The “future of libraries” and the black hole of “Library Leadership”

Sign reading "Library closed, please do not enter"

(Image: ‘Library Closed’ by Tito Perez.  Taken from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/titoperez/3437322060/ (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

If you keep up with the talk in the library profession you will certainly have come across those who enthusiastically promote their particular vision of what “the future of libraries” is, or what it needs to be. Let me be clear at the outset: I am not someone who thinks that nothing needs to change, or that innovation is to be feared and resisted. Far from it. However, writing as I do from the UK context in which we are seeing the unprecedented and continual destruction of the public library service, I have a few observations and comments to make about some of “the future of libraries” perspective.  I will also articulate some thoughts about the responses of “library leadership” to the current crisis.

I see a number of people pushing innovations such as 3D printing, making and hacking. I see others talking blithely about transforming public libraries into “vibrant community hubs”. Nothing wrong, necessarily, with these things in and of themselves (although precisely what is meant by “vibrant community hubs” needs some careful analysis and unpacking – but that’s another issue). Still others seem to have a platform that is based on being unremittingly tech-positive in getting excited about developments in computing and technology that will work some sort of magic for libraries and the profession.

What I do not generally see in any of the futurist perspectives is any real engagement with what is happening in the PRESENT – namely:

  • The continual and ongoing culling of the numbers of public libraries being maintained by local authorities
  • The downgrading of the scale and reach of surviving services
  • The massive loss of professional posts
  • The turning of services over to volunteer-led ventures with minimal or no professional involvement and highly problematic questions about ongoing viability and sustainability in terms of finance and service delivery
  • A very clear overarching policy agenda from the present government that is actively seeking to transform the library sector via the impacts of austerity budgets on local authority spending and service provision, and by promoting (in England via the post-Sieghart Task Force) alternative models of service delivery and financing that encourage authorities to continue to divest and outsource

Yet, despite all of this, which is hardly being done in a corner or out of plain sight, I see the library futurists enthuse about their particular subjects as though none of this is happening. It mystifies me as to how they are able to do this, I have to be honest.

Perhaps it is that they have been able to gain some level of notoriety for the enthusiasm and hopefulness with which they articulate their visions? People want good news stories and to take hold of something that makes it seem that the future will be bright, progressive and expanding instead of retracting and problematic. Maybe it is preferable for some in the profession to latch onto positive ideas that seem not to be rooted in the grinding reality of cuts, losses and de-professionalisation. Certainly, it seems that you can have quite a nice career doing the rounds promoting these things, so why would you want jeopardise that by talking things down by talking about the reality of the public library crisis?

Don’t get me wrong, I can imagine that 3D printing is fabulous, and that making and hacking might be great and worthy enterprises. I just do not comprehend the reason for what appears to be a massive disconnect between promoting these things and what is happening on the ground, to libraries, NOW. At the present rate the number of libraries left that anyone will be able to “hack”, or introduce maker spaces or a 3D printer to, is going to be a pitiful fraction of what existed before the present destruction started.

I don’t have a problem with anyone being enthusiastic about these things as possibly good enterprises in and of themselves. What I do baulk it is the proposition that these things will in some way usher in a fabulous shiny future for public libraries; or that the libraries and librarians are in some way “behind the times” or Luddite if they do not enthusiastically jump on the bandwagon; or that bringing these innovations into library services will “save libraries”. If not explicitly stated it seems to me these are often sub-texts to the narratives of the printer/maker/hacker advocates.

While these innovations might well be good things to have in the community they are not, to my mind, unproblematic additions or developments that seamlessly fit with existing (or remaining) library services. The drive to co-locate services in public libraries that require space and resource to accommodate them (whether making or other council and community services) is fundamentally about cost-saving for councils and providers. No one has set out with the idea that (for example) the BEST way to enhance the local public library service would be to set up some kind of Police desk there. Or for council residents to be able to pay bills or ask advice regarding council services. These things have a place, but I fundamentally question whether the BEST place for them is in the library. At least, insofar as we are actually thinking about what genuinely enhances and sustains proper library service provision. The more physical space that is allocated for co-located services within existing library premises, the less space is available for normal library functions. The more that councils drive their remaining ‘hubs’ towards being multi-functional service points, with generic multi-functional front-line service staff, the more dissipated and weak the “traditional” library functions will inevitably become.

My observation that there seems to be an apparently deliberate choice NOT to acknowledge the problems of the present crisis in public libraries is not limited to library futurists. If anything, I see a greater propensity to do this amongst those who are viewed to be leaders in some sense within the profession. I cannot believe and do not accept that those who are working in organisations such as CILIP, ACE, SCL (and I’d better say DCMS) and others do not fully understand what is happening, or why it is happening. Yet , and others, look in vain for any real sign of resistance to the agenda that is playing out. At least in public, beyond the “no confidence in Ed Vaizey” statement from CILIP or some while ago, there is scant evidence to suggest any kind of substantial “official” resistance or opposition to the swingeing cuts and depredations that are occurring across the UK. These bodies are represented on the Leadership for Libraries Task Force, charged with implementing the recommendations of the Sieghart report. Yet it is abundantly clear from interpreting the Terms of Reference set for the Task Force (documentation available here) that it will be continuing the government’s agenda of shrinking the public sector responsibility for libraries, and facilitating the offloading of services to volunteer, third sector, commercial or PPP models.

