Reflections on radical librarianship and #radlib15


Image c/o Travis Gray on Flickr.

The Radical Librarian Collective has come a long way since it first started to emerge back in 2013. Back then I think it is fair to say that many of us involved in getting it off the ground had no idea two years later the third RLC gathering would have drawn to a close. Back then it was a bunch of like-minded people who felt that there was a need to bring radical politics into the discourse and had a vague idea that others might wish to engage in challenging some of the drift that had taken place in recent years.

Since those heady days of 2013, a lot has happened. As mentioned above, there have now been three gatherings of like-minded folk, an OA journal has emerged, there’s now a mailing list to encourage discussion across the library and information sector and there was the creation of an Open Access declaration to encourage a commitment to producing content that is free from copyright restrictions. Much has been achieved with much more still to do. As I always argue, the key to development is infrastructure building which must be progressed quickly to ensure momentum and avoid co-option (which emerged but currently appears to have been seen off).

What has been particularly notable has been the way RLC has been received. Initially there was a somewhat dismissive response (something that occurs when people build infrastructure that challenges accepted narratives), if not openly mocking. It’s noticeable in the last two years how that has declined as barely noticeable now. Partly, I think, this is due to a growing belief in the values and ideas behind radical librarianship. I’ve certainly noticed a growing radical rhetoric within the profession, particularly in the United States where a number of influential and highly respected individuals have been taking clear radical stances on key issues affecting our practice. Perhaps the highlights being Barbara Fister’s keynote at Lilac [pdf] and The Nation‘s coverage of Alison Macrina’s work in the United States (taking radical librarianship to the front page of a well-respected left-wing publication). We are still at early stages, but the movement has gathered momentum and asserting confidence, which perhaps explains the decline of the dismissals.

But what of #radlib15?

Once more the day was filled with interesting discussion and a political take on some of the issues that we face. In terms of my input, I ran or co-ran two sessions on the day. The first, with Sarah Arkle, focused upon the creation of small RLC regional groups. This is, for me,of utmost importance.ive had several discussions with other RLC folks in recent weeks about how RLC can push forward as a thing. For me, the building of small groups is crucial. Ultimately, I believe, small distributed groups that are part of a larger national network is where we should be. The annual national gatherings should then be about pulling together these small regional groups to share actions, discuss activities and work together to strengthen all that underpins the radical librarianship movement. I think issues are best resolved locally rather than nationally, and where there are resolutions, they can be shared and incorporated across all groups, spreading throughout the network.

At the end of the day, we encouraged people to pull themselves together geographically and exchange contact details and, ultimately, organise. There was some talk about building local radical networks, so I’m pretty optimistic that this will start developing and I’m excited about the potential of it doing so. (You can find notes from the session here and here [pdf].)

The other session I proposed was on Althusser and Ideological State Apparatuses. I won’t get into this too much here as its something I would like to explore further in a long form piece of writing, exploring the theory and its relationship with our practice. The theory itself is something I stumbled upon last year and has been whirling around my head ever since I read the piece. I’ve always been interested in how ideologies are spread and disseminated throughout a populace and it’s something that I feel has a strong relationship with our work practice as facilitators of access to information.

In terms of the session itself, I felt that a discussion around this theory would be interesting because there are a number of points of discussion that could be brought into it. I’ve often remarked in discussion with people that specifics in relation to theory is my weak point. Whilst my entire first year on the English Literature aspect of my undergrad was literary theory (which, by the way, I think looking back was vital in developing my critical thinking skills – Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory being the only text we really devoured for a year), I have never been good with specific theories. Indeed, the history aspect of my degree has had a much greater influence on the way in which I understand the world around me from a political perspective. Essentially. I like to learn from the deeds of others rather than the thoughts of others.

In terms of the Althusser piece, I think there is some interesting theory for the theorists to get stuck into, but there are also ideas that are very easy to relate to our practice and how we operate. It was for this reason I thought it would be a good point of discussion and certainly I got the impression that similarly non-theory minded folk got as much out of it as the theory orientated ones. One thing that I think did help with this session, was the 15mins of silent reading to begin with. Whilst I had posted the extract online before the event, I figured it would be good to just ensure we were all at the same starting point and just quietly read to ourselves within the group. Something about this seemed both somewhat radical (in an “unconference” that is all about talking and sharing ideas) but also calming coming as it did at the end of the day. Should I run a session like this again in the future, I will definitely try to incorporate that silent reading aspect once more. (You can find notes from the discussion here [pdf].)*

I took a lot from the other sessions on the day, but I won’t go into my feelings about every session here. There was, however, an interesting discussion about imposter “syndrome” (which was recognised as a problematic term due to the connotations around clinicalising the feeling) that got me thinking a lot about class and the marketisation of our role. This arose as a result of a couple of blog posts by Elly O’Brien and Laura Woods. My take on this as a thing is entirely personal, but having grown up in a working class household in Kent (where we have selection whereby at age 11 you are either sent to a grammar school with supposedly higher standards of learning or a state comprehensive) I can identify with the notions of being somewhat of a fraud. What was interesting was hearing how this feeling manifests itself in those from a middle class background. I’d roughly characterise this as:

“I shouldn’t be here” (working class) vs “I’m not measuring up to the expected professional norm” (middle class)

That’s a rough approximation (obviously nothing is as binary as that), I’d be interested in how others view the distinction.

