is not the narrative about libraries, but the broader economic narrative. Until that is effectively challenged, advocacy will remain a blunt tool that makes us feel good, but achieves very little of substance, no matter to what extent we wrap it up in the flag of “radical revolution”. Ultimately, advocacy is a tool of conservatism, not of revolution.

Libraries – it’s a “question of priorities”

(Image c/o Freaktography on Flickr.)

At least according to Martyn Allison who, according to his Twitter bio is a “former national advisor for culture and sport at the IDEA now running my own company Management Improvement Services”. Which probably should tell you all you need to know, particularly how we have managed to find ourselves in the state we are in given these are the kinds of folk advising the Local Government Association. If these are the kind of people influencing policy then, well…

Mr Allison was referring to a tweet last week regarding volunteers running libraries:

When challenged on this, he responded:

Now, there is nothing unusual here. It’s a familiar line of argument by those engaged in the dismantling of our public library service. They don’t want to have to do it, but they have no choice. They are merely weighing up the services that are more vital for the community. Is it roads? Care for the elderly? Helping people find housing? Protecting childcare? It’s an argument that plays on certain emotional responses and ultimately disables any attack (similar to the politician’s trick of making statements you couldn’t possibly disagree with). After all, who could argue against care for the elderly? For protecting our children? WHAT KIND OF SICK INDIVIDUAL ARE YOU IF YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT THE ELDERLY OR OUR CHILDREN!?!? And so on, and so on…

Of course, this argument is flawed (as if we, or they, didn’t already know this). Let’s consider, for example, that there are around 7 million people who have never used the internet (more who do not have an internet connection at home). Then let’s consider that a whole host of services are increasingly being pushed online. Now let’s revisit the groups of people who folk like Allison claim to be helping by protecting services that directly affect them.

The elderly need care – Yes, they do. Council websites (certain my local council at least) provide access to information about a care home, advising you on the processes and where you can go for help. They also provide advice if you are housebound or need support to remain in your own home. Now, you can obtain this information by other means, but it is obviously far more convenient if you can do this online, putting some at a massive advantage. And let’s not forget, if there are not trained staff (and properly remunerated) we are expecting volunteers to understand the information that is available and be able to guide people to it.

Aside from general care, there is also a need to ensure they are isolated from their local community. The provision of housebound library services for those that need it, and a safe space for others is vital.

Take away libraries delivered by trained staff and you make it harder for the elderly to get the information they need and access the care services you claim to be protecting. Cutting libraries over care services does not protect the elderly, it just creates new problems for them to have to deal with, placing barriers that inhibit their ability to get the care they require.

Roads need repairing – This is an easy one. Roads do need repairing. Kent County Council offer a website that enables individuals to report potholes which can then be repaired within 28 days. Again, those who are not online and don’t have access to a public library can forget about submitting a request to repair the roads (other councils offer this service too). So yes, it ensures there is a pot of money to repair roads, but it also makes it harder for many to report the need for repairs.

Children need protecting – Guess what? Internet again. Council websites provide a wealth of information (again, see Kent County Council) for both children who are victims of abuse or adults worried that children are the victims of abuse. Not only that, but libraries provide a safe space for children after school, to do homework, or just to read (and that’s aside from the obvious benefits in terms of literacy). Public libraries provide a space that offers protection for children. They provide a safe space for children to go when they need to do homework and need to escape abusive relationships at home or when they need to escape bullying and abusive peers. They provide a safe space to learn about personal issues that they would not be able to discuss with adults or their peers. In short, libraries are vital spaces to provide the protection that children need. They are not as obvious as some spaces, but take away a library supported by trained and paid staff who understand their obligations with respect to child protection, and you take away a vital place of sanctuary for those who are victims of abuse.

People need housing – Again, how much information is available online for those in need of housing? How many websites are there providing guidance and support? How many provide information on homeless housing? How many provide guidance for those concerned about individuals who are homeless? Again, remove a library, or hollow it out, and you are attacking the people who you claim to be defending by cutting libraries before the services that you believe they are most immediately in need of.