I would like to imagine that the representatives from CILIP and SCL in particular are raising HELL in their role on the Task Force about what is being executed. I have little confidence that this will be the case. I find it more credible to imagine that there might be greater interest in appearing to be cooperative and helpful in facilitating the agenda, rather than making waves and rocking the boat in a way which might bring their organisations into direct conflict with the government. After all, everyone is worried about protecting their own jobs these days…

I look and hope in vain for strong voices to arise from those who purport to be the professions leaders. To hear these voices one has to go the local and national campaigns to save and protect services under threat. More power to you! The deck is stacked against us. Sadly, I have no faith in any future government after the forthcoming election taking any different policy approach. The best that Chris Bryant would come up with when momentarily engaging on Twitter recently was that Labour would have a ministerial Chair for the Task Force. He has swerved and dodged any pronouncement about having any policies on protecting public libraries or reversing the cuts. I challenged him directly to tell me why I was wrong in saying that I saw no fundamental policy differentiation between Labour and the present government. He did not choose to respond to questions beign asked by myself and others, saying “I fear I will be unable to please you”. I think he is probably right on that one. Merely replacing the Chair of the Task Force with a Labour DCMS minister is FAR from any kind of adequate response.

So, it appears that there is a gaping black hole at the heart of “library leadership”. The DCMS will sit back and say “it’s not our responsibility – any cuts are down to those pesky councils”. The response of the DCMS to the Linconshire Library fiasco makes it abundantly clear that the Minister is unlikely to consider intervening in almost ANY library cuts scenario imaginable (short, perhaps, of a local authority saying it will not provide any library services at all). Ed Vaizey (or his successor) can sit back and watch the cuts fall and feel content that they can not be held directly responsible, and get a pat on the head from government for their contribution to cutting the public sector and the need to fund it. In light of this, there seems to be almost no point whatsoever in having any ministerial responsibility. Good grounds for job cuts and cost saving there, I would suggest.

At the professional level of “leadership” I will wait and hope that some semblance of radical consciousness and responsibility awakens amongst those who do have a platform and voice – and, indeed, a responsibility to the library workers and institutions they are meant to represent.

I am not very hopeful.  Therefore it is down to ordinary library workers and citizens who love and value their libraries to organise in order to try and stem the tide.

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Libraries, Advocacy and Austerity

Batman library

This week’s offering of snarky reputational suicide is brought to you by the letter ‘A’: I have been mostly thinking about Advocacy and Austerity, and here is an unfeasibly large blog piece about it.

There are multiple inputs into this, but somewhat prompted by my engagement with the MOOC currently running from University of Toronto, ‘Library Advocacy unshushed‘. This is a well-designed example of a MOOC in the LIS field and well worth checking out if you haven’t done so.

I agree with a great deal of what is being articulated regarding the principles and means of advocating for libraries, and for making explicit the value that libraries have for to the community, and for individual library users. It is laying out the importance of being able to demonstrate value to decision makers and funders who have ultimate political control of library service provision. The objective is to ensure that these decision-makers are thoroughly convinced, and have ample evidence, that libraries are an essential and valuable contributor to their agendas, thus assuring their ongoing support and allocation of funding for library services. This is all good stuff.

However.

I am reading and thinking about all this with acute awareness of what is taking place in the UK context. For those who might be reading this from outside the UK and are not aware of what is happening, we are experiencing an increasing avalanche of budget cuts from central government to the local authorities who have a statutory duty to provide public library services, along with many other public services, in their areas of jurisdiction. In simple terms, the budgets they are being given are so reduced that it is not possible to make the money available cover the cost of services that they are required to provide. The current government has told us that funding will continue to be reduced for several years to come. Local authorities have already cut services and costs to the bone ( and below it) and there is little in the way of “efficiency savings” left to be made. This situation is prompting massive cuts to levels of service delivery in all kinds of ways. In the public library sector, we are seeing week on week announcements regarding proposals to close public libraries, get rid of library staff, turn libraries over to be “run by the community” (meaning by non-professional volunteers in most cases), to replace what would have been salaried posts by volunteers, and to outsource library provision to for-profit commercial providers.  At the time of writing, here is an assessment of what has been lost in terms of libraries being turned over to non-professional volunteer-led operations: http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/about-public-libraries-news/list-of-uk-volunteer-run-libraries   And the running tally of closures and losses from Public Library News

The “Austerity Agenda” is unremittingly portrayed by government and the majority of the media as an unavoidable and “necessary” response to the UK’s overall budget deficit. The perception is cultivated by repetition that there is no alternative to the cuts if we are going to balance the books and “get the UK back on track” in economic terms. I am not going to go into the detail of this here, other than to say that I, and others, believe that the Austerity Agenda is being prosecuted as an act of intentional socio-economic policy and driven by political ideology rather than “necessity”. It is a smoke screen that is being used to justify and obscure the real political agenda which is to dismantle the public sector and open up as much as possible of what has been traditionally funded and run by the state to market forces and to be delivered (if at all) by for-profit providers. It is the ideology and accompanying world-view of neoliberalism.

