Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Power to the people - New Professionals Information Day 2010

Yesterday I attended the New Professionals Information Day in Newcastle City Library, a day wonderfully organised by the CILIP Membership Support Unit and the Career Development Group. The most important thing I learnt, about the profession and about myself, was the central role that people play in librarianship.
The fabulous Newcastle City Library
The nucleus of the day was the keynote session with speeches from Maxine Miller and Phil Bradley and an underlying theme to both presentations was the power of the people. Maxine spoke about diversity in libraries, the trials and tribulations of a library career, and the power of individual people to stand up and say “This is me.” It was intimate, touching, and personal and, because they were very different presentations, it complemented Phil’s in an interesting way. Phil spoke about empowering library users: a subject touched upon in this piece. Librarians do not make and maintain warehouses full of dusty books: we provide information services to people and engaging with those people is the most important part of our jobs. Our role is to make available the knowledge necessary to empower people – teachers, lawyers, doctors, soldiers, researchers, the public. People and knowledge – more specifically the power that grows from the combination of those two – are the cornerstones of librarianship.

In the workshops and the seminars, the point was raised repeatedly that librarianship is a people profession. Sure, you get to work with books, write stuff if you want to, use the latest technology, but fundamentally libraries are about the people inside and outside them. Sibylla Parkhill’s session on stakeholder expectations drove home the point that libraries have a variety of interested parties: from senior management to library members; from library staff to outside agents. Librarians have to able to interact and communicate with all these people of different levels.

And it’s not just the people we deal with in our work environments: there are also our professional contacts and the people we meet on the journey. For me, these are people that make this such a valuable profession. Events like yesterday are vital for removing the blinkers: working in my tiny library makes me forget that there are other people like me out there; people with the same concerns, the same ideas, and thankfully in many cases the same sense of humour. Maybe it’s because I’ve been working in the profession longer or maybe – heaven forefend! – I’m actually becoming an adult but I felt a lot more comfortable interacting with other new professionals than at the New Professionals Conference in July (fun though it was). In fact, I got so involved with other people and networking that I actually gave up my precious first class train seat to sit and talk libraries with a group of other new professionals on the train home (first class was only £1 extra so it’s no great loss).
A room of blurry new professionals
Overall, the day represented a development in my understanding of the profession and myself. It’s a lot clearer to me now what modern librarianship is about and particularly what we as new professionals can make it. The books, the technology, the creativity, and even the information are all subservient to the people who suffuse this noble profession. A year ago, I would have told you that I wanted to be a librarian to get away from people: to live a quiet life surrounded by books and computers and logical organisation. I was wrong. That’s not what librarianship is and – though it’s a surprise to me – that’s not who I am either. I want to work with people and I want to help people access information. NPID2010 helped me to acknowledge that.

Postscript: On a personal note, the strangest thing about the whole day was people knowing who I was before I introduced myself: from Twitter, from my Guardian piece or because I have a more extensive online presence now. I found it to be a very unusual but not unpleasant sensation.

What other people thought:

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.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Supplement to: Borrowing ebooks beyond a library's walls

Yesterday The Guardian’s Comment is Free published an article by me about ebooks, libraries, and the digital economy. Everything I wanted to say about the Publishers Association decision is in the article so this post is sort of like the deleted scenes: the ideas I rejected while writing the article; some are terrible, some are (hopefully) mildly interesting.
  • When The Guardian agreed to read a draft, I panic-read Lawrence Lessig’s Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy in three days because I was afraid my meagre understanding of digital copyright would be an embarrassment. As it happens, the article contains very little about copyright, intellectual property, or the law. This doesn’t mean that reading the book was a waste of time (but it’s not as good as Free Culture).
  • Neil Gaiman’s recent All Hallows Read was going to be used as an example of communities sharing books. It didn’t really fit as it wasn’t related to ebooks or libraries but it’s still a cool idea and worth a read.
  • This Atlantic article about National Digital Libraries by David Rothman of TeleRead would have been perfect to link to but I read it an hour after I emailed the completed draft. 
  • At one point, I seriously considered quoting The Kinks’ ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’. A friend once told me that the song reminded her of being a librarian. The specific quote would have been “Preserving the old ways from being abused. Protecting the new ways for me and for you” and would have served as a poetic reminder of what libraries do. It would also have been a bad idea. 
  • The final paragraph – the paragraph that no-one in the comments has mentioned – is my favourite. It’s the paragraph where I shoehorn in my dissertation ideas about large-scale digital libraries and graphic visualisation of subject links using data and metadata.
I’d like to use this space to thank my library tweeps for reading the article, retweeting it, commenting on it, and being so kind about it. It means a lot to have people read what you’ve written, enjoy it, and get passionate enough to agree/disagree with it. Thank you.