Let’s not pretend that by cutting library services rather than cutting other services you are not having a massive impact on the most vulnerable. You are. It’s just that rather than hitting them directly, you are hitting them in areas that they won’t realise they need until it’s too late. You are not protecting them, you are merely delaying the harm you are doing to them. If it comes down to a “question of priorities” then cutting back and closing library services suggests that your priority is not to protect the most vulnerable, but to protect your own interests.

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.

Libraries – Brought To You In Association With Tesco

(Image c/o Manu Escalante on Flickr.

As you might imagine, I’ve come across many, many daft ideas regarding how public library services should be provided in future. However, I think this is possibly the worst suggestion yet, and one that makes me think even volunteer run libraries might be preferable. Darren Jones, a parliamentary candidate for Bristol North West has made the following suggestion in a letter to the chief executives of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons :

…in Bristol North West there is a significant number of residents with no access to a computer and/or the internet. There is also a significant percentage of older people, who may not have the skills or understanding to access such services. With the ongoing move to digital services it is vital that we tackle this challenge.

This is why I am writing to you today. Online shopping is increasingly popular. Many high streets in Bristol North West are crying out for increased supermarket based competition. Our libraries are in need of investment.

As one of the big six supermarkets you are well placed to help meet this need. By investing in IT equipment and training you could help a significant number of residents in Bristol get online, in modernised digital community hubs (formally known as libraries) undertaking grocery shopping online.

It’s difficult to know where exactly where to begin with this. Of course, commercial interests should have absolutely no involvement in the provision of library services. It risks undermining their very purpose (ie neutral spaces providing access to information). Once they come under commercial influence, the position of the library is compromised. How do we know that, particularly if the large supermarkets are providing “IT equipment and training” that they aren’t also filtering and leading library users down certain paths where they are the beneficiary? And what of all the information these corporations would collect on individuals? Would they be aware of the data they are giving away so that they can use a Tesco sponsored computer in a library part-funded by the supermarket giant? And as for the training itself, this is similar to that which is provided by Barclay’s of course. But which is preferable? A representative from a commercial party training an individual in how to use the internet, or properly trained and remunerated library staff guided by professionals?

No commercial enterprise will stump up the cash for equipment without some sort of return and in this case they certainly will not. The proposals would, in essence, make the library service a cash cow for the big supermarkets. This is not what libraries are about. They are not about lining the pockets of large corporations, bringing them new customers to boost profits. In terms of internet provision and ‘training’, they are there to help support them in terms of education, financial well-being and providing them with the tools with which to engage in society as informed and engaged citizens.

There is no place for commercial interests in our public library system. It compromises libraries and it makes them no better than profit generators for corporations who are already sucking up vast sums of money from the taxpayer with little return. The very last thing we should be doing is allowing them to turn libraries effectively into their satellites, acting as another driver for profit. About the only thing Jones got spot on was his proposal to re-name libraries:

By investing in IT equipment and training you could help a significant number of residents in Bristol get online, in modernised digital community hubs (formally known as libraries) undertaking grocery shopping online.

Because there is no way you could possibly describe the service proposed by Jones as ‘libraries’. They would be anything but.

Extremism, nudge theory and access to information

Image c/o Albert on Flickr.

What constitutes extremism? Is it espousing views that threaten the lives of fellow citizens? Is it the performance of individual acts of violence? Is it merely holding views that are outside the mainstream? One person’s extremist is, after all, a moderate to others. Extremism is, to some degree, a subjective position. This hasn’t stopped, naturally, the Tory party seeking to define the boundaries of acceptable extremism. Which is, of course, hugely problematic on any number of levels.

Such an approach to extremism could be seen as part of an attempt to ‘nudge’ people to an acceptable (as defined by one party political mindset, with all the dangers that entails) range for public discourse. By defining what is an ‘acceptable extremist’, one is virtually determining the acceptable range of political thought. It is this acceptable range that the Tory party seem to be keen to ‘nudge’ people towards. (‘Nudge’ theory is, of course, a very illiberal perspective, setting out an ‘acceptable norm’ and then developing strategies to push people towards that acceptable norm.)