In this prevailing and dominant ideological context I believe we face some problems with thinking about advocating for libraries in the terms outlined above. There are three presuppositions embedded in the “demonstrate value to decision makers” approach:

1) That the overarching policy agenda of decision makers is *potentially* benign, or at least neutral, in regard to public libraries (and in other broader socio-economic matters) rather than actively hostile

2) That decision makers can be rationally persuaded that “libraries are valuable” in response to a compelling evidence-base presented to them

3) That, once they are persuaded, they will make funding available for libraries and seek to protect services.

I have some problems with these presuppositions.

It seems to me that many of my colleagues in the profession, and some of those fighting locally to save their libraries, do not fully understand the objectives of the government, or its end game of dismantling the public sector which includes public library services as part of that agenda. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is the flip side of the coin which has ‘Small (No) State’ on the reverse.

As far as can be discerned from the rare public pronouncements of the current and utterly dysfunctional DCMS Minister Ed Vaizey, if there is a view on what “the future of libraries” is to be, it is as co-located delivery points for a range of local services. This is not about libraries as libraries. Rather, it is about rationalisation of the cost of services delivery. It seeks to exploit the physical assets of library buildings by centralising frontline service points in one place as far as possible. Librarians will have to become generalist service point workers, able to deal with “customers” and users of multiple services. The idea of locating some form of Police contact point has also been seriously mooted. This OUGHT to raise all kinds of concerns. Fundamentally, this concept of what Ed Vaizey and co mean when they talk about a library being a “community hub” is NOT about the real work of libraries at all. It will actually diminish and compromise the capacity for that real work to be conducted properly.

Overarching all of this is the desire to offload and outsource as much of the public sector management and fiscal responsibility for providing a statutory library service as possible, and ultimately to let the blind idol of “The Market” decide what and how any future services are to be run (if at all). This is a core underlying principle that motivates and shapes policy and the current inaction, disinterest and lack of concern displayed by Ed Vaizey and others in government.

We should understand, therefore, that there is an ideological and conceptual disconnect between the aims and objectives of government policy and the real work and missions of libraries and librarians. When we seek to advocate for libraries it has to be with a sober recognition of this reality and the implications of this very clear policy agenda from the government.

One of the principles that has been articulated regarding library advocacy is that advocacy should be seeking to align the mission of libraries with the agenda of decision makers. Can you see what is wrong with this picture in the UK context? When the agenda of decision makers, at least at national government level, is actively HOSTILE to libraries, how exactly are you meant to “align” with that? To do so is to facilitate the profession’s own disassembly and destruction.  In the context of a legal trial it is possible for the presiding judge to decalare that a particular witness is “hostile”, meaning that in the judge’s assessment the evidence the witness will bring cannot be trusted to be accurate and should be considered to be possibly false, biased and prejudicial to the person on trial.   I believe in our current situation the library profession at large should be declaring the policy and actions of the government to be hostile and similarly proceed with due caution.

Further problems arise from the view of certain prominent sections of our profession regarding the desirability of “neutrality” with regard to how we engage and interact with decision makers and the political sphere in which we seek to work. This, to me, is a naive and foolish stance to take, ESPECIALLY in the present political climate. The policies of government are not benign or neutral, and at a certain point (one far back in the game as far as I am concerned) we CANNOT attempt to deal with what is happening as though neutrality is possible. As I have said previously in other writings, quoting Desmond Tutu, to be “neutral” in situations of injustice is in fact to side with the oppressor. We should also acknowledge that this isn’t just about libraries. The Austerity Agenda is punitively targeting and removing services that should support the weakest, the sickest, the poorest and those least able to fend for themselves in our society. These are often also the people who need and use library services the most. There are real people with real lives who are having the support mechanisms to sustain them taken away piece by piece. In this dystopian vision of “no such thing as society” that the neoliberal ideal seeks to impose, I, for one, do NOT wish to be “aligning” myself, or the work I and my colleagues might do, with this toxic and anti-human agenda, or help to facilitate it. Taking things out to an extreme level, to make a point: would it have been a “Good Thing” to align our services with (for example) the Nazi administration and its policy objectives? There is – or should be – a point when we recognise that the VALUES that underlie librarianship (and indeed, basic humanity) should cause us to ask critical questions about the policy agendas we are dealing with, and then challenge and actively resist them.

