Reflexive Mirrors

Radical Librarians Collective: A narrative of #radliblon

pirates After several months of conversations about radical spaces in London, whether the same people should really be involved in organising an RLC event again (and the infamous conversations surrounding chairs, cups, cafetieres, coffee, tea, food and post-do pints), the day finally arrived. While listening to an appropriate soundtrack and reading the classic Tintin tale Breaking Free, I transgressed from the gritty, urbane squalor of Bath to the hallowed dreams of London town. To say that I was excited would be an understatement, so I’ll make it clear: I was really excited. It was only nine months since the last gathering of Radical Librarians in Bradford and there had been a tremendous swell of interest and mutual support stemming from that gathering. Through this, many new contacts made and some projects had emanated. However, our busy lives often get the better of our intentions, and days like these offer a real collective focus.

The day

After sellotaping Ellie’s inconsistently labelled, handwritten signs (a theme I can only imagine Ellie was picking up on from Ian’s inconsistent labelling of the whole event…) to the venue from Aldgate East, people started to drift in just in time for hot beverages. Anna’s stellar work of organising the Eventbrite stuff made it all seem pretty easy, which has come in handy for a number of reasons in the long run: Take note of what Anna does in the organisational flow, folks. The central pillar of organisation stands somewhere around that labour. And so, after a brief introduction from Andrew, the pitches were on…

Libraries as a feminist issue…

I was really pleased that the Adrienne’s Libraries as a feminist issue… pitch was supported. As soon as I had seen the pitch, I had identified it as essential session for radical approaches to libraries and librarianship, particularly in our present time. Without tackling the intersectional social power/privilege issues and focussing on the more economically-oriented issues (not that feminism is not related to economics: it is) Radical Librarians could be in danger of missing the fundamental point: Libraries and information work are social at their very root and can be seen to serve social and intellectual purposes.

The products of intellectual labour which we are often responsible for curating and managing occur as part of a social discourse, a grand conversation that involves a plethora of characters dispersed through time and space. For librarians to ignore the dialogical, social roots from their work would be, in my view, a huge problem.

Workplace issues were a large part of what was discussed in this arena, from attitudinal issues regarding women, their appearance and behaviour in libraries; the disparity between the proportion of women in libraries and the proportion of women in senior roles (particularly in the academic libraries as anecdotal evidence suggested that public libraries were less segregated in this regard); the impact of patriarchy on behaviour. All of these and more were discussed and it was refreshing to see a wide range of views, experiences and perspectives compassionately discuss issues that are, by their nature, highly charged and sensitive.

This conversation ultimately led into a discussion of why librarianship is seen as ‘feminine’. The ‘hobby job’ implication was discussed and rationale for lower pay too, and some some incredibly salient historical references as to the emergence of this dynamic, were being made, just as my mum rang, so I kinda missed that but knowing some of the characters that were sketching this history of ideas out, I imagine it was ace, on it and based on evidenced that has been largely written out, or simply forgotten about in library history. Oh for an oral history of libraries and their sociologies…

With recent examples of the “calling out” of macho behaviour in the LIS sphere, it was broadly agreed that calling out was a positive and liberating action. However, some attendees discussed how they had actually been disciplined for using such methods and as such, strategic caution may be required in order to protect the safety of not only the community of users, but also the individual making the intervention. Although the accountability should always lie with the perpetrators of bigoted behaviour, many of the structures that surround organisational cultures are built on patriarchal foundations. Following on from this was a wider discussion of the role of @everydaysexism and the success it has had on highlighting overt sexism in contemporary society.

I flagged up the possibility that although it has done amazing things in publicly voicing outrage at the bigoted behaviour, it had equally allowed the bigots to wallow in their actions and victim blame further insomuch as there was no structural means to take action further. Documentary evidence is incredibly important, but without a means to turn that into an action, I am unconvinced that it poses a challenge to the dominant patriarchy. However, not wanting to abuse my male privilege and mansplain it all away, I should probably shut up and get out of that conversation, to be honest.

Information as a commodity

Mirroring many societal practices outside of the library, the dominant praxes in current librarianship is oriented around systems. Our creation, utilisation of and reliance upon systems is, of course, nothing new. It is a key part of the organisation of information. However, why we do this has, I believe shifted. As the relationship between library users and libraries has become strained through the neoliberalisation of public services, libraries have started relating to their users as customers. This is not a mere semantic or linguistic shift, it is an ideological shift, the efficacy of which is to restructure the dynamic between the parties. Demands and expectations, targets and efficiencies, these are now mechanisms that structure library practices, orientation and purpose.

