Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Five things I want to happen in 2012

‘Tis the season for arbitrary lists. At this time of year, we exercise our human urge (or perhaps just librarianly urge) to rank, classify, and categories our experiences and we consume ‘top tens’ of books, films, music, or fantastically tedious graphs from across the year, lists of cultural events in order of significance, and lists of resolutions or wishes for the coming year. Last year, my arbitrary list looked back on the year just passed; this year, I want to look forward to the year ahead. These are some of the things I want to happen in 2012.

I want...

...the DCMS Select Committee on Public Library Closures to make the right decisions.

Next year, the Department of Culture, Media and Sports is launching an inquiry into the public library closures across the UK. This is due to the “unprecedented cuts in library services throughout the country and the inaction of the relevant ministers” *coughEdVaizeycough*. This inquiry has fantastic potential for public libraries: high-ranking Members of Parliament will be discussing libraries and the value of libraries for communities and we have an opportunity to influence their discussion and make sure that they see the right evidence. Some of the ideal results of this Committee inquiry include the strengthening of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, a firm definition of “comprehensive and efficient library service”, increased protection of trained and paid library staff, and a moratorium on all closures until more research has been conducted on the impact of closures and until councils have done proper consultations with their constituents. This ideal scenario depends entirely on what kind of evidence the Committee receives and so I urge everyone reading this to stop reading this and go write some evidence.

Read Voices for the Library’s post and read John Kirriemuir’s post. Voices would like evidence sent to us by the 20th of December; the Committee wants correctly formatted evidence sent to them by the 12th of January. This is our chance to make a real difference for threatened public libraries so please take some time over the holidays to write something about why libraries are important.

...CILIP to become an organisation to be proud of.

I am a member of CILIP. I have been a member of CILIP since I started pursuing librarianship in 2009. But I don’t think CILIP is perfect and I certainly don’t support everything that comes out of it. This year I gave serious thought as to whether I should renew my membership or not. Every time I think about CILIP’s problems, I think about this blog post from Phil Bradley. I think about what our professional organisation could be; I think about what our profession would be like without a central organisation; I think about the professional organisation described in this paragraph:

CILIP HQ: the heart of librarianship in the UK?

This professional organisation could provide really good recruitment facilities, it would be able to represent librarians in their organisations, it would be able to be the voice that librarians scared for their jobs could listen speaking on their behalf. It would be able to talk to LIS schools, enthusing students, it could get into career seminars for children still at school. It could really assist and inform employers on what qualifications a 'professional librarian' should have, and it could help monitor them.

And then I renew my membership. Because I want that professional organisation and, for the moment, I think the benefits of CILIP outweigh the problems. Next year, the President and the Vice President will be two people who I know want to do the best job they can, who I know are willing to make personal sacrifices for libraries, and who I hope will make CILIP into the organisation described above. Good luck, Phil and Lauren (and continued good luck to Annie). While CILIP still stands up for the profession, I will support it.

...more discussion about a UK National Digital Library.

Earlier this year, Ed Vaizey said he had no plans to establish a National Digital Library service for the UK. As electronic materials, ebooks, and the Web become more important in education, in research, for leisure, and in most spheres of life, it seems short-sighted to not plan to develop our national electronic resource services. Although the country is planning on spending billions of pounds on our transport infrastructure and on certain 2-week sporting events, our information infrastructure is falling behind. We desperately need more of our national information materials to be made accessible for more people and we need to ensure that materials owned by the public don’t fall into private-sector hands like those of Google Books. The books and documents in our libraries belong to us: we need to have access to them and we need to digitally preserve them for a future that’s speeding towards us.

...less conflict, more communication.

It seems like there has been more conflict between different groups in the past few years. Between the rich and the poor; between the public sector and the private sector; even arguments about something as innocuous as public libraries tend to turn vitriolic and divisive. On a large scale, there is a widening divide between the haves and the have nots: this year we had riots across England which were quickly blamed on a feral underclass and we still have Occupy movements across the Western world protesting the divide between the 1% and the 99%. George Monbiot writes about this divide and the media coverage of it here.

The riots in Salford. Can't we all just get along?
On a smaller scale, there are divides between librarians of different sectors: fragmentation of the profession was a talking point earlier this year and since we’re all stretched thin working with reduced budgets, fewer resources, and fewer staff, we have less time for communication with each other.

The solution to our conflicts is communication. We need to talk to one another, we need to pool our talents, and we need to share resources – nationally and locally. In terms of librarianship, disparate groups working towards the same end need to communicate to avoid pointless duplication of efforts. In terms of the national picture, we need to understand other groups: we need the traditional political right-wing to stop blaming the poor for being poor and we need the traditional political left-wing to stop villifying the rich many of whom have legitimate belief systems and real human concerns. We need everyone to talk to everyone else to reach compromise with regards to the sharing of resources. Basically in 2012 we need to understand one another: to put on someone else’s shoes and walk around in them.

...all of us to make these things happen.

These things won’t just happen. The future is not immutable. We make it how we want it to be. If we want the above things to happen in 2012, we need to make them happen. We need to think about what we want and we need to take action. What do you want to happen in 2012 and how do you intend to make it happen?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The nightmare of the Total Library

I have an article in Talis’ Panlibus magazine this month. You can read issue 22 here and I’m on pages 14 and 15. My thanks to the editor for accepting it and putting it out there.

The article is about the concept of a ‘Total Library’ and how this concept has been treated by literature and philosophy across the centuries from The Great Library of Alexandria to Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum to modern-day legal deposit libraries. It ends by pointing to the Universal Library’s ghostly electronic shadow, the National Digital Library, as the next development and practical embodiment of the Total Library ideal. Basically this piece combines the concept of a Universal Library, the dream of a National Digital Library, my love of Borges, and the idea of the infinite: all topics that I am obsessed with interested in and have written about before.

Though this article exclusively discusses the dream of a Total Library, my original concept for the piece was to present both sides of the idea: dream and nightmare. It would have discussed both the positive aspects of the idea followed by the negative aspects leaving the reader to decide whether the Total Library is paradiso or inferno. For Borges, the Total Library is both dream and nightmare, everything and nothing: “Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’ The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon … the complete catalog of the Library, the proof of the inaccuracy of that catalog. Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings. Everything: but all the generations of mankind could pass before the dizzying shelves – shelves that obliterate the day and on which chaos lies – ever reward them with a tolerable page.”  (1)

So I gathered and wrote a lot of material that, for reasons of space and word count, I had to cut. Here is the counter-argument to my own argument in Panlibus (make sure you read the Panlibus article first otherwise this won't make much sense) – the idea of the Total Library as a nightmare:

The Total Library is nothing: a nightmare of meaningless promise.

