Community, Advocacy and Freedom: CILIP 2015 Conference Report

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Spotted in the floor tiles in St George’s Hall

Last week I attend the CILIP 2015 Conference in St George’s Hall, Liverpool (2-3 July). This was a magnificent venue where references to justice and knowledge were literally built into the walls and the floor.

This was my first CILIP conference and I was keen to take advantage of discounted registration for students to hear about the profession from a range of current practitioners to complement by Masters study at #citylis (City University, London).

The conference programme featured a number of keynote presentations from a variety of speakers, many of whom were not library or information professionals but added their perspectives to ours. This was complemented by breakout sessions that covered:

  • Information management: building success
  • Information literacy and digital inclusion
  • Demonstrating value: what’s your impact?
  • Digital futures and technology

along with a track of Fringe events that included Q&A sessions with keynote speakers and an opportunity join in hack sessions with exhibitors like the Ideas Box.

It’s not nice to be a librarian … it’s AWESOME to be a librarian … we do important things … throughout history we have done powerful things for human kind … librarians have that power – R. David Lankes

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Librarians: changing the world since 2000BC

The conference received a rousing start from R. David Lankes on the position and potential of librarians and was concluded by a presidential address from Jan Parry on the importance of critically reviewing ourselves and our services, before other people do, if we are to make a good impression. These talks extolled the power and professionalism of librarianship, neatly bookending proceedings, and instilled a feeling of optimism.

In between I attended every keynote and spent most of my breakout sessions in the Digital Futures and Technology track. These sessions were held in the unusual setting of the Civil Court, a 19th century courtroom with wooden benches and ink wells and talks delivered from the witness stand. Many people will have sat in this courtroom listening and arguing and now it heard today’s advocates on the subject of “wicked problems”, research data management, user experience, access management and linked open bibliographic data.

My only detour from this track was towards the end of the conference I couldn’t resist the Delivering Value session featuring the British Library and Wigan Library Service as I thought this juxtaposition would offer a truly macroscopic view of librarianship in in the UK. I was rewarded with a frankly inspiring hour that soared from the British Library’s Living Knowledge project envisioning how to stay at the forefront of All the World’s Knowledge and embed it across the UK to how a local library service has placed itself at the centre of Wigan’s community and the promises that make up The Deal, the council’s pact with the people who elect it.

I took notes on each session I attended and links to these are available in the session notes section below. Rather than describe each session again in detail I want to draw together my thoughts and reflect on three themes that I kept hearing again and again across the conference: community, advocacy and freedom.

Community

People were the pulsing, beating heart of a conference that celebrated both the community of librarians represented and the communities they serve. Again started by Lankes he urged us to speak more about librarians when defining libraries:

A mandated and mediated space (virtual and/or physical) owned by the community, stewarded by librarians, and dedicated to knowledge creation.

Time and time again speakers provided examples of how these spaces help create and connect vibrant communities (as in the above examples of the much admired Liverpool Central Library). Libraries may be changing but they aren’t dead and never will be as long as there are people in the world who want to learn and to be informed.

This becomes even more urgently evident during times of crisis as in Ferguson and Baltimore when libraries provided citizens with safe spaces. Another example was provided by Barbara Schack of Bibliotheques Sans Frontieres / Libraries Without Borders who talked about the Ideas Box. This is a media centre than can be transported anywhere in the world within an hour. It contains technology, content and materials that trained facilitators can use in crisis struck communities to enable people to come together, opening the boxes and creating a space where they can be human again escaping the crisis that surrounds them and contributing their information, knowledge and creativity to healing their society and their culture.

Erwin James also spoke about how books changed the way he thought about life. Prison enabled his immediate physical needs to be met fully for the first time in his life but again it was reading that enabled him to become human: to find a way to participate in society through culture. He spoke of how a single story brought wonder into his world and gave him the ambition to find “a good way to live”. He began to read, then write, then learn. Prison was for him a community resource that brought him peace, optimism and hope.

Libraries are refuges but they don’t just make communities when times are tough they co-create communities every day in small ways for all citizens. They use knowledge exchange and creation as social acts of conversation. As Lankes says “we bridge ideas into our environments”. We help people learn whether that is for their hobby, for work, for pure joy and wonder, of democracy. Librarians are people who collect resources and provide guidance that help people to learn and these resources increasingly cover digital and material technologies, such as those used in maker spaces, as well as books.

