Radical librarianship and the language journey

House of Knowledge by Jaume Plensa, via Flickr.

Recently I attended the 2015 Lilac conference at Newcastle University. At some point I’ll write about this a bit more on my other blog, but something occurred to me whilst I was there and it got me thinking about the process of language in public (and in this case, professional) discourse. Specifically, I got to thinking about how frequently the term “neoliberal” had come up, which seemed at odds with the things I had been hearing from people who have been to such conferences in the past (this was only my second such conference).

Upon reflection, I came to the conclusion that there is a very specific journey in terms of radical language and how it is processed in a professional context. I ultimately narrowed it down to five steps in terms of the journey of the term “radical librarian”, although admittedly I am not entirely happy with some of the terminology here:

Hidden
˅
Ridiculed/Dismissed
˅
Recognition
˅
Shift in outlook
˅
Embedded

Hidden – Virtually non-existent in professional discourse.
Ridiculed/Dismissed – Where the language emerges but the majority reject it or ridicule it.
Recognition – When it is clear a new perspective is emerging and then starts to enter the discourse.
Shift in Outlook – When the language and ideas start to shape perspectives.
Embedded – When it becomes a natural state of thinking (I’m not happy with this particular terminology actually, so I’m open – as always – to critiques/suggestions etc).

I see the Recognition stage as particularly crucial. It is at this point, after the language has emerged, that it is most susceptible to corruption and co-option. Once it becomes a thing that people are talking about, there is a danger that it begins to be seen as “a cool thing”, a thing that can enhance reputations or raise profiles rather than a thing that challenges the status quo. I see this stage as particularly dangerous if the ethos of “radical librarianship” is to remain true to itself. As the terminology emerges from the ridiculed dismissed stage, it becomes a term that some can use to differentiate themselves and enables them to be seen as visionary/alternative/leaders, capturers of the zeitgeist. This co-option waters down and weakens the radical baggage that comes with the term, turning it into something mainstream and non-radical. So, I’d argue that this shift from “dismissed” to “recognised” is very dangerous for those with a radical perspective.

The key, I believe, in maintaining the purity of the radical ideas expressed through language is to keep building radical infrastructure throughout the above language process. It’s important for radicals to keep building, to be strong and determined throughout every stage of the journey of the language. They must not be afraid to push forward when it is hidden, nor be cowed into abandoning it when they are ridiculed or dismissed. Likewise, when the recognition stage is reached, it is vital to ensure infrastructure is continually built and built openly and quickly. This would, in my mind, manifest itself in the continual growth of Radical Librarian Collective gatherings, in the further development of the journal and the various other means by which we communicate radical ideas.

I think that the process of continually building this infrastructure can undermine any attempts by the mainstream to weaken and undermine radicalism, for how can their co-option take root if authentic radical ideas are being built in parallel? How can they portray themselves successfully as radical, when it is clear that their ideas are not nearly as radical as they suggest? Rather than their ideas undermining radicalism, radicalism undermines their co-option.

It then follows if we successfully negotiate the recognition step, to continue to remain true to radical ideas, we can successfully shift outlook to a more radical perspective (rather than the mainstream, watered down variant). Once we shift outlook, we can reach a point where the radical ideas take hold and become the default as opposed to the position it held during the hidden/dismissed stages where it was marginalised. But the key is to keep building foundations, keep building infrastructure…if we stop, then we risk the danger of the recognition stage going against our favour and resulting in a perverted radicalism that serves to line pockets rather than engender real change.

As I said, these are very rough ideas that I’ve sketched out from what I have noticed in the professional discourse. I am not overly happy with some of the terminology I’ve used to describe the process as I see it (I’m unconvinced “Embedded” is a term that I believe aptly describes the final step that I envisage). But I would be interested to hear how others view this process and whether this holds true for them, or whether they have a different perspective.

What is a radical librarian?

 

Photo credit: ijclark cc-by.

I’ve considered and then abandoned writing about radical librarianship before for many reasons. In some respects, I felt it was too introspective and expending too much time and energy on something that is really a fringe concern (I’d rather concentrate on doing stuff than getting into a drawn out cycle of discussion about language etc). But it keeps cropping up as a point of discussion so I thought I’d put my thoughts down, not least to ensure that in future I can just point to a URL rather than repeat the same perspective ad nauseum.