The Total Library represents all that we cannot be: the idea taunts us with promises of infinity, calling to us like the Sirens leading us to wreckage and madness upon the shoals of deadly knowledge. As well as the sheer shuddering horror of the misprints and contradictions throughout the Logically Complete Library, the Universal Library is ultimately useless to us and reveals in itself a void of meaning. In acquiring everything, the Total Library reveals nothing.

The paralysis of choice inside the Universal Library is unrelenting. With literally every printed word at one’s disposal, where could one possibly begin? The Universal Library offers a taunting glimpse at everything that we do not and cannot possibly know. Even the polymath – a dying breed – can only know a percentage of all there is to know. Even if we constructed the Universal Library – the written mirror of the universe replete with every theory, every manifestation of idea, every supposition and every contradiction – there is not a single person who could understand it. Standing at the threshold of the Universal Library, we feel the pull of everything, of the infinite, while knowing that it will never be ours: as finite beings, the mysteries of the universe are forever inaccessible to us. There is not one person who could gaze long into that abyss without losing themselves.

As finite beings, we bestow meaning through selection. A random cluster of objects is meaningless but if the same objects are carefully chosen and ordered, they are given a meaning comprehensible to at least the person who chose them. The books on our bookshelves mean more to us than the books in the library because we have chosen each one individually. By collecting everything without discrimination or selection, the Universal Library becomes as meaningless as the universe itself: the model offers us nothing that the subject itself cannot give.

Even today, as we flounder in the ocean of ‘information overload’, we look to libraries as respite, as carefully ordered sanctuaries from the chaotic miasma of unordered data on the Web. Kruk is correct that librarians filter, select, choose, and present. To have meaning a library must be carefully chosen and constructed to meet the user’s needs: “We may discover that in times when a former relative scarcity of information is being replaced by indiscriminate over-abundance, the selective or filtering function of libraries is more important than providing indiscriminate access to information. What was a dream of humanity may be a nightmare. The ceaseless torrent of words hinders understanding.”  (2)

In the Universal Library, secret choices have already been made. For one, the primacy of the written word. By collecting only books and printed texts, the library has made a choice and has artificially limited itself. Why only collect published books and articles? The greatest work of literature could be written on the back of a bar napkin. Why not include ephemera? Why not what librarians refer to as ‘realia’: physical objects, gifts, tools, flags, clothes, that one special shirt, the present she sent you, the watch you no longer wear? “Every library both embraces and rejects. Every library is by definition the result of choice, and necessarily limited in its scope. And every choice excludes another, the choice not made. The act of reading parallels endlessly the act of censorship.” (3)

The primacy of the written word is a cultural prejudice reflected by the composition of the Universal Library. On close examination, words reveal themselves to be utterly inadequate as a mirror of the universe. The key Anglo-European philosophical project at the start of the 20th Century was the construction of a perfect language. The cloistered men of Cambridge attempted this by refining formal logic. Heroes and knights errant like Hilbert, Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein set out to create a model of the universe using the elegant, simple notation of mathematics. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein constructed his perfect description of the universe; in the Philosophical Investigations published years later, he exposed the impossibility of any logically perfect language. For all their trials, the philosophers could not make language perfect. The written word is an arbitrary, brute system: as Death says in a Terry Pratchett short story, humans try “TO UNDERSTAND THE COMPLEXITIES OF CREATION VIA A LANGUAGE THAT EVOLVED IN ORDER TO TELL ONE ANOTHER WHERE THE RIPE FRUIT WAS” (4). How could the arbitrary sounds we make and commit to paper through arcane symbolism possibly capture the infinite?

The Universal Library is utterly without meaning. When we gather every book, every word ever written, what is it that we’ve captured? In ‘A Yellow Rose’, Borges depicts the death of the poet Giambattista Marino who, as his life ebbs away, looks upon a yellow rose: “Marino saw the rose, the way Adam must have seen it in Paradise. He sensed that it existed not in his words but in its own timelessness. He understood that we can utter and allude to things but not give them expression, that the proud tall volumes that made a golden shadow in the corner of his room were not the world’s mirror, as his vanity had figured, but simply other objects that had been added to the world.”  (5)

Books are objects like any other with no more meaning or dignity than that which humans bestow. The Universal Library is an expansive collection but its perfection is an illusion. With no-one to understand the model it creates, it has no more meaning than a warehouse of yellow roses. Without the minds to understand them, books are useless assemblages of paper and the model of the universe that they purportedly create is a sham. In another Borges story, an ancient order of cartographers set out to create a perfect map of the Empire. They find they can do this only by making the map successively larger and more detailed until eventually it encompasses the whole Empire. “The world encyclopedia, the universal library, exists, and is the world itself.” (6)

(1) Jorge Luis Borges. “The Total Library,” in Jorge Luis Borges (Eliot Weinberger, ed.), The total library: non-fiction 1922-1986 (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 216.

(2) Miroslav Kruk, “The Internet and the revival of the myth of the universal library,” Australian library journal, 48 (2).

(3) Alberto Manguel, The library at night (London: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 108.

(4) Terry Pratchett, “Death and What Comes Next”. 

(5) Jorge Luis Borges, “A Yellow Rose,” in Jorge Luis Borges (Alexander Coleman, ed.), Selected poems (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 77.

(6) Manguel, Library at night, p. 89.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Freedom of speech 2.0

Yesterday, a fellow library campaigner directed me to this blog post by Roger Pearse criticising the Suffolk public library service. The main thrust of his argument has some validity: if his story is accurate, then the library in question needs to modernise and make efficiency changes. There are many libraries that need to make changes: I do not campaign for libraries because I believe they are all perfect; I campaign for libraries because I believe that good libraries have superlative value and that even bad libraries have potential. There’s an interesting debate to be had about whether bad libraries are caused by library managers, overhead council intervention, or simple budgetary concerns. 

Unfortunately, Mr. Pearse’s valid concerns about his public library service were drowned out by the following statement and his subsequent response when challenged about it:

And so it went on.  Item after item of inefficiency, maladministration, neglect or wrong-headedness.  In real terms, there was nobody in charge.  Doubtless there is some woman somewhere who receives a salary to run the organisation.  (You can tell that it is a woman in charge because the conversion of Ipswich library into a playgroup is something that only a woman would do). 