The theorists behind nudge theory (for more on this, see the end of the post) are certainly untroubled by its use to close down discussion and to water down entirely legitimate, non-mainstream opinion. In a piece on The Atlantic,  Evan Selinger explored the possibility of ‘nudging’ people towards civil engagement online using specialist software. Richard Thaler, one of the architects of ‘nudge’ theory, embraced the concept, tweeting: “A Nudge dream come true”. A dream come true for nudge advocates  perhaps, a nightmare for anyone who opposes any effort to narrow debate to a government approved ‘norm’. With such moves by the government to expand on its definition of terrorism, can we expect such ‘nudges’ in increasing areas of public debate and discussion?

This rush to define extremes has implications in terms of access to information. Information is, after all, a key factor in radicalising individuals. Expect, with such a policy as outlined by Theresa May, that this will come coupled with the shutting down of ‘extremist’ websites, as well as restrictions on public speech. As the terms of what is regarded ‘unacceptable extremism’ are extended, does this mean that literature on the fringes of mainstream thought may be susceptible to pressure to remove by the general public? Will books once considered ‘extremist’ yet ‘harmless’ suddenly be found to be unacceptable and unsuitable for public consumption? What would be the consequences of this shift in public perception of what is ‘extremist’?

Libraries are, of course, hugely important repositories of information. They contain written materials that are purchased free from political prejudice (to an extent, one might argue that the collections reflect a Western liberal, neo-classical economic model, rather than an entirely balanced political outlook – bit we’ve gone over this ground before). The bulwark against any kind of censorship of such materials are professional librarians. Any attempts to influence or control the purchase of collections would, one would hope, be met with stiff resistance by the profession (both individually and through the professional body). Whether such professional opposition would be successful is a different matter. It would not, however, go without being vehemently challenged. What would happen if professional librarians were stripped away and an alternative model for delivering library services was pursued. We may not have to wait long to discover the answer…

We already know that libraries are being hollowed out. Professional stuff are culled and replaced with volunteers (often forced to take on the role of amateur librarian because their council has threatened them to do it or lose the service – blackmail that is laughably painted as local people taking control of their services), libraries are increasingly falling into private hands, or the hands of local groups. What would be the consequence of government encouraging an environment where certain ideas are considered outside of the norm? Would this create a climate in local communities where certain ideas (and therefore resources) are unacceptable? Where a Trust is in place (an alternative that is becoming increasingly popular), would the Trust be able to resist pressure from the local community and stick to the principles of free and open access to information for all?  There is a particular additional problem for charitable trusts – that of being in any way openly political.

In recent years, charities have come under increasing pressure from central government regarding their political activities. Charities have been attacked by such senior political figures as Iain Duncan Smith, Eric Pickles and Chris Grayling. This has been followed by new legislation restricting campaign spending by charities during election periods. A charitable trust would, it appears, be vulnerable to any attempt by government to clamp down on ‘extremist’ (ie non-mainstream political) works that they hold within their collections.

Librarians should be able to resist such pressures (to an extent). So long as the pressure comes from local communities rather than the government (we’re unlikely to see the government calling for outright bans of books, at least it seems unlikely at present), librarians will be in a position to resist. However, information access in libraries isn’t just about books. A shift in what defines extremism (and therefore what is mainstream and ‘acceptable’) would have an impact in terms of internet use and filters employed online. This is where it becomes more difficult for librarians to have any say in ensuring equitable access to information.

This is a problem that will extend beyond public libraries, of course. Academic libraries also have to contend with the issue of internet filtering, often down to arbitrary decisions made with no recourse to the library itself. When what is considered ‘dangerous extremism’ is expanded, there is potential for universities to expand filtering of the internet to prevent dissemination of materials which the state has argued now falls under the definition of extremist. This raises huge questions in terms of access to information for academic study, as well as academic freedom and freedom of expression (something that universities should be at the forefront of, for the good of not just academia, but society in general).