A clear weakness of the appropriateness for the present UK context of the advocacy approach being articulated is that it is a long term strategy. The approach requires librarians and library supporters to build long term, trusted relationships with decision makers and influencers. I agree that this is a Good Thing. However, in light of the present rolling devastation that is wrecking the public library service we simply do not have time for this. I am not saying do not attempt it, or that it is of itself wrong. I am merely observing that, at the rate libraries are being closed, outsourced and turned over to volunteers, we do not have the luxury of time to develop these trusted relationships. returning to my earlier point, I also think that in many cases it is naive and an exercise in futility to imagine that developing such a relationship is even possible, given the very clear ideological agenda of some of the key decision and policy makers in both national and local government.

In the present climate, where services are immediately and imminently under threat of extinction, in those instances I do not see any alternative other than what has been termed “protest advocacy”. There is not time to think in terms of “changing the narrative”, or “building relationships”. Libraries do not need more or even better advocacy: they need actual money to be available in local authority budgets which have been cut to impossibly low levels. They need to be nurtured and sustained at the level of national and local policy by people who are not driven by neoliberal ideology. On the level of our whole society, it needs ALL of us to reflect long and hard on whether we want to continue to allow our lives and those of our communities to be directed by values that see no worth in anything other than its monetary value or ability to generate income.

If we do that maybe we can collectively start to find some real answers.

(Addendum:  May I recommend you also read the blog on Infoism.co.uk by @ijclark Why “better advocacy” won’t make any difference… which tackles similar territory and develops some key points in more incisive detail than I did in this effort. )

The crisis in UK public libraries – A Beeching moment ?

As I write there is an impending #uklibchat scheduled for the coming week on Twitter. This is to facilitate discussion on  ‘What can we do about the crisis in public libraries?’   This will be an interesting one, given the environment we are currently in as a profession.

The publication of the Sieghart Report, and the impending work of the ‘Taskforce’ led by Dr Paul Blantern to deliver action on its recommendations has focussed attention from both within and without the sector.    The outcomes of this process may – or may not – have  substantial  consequences for the entire public library sector.   I have yet to put down my full thoughts about the contents of the Sieghart Report, and will not attempt to do so in this piece.   Suffice for now to say it is a mixed bag in my view.   In the main I believe the intentions of the Report are meant to be positive and supportive of libraries and their value in UK society.  There are many question marks about implications of some of the recommendations and practicalities of implementation but it is not a hostile document.

This, however, stands in marked contrast to the wider political and ideological context within which the Report and Taskforce exist, and in which public library services are trying to deliver and survive.   It seems abundantly clear to me that, as things stand, we are not dealing with a political agenda at national governmental level that is remotely interested or concerned with “the value of libraries” in the way that many librarians and library campaigners seek to present it.   I sometime get the impression that people believe something like “if only we can demonstrate the value of libraries clearly enough, politicians and councillors will suddenly see the light and protect and fund services properly”.

To me this is a delusional hope.  Ed Vaizey appears to have a long term commitment to pursuing a very particular model of “libraries as community hubs” (insofar as he has any  commitment to anything at all).   The cynical side of me wonders whether setting up the Sieghart Report and its follow-on Taskforce are merely useful ways to kick the whole subject into the long grass so that Mr Vaizey doesn’t have to do any actual work or think about it.  Chances are the next election will see him out of the post and into some more suitably relaxing position in his political career.  But I digress…

The ‘Big Society’ agenda is about reducing as much of the traditional state sector as possible, as fast as possible.   The “Austerity” programme is a fundamental tool for executing this objective.   The public library service , as part of the public sector, is fair game to be carved up, outsourced, or turned over to volunteers. It seems that pretty much anything goes as long as the end result is that responsibility for libraries passes away from the public sector model that we have had up till now.

Local government administrations responsible for running library services are faced with an impossible task.  With across the board budget cuts they cannot maintain services at pre-austerity levels, and there is an ever-growing list of councils “consulting” about reducing the number of libraries, cutting staff and budgets for libraries, or suggesting that they can be run on a  volunteer footing via some kind of community salvage operation (i.e. “SOME kind of service is better than losing it altogether”).   To some extent it is understandable that they might jump on any bandwagon that offers the possibility of reducing their spend on libraries as part of the overall nightmare they face.   With enthusiatic advocates for volunteerism as “the answer”  to this strand of their intractible problems, it’s not surprising so many are following that route.

It would seem that very few with postions of leadership ever challenge the default position that “Austerity” is somehow “inevitable” or “inescapable”.    It is blandly accepted that we have no choice but to live with cuts, reduced budgets and “having to make tough choices”.