This throw-away comment is not the core of Mr. Pearse’s argument but it is offensively sexist and exclusionary (as are similar comments about children’s groups in libraries). It’s a statement that, since he made it freely and of his own accord, he should either defend or retract. 

You can always just pepper-spray people with whom you don't agree.
Freedom of speech is a tricky concept. It’s essential to a functioning democracy and very important for equality of all people. Everyone has the absolute right to express what they believe: Mr. Pearse has the right to make negative comments about women and the corollary of this is that people who disagree with him have the right to challenge him. 

Or rather, should have the right to challenge him. After several people commented on his blog about his sexist statement, these comments were deleted and labelled as “abusive”. Which accords with my own opinion that the only limitation to freedom of expression is the Harm Principle: the only circumstances in which it is permissible to censor or otherwise prevent someone expressing him/herself is if their expression causes or will cause harm to another person. The classic example is someone shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. Where I disagree with Mr. Pearse – and where the Harm Principle falls down – is in defining the vague concept of ‘harm’. What exactly is harm? Can it be quantified? Can there be any objective measure of harm?

Mr. Pearse has since written another post about his experience of “political thuggery” and his conception of free speech. He’s included several comments – including my own – as evidence of trolling. I seem to be included in the category of commenters “pretend[ing] to be polite.” I’m also accused of ad hominem attack (which is a false accusation since I’m attacking a point (a non-substantive point admittedly) that he made in the piece rather than Mr. Pearse himself). He characterises the level of debate as “deliberate violence, intended to give pain…” Ian Clark (unable to respond directly to Mr. Pearse for fears of deletion) has responded here and I encourage you to read it particularly the last paragraph.

Now maybe I have a laissez-faire ‘sticks-and-stones’ attitude but apart from direct threats or intimidation, I would not consider any other kind of speech as causing harm under the Harm Principle. I have been blogging on this site which is open to comments for several years and have received numerous comments disagreeing with me. I have never deleted any of them. This is not a diary: it's a blog and as such it operates under a different paradigm of communication. Under a definition of ‘trolling’ as irrational attacks against a person or argument on the Web, I wouldn’t define any of the comments on my blog as trolling. Some of these comments have hurt my feelings, some have made me feel bad, and, most importantly, some have made me rethink my position. There’s a comment on this post about a symbol of philosophical logic that calls me a moron. That comment made me angry enough to do some research and discover that, annoying though it may be, the commenter is right and I was wrong. When I check my blog’s statistics, I’m frequently annoyed that this post denying human-induced climate change gets consistently high traffic: I now fully retract that post but I will not delete it however wrong it is. It's true that I have censored some blog posts in the past but only at the request of an external party (this censorship and secretive attitude towards information is part of the reason why I no longer work for the external party). 

Required by law to be included in any writing about Web discussions.
Ultimately my attitude to freedom of speech derives from the fact that I don’t believe I have the right to delete something that someone spent precious time writing down. I don’t believe anyone has that right (unless as mentioned it harms others which I don’t believe the comments on Mr. Pearse’s sexism do). John Stuart Mill expressed it wonderfully in a passage from On Liberty that I return to time and time again:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Roger Pearse is free to make whatever statements he wants. In exchange for that freedom, I think he should allow other people the same right.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Why I got a Kindle *

Last night after another discussion with Ian Clark about the Kindle and its relative technical and ethical merits, I decided that I needed to fully establish my attitude to the Kindle and to Amazon and that this needed more than the 140 characters afforded by Twitter **.

To my mind, there are two dimensions to the purchasing of a Kindle: the technical dimension amounts to an argument in favour of it; the ethical dimension amounts to an argument against.

Technical dimension

I love my Kindle and I recommend the device to other people principally because of its technical capabilities. Prior to getting a Kindle, I owned the now-discontinued Sony Reader PRS-505 model. Switching to the Kindle felt equivalent to when I switched from an MP3 player to an iPod: it felt like moving from a device that did its job adequately to a device that did its job well. Compared to the reader, the Kindle is easier to put documents onto (via the WiFi/3G email service), works faster (particularly with PDFs), and has more internal memory, more intuitive menu screens and more ergonomic button placement.

The success of the Kindle can be attributed partly to aggressive marketing by Amazon (so much so that ‘Kindle’ is becoming synonymous with ‘e-reader’ in the same way that ‘Hoover’ became synonymous with ‘vacuum cleaner’) and partly to the fact that it’s so much easier to use than other e-readers on the market. The average consumer doesn’t care about ebook file formats or openness: the average consumer wants a device that they can use to read books.

Ethical dimension

...but we’re not average consumers: we’re librarians. And we do (or arguably should) care about ebook file formats and openness. It seems that the major argument against the Kindle is its parent company’s attempted monopolisation of information provision. The Kindle supports MOBI format, Amazon’s own AZW format, and PDFs. The Kindle doesn’t support the industry standard ebook format, ePub, and therefore cannot support ebooks provided by public libraries via OverDrive. Although certain DRM-free ebook files can be switched to the MOBI format using programs like calibre, this is beyond the average consumer (or my mythical version of him/her).

This means that anyone who buys a Kindle is funnelled into providing continued financial and consumer support for Amazon since the Kindle-owner has little choice but to purchase Amazon ebooks. This amounts to attempted monopolisation of electronic reading material on the part of Amazon. It’s a particular concern for the UK’s public libraries since it means that they can’t provide lending ebooks to anyone who owns a Kindle. Amazon are working with public libraries in the USA but arguably libraries are getting the raw end of the deal.

OK, this may be the real reason I got a Kindle. From xkcd.

Generally I own a Kindle because the technical functionality of the Kindle outweighs my ethical qualms (and indeed my liberal guilt at using such a blatantly consumer-restricting product). More specifically, with all the issues laid out, I can explain why I use the Kindle.

A. My reading habits. When I’m looking for a book, I have two major considerations: first, I prefer reading print books to reading ebooks (as do “almost all” participants in a recent study); second, I’m just a poor librarian and so I try to get books for free when possible. So my sources of books in descending order of preference are: the library I work in; the local public library; a friend / family member; waiting for a customary gift-giving occasion and getting someone to buy it for me. If it comes down to actually spending my money on a book, only then will I buy the electronic version and I’ll do this purely for the convenience of being able to carry multiple books around. Therefore I don’t accept Ian’s – I assume semi-ironic – ‘Love Kindles; Hate Libraries’ equivalency. For me at least, libraries are way up my personal scale of preference as a source for reading material.