These themes were embedded in many of the sessions, undoubtedly in the Information as a commodity session. As Marx’s ideas of valorisation were discussed, Charles Oppenheim hit some nails on the head regarding the nature of information as a commodity, or rather that it is not.

If one owns or consumes a commodity, the remainder of the world is deprived of it, but this is not the case with information or knowledge. Of course, analogue media may limit distributed access, but only the media, not the knowledge, which is part of a social interaction. Digital media has circumvented that limitation of the codex, which is why the private interests of certain large publishers can rarely be seen as positive on the information and knowledge flows: Economics act as greater barriers to the products of intellectual labour reaching others and becoming dialogical. A declaration for librarians and information workers was shared for the community to sign up to. This would focus LIS practitioners to share their work freely, without the restrictions of paywalls. This document is now in progress and can be seen here.

This could mark a step forward in a voluntary association of information workers re-opening the founding work of open access and taking this back from the neoliberalised form of OA that has crept into policy within the last few years. If this process can then be driven into conversation with academics and acted upon when selecting materials to subscribe to (or not), or where to pay APCs to (or not) then it really could be the start of something invigorating for the profession.

Lack of critical theory in LIS?

I pitched the notion of a Lack of critical theory in LIS courses being problematic. This was largely but not unanimously agreed with. Some felt that the ‘practical’ skills taught were essential, and that there may not be space to remove these and put more things into a course. However, as I reiterated an embarrassing number of times, to me it just seems “weird” that there is little-to-no attention paid as to why to do things in library and information work, to the wider social impacts upon and from (i.e. ideological) the role of libraries and information within society.

Critical theory helps frame discourse in a socially challenging way. It supports interrogating roles, politics, structures, what is omitted and why, how things function, why these things are planned and organised. That to me is exactly why critical theory is central to LIS education. I cannot be at pains to re-emphasise: I do not see inserting or embedding critical theory into LIS courses as a panacea. The information workers and librarians educated in it will not thus be world-changing liberators or automatically be able to shift their employers’ operations to a more socially responsible idyll. I see critical theory in LIS as a means of creating a broader, more critically aware bedrock that understands the impacts of current trends like marketing rather than advocacy. It can help to frame the pedagogical rationale of library instruction, that information discovery is not mechanical but needs to be diallogically engaged in order to identify bias.

The “docile bodies” (I crowbarred that Foucauldian term into a sentence) of functionally disciplined, uncritical, passive practice offer the dominance of managerial powers a set of tools to merely action the demands that are made of them. With the level of training, experience and tuition that librarians are expected to have, that seems like a professional waste of potential. That said, I completely forgot to mention the whole issue of omitting critical discourse and the rise of a managerial caste.

There is a post war legacy of “managers” learning at Business Schools, and this is no accident. The rise and dominance of pseudo-science of practical managerialism and all its flaws now appears in full-effect in library and information work. As the data pools have swelled in libraries, as with every other public service following the model of corporate businesses, the lack of critical discourse has led to a new class of apparent futurist experts that are abstracted from a connection with library use, library users and the discourse of practice rather than number-crunching for decision making. As the corporate management caste “spun out of control when the traders and institutional investors constructed an environment cut off from the company entities where most people work and that make up their socio-economic reality” (Locke & Spender: 179), we have to ask where the socially abstracted, unreflexive, non-discoursal library and information practices take librarianship?

[Nota bene: If anyone has any questions about the session, please ask Lauren as she was/is far more on it than I was/ever will be. Lauren also knows what she is on about.]

The social part of Radical Librarians Collective

The real emphasis of the day, for me, was the social side of the politics. It always will be. I believe it is how communities work best. Ideas are great, demonstrable examples too, but really, it is about getting like minded people together and building a thriving community of challenge. Of course, challenging partriachy, power and management but also challenging one another. Challenging ourselves. Being self reflexive, retaining our autonomy and sharing the support of one another.

I have written a small wedge here, and this is probably enough for now, but I think you get the picture. Loads of stuff went on, there was a good atmosphere from all attendees, the vegan pizza was amazing, the samosas ruled and the folk at LARC were lovely. It was deeply productive and a privilege to be at. The next step is in our collective hands, and not just a handful of ‘organisers’. A collective action to do more locally was agreed, so get involved in a local RLC near you in the coming weeks! There will be a London/SE, SW, Yorkshire, I think heard a NW agreement, Scotland too… a list of contacts will emerge in your area. I urge you not to hesitate.

What may sound quite challenging is actually really fun.

This entry was published on May 15, 2014 at 6:53 pm. It’s filed under Radical Librarians Collective and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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