As the government ‘nudges’ individuals towards a predetermined ‘norm’, so we face greater threats in terms of access to information and free expression. As public libraries face de-professionalisation, they become vulnerable to environmental shifts that are hostile to the core ethics of the professional librarian (ie the free and open exchange of information, without prejudice). This nudging towards a norm limits free expression, debate and access to information. The impact of nudging people towards this government approved norm extends beyond public libraries and towards higher education. Cynical efforts to create ‘acceptable’ terms of opinion and public discourse ultimately limits individual freedoms and threatens to restrict our exposure to non-mainstream ideas (with all the dangers that entails). The consequences of government ‘nudging’ us towards what it defines as civil engagement (with apparent due deference to our democratic system) will lead to greater censorship and a restriction on free expression. Not only does this threaten our individual liberties, but it is also a threat to the values that librarians seek to defend and consequently threatens the existence of any meaningful library service.


What is nudge theory? Nudge theory proposes that people can be subtly persuaded to change their behaviour by influencing the choices individuals make. The school cafeteria is an oft used example positing that if healthier food is placed at eye-level, individuals may be more likely to choose that over junk food, even though the junk food is readily available.

Who originated the theory? Nudge theory first came to prominence in the book Nudge, written by the behavioural economist Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who acted as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Barack Obama.

Who have they influenced? Both David Cameron and George Osborne are big advocates of nudge theory. Whilst both are believers in the power of ‘nudge’, even they found some ideas proposed by behavioural economists a step too far, particularly in terms of healthcare (a proposal to move away from free healthcare by ‘nudging’ individuals caused even Cameron to re-asses his opinion).

It sounds a little problematic. What do critics say? Critics of ‘nudge’ theory argue that it is somewhat cynical, particularly as nudges can “infantilise individuals by taking away their moral maturity”. A psychologist named Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Centre for Cognition and Adaptive Behaviour at the Max Planck institute in Berlin, has been one of the key (and persistent) critics of ‘nudge’. Gigerenzer argues that rather than manipulating people, they should be taught and given the tools to inform their decisions. Gigerenzer argues that ‘nudge’ theory frames people as “basically hopeless when it comes to understanding risk”. Gigerenzer takes a more optimistic view that provided with the information and the tools to understand it, people will make the ‘right’ choices. I tend to side with Gigerenzer rather than Thaler and Sunstein.

Why are behavioural economists viewed as having a better insight into human behaviour than psychologists? Good question.


Why I think we need to speak out against media assaults on public libraries

Image c/o Stew Dean on Flickr.

Another day, another attack in the media on public libraries. This time by Tim Worstall, fellow at the Adam Smith Institute (so you can pretty much already guess which line he will take), in an article provocatively titled “Close The Libraries And Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription“. I’m not going to dwell too much on the article itself – suffice it to say it contains the usual logical failings (it is clearly not cheaper to give everyone an Amazon subscription and purchase all the equipment needed for those who are not connected etc etc – frankly it’s astounding a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute is advocating greater public spending). But it did bring to mind, once more, the constant refrain of “ignore this, it’s not worth engaging in”. Which, I think, is a mistake.

Every now and then, a piece arguing for the closure of public libraries emerges that causes consternation and outrage. In some respects, this is what the author intends. Whip up a frenzy, get your name out there, ego stroked, job done, who really cares about libraries? This frenzy, however, results in a kind of split in the library world. There are those who, for example, argue that a counter-attack on such a piece is a sign of a lack of confidence, a sign of weakness. By arguing against such assaults we are overly defensive and we would be better not engaging with these kinds of attack. I, unsurprisingly, disagree.

The problem is that such assaults aren’t really attacks on libraries. Look closer at the arguments and you see this is part of a broader pattern. Often the argument is that libraries are no longer required, that they are irrelevant as everyone is online. Worse, that the amount of money spent maintaining them could be more ‘efficiently’ utilised elsewhere. Is this really a specific attack on libraries? Irrelevance and inefficiency? Is that argument only deployed in relation to public libraries? Of course not. This is a standard strategy when it comes to attacking all public services. They are not required any more, there are more efficient ways of delivering what this service delivers. You see this argument deployed in relation to many public services. And here is the problem: it’s a strategic assault on public services. It is a mistake, I believe, to characterise such attacks as “attacks on public libraries”. It’s a very narrow interpretation of an over-arching political strategy.