I would like to add that these are my personal views and my personal interpretation of the terminology. They do not necessarily reflect the views of any organisation I am affiliated to (I want to make that clear in case people assume that the definition I use for the term “radical” is the definition everyone involved in RLC subscribes to) and I accept that there will be those who hold to very different interpretations of the term than that which I subscribe to. I obviously don’t believe that the following is definitive, and I would certainly very much value other perspectives on this, not least to more fully inform my thinking.

The first thing I think is important to clarify is that, for me, radical doesn’t mean smashing up windows or engaging in illegal and violent activity. You know, the kind of radical that the media likes to present to us. Radicalism for me doesn’t mean violence or even law-breaking*. I think those who have difficulties with the word “radical” break down broadly into two groups: those who think it represents a violent/law-breaking attitude and those who think the term itself is a bit, well, teenage. Being a radical (in whatever form) does not mean that one is either violent or a law-breaker. There is, clearly, a difference between a criminal and a radical.

Last year I wrote a post explaining how librarians enable neoliberalism with particular reference to Althusser’s “Ideological State Apparatuses” (such as education, which is obviously an area where librarians play a key role). Althusser argued that the dominant ideology is reinforced by these ISAs. That the dominant ideology relies on these state apparatuses to ensure it can consolidate its influence, reinforcing its dominance. This notion of the dominant ideology (ie capitalism) is, principally, where I draw my definition of the term radical.

For me, what is radical is to offer something that stands in opposition to the dominant ideology.  Rather than accept the capitalist environment within which we operate, a radical position would be to not only oppose it, but to advocate something that runs counter to it. Because for me, to be radical in the current environment is to reject the language and ideology of capitalism and to work towards something different, something that runs counter to the orthodoxy.

As the position of the radical is determined by the dominant ideology, I would argue that a radical now is not necessarily a radical “then”. In other words, with respect to librarians, the roots of our profession are tied up with certain professional ethics. These ethics, in a neoliberal society, are attacked and, if we are not careful, severely diminished. But remaining true to these ethical roots is by nature radical. Should we, despite the best efforts to erode and corrupt our values, remain true to our ethical foundation, then by definition we are remaining defiant to the dominant ideology. Navigating through a neoliberal, extreme capitalist environment whilst holding onto our core values, is a radical act, because the conditions are designed to weaken and corrupt our resolve.

Basically, for me, a radical librarian is someone who remains true to the core ethical foundations of our profession…in fact, not even stays true, has it at the core of everything they do. But it is also about rejecting the dominant ideology and about seeking to find ways to undermine this ideology. For me, undermining it could be allowing a space for these ideas to be discussed and built upon. It could be in creating a journal, in building a physical event whereby like-minds can share ideas and plan actions, in seeking to explore alternative structures/approaches to those that currently exist within the profession. It does not mean engaging in violent activity, in militancy. You are a radical, in my view, merely in challenging that dominant ideology.

I’m not sure how much all of that even makes sense and I’m certainly not sure if I have even clarified how I define what it is to be “radical”. I’d obviously like to hear more about how others define it. Whether you agree with how I interpret it or not. Ultimately, the hippy that I am, I would like to see if there is some consensus in how we interpret what it is to be “radical”. Not least because the above doesn’t even really satisfy me, even as an entirely personal interpretation.

Update 6/5/15

* I should have added here that whilst radicalism ≠ violence or law-breaking, some may wish to express their radicalism in these ways. What I am getting at here is that being a radical is not necessarily expressed through violence or law-breaking.

Interview for El Mundo Web Social

(Full image available CC-BY – ijclark.)

The following interview on communications and radical librarianship was conducted with El Mundo Web Social (you can read the original Spanish version here). Many thanks to Fernando Jerez for approaching me to be interviewed on these topics for his site, it certainly got me thinking about the motivations behind some of the things I do, as well as considering what are, I think, the fundamentals of a good communications strategy.