B. Public libraries have bigger problems with their ebook provision than Amazon’s looming dominance over the market. This post sums up the potential difficulties of getting an ebook from a public library. It’s unfair to blame libraries for all these issues – some are imposed by publishers, some are imposed by OverDrive. Amazon has more resources and certainly more funding available to make its technical process as smooth as possible. But the fact remains that as it stands, it is easy to get ebooks from Amazon and it is complicated to get ebooks from public libraries. Consumers go for the easy option and to say that Amazon’s dominance is a primary contributor to levels of public library ebook lending is disingenuous.

C. Amazon’s ‘monopoly’ is not that big or that threatening. Without any facts to back me up (apart from Amazon’s list of bestselling ebooks), I would guess that the majority of Amazon’s ebook sales are for reading-for-pleasure books primarily fiction. The Kindle is a great device for reading a book from beginning to end: it’s designed for reading-for-pleasure rather than reading-for-information. Libraries – public, academic, commercial – are massively important for reading-for-information (and as suggested in Justification A also have a key role in reading-for-pleasure). It’s true that each person who purchases a Kindle is funnelled down the digital primrose path towards supporting Amazon’s monopolisation of ebook provision but Amazon are nowhere near complete market dominance and I think that suggesting otherwise is an over-reaction.

The point

The point is that I like and recommend the Kindle as a reading device but, for the most part, I share Kindle detractors’ legitimate concerns about the ethics of Amazon’s consumer practices and attempted monopolisation. I am however not as concerned as they are.

* Or more precisely, why I dropped extremely unsubtle hints last December leading to my parents getting me a Kindle for Christmas.

** Turns out I needed 5979 characters. Huh.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Thoughts on military librarianship

The British Army's Prince Consort's Library
EDITED: 14/10/11

My time as Assistant Librarian at the Army College is coming to an end and so I thought I’d offer some thoughts on a little-known niche of librarianship: military librarianship. There isn't much information available about military librarianship and, due to security issues, precious little communication between military librarians (unfortunately there is no 'Secret Covenant of Army Librarians'). Here is some of what I've learned and what I've thought during my year and a half working as a librarian for the British Army.


Army libraries use a unique military classification system which is functionally distinct from Dewey or Library of Congress. Our copy of the scheme is from 1985. I have never come across it anywhere else and I can find virtually no reference to it online other than in Tidworth Library's Army Stock catalogue. Basically it divides all military books into Military Biography (MB), Military Equipment (ME), Military Forces (MF), Military Warfare (MW) (which is basically military history), and Regimental History (RH). These categories are then divided using Dewey-like numbers and auxiliaries relating to geography and history. So, for example, books on the Iraq War are MW.365.67-67; books about the War in Afghanistan are MW.365.81; books about nuclear weapons are ME.47 subdivided into ME.471 for bombs, ME.472 for missiles, and ME.473 for nuclear artillery. Military Biography just uses the first three letters of the biography subject's surname eg. Saddam Hussein is under MB.HUS. The scheme also allows you to divide books on World War I and World War II from the Military Warfare division using a separate classification schedule: for example, books on the D-Day landings are WW2: 251.61.

Working with restrictions 

Librarianship is all about making information available. Military security requires that information not be made available. This basic conflict is a challenge for any military librarian who can be restricted by the Army, Navy, or Air Force’s security protocols. 

I’ve written before about how narrow access to the Web affects the soldiers’ ability to retrieve verifiably true information. This applies equally to library staff. During my time at the college, the restricted Web access on the college’s computers has made it difficult to do so many things: to get Creative Commons material for displays, newsletters, posters; to find ideas for literacy development, library promotion, and inductions; to ask for advice from colleagues on social networks; and, most importantly, to find up-to-date information on military campaigns such as Operation Moshtarak and Operation Panther’s Claw. As well as the difficulty of accessing Web materials, the use of USB sticks is restricted which makes what should be simple – the transferring of files – extremely difficult. 

These restrictions are challenging – particularly for someone like me who focused his career on electronic resources, the Web, and ebooks. Learning to do without these resources has been frustrating but good for my development: it makes military librarians more resourceful, more willing to use different technologies, and less reliant on the Google-Wikipedia crutch.

Army culture 

I can’t speak for the other Armed Forces but the British Army has a very distinct (and in some ways unusual) culture with its own norms, values, and etiquette. In the civilian world, it may be unacceptable to take your dog into the office with you everyday but in the Army, it’s perfectly fine. Every library is heavily influenced by its users and so the culture of the Army massively impacts Army librarians’ day-to-day work. Military librarians need to be more active in their assistance. More than anywhere else I’ve worked, I look for users struggling instead of waiting for them to come to me. This often leads to the problem, how do you help someone who doesn’t tell you what they’re looking for?

Reading and learning 

The single biggest challenge of providing the military with reading material is that the military by and large don’t want reading material. There will always be people who don’t want to read but the incidence of non-readers among soldiers is higher than in the general population.

Some soldiers need no encouragement to read.

In general, a soldier only reads The Sun, Soldier magazine, or books that they have to read – because they are ordered to by a superior officer or because they’re doing some kind of further/higher education course. A lot of the soldiers only use the library during their free time to access Facebook. Military librarians need to encourage the few soldiers who read for pleasure. During my time at the College, partly inspired by Patrick Hennessey’s book The Junior Officers’ Reading Club, I’ve tried to encourage reading by representing it as a refuge, as a therapy, and as a way to pass the time during the periods of waiting and inaction that punctuate a soldier’s life. 

It’s rare but in some soldiers there is a genuine desire to learn and, whatever else I may think about the British Army, it’s admirable how much emphasis they put on education and learning – especially at the Army Foundation College. One afternoon in the library, I overheard a discussion between a Captain and a Junior Soldier: they intelligently discussed the Taliban, the false conflict between Islam and Christianity, and the human cost of war. I hope that when that Junior Soldier gets to Afghanistan, he will remember that discussion he had in the library and hopefully make the right decisions. 

A soldier once told me that soldiers fight for peace, not for war. The military librarian’s job is to support soldiers’ learning in order to make sure that when they have to fight, they do it intelligently and humanly. I hope that I’ve done that in my time at the college and I hope that other military librarians continue to do the same.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

From Gods to humans: the values of libraries

There have always been links between libraries and certain moral values particularly those embodied in religions. Throughout the centuries, libraries have survived by adapting and moulding themselves to fit the predominant values of the time: from the religious narratives of past civilisations through the growth of the Enlightenment and scientific values into whatever theological milieu we occupy now. Libraries have shifted their role, changed their values, and even taken on some of the traditional functions of religions in order to fit the society around them.