I won’t go over the nature of this political ideology as such (see previous posts on this topic). But we need to be clear that an ideological war is being conducted here. It is not a war on libraries. It is a war on public services. Ideological warfare is being conducted and we (by ‘we’ I don’t just mean librarians) must confront this ideological assault. Pretending that these sorts of attacks will go away if we ignore them is equivalent to an ideological war with one side disarmed. The consequences are stark. Ideological wars are not, generally, won with silence. Yes, we need to express our “value” with confidence, but we also need to confront this ideological war head on.

These assaults are not even restricted to public services, they are also an assault on those that rely on public services: the most vulnerable in our society. As professionals (again, I’m talking about all professionals, not just librarians here) we know that there are many that rely on our expertise. We know that there are many who, without our expertise, would suffer even greater hardship. We know, also, that the most vulnerable are often voiceless. As librarians, we are well aware that there is a large minority of people who rely on us and yet also do not have a platform to express that reliance. I strongly believe that it is our responsibility as a profession to speak up in defence of those without a voice. I would argue this applies to all professionals and, I would also argue, this is something that the professional class have largely failed at in the current political climate (it’s amazing, in fact, the extent to which the professional class will remain silent in the face of an assault upon those they should protect). Rather than speaking out strongly on behalf of those who rely on us, we have been largely complicit or unwiling to speak out.

None of this is to say that everyone needs to speak out. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t suggest that collective silence is an option. That turning the other cheek is a logical choice. That if we just ignore these assaults the problems will go away and public libraries will continue as before, unaffected by the words of someone writing a provocative piece on a website that is bound to host such views. This is not about public libraries. This is about an ideological assault with multiple targets determined to undermine and weaken our public services. Libraries are one of these targets, but to think it is a target in isolation is a mistake. The arguments against libraries are variations of the same as those used against other public services. Likewise the arguments for libraries are the same as for other public services. By speaking up, we are not only defending public libraries but the entire notion of public services. Silence is not how we defend ourselves against an ideological battle, it is how we surrender.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

Martin Niemöller

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.

Banning offensive materials in public libraries

Over the Easter week-end, a petition emerged calling for The Sun newspaper to be removed from Islington Council’s public libraries. The petition states:

“We would like public libraries to replace the Sun newspaper with a publication that does not promote misogynistic images of women or promote and eroticise violent crimes against women. This is not censorship, councils choose which publications they buy based on the needs of the local community, libraries choose not to buy The Daily Star or The Daily Sport which were cited along with The Sun in the Leveson enquiry as “relentlessly objectifying women” and “Portraying them as a sum of sexualised body parts” and we believe they should choose not to buy The Sun for the same reasons.”

It goes on to list the ways in which the availability of the newspaper in the council’s libraries contravenes its own policies with regards to discrimination and in terms of making available sexist materials. At the time of writing it had received 495 signatures and seems to be garnering some support on Twitter.

I have no time for The Sun (or indeed any of the newspapers in the Murdoch stable). It is a cynical, exploitative newspaper that, without a trace of irony, expresses a superficial sense of patriotism whilst simultaneously expressing beliefs that are alien to our history and culture (‘our’ being the people, they certainly represent beliefs that reflect the history and culture of the establishment). And, of course, it promotes views that are xenophobic, misogynistic and discriminatory.  Consequently, I sympathise with the motivations behind the petition, but I find it troublesome on any number of levels.

I do not believe that any lawful material should be banned from public libraries, no matter how abhorrent I may think it is. Because once we let that genie out of that bottle there is no telling where it will end. Removing copies of The Sun because it is misogynistic may result in certain groups seeking the removal of other books or newspapers that promote a viewpoint that an individual or group may find abhorrent (indeed, a quick search online finds that there are those who would seek to remove The Koran from library shelves). Once a concession is made to one group, it would be increasingly difficult to fend off calls from other pressure groups to remove materials. Libraries should be concerned with free access to all information, regardless of its value (which is a subjective concept at any rate), not providing access to materials according to the demands of individual pressure groups. Which leads me to another, wider concern about the impact of such library campaigns.