In this environment I confess I have real pessimism about the context in which Dr Blantern’s Taskforce is expected to deliver results.    Unless there is a new, overarching political commitment to public libraries with ring-fenced funding ,  then I am not sure what can be done.   I may be wrong – and I hope I am – but it appears to me that the positive, supportive and hopeful signals that we might detect and extrapolate from Sieghart and discussion around the report are running counter to the prevailing trend of thought and policy in national and local government.   That trend is seemingly to be not that interested in the actual or potential value of libraries in the community.  It is purely about the bottom line and cutting costs – which inevitably means cutting libraries, staff and services, or pursuing a “community hub” model in which libraries are to transformed into utilitarian dispensaries of multiple co-located services (another vexed subject for another vexed blog).

Comparison has been made to the era in which Beeching devastated the railway network.   The majority of the lines which were closed have stayed closed. Some of those continue to be devastating losses to the transport infrastructure.  I think it no exaggeration to say that we are indeed facing a “Beeching moment” in the public library sector.   Short-term political ideology and budgetary constraints flowing from it are driving an agenda which is wreaking carnage.  The nature and extent of public library service provision is being reduced and cut in ways from which, in many places and communities, it may never recover.   Once the services have gone it is unlikely they will be coming back any time soon, if at all.

I hope that it isn’t too late to resist and reverse this toxic trend – and I sincerely hope that Dr Blantern’s Taskforce isn’t going to be party to “doing a Beeching” on us.

Reputation and wrestling pigs in the library

I’m going to be riffing on a theme that pulls in several different strands of thought that have been nagging at me for a while.

Yesterday I read a piece in The Guardian on Michael Fertik’s new book ‘The Reputation Economy‘.  You can read this for yourself. I’m sure the book contains some valuable (and disturbing) insights into how personal data is used to execute all kinds of judgements about us. Michael has built his own reputation on helping others to manage their online reputation to avoid running into problems with the way they may be perceived by people or algorithms. All well and good, perhaps, and good to be aware of the issues involved.

However.

There is something about the advice quoted in the Guardian piece that rankled:

“Fertik strongly recommends that you avoid therapeutic purging on the internet. Keep the content you post light, frothy and relevant to your area of expertise. Even a persistently snarky tone to your tweets, he claims, could be enough to turn potential employers off you.”

Light and frothy. Not snarky. Light and frothy.

I found myself reflecting on similar advice I have run into over the years concerning “professionalism and social media” in the library sector, and the idea of “professionalism” as a whole. The gist of much of this has been very much in line with the recommendation above:

  • Don’t be controversial
  • Don’t be critical
  • Don’t rock the boat
  • Don’t stick your neck out to challenge anything in a way that might get you into trouble

I seem to see this kind of view of “professionalism” rather a lot. It constrains the concerns, scope and remit of that which is deemed to be legitimate for library professionals to engage with to the technical and functional aspects of service delivery. It cultivates an idea of he desirability of “professional neutrality” regarding views on the social or political contexts within which librarians and libraries seek to work. In effect it is like saying “we have no opinion or view about these things. Or, if we do, we don’t think we should be talking about it in any public way”.

To a degree I can understand the reasons why some might wish to hold such a view. It is certainly likely to be a lot less trouble for them, and any personal negative repercussions will be avoided. Just talk about all the good stuff we do as librarians, confine what we say and express to the technical and functional aspects of delivering services and all will be well. Light and frothy. Not snarky.

Then I began to reflect that I was reading the article on ‘Reputation Management’ on MLK Day. I began to wonder what advice Michael might have given to Dr King about managing his reputation. I am pretty sure that brother Martin was committing some cardinal errors in how he was putting himself out there, even in the days before the internet and social media. Goodness knows what kind of a reputational mess he would have gotten into if he had been pushing his revolutionary agenda in the present day.

Somehow, I don’t think this would have been a real issue for him. He was working to a higher calling and a bigger agenda than “managing his reputation.” He was driven by a particular vision of what society was meant to be like, what human values were meant to consist of, how people should treat each other, and how the powers that ruled should behave towards their citizens. Challenging the status quo, speaking truth to power, and calling people to change was of more concern than maintaining his reputation. Ultimately, one might conclude, he managed his reputation so very badly that he got killed for it. What an error.

Then, I began to think about the issues which are live and pressing today. If I am going to think in professional terms about what is happening to the public library sector, what I observe is a rolling holocaust. Driven by the government’s “austerity” agenda, local authority budgets are being cut to impossibly low levels, and by all accounts we have FAR more of this to come for many years hence. Libraries have always been a soft target for cuts in difficult times. I lived through the bitter years of Thatcher’s reign of destruction. This is far, far worse. Local authorities are faced with impossibly low budgets that (I would suggest) are deliberately designed to gut the public sector as part of an overarching ideological agenda. Piece by piece the services and assets which have been paid for and run on citizens’ taxes are being sold off and outsourced to private for-profit providers or, in the case of an increasing numbers of public library services, de-professionalised and turned over to be “run by the community”. Central government appears to wash its hands of this and say that local authorities are the ones making “responsible decisions” and “tough choices” about what services they want to deliver and how they plan to do so. In the mean time we see an almost daily escalation in the rate of libraries under threat, jobs cut, services gutted and relegated to the realm of DIY book swapping clubs.

