Monday, 22 November 2010

Why can't librarians defend libraries?

Recently Johanna Anderson (@Jo_Bo_Anderson) of Voices for the Library has been campaigning to save Gloucestershire public libraries from massive cuts. Despite her amazing work some have argued that because she is a librarian her campaigning is fuelled by self-interest. The reasoning goes that because she benefits from the continued existence of libraries, her campaigning is less ‘pure’ or less valid. This argument is often raised against librarians defending libraries and is fallacious and irritating for several reasons.

Ad hominem

Most importantly from a logical perspective (and what other perspective really matters?), the argument is a standard ad hominem fallacy. It attacks the arguer instead of the argument: it therefore misses the point of critical reasoning and is invalid. As Wikipedia (bad information literacy here: do as I say not as I do!) states “a disposition to make a certain argument does not make the argument false”. If we taught children critical thinking and logic in schools then the standard of debate in this country would be much higher but that’s another issue for another time.


The implicit rule expressed by the ‘no-librarians-campaigning’ argument seems to be that if a person benefits from an institution then a person cannot campaign for that institution. But a major reason – perhaps THE major reason – that people campaign to defend institutions is the benefits that they bestow. I benefit from the BBC and will therefore defend it. I benefit from the NHS and will therefore defend it. I benefit from the public library service and will therefore defend it. We defend institutions because we benefit from them and to say that one cannot argue from a position of benefit is ridiculous.


Isn’t a defence of libraries more effective coming from an expert in libraries than from someone who knows little about libraries? A librarian, a library assistant, a shambrarian, or anyone who works in libraries knows about libraries and is therefore in a privileged position to assess their benefits. More so than a member of the public, a librarian sees who uses libraries, how libraries are used, and knows why they should be protected. Campaigning as a librarian should be an advantage not a disadvantage. 

Edit: 'someone who knows little about libraries' previously linked to Tim Coates' Good Library Blog. It's been pointed out quite rightly that this is an ad hominem jibe. Whether someone is or is not a librarian, they have equal cause to campaign for libraries. Maybe if I'd learnt more critical thinking in school...


It has even been suggested that Johanna hide the fact that she is a librarian. Misrepresenting yourself or your beliefs to win an argument is not winning the argument at all. Lying to win does not make you a winner.

And so...

People are free to argue against public libraries in various ways. They can present statistics and graphs: campaigners will counter and defend. They can present ideological differences: campaigners will point out flaws in the logic and differences of opinion. But arguing against the people who defend libraries because they are passionate enough to have devoted their lives to libraries is an argument that can never win.


Ian Anstice said...

It amazes me that so few of us librarians do publicly campaign.

Librarians are, of course, in great danger if they argue againts their own council's closures or policies. We cannot publicly argue against the body that pays us our wages.

But on a national picture and in everything we do, we should absolutely be campaigning for libraries. Voices for the Library is a fantastic innovation in this regard.

SimonXIX said...

A key problem as you rightly point out is that public library staff - the people who know the most about the public library service - are often unable to campaign against their local authority.

That's why it behooves other librarians to campaign for other library services, local and national.

"First they came for the public librarians,
and I didn't speak up..."

TheMuddledMarketPlace said...

I sat in a public library on the other side of our city last week. Had time to kill and it was cold. As I sat there and watched, it crossed my mind that libraries deliver so much more than Borrowing Books. That hour saw: Parents and child reading session. Advice offered. Librarians were patiently spending a lot of time with very elderly people who couldn't see properly to find their books, or couldn't reach to take them down. All the computers were full and folk were waiting, most were being used for serious studying or job searches~ I was surprised at that. I saw someone in there whose personal life has grindingly exploded over the past five years, he was sitting in a warm armchair reading escapist literature, before he goes once again into a nightmare scenario that only ends with a funeral. He was smiling and I can't remember when I last saw that man smile. Parents came in to check on reading books for their children. Students rushed down from the college up the road that has run out of their standard textbook (that always runs out of their standard text books!) And then rushed back up the hill again before the next lesson started. Three gentlemen were discussing pruning and devouring books on the subject. Some one was trying to sort their final draft of an important essay. A three year old sat against the wall, learning how to turn the pages of a book on trains; he was so bored in the children section he came over to the adults! Questions, so many questions! I had NO IDEA until last week that librarians get asked so many questions! Who ever knew that librarians know the answers when the town hall can’t help?! Information for thesis and information for reception classes. Maps for planning disputes and local history archived documents. People meeting other people. Smiles. Exchanges. Hand clasps. Hugs. Laughter. Lots of happiness.

Of course we can't get rid of libraries. What nonsense.

TheMuddledMarketPlace said...

oh and why aren't these worthy librarians defending cuts against their library?

they can't, or they feel they could loose their job

Ian Anstice said...

The official position in almost all authorities is that you cannot campaign for your library. You will face disciplinary action if you do as you will be arguing against your employer's position.

I tread a fine line on the subject and it helps I am a UNISON steward.

Muddled - I loved your description of the library you happened to be in. This shows the importance of bricks-and-mortar buildings.

Sadly, even those who can and should be defending the service are not doing the job well. Chief prize in this category goes to the head of the MLA who seems to welcome the news that a multitude of small libraries that are going our of business. An example of his thinking is at

lupa said...

"As Wikipedia (bad information literacy here: do as I say not as I do!)"
-I'm so puzzled when I see people make comments like this. You've got some great ideas. Why bad-mouth Wikipedia? It is what it is, and it isn't what it isn't. And what it is is of great service to a great many people. We all use it. When we want it to be what it isn't, and then demonize it, what good does that do?

SimonXIX said...

lupa -

Fair point. I shouldn't really bad-mouth Wikipedia while it's being useful. It just feels wrong to present a quote from an anonymous source as authoritative so I wanted to present the caveat that I'm aware of Wikipedia's flaws.