#Ausvotes 2013 and the Library and Information Agenda

On July 10th ALIA released The Library and Information Agenda, intended as a lobbying document for political parties and candidates running in the Federal election (announced yesterday as happening on 7 September). This document outlines ALIA’s vision for libraries and information in Australia over the next three years and asks candidates and parties nine questions. Or rather, in the fashion of these types of documents, it asks them to pledge support for ten goals, couched as nine questions.

I think ALIA has captured the aspirations of Australia’s librarians fairly well, as much as one can in such a disparate profession. This document does, however, raise some questions about ALIA and what exactly The Library and Information Agenda is trying to achieve. Continue reading

Technolust – the fifth column of the information counter-revolution

I’m going to start with a story about growing up in Tasmania in the 1990s.

The economy wasn’t great, with unemployment at around 11%, no economic growth to speak of and a high State debt. In these formative years, I was surrounded by both the defeatists and the hopelessly optimistic. Many said that the Tasmanian economy had no hope and had been on the downward slide since the end of Transportation. Others dreamed of the One Big Project that was going to save us all: the Mt Wellington cable car, the Oceanport cruiseship terminal, the enormous pulp and paper mill, the largest catamaran factory in the world.

The Oceanport company turned out to have $1 to its name, the catamaran company went bankrupt, the pulp mill dream ultimately saw a prominent businessman gaoled for bribery, a Premier resign in disgrace and the state’s largest company fall into receivership. The cable car dream quietly slinked away, only to return recently as the economy again started to go sour.

But in the intervening decade, Tasmania’s economy flourished. There was no One Big Project that achieved this. There were however lots of small projects. There was the ongoing success of the King Island Dairy. There were dozens and dozens of independent bed and breakfasts serving a growing tourist trade. There was the ever expanding Taste of Tasmania and Ten Days on the Island festivals. There were interstate expansions of home-grown beer and seafood brands Boags and Tassal. There was no one big project, just one big vision – a vision based on contested but broadly shared values of wholesome clean produce, pride in work and lack of pretention. Tasmanians still complain about their economy, but the improvement is obvious to someone like me who left 12 years ago.

Tasmania’s problem wasn’t a lack of big projects, funding or infrastructure.

It was a failure of self-belief. Continue reading

Not just an Academic question: Why Open Access matters for public libraries

I’ve been thinking about writing a post on Open Access for a while. The recent tragic death of Aaron Swartz seems like an appropriate time to do so.

I didn’t know a lot about Aaron Swartz before his death. I’d read about him ‘stealing’ millions of JSTOR articles, but hadn’t remembered his name. Now that I’ve read more about him, one thing has become clear: whilst Aaron Swartz will be remembered as a hacker, he should be considered a librarian hero. Continue reading

How do you measure the rate of mind expansion?

Gardening and the library

No, I’m not talking about weeding.

Anyone can plant some seeds and grow something – but the appetite for gardening advice in the form of books, TV shows, magazines, websites, clubs and nursery staff continues to grow just as surely as backyards shrink.  Imagine telling Peter Cundall or Monty Don that they should stop writing books, making TV shows and offering gardening advice, because anyone can grow plants and, you know, we’ve got mail-order seed companies and planting calendars.  The idea is absurd, yet this is precisely what happens when people say that we don’t need librarians because we have Google and ebooks.

The question and answer machine

Most people can read a book (or write one), or search a keyword or phrase on Google or Bing – but that doesn’t mean they’ll find what they really want – whether that’s the satisfaction of reading a book they really connect with or understanding the origins of Buddhism.  Librarians are connectors – helping our patrons to work out what it is that they actually want, and then assisting them to find it.  Those who see libraries as a pre-Google question and answer machine fail to grasp what it is that we do as librarians.  At their most basic, libraries can be this – someone comes in wanting to know the capital of Belize and leaves knowing that it is Belmopan and not Belize City.  But what if they wanted to understand Belize’s place in the relationship between Enclosure in England, the French Revolution and the United Fruit Company?  Or what if they don’t know they want to know about Belize?  What if the question is whether any countries other than the UK have God save the Queen as their national anthem?  Or they’re an orchid obsessive?  Or they just want to find some South American novels originally written in English?

A lifetime of Warhammer books

You could find an answer of sorts to all of these questions fairly quickly using a search engine.  A really good librarian however, can introduce you to things you (and indeed, they) never would have thought to connect to what you thought you were asking about.  When you think about it like this, libraries aren’t really about answering questions – they’re about expanding minds.