  1. You are working in a university library. What do you think about the situation regarding adaptation (training) of fellow professionals in terms of social networks?

I think social media has come a long way in libraries in recent years. Whereas there has been some reluctance to engage with the medium in the past, I’d argue that we have moved on significantly in the past couple of years. It is no longer seen as a fringe communication tool that we can ignore if we choose, rather it has become an essential tool in our communications armoury.

That said, there are still some in libraries who, whilst seeing the need for it at an organisational level, don’t see the value of it as a professional tool or as a tool that needs to be on their radar. It’s still seen as fringe in a professional context, even if not in an over-arching organisational sense. There are difficulties associated with this, particularly as social networks help to foster professional discourse and enable the profession to progress in a way that perhaps wasn’t possible before when practitioners were so widely dispersed and often remote. I think it is important to talk about and demonstrate the value of engaging in the medium, but ultimately we have to accept that some will not be converted.

  1. Taking a look at your presentation “Designing a better library experience“, you are talking about some concepts to develop, including ‘commitment’ as the basis of strong, open communication. How do you explain to general managers of libraries the need to increase this investment in online communication?

I think it is vital in the current climate that libraries, institutions and users are brought closer together. I am a great believer in flat organisational structures and I believe that, as much as possible, users should be engaged in the overall running of the service. It’ll take some time to get there, but communication is a key element of laying the foundations to enable such integration to take place. I’d argue that close co-operation between users and the service will create a better service that meets their needs and strengthens the bond between the service and the user.

A stronger bond between the user and the service has a number of positive effects, not least a positive perception of the service by those that use it. Through open dialogue and effective communication we can ensure a powerful relationship that benefits the library as well as the overall institution. However, this must be a two way conversation, it must avoid being hierarchical and must ensure that we learn from those we communicate with as much as they “learn” from us. This is particularly important as social media provides a public forum and such public interactions, if employed effectively, can help to ensure greater collaboration and co-operation with those that use the service. Whether we want to succeed in the terms set for us by a competition orientated, marketised HE, or whether we want to move towards a more cooperative model of library service provision, online communication plays a key role in bringing us closer to the user with the subsequent mutual benefits that brings.

  1. In your articles you speak often of progressive marketisation of services in libraries. Do you think public libraries in social networks are directed to the user ‘as a customer’ or ‘as a citizen with rights’?

I’m very critical of the use of neoliberal terms which act as enablers to a damaging and regressive ideology. As a result, I try to avoid terms such as “customer” as I believe that this is an inappropriate term for the people we engage with in our libraries. The term “customer” immediately creates a barrier between us and the user which then has to be overcome, usually through the use of “marketing strategies”.

For me, as someone who has worked in a retail environment for many years, a customer interacts with a service at a very limited level. I find the use of the term “customer” troubling because the relationship between HE and a student is nothing like that of a “customer” and a retailer. A retailer sells a complete product that the user purchases and uses as they please. In HE the relationship is more of a partnership as we work with students, in co-creation of knowledge to ensure that they obtain the best possible education and ultimately create informed, educated citizens. They don’t buy a good education, because to accrue knowledge is reliant on the user as much as it is on the service provider. It’s a collaboration rather than seller/buyer relationship.

This is also true for public libraries. Public libraries are not there to sell a product to a user, they are about helping to ensure a well-informed, literate citizen that is able to play a full role in the democratic process. Whether this is by ensuring all children have equal access to information resources, or whether it is by tackling the digital divide by providing free access to the internet to ensure everyone has equal access to government as services and information shift online.  Public libraries are not about producing and enabling greater consumption, but in ensuring that, as much as possible, all can engage equally with society and the democratic process.

So, I would argue that at present many are orientated to communicate with users as “customers” but, I would further argue, this is a consequence of a shift in local authority to the belief that profit and consumption are primary concerns whilst engagement in the democratic process and people as citizens being secondary concerns (if it is even on the radar at all). This shift is, in my mind, a direct consequence of the ingrained neoliberal ideology that has corrupted our public services and placed concern for the profit motive above that of the public good.