In the light of all of this I have to say I do NOT feel in the LEAST PART “light and frothy”. Outraged, incensed and disgusted is more like it. So I have a dilemma. Because, in order to protect and manage my reputational assets, I would probably be well advised to avoid sticking my head above the parapet to comment, critique or condemn what I see going on. So should my colleagues in the library service. So should my colleagues in the Academic sector who are similarly on the end of market-driven purges and culture change as part of the same neoliberal assault. We should all keep quiet, keep our heads down, not make waves, and purvey only fluffiness, light and froth through our public and digital utterances.

But, you know what? I don’t really feel I can do that. There are some things which are more important than managing one’s reputation. I don’t buy into the idea of “professional neutrality”. We are part of a society which is being driven in a particular direction by the ruling powers. There are social and economic drivers at work through policies being enacted that are having real and negative impacts on library services as a part of public sector services as a whole. To use an analogy from elsewhere, you cannot stay still on a moving train. We might purport to be “neutral” but we cannot stand outside the socio-political context within which we work and in which our services operate. Or are axed. Or are turned into some other kind of entity that violates or disregards our professional values.

Ultimately, I believe, we are facing quesions about what sort of society we want to be. What are our values? Why is the work of librarians important for social justice, personal and community development? Why should citizens have access to the expertise of librarians and information professionals and to the information and resources that could be provided? Do we REALLY believe that generating money and profit has more value than people and the services that support and nurture them?

I think these are questions that matter, and which demand answers. I would like to see those who represent the library and information professison stand up to be counted. To take a stand that openly acknowledges the devastation which is being perpetrated. To actively oppose and resist it. I am thankful for and inspired by the number of dedicated colleagues and informal groupings that I see who ARE doing this already. More power to you! But this is not a time to be neutral. It is not a time for “light and frothy”.

One of Michael Fertik’s sayings, apparently, is “When you wrestle with a pig, you both get covered in mud.” Well, I’m calling out the pig for what it is, and I fully intend to wrestle that sucker. That probably means I and others will get muddy, but sometimes there are things that require a moral and ethical stand.

This is one of them.

More thoughts on UK LIS Higher Education

In response to my previous post The precarious position of LIS departments in UK Higher Education  Coppenheim, a former Head of the LIS Department at Loughborough, made a very affirmative response (thank you!) to my points, but he was not entirely in agreement with one of them. He said:

“Only point I don’t agree with 100% is the claim that other LIS Departments are showing Schadenfreude at the loss of LIS Departments. I suspect they are really concerned because they feel even more in the more firing line, and because colleagues and friends in other Departments are losing their jobs. “

I started to write a reply in the comments section but then realised I wanted to say other things that weave in and out of this vexed subject. Consequently I’m going to respond in a new post here.

I think Coppenheim is right about Schadenfreude – my point wasn’t very well expressed. While there is a small, pragmatic, undernote of thankfulness that you may pick up some extra students following the loss of a cognate LIS department, no one in the profession takes any real pleasure in such things happening. No one enjoys seeing cognate departments LIS go under.

I think, as he says,  the feeling has been “if they can do this to a department with as much esteem and status as LOUGHBOROUGH, then no one is really safe”. The steady advance of managerialist approaches to governing academic life means that senior managers may be ever more likely to think that “doing a Loughborough” on the LIS departments in their own institutions might be a really great idea.

We have been a small discipline at the best of times, and this is very far from the best of times. The more we see cuts and reduction in capacity in LIS departments to be able to perform research, teach and support students, the more precarious the viability of the whole academic LIS sector becomes.

There are multiple negative factors that are impacting the discipline at the moment, and these interact and amplify their effect.

We have an external environment in the UK library sector in which jobs, services and funding are being decimated. Most particularly in the public sector, but also in the academic sector. This is largely the result of what is the most vicious ideologically driven attack on state-funded services we have seen from government. There is no sign that there will be any let-up of the mindset and policies which drive this attack, whichever of the “main” political parties might gain power.

This highly volatile and aggressive situation obviously has an impact on the decisions made by potential students as to whether thinking about entering the LIS profession at this time is going to be a wise career choice. Jobs are disappearing, the market is consequently going to be flooded with highly qualified LIS workers who have lost their jobs and are looking for a new one – and most of the salaries aren’t great anyway. This translates into lower numbers of applicants (at least from the UK, and probably Republic or Ireland too) to study on H.E. LIS courses.

The incremental whittling away of staff and financial resources in H.E LIS departments over time means that it becomes ever more strained to be able to provide the quality of teaching and support that everyone wants to be able to deliver. Students (quite rightly) expect and DESERVE a high quality educational experience when it is costing them so much to attain it. If their experience is one that is less than fabulous then word gets around and things get dragged into a downward spiral of decay and despondency about H.E. LIS study.