It was also interesting to consider the disconnect between a marketised version of ourselves and the ‘real’. The trauma of this disconnect thus provoking stress and anxiety which feeds into a feeling of being an “imposter”. It’s an interesting area of discussion when taking into account class issues as well as the neoliberal construct and the extent to which this provokes a trauma related to an unattainable ideal.

As always, I took a lot away from the day and it will take me some time to process things fully. What I have identified, however, is that sense that these discussions are becoming accepted and there have been efforts to try to incorporate them more widely in the discourse (see the recent CILIP Conference). As I have argued before though, this is a dangerous moment for those of a radical persuasion. The more ideas are incorporated into mainstream discourse, the further away they move from their radical roots. In essence: be aware of co-option. The ideas and concerns that lay behind RLC are radical in nature and sit outside mainstream discourse – that should not be forgotten.

My attention was drawn yesterday to a Schopenhauer mis-attributed quote (to Schopenhauer) I wish I had been aware of when I wrote about the journey of radical language a little while back:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

I think this is something I can certainly identify with as things have developed over the past two years.

I feel very fortunate to have been involved in two entities that have had at least some influence on general discourse relating to our practice. Both Voices for the Library and RLC have been (and continue to be) things I feel fortunate to be associated with. Not only because of what they represent and what they have achieved, but also because they have enabled me to collaborate with people I hold in high regard and have a huge amount of respect for. Whilst I do reflect on what they have achieved thus far with a certain degree of “how on earth did this grow into something?”, my focus is always on the process of building and pushing things forward. So I look forward to the continual construction of infrastructure with fellow radicals in order that we can continue to build solidarity and mutual support in the face of an ideology to which we are united in opposition.

* Further to this, I am looking at establishing (alongside fellow like-minds) a radical library chat with the first one being a discussion of Althusser’s ideas. I hope to get this up and running within the next two weeks so keep an eye on RLC for details.

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.

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.

On Radical Library Camp and my session pitch

Poster commenting on the media coverage of the Occupy movement. (Image c/o freestylee on Flickr.)

You may have seen some reference to a Radical Library Camp on Twitter recently. Well, I hope you have otherwise we’ve not been doing a good job of making you aware of it! Seeing as I have pitched a session on the wiki, I thought it would be good to take an opportunity to explain a bit more about my pitch, as well as give a little background and personal perspective on the idea of a ‘Radical Library Camp’. First, I should probably explain how I see the word ‘radical’ in the context of this Camp.

I think, probably, the word ‘radical’ causes some problems for librarians and information professionals. Is what we do ‘radical’? If not, what exactly would make us so? Can a librarian ever truly be radical? And is the word ‘radical’ just a synonym for ‘far-left’? In some respects, I guess the term ‘radical’ is a synonym for the radical left, but I prefer to think of it in somewhat broader terms (albeit terms that some might term as ‘radical left’ regardless).

I was asked this question fairly recently, “what do you mean by ‘radical’?”, which prompted a lot of reflection on my part and a lot of searching to try to find the answer I felt comfortable with. Lucky for me, a quick scan through my Chomsky Library (everyone should have one!) provided an answer that satisfied me in a way that my own ruminations couldn’t quite manage. In Power Systems, a series of published conversations between Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, they discuss what it is to be radical:

One of the things you say about yourself, which often stuns people, is that you’re an old-fashioned conservative. What do you mean by that?

For example, I think Magna Carta and the whole legal tradition that grew out of it made some sense. I think the expansion of the moral horizon over the centuries, particularly since the Enlightenment, is important. I think there’s nothing wrong with those ideals. A conservative, at least as it used to be understood, is somebody who cares about traditional values. Today those values are regularly being thrown out the window. We should condemn that.

Then why are you seen as a wide-eyed radical?

Because holding on to traditional values is a very radical position. It threatens and undermines power.

And I think that fits with what I view a ‘Radical Library Camp’ to be about (note: this is my personal perspective and does not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow collaborators). In other words, it is about focusing on our core, traditional values, values that have, in these neo-liberal times, become ‘radical’ by nature of our changing environment. So, for example, we as a profession traditionally champion the right of everyone, without discrimination, to access information. In these times of increasing commodification of information, adhering to a view that everyone should have access to information has become a somewhat radical position. The mainstream position now is that information has to be paid for. It has to sit behind paywalls on the internet or be subject to a fee before the equipment can be used to access it (see the move towards charging library users to access the internet – resulting in discriminating against those least able to pay).