  1. You’re part of the “Radical librarians” in England (and Voices for the Library too), which emerged from the difficult situation facing public libraries due to cuts from the Government. This movement has a good presence in social media. How do you think you are helping to address the situation from the organized events, blogs and social networks?

The radical librarians movement emerged not just out of the so-called “austerity” agenda here in the UK, it is also a reaction against the increased marketisation of libraries in general,  the gradual corruption of the profession as ethics are abandoned in the hope of remaining “relevant” and a renewed focus on the roots of the profession. We have slowly grown and I think we have seen a slight shift in rhetoric across the profession in general since the emergence of RLC (Radical Librarians Collective), although I am realistic about the extent to which this is the case.

It has not been without its difficulties however. Initially there were many dismissive voices that were dispiriting and challenging to those of us that wished to open up spaces for conversations that had hitherto been hidden. There is also, of course, the danger of burn-out borne of unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve. For me, I think it is vital to ensure that you remain idealistic in thought and deed, but realistic in expectations. I think too often the idealistic can be too optimistic about what they hope to achieve and, in doing so, they run the risk of being exhausted and dispirited if their expectations aren’t realised. I think it is important to understand that building a lasting alternative takes time. What is vital is to build infrastructure, whether that be through gatherings (I don’t like the term “unconferences” but I guess that’s the popular term), journals, blogs and social networks. The building of radical frameworks is crucial to achieve what we want to achieve and our minds should be focused on that rather than outcomes.

In terms of RLC, the journal, social media and the gatherings all lay foundations for consolidation of radical ideas within the profession. By providing a platform for radical ideas, we increase the prospects of the ideas spreading and a clearer understanding of what it is to be radical with respect to the information profession. Before RLC, there was little room for such public discourse. The emergence of RLC not only provides a space for such discussion, but leads to an opportunity for it to spread and take root.

I think, by its nature, the emergence of such groundwork is important as, in the long-term, it helps to address concerns and sows the seeds for radical change. It is a long haul, but a continued focus on infrastructure building is our best hope to challenge the status quo.

  1. Librarians, at the library and the social networks, are working to improve access to information for citizens. People can have more knowledge, but … how to be aware of our freedom to change things, in your opinion?

I think it is vital that we (as librarians) facilitate access to information about alternatives. In the current climate, both politically and professionally, we are beset by the myth of TINA (There Is No Alternative). At a political level, this manifests itself in the belief that “austerity” (government spending cuts) is the only logical path to ensure national and economic wellbeing. In terms of our profession it manifests itself in the belief that the only way to ensure our relevance is to adopt the language and strategies of the market. Anyone seeking to espouse alternatives risks being seen as outdated and failing to acknowledge contemporary realities.

I see it as therefore vital that we facilitate a raised awareness of our freedom to change things. Not only in terms of citizenry but also professionally. The myth that we are neutral is a problem that besets our profession and needs to be overcome. We are a political profession that makes political decisions with every book we purchase and every collection we maintain, because our decisions are filtered through our own beliefs and prejudices. There is an imperative to provide the information required for individuals to form their own judgements. Users must not be steered, but we must ensure that the information sources we facilitate access to are valid and have a solid empirical basis and be wary of the dangers of applying equal weight to all resources. We must also make them aware of the risks inherent in the resources they use, but be mindful of overt intellectual direction. In facilitating such access and ensuring we avoid overt intellectual direction, we empower users and encourage greater intellectual freedom and therefore enable greater awareness of the freedom citizens have to engender change.

We must embrace the political nature of our profession. Realise that our core mission is to provide equality of access to information for all. In terms of our democratic systems, this means facilitating access to state information by guiding people on how they can hold the governing to account through Freedom of Information legislation. It also means giving people the tools to ensure they are protected from state surveillance and an abuse of their privacy.

Teaching these skills can undermine the current structures as people become aware of the methods by which they can protect themselves from the state apparatus, capitalist appropriation of their data and a pernicious neoliberal agenda. Providing such skills can help citizens not only understand how they can initiate change, but also ensures their own freedom. Citizen awareness of our freedom to participate and transform the world should be absolutely central to our profession, for without awareness of such freedoms we cannot ever be truly free.

Radical Librarians and creating a new LIS qualification…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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