Tuesday, 3 May 2011

'First they came for the public libraries...' Thoughts on professional duty

The CILIP Career Development Group New Professionals Conference is a key library event for young librarians and information workers and this year it looks like there will be loads of great presentations. Laura (@theatregrad) and Sam (@shw34) will be presenting on what makes an information professional; Katie Birkwood (@girlinthe) and rarelysited will be presenting on special collections outreach and community engagement; Helen Murphy (@lemurph) will be presenting too.

My proposal was not accepted so, for the sake of posterity, here it is. I wrote it just before I read Laura Woods’ blog post on a similar theme. For the full paper, I had vague ideas about examining how public library closures impact other information sectors, talking a little about the work of Voices for the Library, discussing Kant’s moral philosophy (his concept of moral duty and the categorical imperative), and generally arguing that keeping silent in these difficult times is the wrong thing for library workers to do. Hopefully I would have made it a little less preachy than this proposal comes across:

“First they came for the public libraries and I didn’t speak out...”
Is library activism a professional duty?

Public libraries face serious threats: closure, funding cuts, and deprofessionalisation in favour of volunteer-run libraries. In these difficult times, should each sector take care of itself or do professionals from other information sectors have a duty to come to the aid of their colleagues in the public sector?

Fragmentation of the profession became a talking point this year: in a discussion on the CILIP LinkedIn Group forum Mark Field wrote, “The information professions are highly networked but poorly integrated.” It makes sense for non-public library professionals – those working in academic, legal, health, or private sectors – to maintain their distance from public libraries which are suffering from increased scrutiny and political battles for survival. Is it logical to integrate fragmented sectors and risk painting all libraries with the same brush?

On the other hand, it can be argued that being part of a professional body means supporting one another. It means sharing the difficulties in the bad times as well as sharing help in the good times. Part of the founding ethos of the library campaign group, Voices for the Library, is that librarians from a range of sectors should speak out on behalf of public library staff who may be prevented from speaking against their council employers.

 The CILIP Code of Professional Practice states that library and information professionals should “Act in ways that promote the profession positively, both to their colleagues and to the public at large.” I argue that in desperate times ‘promotion’ extends to activism on behalf of libraries and that for professionals of all sectors – including new professionals – entry into the profession confers a duty to fight, to the extent one is able to do so, alongside one’s colleagues.


Nicola Franklin said...

Hi Simon
A very interesting post, and one close to my heart as one of the organisers of the meetings that have come out of that CILIP LinkedIn thread that you quoted.

I agree with your thesis that librarians (or information professionals, or whatever other label one chooses) have a duty to 'stand together and be counted'.

So far there have been two meetings of representatives of many of the various library, info & records groups. Coming up is going to be an open meeting for anyone interested in this topic to come and have their say and get their ideas across.

An announcement of date, time, venue, etc is due to be made shortly (on as many of the lists, boards, LinkedIn groups, etc as we can think of / have access to) - watch this space, as they say!

Simon Barron said...

That's excellent Nicola. Your article on this subject in CILIP Update a few months ago was very interesting and I'm glad more meetings are happening to promote greater connections between the sectors.

I very much believe that we need to be less fragmented and present a united front on library issues. In this piece, I sort of used the existing fragmentation as the 'against-unifying' paragraph but hopefully it's clear that was a Devil's Advocate kind of thing.

Christopher Rhodes said...

Suggesting any level of parity between groups persecuted under the Nazis and the plight of a public service in a modern democracy is potentially offensive and certainly indefensible.

There are problems with your analogy, leaving aside the obvious fact of the insurmountable differences between choices made by administrators when confronted by severely restrained funding and the systematic, organised removal of liberty and eventual homicide of cohorts of population based on their political affiliation, race or religion.

It is not the case that the same mechanism used to constrain the funding of public libraries will then begin to constrain other sectors. Some sectors might end up flourishing under current conditions. The fact that one sector undoubtedly appears to be suffering need not mean that others will suffer.

Your choice of comparison is made all the more peculiar by the content of your proposal. You make a series of important and interesting points, none of which has anything to do with the idea of utilitarian sacrifice which the “first they came for…” poem alludes to.

Your choice of title is a classic example of Goodwin's Law, and by implying a likeness between those you seek to argue against and the Nazis you substantially weaken your position.

Restrain from making hyperbolic inferences and you may succeed in attracting the support that your ideas deserve.

Simon Barron said...

What you've said is all true, Chris, and I can only apologise for not considering that and for any offense I may have caused.

It certainly wasn't my intention to make the title anything more than a memorable allusion and definitely not part of a major argument in the piece or an analogy. The point was simply that we need to speak out when others in our profession suffer: I wasn't suggesting any parity in levels of persecution. You mention the differences in mechanisms and funding between sectors affecting different libraries in different ways: this was something I hoped to conduct further research into.

Basically you're right: appealing to Nazi analogies is lazy rhetoric and it's certainly something to remember for my future writing. Thanks.