Wei T'O, protector of libraries
Religious values dominated society for centuries and arguably still do. In ancient cultures, writing was a kind of power and so libraries were important places for scholarship and theology and mysterious places to those who couldn’t decipher the written word. ‘Knowledge deities’ – gods devoted to writing, learning, letters, or calligraphy – were assigned to protect libraries. One of the only dedicated ‘gods of libraries’ is Wei T’O, the ancient Chinese god who was patron of libraries and books. According to this unusually corporate website, "Wei T'o, an ancient Chinese god, protects books against destruction from fire, worms and insects, and robbers, big or small." Laura Payne pointed me to Seshat, the ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom, knowledge, and writing: her name means ‘she who scrivens’ and she was credited with inventing writing. Later, another strand of mythology from Hermopolis developed with Thoth as the god of wisdom and scribes which led to Seshat’s priestesses being usurped and the goddess taking a subservient position as Thoth’s daughter or wife. In ancient Babylon, Nabu protected clay tablets; in Hinduism, Ganesh who has the head of an elephant has the equivalent memory of an elephant and so is associated with scholarship and knowledge; the Aztec and Mayan god, Quetzalcoatl, was the purported inventor of books and the calendar. Christianity in various areas has Saint Lawrence (Europe), Saint Jerome (US and Canada), and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Orthodox) as patron saints of libraries.

As these religions died, libraries’ moral values changed to fit the changes in society. Michael Gorman, the past president of the American Library Association, identified eight central values for librarianship in his book, Our Enduring Values. These include such familiar values as service, equality of access, and intellectual freedom (celebrated next week by the ALA’s Banned Books Week). One that embodies the values of a certain time period is ‘rationalism’: Gorman said that libraries are “children of the Enlightenment and of rationalism”. Libraries may predate the Enlightenment but they were peculiarly suited to the values and philosophy of the time: the sense that the universe can be understood through knowledge; the idea that collecting information can lead to a model of reality; that organising, classifying, and bringing order out of chaos is a good in and of itself. Jonathan I. Israel said that during the Enlightenment, a “general process and rationalization and secularization set in which rapidly overthrew theology’s age-old hegemony in the world of study”. The Enlightenment may represent the start of the decline of religion but it was a time in which libraries adapted and thrived.

The British Museum's Enlightenment room previously contained King George's Library

In fact, it can be argued that libraries took over some of the traditional functions of religion. We frequently hear libraries referred to as ‘temples’ – temples of learning or temples to the written word. In her book, Sacred Stacks, Naomi K. Maxwell gives examples of quasi-spiritual functions of libraries: some librarians may feel as their work is for a higher purpose; libraries connect us to the past and help us remember our ancestors; libraries can provide a sense of the immortal and unchanging (the perception of libraries as islands of stability and conservatism (with a small C) may explain some people’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to council’s plans to close public libraries (and of course closing libraries is a genuinely bad idea)).

Now the world is changing again: in the current philosophical zeitgeist, Enlightenment values are outdated. John Gray has written about the decline of Enlightenment values and the emergence of a world in which intellectual progress does not equal moral progress as previously assumed ie. constant improvement in intellectual and scientific knowledge will not necessarily lead to constant improvement in human wellbeing. The future is not necessarily better than the past. According to Gray, Western society has a mythology of its own – an Enlightenment narrative no more true than the mythologies and narratives of ancient civilisations. “Western societies are ruled by the myth that, as the rest of the world absorbs science and becomes modern, it is bound to become secular, enlightened, and peaceful – as, contrary to all evidence, they imagine themselves to be.”

This is not an image to accompany the text
In the 21st Century, we occupy an age of postmodernism, existentialism, and post-Enlightenment values. The creeds of religion and the Enlightenment are becoming less relevant: in the words of King Crimson, “The wall on which the prophets wrote / Is cracking at the seams.” The philosophical fashion is for subjectivity of knowledge and reality as a social construct rather than an object which can be modelled. With this line of thought, what becomes of the Enlightenment model of reality, the library? In our post-rationalist age of subjectivity, is ‘rationalism’ still a central value of librarianship and do libraries have a place as storehouses of objective knowledge? Do libraries need to adapt their values again?

It does seem that librarians share some core values à la Gorman’s eight values. Obviously library and information workers don’t all think or feel the same way. But I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts as to what shared values and ideals are shared by library people (if any).

This post was inspired by a Twitter conversation with Dave Pattern which was ostensibly about OPACs until I got sidetracked, thrust my head into the clouds, and started thinking about hokey religions and ancient mythologies. Thanks Dave!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

UK Government rejects idea of National Digital Library

This afternoon, Ian Clark pointed out this TheyWorkForYou answer from the UK Minister in charge of libraries, Ed Vaizey. Asked “whether he has considered the merits of establishing a national digital library service”, Mr. Vaizey replied: 

We have no plans at present to establish a national digital library service. However, local authorities continue to provide remote access for their users to catalogues, e-books and online reference resources and the UK remains a partner in Europeana—the European Digital Library network which provides access, through its website, to objects from cultural institutions within the European Union. 

(Note that, in true politician style, this doesn’t answer the question posed.)

In a previous article about developing a UK National Digital Library, I named the British Library and/or the BBC as potential institutions which could undertake the project. I deliberately did not mention the UK Government and I did this for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t think the Government should develop an NDL. It would be a concern for any state to have such control over such a large body of information and the country’s cultural heritage. Though a National Digital Library would need to be publicly funded (a. in order to be ‘national’ and b. to avoid the pitfalls of private-sector ownership of shared cultural resources), it would not be beneficial for it to be under the direct control of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The DCMS is a Government department and is under the whims of whichever political party is in power: the reason to worry about this is not because the current Government cannot be trusted but because such power has the potential to be abused by successive governments. A National Digital Library could however be government-led under the control of a quango with a suitably high degree of autonomy (the Arts Council England, for example). But this leads to the second reason I didn’t mention the government: I don’t think the current Coalition Government would develop an NDL. Thus far the Coalition hasn’t shown education to be one of its core values and Ed Vaizey has shown no inclination to expand the UK’s library service (demonstrably the opposite, in fact). The Government’s public spending cuts leave no room for bold expansive projects for the future of education and culture. 