With the huge emphasis on ‘Student Satisfaction’ ratings and protection of ‘brand and reputation’ that now exists ome very draconian measures are being applied by managers in certain institutions to try and stop anyone (staff and students) from expressing any negative or dissenting views publicly. Threats of formal misconduct procedures have been made to stop students from voicing grievances about the delivery of their course at one institution I am aware of. There are many and various ways to apply pressure to staff to keep them quiet, or just make things so difficult for them that they will leave of their own accord.

Perhaps the worst part of this growing culture of threats and intimidation is that staff internalise the oppression and become self-regulating. Putting your head above the parapet to complain, resist or publicise institutional abuses that occur is manifestly NOT SAFE in terms of the attention and actions that will likely follow to crush and suppress dissent and keep things from getting out into the public sphere. This, of course, is a symptom that afflicts swathes of the Higher Education sector now. I am not specifically talking about LIS as a discipline, merely noting that this is the environment within which many colleagues have to try to function. It all adds to the pressure and difficulty of trying to continually do more with less in increasingly hostile and stressful working cultures.

Given the lack of any apparent concern from central government about the dismantling of the UK library sector or the turbulence that is sweeping through the H.E sector, it seems unlikely that we can expect any real answers to come from there regarding how the LIS academia is meant to stay afloat and survive, never mind thrive. In the neoliberal marketised philosophy which prevails it would appear to be irrelevant if LIS were to disappear as a functional discipline – along with any other casualties of courses and disciplines that cannot “pay their way”. It is an indication of how deeply this mindset has taken hold that so many would just shrug and think that it would be appropriate to only offer courses in disciplines that can recruit large numbers of students. After all, it’s a business, isn’t it? Sadly, yes it is, now. But it needn’t be – there are other nations operating excellent Higher Education systems, sometimes with degree schemes that are free for students.

We are continually fed the lie that “There Is No Alternative” to the economic path that our political leaders are bent on taking us down, and No Alternative to the devastation that is being meted out to our libraries, universities and public services. This is not so. However, it will take creative and sustained resistance to produce real alternatives across all sectors that are currently being affected.

I think the thing that I would most like to see happen is for everyone who works in the LIS sector – whether as educators or practitioners – to take a critically reflective view of the forces that are at play in our current contexts. We need to understand the nature, origin and intentions of these forces in order (to use the terminology of Paulo Freire) be able to problematise the issues we are facing and look for real solutions, rather than merely being swept along – or away – by the ideological tide that is flowing so strongly against us.

Resistance is fertile.

The precarious position of LIS departments in UK Higher Education

I have worked for ten years in a university department renowned for its teaching of professionally accredited undergraduate and postgraduate degrees across the broad range of library, information, archives and records management subjects that comprise our discipline.   It has been a real privilege to be able to help colleagues in the profession to gain the qualifications  that will allow them to advance in their careers.   Graduated students have gone on to take up prominent and influential positions across the globe.   It’s a wonderful thing to see that happening and to know that you played some part in helping that happen.

However.  In the decade that I’ve been doing this, I have seen the demise of a number of key LIS departments – most recently and shockingly in Loughborough.   Others are under severe pressure due to the impacts of sweeping changes to the Higher Education sector concerning funding and the very philosophy of education.   Government policies have deliberately sought to subject the whole HE sector to ‘market forces’ and the same social and economic Darwinism that blights so much of the rest of our culture.   Education is no longer seen as  a public good.   You have to pay your way: as a student, as an academic, as a department and as a university.

As a department – and as a discipline – you have to justify your existence in terms of the money you can bank in terms of student fees and the research funding you can pull in.  As an academic you have to pull in the research funding, spend large amounts of time trying to put together credible bids to get it, do actual research, demonstrate the world class nature of the “impacts” of this research for REF, do actual teaching, prepare for teaching, do marking, spend countless and seemingly pointless hours jumping through hoops to fulfil your institutional and administrative obligations by sitting on a plethora of committees….   often on contracts which specify no hours of work, and which have no ongoing security.

That’s pretty much the state for ALL disciplines, not just for LIS.  But in the increasingly market-driven and managerialist nature of the H.E. eco-system, where funding and resources are often inadequate to cover all the activities that the university may have previously engaged in, LIS can be in danger of being viewed as marginal and dispensible.   LIS is never going to be a cash cow that will pull in lots of students.   Neither, in general, does it offer the possibility of big research grants in the same way that some other disciplines can.

So what happens?   In resource allocation, year on year, you see colleagues who have left not replaced because central management will not allow you to replace them.   You see requests for new staff denied.  You see budgets cut.  All the time the increasing hold of ‘lean management’ requires remaining  staff to do the same – and more – with less and less capacity  Simultaneously,  more and more pressure, surveillance and threatening ‘perfomance management’ initiatives are being brought to bear on the remaining staff.