This is why the long, slow decline of Teacher Librarianship is so worrying.  (There may be some hope that this is finally being recognised – the winner of the inaugural Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership award for Primary Teacher of the Year was won by Jo Sherrin, a teacher-librarian). I’ve written about school libraries in the past, but even more important than the library is the librarian.  The high school librarian who introduced me to George Orwell’s 1984 did so because she recognised that it was the right book for me to read at the time.  It opened up a whole new world of literature to me, leading now just to Orwell’s other works (Animal Farm and more profoundly for me, Down and out in Paris and London) but thence on to Camus and others.  I was saved from a lifetime of Warhammer books by that one conversation.

Getting kids to read more interesting and challenging books is valuable in itself, but the effect is far more profound than that.  A variety of reading material, and a nudge towards quality writing, leads to broader thinking and exposure to new ideas.  It makes people more creative, and more empathetic.  There’s evidence that it also makes people healthier.  None of these are direct results – in fact, the benefits are very unlikely to come if they are the reason for reading.  If someone reads a novel because she thinks it will make her a better person, the effect will probably be lost.  Think about the difference between a kid reading a school reader because that’s the number they are up to, and the look on their face then they are deep in Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh, or Specky Magee and the boots of glory.

Obliquity

This is what John Kay refers to as obliquity, in the book of the same name.  Some goals can only be achieve indirectly – the generic gains from reading for pleasure are exactly this type of goal.  So libraries are about expanding minds, but they only work if this is done indirectly.  We don’t hold talks called ‘how to stop being a racist bigot’ – instead, we hold book talks where we introduce readers to novels based on characters they might not normally empathise with if they met them in the flesh.  We don’t hold lectures on the dangers of Facism or Communism, but we do stock Schindlers ark and The gulag archipelago.

This sort of role requires nuance, tact and above all, continuous professional development.  It’s not good enough to be an expert on crime novels or Scandinavian history.  Librarians need to be able to do more than just find the right subject heading or know their Dewey numbers.  This is why programs like ALIA’s ‘Certified Practitioner’ accreditation are so important.  I am hopeful that this will soon become a requirement for librarians to gain and keep employment, rather than simply an interesting addition.

Measuring the rate of mind expansion

The other challenge we face, more than just the need for continuous development of skills and ideas, is the need to measure what we do.  This applies equally to special, academic, school and public libraries, but may end up being hardest for public libraries, as they are expected to do such a wide range of things.  If the effect libraries have is oblique, how on earth are we to measure how effective we are?  If our job is defined as lending books, then the measure of success is easy – how many items did you loan, and how many times?  But when more books and other services are delivered electronically and our role becomes more that of a ‘culture broker’, how do we measure it?  How do you justify your job to a skeptical finance committee when you can’t directly measure the effect?  You can’t very well present a chart with the rate of mind expansion in the suburb and how much is due to the library.  How do you measure rates of empathy and intellectual ferment?  And if you can’t, what measures can be used to determine how effectively libraries are doing their job?

I don’t really have any answers in this post, just questions.  I welcome any ideas in the comments – this is something we’ll all be grappling with soon enough.

Bad language

In the comments of my last post on whether  libraries should take on some of the role local newspapers have traditionally played, David asked whether the quality of the service libraries offer is in danger from the partisan views of their librarians.

It’s a fair question, but not really a new one.  The dangers of partisan influence on the provision of information have been well understood for centuries – whether it’s the Westminster tradition of a public service that provides ‘frank and fearless’ advice to Ministers, or the Australian Library & Information Association’s Statement on Free Access to Information. The International Federation of Library Associations & Institutions considers it such an important matter they have formed a standing Committee to consider freedom of access and expression.

Whilst acknowledging that it is difficult for any human to remain entirely objective, I would argue that, as in many contexts, the biggest danger of bias or suppression of information in libraries comes from outside sources.  The well-known recent example in the US of attempts to withdraw And Tango makes three from library shelves saw the American Library Association pitted yet again against parents and school boards seeking a monopoly on the concepts and stories their children experience.

This week came an even more obnoxious example, with the news that the Borough of Newham, one of London’s most culturally diverse areas, have decided to remove all foreign-language newspapers from their public libraries.  The reason?

Sir Robin Wales, elected Mayor of Newham… said removing the papers would “encourage people to speak and learn English”.

I cannot imagine any librarian worthy of the name deliberately removing material from a library on the basis that their patrons should be forced to read in another language.  This is the sort of thing that is only done by politicians – the sort of thing that happened in the Balkans in the 1990s, or is happening in Tibet under Chinese rule.  Arguing that there is a systematic bias in favour of ‘black armband history’ in Australia, or that American libraries have too much material that ‘promotes’ homosexuality is one thing.  These are arguments over what a particular society’s cultural norms and sense of itself should be – what is commonly referred to as ‘culture wars’, but is really just politics without the obsession over liberal economics.

Deliberately reducing access to information and recreational reading material written in a language with which many of your citizens grew up and are most comfortable is not cultural warfare.  It is cultural genocide.