That said, it’s disappointing that Vaizey so casually dismisses the notion of a UK National Digital Library. His answer doesn’t show any sign that it’s an idea they are considering or that could be effected if more money were available. There are simply “no plans at present”. It’s most unfortunate because this is an opportune time to make a National Digital Library and the UK should do so before it’s too late. Other governments are investing in the idea for their own countries: notably France (Gallica as part of the Bibliothèque nationale), Norway (NBdigital) and the United States (the Digital Public Library of America and other projects). It seems naïve and foolish to have no plans and no plans to develop plans. 

Vaizey’s answer confirms that the Coalition Government will not provide a National Digital Library. We need to look elsewhere for an organisation willing enough, bold enough, and with enough foresight to work on such an important project.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Things 15 and 16 - Events, Advocacy, and Writing

In an effort to catch up on 23 Things for Professional Development (or CPD23: my other posts are here), here are a couple of Things.

Thing 15 - Conferences and events

Thing 15 is about conferences, seminars, and events. This year I’ve been lucky enough to attend several library-type events (partly thanks to the generosity and support of my current employers Nord Anglia Education (by the way, you can now apply for my job which is a great opportunity for people new to the profession who want to learn the ropes of librarianship)).

From Sarah Ison's New Professionals Conference photos.
There are loads of benefits to attending events and these are just some of the most important ones to me. The first is the opportunity to break out of my environment. I (currently) work in a fairly restrictive, isolated, and cloistered environment: when I first started working at the Army College, I felt cut off from the world of librarianship in which I was immersed during my Masters. Events and conferences have allowed me to reconnect with the wider librarian community, look past my own four walls, and feel that I’m not alone – that other people share my interests, my concerns, and my ambitions. Particularly for young librarians, events enable a wider point of view and confer a knowledge of one’s place in The Profession. This leads to the second benefit which is meeting new people and old friends. We librarians are spread across the country, across sectors, across the world. Sure, we can connect through Twitter or email but nothing beats face-to-face communication for sparking a connection with other people and having real discussions about the topics we’re interested in. And then there are the benefits that Katie mentions in the blog post: “feeling more inspired, motivated, or capable”. Getting out of work is exciting but a key benefit of attending events is the impact they can have when you get back to work. Perhaps you’ll have a new idea about doing things in a different way; perhaps you can work on a project with someone you met; or perhaps you just feel reinvigorated with a renewed appreciation of librarianship. 

This year I was also lucky to be asked to present at a couple of events: I presented a paper at the CILIP Library and Information History Group Conference and I co-presented a workshop at the CILIP New Professionals Conference. Doing my first presentation was scary – being fairly young and by no means an expert on library and information history, I was terrified of reading my paper in front of so many people more intelligent than me – but good things are often scary. Both presentations turned out to massively rewarding experiences: as well as developing my presentation skills for future jobs (and job interviews), I discovered that I enjoyed the immediacy of the presentation format. I enjoy writing: that’s a whole other blog post suffice to say that there’s something about constructing a well-formed argument or a beautiful turn of phrase that appeals to me. I discovered that by presenting something that I’ve written, I get to see the immediate impact of my words and my argument and I get to discuss criticisms or ramifications with the people who’ve engaged with the piece. So presenting at conferences is something that I enjoy doing, that develops my career, and that, as mentioned above, helps me to connect with other people in The Profession. It’s scary but good things often are. 

Thing 16 - Advocacy

Thing 16 is about advocacy, activism, and publication on behalf of libraries (ably written by my Voices for the Library buddy, Lauren). I believe that, as professionals, advocating for our libraries is not only our duty but it’s something that we should be doing naturally. 

Premise 1: I enjoy librarianship and I love libraries. 
Premise 2: If I enjoy and love something, then I will enjoy talking about it. 
Conclusion: I enjoy talking about librarianship and libraries. 

An advocacy poster from Ned 'thewikiman' Potter

Aside from this kind of day-to-day advocacy with family, friends, and colleagues, I advocate for my library at work (which – for those applying for the job – can be a challenge with the military staff), I try to advocate for a UK National Digital Library (an idea I feel passionate about), and I do a little for public libraries as part of the Voices for the Library campaign group (radio stuff, writing, marching, keeping an eye on the news, etc.). 

Advocacy comes down to doing what you can do and taking what action you can take on behalf of the things that you love. As mentioned above, one of the things that I can do is write so I try to advocate through that. Whether it’s deliberately writing for a publication after having an idea (as happened with my Guardian article on ebooks) or writing something for my blog and then deciding it’s good enough to publish (as happened with my Guardian article on Google Books and my CILIP Update article on National Digital Libraries). When I write something, I want it be read and so I try to get it spread as far as possible: this can spread the word about libraries or about an issue I’m passionate about. That’s just how I feel I can best advocate: other people may vary. 

As Lauren mentioned, library advocacy has taken a step-up recently. Advocacy is becoming an increasingly important skill to learn for young librarians since more and more libraries and library staff have to justify their existence. Every librarian should be advocating what they do and, particularly in the UK, public libraries need our support and need voices shouting for the people who can’t.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The benefits of Open Access

In today’s Guardian, George Monbiot discusses academic publishing, specifically the exorbitant costs of accessing peer-reviewed research and the blatant profiteering of the publishers. In academic libraries, this has been known for years as the ‘serials crisis’: it's the fact that libraries need subscriptions to journals and rising costs mean that, as Monbiot points out, journal subscriptions now take up 65% of university libraries’ budgets. As well as the idea of large-scale digital libraries à la the National Digital Library – “a single global archive of academic literature and data” – Monbiot discusses Open Access publishing as a possible solution. 

Open Access publishing basically involves making access to research data and scholarly literature less restricted. Universities and academics can do this in a couple of ways: Green Open Access involves putting research in openly accessible institutional repositories; Gold Open Access involves publishing in specialist open access journals. Fundamentally, Open Access publishing cuts through the limitations placed on academic research. 

Academic research and scientific research are currently constrained by the requirements of society. There are financial restrictions such as those imposed by academic publishers and there are legal restrictions such as copyright law. Both of these can prevent scholars from accessing materials or working with them in new ways. These financial or legal constraints are often opposed to the spirit of research: to the Enlightenment ideals of sharing knowledge in an atmosphere of open creativity; to the communities of scholars working together and sharing information to further human progress. There is no reason for limitations in research: the only constraint should be the limits of imagination. 