We’re currently witnessing a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’ – libraries that local communities are being forced to provide in response to threats of closure.  They are often delivered by those without previous experience of running a library and, in many cases, without substantial local authority oversight. One of the many concerns about the spread of these types of library services is how the kind of campaigns mounted against The Sun will be handled. Will those from the local community running such libraries bow to vociferous pressure from within their local community to remove materials that the minority might value? Or will they stand firm and refuse to remove materials from library shelves simply because sections of the community demand it? I’m not convinced that they will resist.

The size of a local authority is both a blessing and a curse. In such circumstances, its size can be an advantage in resisting such efforts. For a small library in a local community, run by the local community facing demands from within the community to remove certain materials, I’m not sure they will be so resilient. “Faceless bureaucrats” have a distinct advantage over volunteers in a “community library” – they are faceless. They can, by and large, brush off any local campaigns. Well known figures within the community who help deliver library services are not so fortunate. As I told The Guardian back in 2012 with respect to libraries removing books from shelves due to external pressures:

“…the issue of censorship and banned books are very strong arguments for a professionally run service. If community libraries are to spread, it is very likely that stories of censorship and withdrawn books will increase.”

Of course, those who believe that The Sun should be removed from public libraries have every right to organise, petition and argue their case. What concerns me is that as libraries run by volunteers becomes the norm, such campaigns will become ever more widespread and a growing problem for the public library service in the UK. It is only a matter of time, as such libraries become more prevalent, that one such campaign will be successful. In the fight against injustice and discrimination, we should be careful what we wish for.

Is there a class divide in reading habits?

There’s more to reading than books… (image c/o nate bolt on Flickr).

There was a flurry of tweets and comments this morning in relation to the media coverage of a survey commissioned by the Booktrust on the reading habits of 1,500 adults across England. The Guardian claimed that:

New research shows a stark and “worrying” cultural divide in the UK when it comes to reading, with half the country picking up a book at least once a week for pleasure, and 45% preferring television.

The BBC headlined their piece:

England ‘divided into readers and watchers’

The problem is, the much of the media coverage has been a little confusing. Take this section from The Guardian’s piece:

The England-wide survey of the reading habits of 1,500 adults by the University of Sheffield says that on average, the higher the socio-economic group that someone is in, the more often they read: 27% of DEs never read books themselves, compared with 13% of ABs, while 62% of ABs read daily or weekly, compared with 42% of DEs. Reading charity Booktrust, which commissioned the research, believes its findings should serve as a warning that “Britain’s divided reading culture is a barrier to social mobility”.

This is where I started to question the survey and its reporting. One minute the Guardian claims it reveals how often people read, the next it talks about books. It hardly needs spelling out, but reading does not necessarily equate to reading books.

According to the reporting of this survey’s results, I could read the Guardian (or the BBC) online every day without ever touching a book and yet I would not be considered a ‘reader’. Indeed, I would be considered a ‘watcher’ who would rather watch TV than read. But if I am reading the Guardian’s website on a daily basis, surely that makes me a ‘reader’? Likewise, if I read a magazine, a newspaper or content on any other website, that would also make me a ‘reader’. But according to the reporting of this survey, I am not a reader which seems a bit odd given that I regularly, well, read.

I would guess that, in reality, very few people do not read at all. Of course there are those who cannot read or experience difficulties trying to read, but even then I would imagine the proportion is relatively small. Drawing wide-ranging conclusions and drawing a class division based on the reading of books specifically (and I know people who read but don’t read books) is, in my view, a little simplistic to say the least.

This is not to say that I don’t think there is possibly a problem here that needs addressing. We should certainly be encouraging the reading of books in all their forms, particularly in encouraging children to learn to read. However, as Christopher Warren points out, the report also focuses on book purchasing and does not consider books borrowed from public libraries. This also rather skews the results as it makes the obvious point that those with money buy more books.

