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.

Engaging students: obtaining and using feedback in libraries and universities

Stuttgart Library (image c/o volzotan on Flickr).

A couple of months back I was privileged to be invited to speak at a CPD25 event in London on engaging with students and obtaining feedback.  As a result of my background in a range of public facing management roles in both the private and public sectors, I was more than happy to share some of my perspectives on this particular aspect of service delivery.  In this case, I was asked to present something on how social media could be utilised in obtaining feedback and engaging with users.

Engaging Students: Obtaining And Using Feedback In Libraries And Universities explored a range of different aspects of university and library engagement with students. As well as my presentation on social media and student engagement, there were sessions on Anglia Ruskin’s Customer Service Exellence (CSE) and “Tell Us” feedback scheme; the University of Leicester Library’s award winning approach to engaging with students and the University of East London’s International Student Barometer.

Anglia Ruskin’s renewed focus on student engagement and obtaining feedback emerged as a result of disappointing student survey results.  Recognising a clear need to act, a working group was formed which ensured that every faculty and support service was represented.  This was an important move as it ensured that staff across the university were engaged and involved in the move to address the survey results.

A number of tools were employed by Anglia Ruskin as a result of the focus provided by the working group.  Amongst them were students acting as ‘mystery shoppers’, visiting the library and completing a survey on their experiences (and paid £15 for their trouble!) and a student charter outlining expectations which is monitored and reviewed across the year.  In 2009, they launched their “Tell Us” feedback scheme which encouraged students to feedback on their experiences of using the library service by completing a form and posting it in one of numerous post boxes placed around campus.

Whilst the response was initially slow, the introduction of webforms and a telephone number (as well as an email address and the paper form) and the promotion of the service during National Customer Service Week, led to a big increase in uptake by students.  The latter in particular encouraged students to provide face-to-face feedback and did much to raise awareness of the scheme.  So much so that, in 2011, over 500 forms were submitted over the course of a week.  Last year, around 500 forms were also submitted over a three day period.

As well as encouraging feedback, Anglia Ruskin also communicated with students to demonstrate that they were acting on the feedback they had received through a “you said…we did” service.  However, as well as communicating the things they did do, they ensured that if they weren’t able to act on the feedback provided, the reasons for their inability to act were explained clearly.  By doing so, it ensured it addressed the potential for a perception that the some concerns were ignored.

Overall, the scheme appears to have been a great success in both obtaining feedback and in engaging with students.  However, Anglia Ruskin do not appear to be resting on the laurels and are conscious of the fact that without ‘freshening’ things up a little, the posters and activity can become ‘wallpaper’ and, as a result, are currently looking at ways in which they can freshen things up.  It will be interesting to see what they come up with!

The David Wilson Library, Leicester University (image c/o AJC1 on Flickr).

Following Anglia Ruskin’s “Tell Us” scheme, Jo Aitkins of University of Leicester Library talked about how an award winning library obtains and users student feedback.  The University’s library team was named as “Outstanding Library Team of the Year 2012” in the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards and so clearly their perspective on engagement and obtaining student feedback was a very valuable one. Indeed, their scores in student surveys (90%) underlined the extent to which other institutions can learn from their approach.

In terms of ensuring that there is a high degree of engagement with students, focus groups are run with departments across the university to talk to students and obtain their feedback. Sometimes the feedback will focus specifically on the department itself, sometimes on the library and that dialogue has, according to Jo, been a big help in understanding the needs of their students and users and, most importantly, taking action to address these needs.

For example, one of the complaints from students was that there wasn’t enough books (a familiar complaint!) so the library invested in a significant volume of ebooks and ran a “more books” campaign, asking students to advise what books they haven’t got and then purchasing them as appropriate.  Again, listening and understanding the problem was not enough, being seen to deal with the feedback was absolutely key to their strategy.  If feedback exercises are conducted without any tangible for the student at the end of the process, the effort put into obtaining feedback is wasted.

Feedback was obtained from students in a wide variety of ways.  The team meet regularly with the President of the Student Union (on a termly basis) to consult on whether the library is meeting the needs of students, library website statistics were analysed to understand what they are using and how and mystery shoppers have also been utilised (students or staff from other university libraries).  They have also introduced “happy cards” which are handed to students when dealing with queries to provide feedback.

As with Anglia Ruskin, Leicester make a concerted effort to communicate with students what they have done to address feedback to ensure both that students are clear on what the Library has done to address the feedback they have received, and to demonstrate that engaging in the feedback process is worthwhile and benefits them.  And, as with Anglia Ruskin, they are aware that there is a need to renew and refresh the approach, employing new techniques to encourage feedback so that it the feedback service isn’t overlooked by students.

Next up, Niru Williams of the University of East London talked about the International Student Barometer.  Whilst this wasn’t directly relevant for my role, it was interesting to hear how UEL ensures that international students are not forgotten about when it comes to feedback and engagement, particularly as they had won the ‘Outstanding International Strategy Award’ at The Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards 2012.

In terms of the strategy employed at UEL, the International Student Barometer (ISB) was independently surveyed by i-Graduate which surveys the entire international student journey through a confidential online questionnaire which is customised and adapted according to the needs of each institution.  The information obtained from this questionnaire is then benchmarked globally, nationally and regionally, reviewing all aspects of the student experience.  At UEL, they have also requested that the data is broken down by schools to enable them to clearly identify any issues across the university.

The information taken from the questionnaire then fed into school and service plans, whilst also ensuring that the whole team were engaged and were given ownership of certain aspects of the scheme.  As a result of their work with the ISB, awareness has been raised across the institution of its importance which obviously has a knock-on effect in terms of a greater focus on the needs of international students and resulted in greater engagement in the process by academics and support staff.

After Nia, it was my turn to speak about using social media to engage and obtain feedback.  If you are interested in finding out what I had to say, you can read a bit more about it on my earlier blog post (I’m obviously not going to go into it in great detail here!).

Overall, it was a really interesting and thought-provoking event which gave me plenty to mull over on the way home.  Personally speaking, I think it is so important to do more than just listen to students.  It is all about both engaging with students and also communicating with them in a way to demonstrate that their feedback is listened to and, where possible, action is taken to address aspects of the service that they are not happy with (and if it is not possible to do so, then the reasons why not should be explained openly and honestly).  Engaging with students and creating a truly user-centric library service in higher education has never been more important than it is now given the nature of the environment the government has imposed on all of us.  I don’t like this imposed environment, but whilst we are stuck within it we need to make every effort to ensure that we work closely with students to ensure we meet their needs.

Many thanks to both Peter Williams (UEL) and Judith Wells (Anglia Ruskin) for inviting me along to talk about social media, student engagement and building a better library experience.