Open Access logo from Wikimedia Commons
Open Access publishing cuts through the financial and legal Gordian Knot. Green Open Access presents research free via institutional repositories and digital libraries; Gold Open Access gets the money for publication from non-consumer sources. Open Access can also cut through the legal requirements usually through Creative Commons licensing: in The Power of Open, Mark Patterson of Public Library of Science refers to Creative Commons licensing as “an integral part of the success of open access publishing...” 

And Open Access has benefits other than those immediate, practical ones. Arguably more important is the atmosphere of openness and mutual co-operation that Open Access publishing encourages. This links to the parallel movements of Open Data and Open Content. A spirit of openness and sharing of information is conducive to creative and intelligent output. It can free academic research from the suspicion and competition of the commercial sector and encourage researchers to consider themselves as part of a community working together for the greater good. 

As well as the qualitative impact on atmosphere and good feeling, an open atmosphere can quantitatively improve research. Studies from 2001, 2006, and 2010 (see below) have shown that articles published as Open Access have a citation impact advantage: they are cited more often by other researchers and so more people see the results of the scholars’ hard work.

Stevan Harnad, a big voice in Open Access, believes that university libraries and particularly institutional repositories can maintain and encourage this atmosphere. It’s vital that libraries and repositories recognise the importance of Open Access and work as much as possible to encourage this open atmosphere to create strong and productive scholarly communities in our universities and to dismantle the rampant and damaging capitalism of the academic publishing industry.

Lawrence, S., 2001. Free online availability substantially increases a paper’s impact, Nature, 31 May 2001.

Eysenbach, G., 2006. Citation Advantage of Open Access Articles, PLoS Biology, 4 (5).

Gargouri, Y., Hajjem, C., Lariviere, V., Gingras, Y., Brody, T., Carr, L. and Harnad, S., 2010. Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research. PLOS ONE, 5 (10).

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

I, Digital Native

I’ve been reading Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. Wikipedia defines a digital native as “a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology, and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts.” Since I currently work with 16 to 17 year-olds and will soon be working with university students, I thought it was important for me to understanding this generation of digital natives so that I’m able to provide a better library service.

And so I was surprised to discover that Palfrey and Gasser’s definition of ‘digital natives’ describes me:
They were all born after 1980... They read blogs rather than newspapers. They often meet each other online before they meet in person. They probably don’t even know what a library card looks like, much less have one; and if they do, they’ve probably never used it. They get their music online – often for free, illegally – rather than buying it in record stores. They’re more likely to send an instant message (IM) than to pick up the telephone to arrange a date later in the afternoon... And they’re connected to one another by a common culture. Major aspects of their lives – social interactions, friendships, civic activities – are mediated by digital technologies.
(Apart from the library card comment and [LEGAL DISCLAIMER] the illegal music comment.)

A digital native. Probably with disgusting sticky fingers.
I had never considered myself to be a digital native so reading this was like discovering that an anthropology text is about my subculture. The term ‘digital native’ seems to imply an innate grasp of technology: using mobile phones in the playground and taking ‘coding for kids’ classes. I remember learning to use technology: teaching myself to use a mouse; my first experience using the Internet; teaching myself HTML. Sometimes I still get the feeling that devices like the Kindle are astoundingly futuristic. The point being that I am fully aware of all the technology I use and that, unlike my imagined digital native, I don’t feel blasé about it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that technology does have a different role in my life compared to, say, my parents. The different ways we approach technology, for example. When my parents don’t have a clear step-by-step procedure for doing something on the computer or on a device, they can’t do it: if they don’t know how to reset the clock on their mobile phone, then they just don’t know. Whereas I will look through the menus, try out likely options (Settings, Options, etc.), and figure out how to do it. I’m not worried that fiddling with technology and trying things out will break it – sometimes it feels as though my parents and older family members do. This seems to indicate different approaches to the use of technology and different levels of understanding.

There are also the different ways that technology has integrated itself into our lives. It’s common – particularly among newspaper opinion columnists – to distinguish between the ‘real world’ and the ‘online world’. I see no distinction: the ‘online me’ is me albeit with some of the restrictions of online communication.

Another quote from Born Digital:
...Digital Natives live much of their lives online, without distinguishing between the online and the offline. Instead of thinking of their digital identity and their real-space identity as separate things, they just have an identity (with representations in two, or three, or more different spaces)... For these young people, new digital technologies – computers, cell phones, Sidekicks – are primary mediators of human-to-human connections.
I spend a lot of time online. The Web is my primary source of information about the world. Since my friends from school and university are scattered across the country, I communicate with people primarily using email and social media. I would rather chat with someone using Facebook or Chatzy than talk to them on the telephone. I have friends – even close friends – who I have never met in person. Voices for the Library is a group made up of people who primarily communicate with one another online and meet in person very rarely.

So I suppose I am a digital native. My life is integrated with and augmented by technology. Things 8, 9, and 13 for CPD23 are all about web-based tools and technologies that are used to organise oneself and make life easier. These kinds of tools – Google Calendar, Google Docs, wikis – and certain pieces of hardware – laptop, USB stick, Kindle, iPod – are integrated into my life in such a way as to make them crucial to my normal operation. Google Calendar augments my memory; my Kindle augments my capacity for communication: these pieces of technology are integrated with me and make me a more effective human being.

Transhumanism argues that the next step in human development will be merging with technology to make humans fitter, smarter, and better. To some degree, this is already happening with digital natives: as humans whose lives are so integrated with technology that they are recognisably distinct from generations before them, there is a strong case that this is the first generation of posthumans. Although I don’t agree with Ray Kurzweil’s quasi-religious belief in The Singularity, I do agree that the human body is imperfect and that augmenting humans using technology can be of great benefit: “Our version 1.0 biological bodies are likewise frail and subject to a myriad of failure modes, not to mention the cumbersome maintenance rituals they require. While human intelligence is sometimes capable of soaring in its creativity and expressiveness, much human thought is derivative, petty, and circumscribed.”

Some argue that digital natives suffer from their attachment to technology. In the wake of horrendous riots across England last week, the Government has discussed the negative influence of social media technology and its potential for organising riots and disorder. In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr discusses the negative impact of the Internet on human neurology (in brief: dwindling ability to concentrate; a generation of ADHD sufferers). Rather than interpreting this change as a kid of decay, the authors of Born Digital see it as an adaptive change necessitated by a changing information environment. Digital natives are simply adapting to survive in an environment of ‘information overload’. For example: in a world where the information can be found with a couple of keystrokes, what non-trivial benefit is there to memorising the kings and queens of England? Einstein said: “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. ...The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.”