So, is there a class divide in reading? Maybe, maybe not. There’s currently no hard evidence to suggest that this is the case, and this survey certainly doesn’t address that particular point. It’s misleading to define reading solely as ‘reading a book’ and it is equally misleading to only draw conclusions based on book buying and not incorporate book borrowing. Despite the media headlines, there is very little to get too worked up about here, other than the media headlines themselves.

Do library occupations help campaigners, or the government?

Ok, straight off the bat I should say that I am by and large a supporter of both the Occupy movement and UK Uncut.  My politics, as if you didn’t already know, are to the left and broadly influenced by people such as Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky.  I’ve got a relatively long history in blogging lefty political viewpoints and I am vehemently opposed to the current government’s policy of slashing the state under the guise of a supposed need for austerity (note, guise).

However, as a library campaigner and a qualified, professional librarian, I am more than a little concerned about the way these particular groups have handled the question of library closures.  So concerned, that I am prepared to write a blog post criticising a group of people I am broadly in agreement with (‘broadly’ is probably understating it) and, furthermore, to do so from the comfort of my own home whilst they are out there actually fighting the cuts.  Although I am uncomfortable with the situation I am about to put myself in, I feel that it needs to be said.

Whilst I have been fairly supportive of the occupation of libraries that have been closed, this support has been tinged with a sense of horror and concern.  Supportive because quite often these libraries are being closed against the wishes of the local population.  Often they have not been consulted and where they have, the options have been limited (invariably “run it yourself or we are closing it down” or “you find the money to run it, or we are closing it down” – localism in action…).  In this position, it would be hard to criticise anyone for occupying the library and delivering the service in defiance of the anti-democratic decision-making process at the heart of their local authority. But…

Those that are occupying these libraries are very often not librarians, or information professionals.  They are, in actual fact, untrained volunteers.  And herein lies the problem. With a backdrop of local authorities forcing local residents to run their local library service at their own cost (in effect paying twice as they have paid for the service through their taxes and now paying to maintain it), this is very dangerous.  Indeed, it rather plays all too conveniently into the hands of this government and its Big Society agenda.

Whilst those occupying libraries such as Friern Barnet are doing so out of protest and aiming to highlight the destruction of our library service, what is actually happening is that they are reinforcing the perception of the ruling elites, ie that anyone can run a library so let’s encourage local volunteers to do so.  Certainly, if those occupying the library have actually managed to increase visits to the library, as they claim, then this does not weaken the hand of the library cuts brigade, it strengthens it.  Ultimately, what is likely to be the end result of claims in the national media that the occupiers “have doubled the number of visitors“? Answer: more community libraries and more local people being blackmailed into providing a service they should expect from their local council.  This is an unsustainable model.  A model that even those running existing community library services have urged caution against.

It is highly damaging to see reporting in the national press that suggests that the protesters are equivalent to librarians:

Eight-strong group become ‘community librarians’ with locals’ support after law change forces them out of residential property.

The illegal tenants-cum-librarians attracted international media coverage…

…the squatters, who have acted as librarians…

The occupiers are not librarians, nor should they be seen as such.  Being described in this way does great damage not only to the profession (librarians are easily replaced with volunteers), but to local communities who will be expected to provide a service that their local authority will claim is equivalent to their existing, professionally delivered service.

Of course, this could be down to media reporting of the occupation.  I notice, for example, that the BBC more accurately describe the service as a “book-lending service in a library” (which is what it is, it isn’t a library).  But that does not detract from the fact that the strategy being deployed by the occupiers isn’t actually slowing the assault by both national and local government, but accelerating it.  When your protest is actually making the government’s case for them, then there is a very real, very serious problem.

Now, this post may be dismissed by those involved as someone seeking to undermine their protest for the benefit of the local council.  I can only assure them that my anti-austerity, left-wing credentials are clear and irrefutable (as anyone who knows me, or my blogging history, will testify).  My support for Occupy remains strong. I believe that their cause is just and essential.  It’s just, in this case, I fear that they are empowering the government’s agenda, rather than strengthening the case of library campaigners. Of course, I have been known to be wrong…I hope, in this case, I am.