(Image c/o Stian Eikeland on Flickr.)

It’s not just in terms of charging for access to information, but also the controls placed on the information itself. Whereas once the internet was a place where information was exchanged openly and freely, it is now increasingly becoming a place where the state has to place controls and restrictions, limiting this flow of information. We see that not only in traditionally repressive regimes such as China etc, but also in supposed free societies such as America and the United Kingdom in a multitude of ways (although the latter has a long-standing reputation for secrecy and restrictions on the right to know of its citizens). This is the conservative, dominant position we find ourselves in. What was once an extreme view (access to information unimpeded should be restricted and subject to the ability to pay) has now become mainstream and pervasive whereas the traditional view (information should be made accessible to all) has become ‘radical’ and subversive. So, it is in opposition to this mainstream view that I see the term ‘radical’ being used in this context. It is, in my view, a traditionalist position embracing our core values, at odds with the present neo-liberal orthodoxy.

Why did I get involved in a radical library camp? Well, I tend to believe that there is a bit of a gap in professional conferences and general professional discussion. There doesn’t seem to be much discussion in the way of certain informational issues, issues that touch on our ethical principles, and I know from speaking to many others that I am not alone in feeling this way. I personally believe that there is a need for something a little different, a space to discuss issues such as the marketisation of libraries, the commodification of information, censorship, transparency and a range of other issues that are closely associated with our profession.  The world is increasingly shifting towards a more restrictive, commercial and exclusive environment for the exchange of information. As a profession concerned with access to information, we should confront these issues and, where possible, come up with solutions to not just preserve, but expand the principles of open, accessible and free information exchange. Again, these are all my perspectives on radical library camp and do not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow organisers (I feel I must emphasise that!).

As for my pitch, well, I’ve written a brief summary of the area I would like to engage with other attendees on. It is basically a natural progression from the session I intended to do at theLondon Library Camp before events got in the way. The idea emerged from the very same book I referred to earlier when quoting Chomsky’s perspective on radicalism. I was intrigued by one particular passage in the book, picking up on a quote by Howard Zinn:

“There is a basic weakness in governments – however massive their armies, however wealthy their treasuries, however they control the information given to the public – because their power depends on the obedience of citizens, of soldiers, of civil servants, of journalists and writers and teachers and artists. When these people begin to suspect they have been deceived, and when they withdraw their support, the government loses its legitimacy, and its power.”

(Image c/o Travelin’ Librarian on Flickr.)

What I am particularly interested in here is where librarians and information professionals fit into this equation. The state controls much of the flow of information (and increasingly the corporate sector) which reinforces their power. As a result of their historic position of control, the internet is a serious threat to state power as it provides a space for ideas and information to be exchanged freely and without impediment. However, the state is increasingly seeking to place limits on this communications medium, proposing various censorship laws ostensibly designed to protect the individual but which also impede upon their freedoms. Furthermore, as well as trying to limit the exchange of information, the state is making increased efforts to monitor communications through bodies such as the NSA and GCHQ. The internet is victim to threats of both increased censorship of information, and the growing surveillance of the information we exchange.

It’s not just an issue in terms of accessing information via the internet. Freedom of information laws were long resisted in the UK, often seen as one of the most secretive governments in the western democratic world. Their introduction was described as a mistake by Blair shortly after the legislation was passed. Ever since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, efforts have been made towater it down and restrict its power. Across all aspects of our life, the state (and corporate interests) are seeking to simultaneously limit access to information whilst also harvesting data from our exchanges of information.

Not only am I interested in the control of information and how it is used by those in positions of  power, I am also interested in the other element of Zinn’s quote: obedience. If the state and corporate interests control the flow of information, restricting it and preventing equal access, how do we square that with our professional ethics? Do we accept it? Or do we, in Zinn’s words “withdraw our support”? And if we are to “withdraw our support”, what would this look like? What is our role in opening up information, taking control away from state and corporate interests and making it open, accessible and public? Do we even have a role in challenging the control of information? Or is our role simply to ensure that government and corporate interests maintain control of the information given to the public?

What I am particularly interested in here is the discussion I hope will develop around this. I have no idea of the answers to these questions. I don’t even know if there are answers or whether the questions are even “the right ones”. And whilst this might sound like there’s a structure I wish to adhere to in the discussion, I have no such structure in mind. I am simply interested in taking Zinn’s quote and using that as a starting point for discussion because I believe that who controls information and how it is controlled is one of the great issues facing not only our profession, but society as a whole. Sounds a bit grand, but I hope it will be an interesting discussion.

Anarchy and the role of control in the library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anarchy! In the library!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facilitating consent: whither the radical librarian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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