We’re likely to see even more changes in the way that people, particularly young people, use technology. Rather than restricting the technology, we have to learn to adapt like digital natives have and will continue to do. 

EDIT: A few hours after posting this, Deb Elzie tweeted about this research by the Open University which suggests that there are no 'digital natives' and that there is no clear break between the technology usage of different generations. In which case, anyone has the potential ability to use technology in the intuitive way that is the hallmark of the digital native: rather than being a matter of age, it's a matter of experience. So-called 'digital nativity' lies in shared characteristics and technological affinity rather than arbitrary age limits: there's no reason why people born before 1980 shouldn't be able to use technology as well as people born after. There is another interesting piece on digital natives here by Simeon Oriko.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Addendum - A bit more openness

My last post was on the virtues of an open Web within institutions. I was going to touch on the value of openness and sharing information for people and institutions – governments, organisations, etc. – but it didn’t seem to fit. Which is a shame because one of my favourite sections of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is on this very subject. It’s about overprotectiveness of personal information and asks what is wrong with sharing information? Online or offline, what does it matter how much of one’s life or one’s thoughts are shared? Why should we greedily hoard the personal details of our lives? Why shouldn’t we share everything? Giving out information and being open – within reason – loses us nothing.

What am I giving you? I am giving you nothing. I am giving you things that God knows, everyone knows… It seems like you know something, but you still know nothing. I tell you and it evaporates. I don’t care—how could I care? I tell you how many people I have slept with (thirty-two), or how my parents left this world, and what have I really given you? Nothing. I can tell you the names of my friends, their phone numbers, but what do you have? You have nothing. They all granted permission. Why is that? Because you have nothing, you have some phone numbers. It seems precious for one, two seconds. You have what I can afford to give. You are a panhandler, begging for anything, and I am the man walking briskly by, tossing a quarter or so into your paper cup. I can afford to give you this. This does not break me. I give you virtually everything I have. I give you all of the best things I have, and while these things are things that I like, memories that I treasure, good or bad, like the pictures of my family on my walls I can show them to you without diminishing them. I can afford to give you everything. We gasp at the wretches on afternoon shows who reveal their hideous secrets in front of millions of similarly wretched viewers, and yet.. .what have we taken from them, what have they given us? Nothing. We know that Janine had sex with her daughter’s boyfriend, but...then what? We will die and we will have protected... what? Protected from all the world that, what, we do this or that, that our arms have made these movements and our mouths these sounds? Please. We feel that to reveal embarrassing or private things, like, say, masturbatory habits (for me, about once a day, usually in the shower), we have given someone something, that, like a primitive person fearing that a photographer will steal his soul, we identify our secrets, our pasts and their blotches, with our identity, that revealing our habits or losses or deeds somehow makes one less of oneself. But it’s just the opposite, more is more is more—more bleeding, more giving. These things, details, stories, whatever, are like the skin shed by snakes, who leave theirs for anyone to see. What does he care where it is, who sees it, this snake, and his skin? He leaves it where he molts. Hours, days or months later, we come across a snake’s long-shed skin and we know something of the snake, we know that it’s of this approximate girth and that approximate length, but we know very little else. Do we know where the snake is now? What the snake is thinking now? No. By now the snake could be wearing fur; the snake could be selling pencils in Hanoi. The skin is no longer his, he wore it because it grew from him, but then it dried and slipped off and he and everyone could look at it.

Monday, 8 August 2011

The virtues of openness

Over the past year, we’ve seen the growth of groups like WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and LulzSec: these are groups bound together not by proximity or community but by the members’ shared values, in particular the value of openness. WikiLeaks published information that the group believes should be out in the open – the actions of those who represent the public: governments, militaries, and government representatives. Though Anonymous and LulzSec ostensibly hack and DDoS attack websites “for the lulz”, the groups actually have strong values concerning who and why they hack: as part of Operation AntiSec, attacks on SOCA and the US Department of Homeland Security were justified because of these governments’ efforts to “dominate and control our Internet ocean.” 

The actions of these groups are reactions – albeit, extreme reactions – to lack of openness on the Web. Although the Web is an amazing expanse of shared information, efforts to ‘dominate and control it’ are routine. The most extreme case is China’s Golden Shield Project – the ‘Great Firewall of China’ – which restricts access to the Web for the Chinese people. National and local governments worldwide keep information closed off from the public and, in the case of WikiLeaks and the diplomatic cables, can take websites down to prevent access to information.

For people in the West, the most everyday form of censorship occurs in work or school. Many employers and education institutions use software to block websites: to erect walls across the Web. The most frequently blocked websites are usually social networking websites – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. – which employers and educators perceive as wastes of time. But there are other, more surprising banned websites: Stephen Abrams recently shared these lists.

Thanks to Alice Halsey for this image idea
In an educational environment, lack of openness can have a detrimental effect. From a library perspective, restricting Web access seriously restricts the research that students can do. As well as the quantity of research sources, lack of access can also impact the quality. When teaching information literacy, it’s important to get students to use the references and further links at the bottom of Wikipedia articles: in an environment where Wikipedia is available but the referenced material is blocked, it’s difficult to verify sources and ensure accurate information.

In employment, blocks on social networking websites can be equally detrimental. It’s true that time spent playing FarmVille or chatting on Facebook can be wasted time but social networking also has the potential for great professional development. Openness in a work context comes down to trusting your employees to do the right thing. Twitter, for example, can keep someone connected to a disparate community of like-minded people, can link to useful resources and ideas, and can provide a support and professional development network with projects like CPD23. Blocking social networking and indeed any other websites treats employees and students like children: it’s detrimental to their effectiveness in the workplace and to their engagement in an organisation. It’s interesting to note that none of the top 100 best companies to work for block social media websites.

In Education and the Social Order, Bertrand Russell talks about how infants instinctively “rage at any constriction of the limbs.” This instinct, he says, “is the basis of the love of freedom.” Russell says that constraint without reason leads to rage and rage leads to destruction. Conversely freedom and openness lead to fulfilment and happiness.

Humans desire openness: the freedom to access the shared inheritance of human information. A lack of openness – in terms of the Web or knowledge or whatever – is inimical to human creativity and this is why groups like Anonymous and LulzSec step up to defend openness so vociferously. Creativity requires access to a range of perspectives, dissemination of ideas, communication between individuals, collaboration between groups. These are all things that the Web can enable but which the blocking of websites prevents. Like fish growing to the size of their physical environments, human minds grow to the size of their mental environment. As far as possible, we should avoid restricting our mental environments and stop censorship of news, books, and websites.