In the ascendent  neoliberal culture in which the creation of knowledge through research and teaching is not innately valued in and of itself, LIS is ripe for culling, so that money can be “better invested for better returns”.   Failing an outright cull, the strands of the discipline which are seen to useful to Business Studies can be stripped out and re-located within departments dealing with that area.

In my view this puts the whole discipline in severe jeopardy.  I would be most surprised if Loughborough is the last casualty we see.   There is schadenfreude for surviving LIS departments to hear that a competitor department has been axed – it means that you will perhaps pick up some more of the dwindling pool of LIS  students.   But will we eventually reach a situation where it will be a case of last (non-gender-specific metaphorical entity) standing ?

There is much grumbling amongst established LIS practitioners about the lack of engagement in H.E. LIS curricula with the real issues of contemporary practice.   This is often partnered by additional and related grumblings from students and early career LIS workers about why it is that they are expected to have to cough up a great amount of cash to study for an accredited UG or PG qualification that (in their view) doesn’t really prepare them for real work at the information coal face.

There are real issues to grapple with here, and I would be the first to say that much of the grumbling has some legitimacy.   However, I would also say that it is not the necessarily the case that academics in the LIS sector either don’t care or are unaware of what OUGHT to be done to improve things.   It may well be  a case of “not waving but drowning” under the pressures of trying to keep the wheels on a bus that is being inadequately maintained and resourced.   Managers crack their whips, demanding ceaseless innovation, ever increasing productivity and revenue generation, but without providing sufficent staff and resources to be able to accomplish this. It is a recipe for disaster, failure, and mental and emotional breakdown for staff on the end of this relentless pressure.

Given the noise that is made by the Powers about how incredibly important the Information/Knowledge Economy is, you might think (in a moment of fanciful delusion, perhaps)  that someone in government with responsibility for such matters (the Minister for the DCMS, for example) would recognise that the UK really NEEDS a substantial body of skilled information professionals.   If we keep losing the H.E. departments who currently train them, who is going to do this work instead ?   With ever greater pressures upon the time and resources available to LIS departments, who is going to conduct the research necessary to provide an evidence-base for policy and development of our practice in the profession?  You might think that it would be considered important to ensure that the discipline is adequately resourced, funded and nurtured, with some sort of national strategic view of how to accomplish this.   You might think that it would be important to foster awareness of the incredible variety and richness which available to students who embark on study and careers as information professionals.  Or you might conclude that, along with so many other things, the blind god of ‘The Market’ will be left to sort these things out along some kind of ‘survival of the fittest’ lines.

Unless I missed it I didn’t see a single reference in the Sieghart report to the role, value or potential of H.E. teaching and training of library professionals.   Instead there was enthusiasm for an organisation that works with teachers, with the implication that this might be a fabulous model to follow for LIS workforce development.    Why not invest in and properly resource H.E. departments researching and teaching LIS?    There really is need for debate about the nature of H.E.  LIS education and its relationship to ‘professional status’.  There really is need for  innovation and curriculum renewal – but it would be a sad day indeed if “the Future” is one that bypasses and consigns to irrelevance the good work that has been and is being done – and which COULD be done – in LIS academia.

That went well…

Ok, ok, so I wrote an introductory post and then everything fell into a yawning abyss. I can invoke extenuating circumstances though. I got engulfed in trying to make the decision about whether to take voluntary severance from my job. I made the decision and, like a wily rat, jumped ship at the end of August. I hope I made the right decision. I actually don’t know yet… I had to decide based on imperfect knowledge and ‘best guess’ evaluation of the degree of threat to my post – and, indeed, to the LIS department I was working in. In the end it seemed like the least risky of two risky options:

(1) Stay and see how things rolled out, with the possibility of ending up on a re-deployment register and then falling off the end of that with statutory redundancy and very little financial buffer

(2) Take an enhanced package along with finalising of my USS pension, giving me roughly two years to find something else to do

Having chosen (2) I’m now looking for another post. I’ve been for a few (unsuccessful) interviews and have failed to be shortlisted for a lot of posts I’ve applied for. It’s a tough and very competitive jobs market out there, with many experienced people trying to find posts. SO many good, skilled and dedicated colleagues ending up as collateral damage in the highly disruptive and turbulent changes that are sweeping across the library and Higher Education sectors.

I don’t want to have to leave the LIS sector to find a job. I really don’t. I’ve given the last ten years of my working life to helping colleagues gain their CILIP accredited LIS qualifications. I believe in the power of libraries and the need for people to be able to access and exploit information. I believe in librarians as skilled information professionals and the value they can bring to helping others in their communities. Librarians are *my people* and I’d like to continue to work with and for them!

I DON’T want to have to work outside the sector, just because I need to get a job again. Whether that is within the LIS education sector in which I have been working, or as a practitioner, I don’t really mind. I hope I’ll have that privilege.

There are other things I want to think through and talk about here, especially following the publication of the Sieghart report, but that will be another time.