Libraries embody their communities: the people who provide and the people use them. Libraries are inherently political: they are by and of the people. Our job is to make them for everyone and defend them in a tough world.

This is not easy. Librarians, like others, are faced by “wicked problems”. Andrew Cox described these are complex, unfamiliar, stressful situations where the way forward isn’t clear. The problem is linked to other problems, there are numerous intervention points and numerous constrains and it is not clear that the situation is “solvable” by any one group. Cox used the example of Research Data Management (RDM) as an area lacking in information, agreement and relying on too many assumptions. Navigating these complex issues requires flexibility, enterprise, collaboration and courage and we must move forward with positive deviance, constructive dissent, empathy and collective intelligence. Most of all be a community of fate who stand together, but not a fatalist community: crisis narrative does us no favours.

Advocacy

We do not live in a neutral world and so we have advocacy: the practice of influencing decisions and changing society. Doubt is an interesting episode of The Good Wife about advocacy and using evidence not just establish the truth of things but to make that truth sing louder than any alternative.

“The problem is it’s not a good story, it’s just a freak accident, there are no villains.”

“But if it’s true?”

“But it doesn’t sound true. The prosecution’s story sounds like the truth.”

Doubt depicts informed democracy in action as a jury deliberates a seemingly open and shut case. As the episode unfolds small sections of the case are revealed in flashback fragmenting the picture and revealing competing versions of the truth. It also argues presenting the most factual version of events is not enough especially as the truth doesn’t always sound true in the face of competing narratives that offer better stories. At the end of the story the jury don’t have reasonable doubt, they have “reasonable ignorance”.

CILIP 2015 was also a story about advocacy. Many times throughout the conference, sessions urged us not to leave the senior managers and politicians who make decisions about library services in “reasonable ignorance” about the work librarians do and the value this brings to the communities they serve. Cory Doctorow told us obscurity can be dangerous and damaging.

In competitive and constrained times we cannot assume that the value of the services we deliver and love is self-evident to those who make decisions that govern the existence of those services.

Hence, the video Wigan Library Services created that summarised their contribution to their communities and council goals just over 5 minutes. The music and imagery helps transform statistics into a more powerful and eye catching narrative. It was placed in front of their chief executive and has now been seen by the entire senior management team.

We also cannot assume that times will get easier: we will always be in competition with something and there will always be challenges to face. There was some disagreement, however, on what we are competing with. Ken Chad identified choice as a key competitive forces with Google, Amazon and electronic subscription libraries like Epic! (for children) and Safari (for professionals) providing alternative library services target at specific groups.

R. David Lankes held a different view arguing that Amazon, Apple and Google are not in the advertising and consumer goods business, not the information business. His position is that libraries are in competition with the other services competing for the same public resources. Stuart Hamilton offered some suggestions on where this competition may come from. IFLA have been a partner in the development of a new set of UN Sustainable Development Goals and there will shortly be a UK Sustainable Development Plan. Demonstrating how you help the UK meet these goals will increasingly justify the funding and relevance of libraries in the post-2015 information environment. For non-public libraries your organisation’s strategy provides a similar guide to relevance.

All arguments are not created equal and we heard from Full Fact about their work as independent fact checkers sifting out information you can rely on from the misinformation. They check claims made in political arguments so we are not forced to choose between “blind faith and blind cynicism” in public discourse. Their experience showed that expertise matters and it’s possible to make fact checking systematic and impartial. Again their message was that doing their work, even communicating their work was not enough. Their third team is their monitoring team. Communication enables expertise to be vocal but monitoring of trends and issues enables it to have relevance. As information expands, attention decreases.

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Quotations on the wall in Liverpool Central Library

Whilst we must tell our story it must appropriate the language and aspirations of those we are addressing in order to be heard. For libraries to survive amidst this cacophony of competing commercial and public forces our stories don’t just have to be good, they also have to be targeted and relevant. For all the new technologies and trends we need to matter, communication and making a persuasive case are still crucial core skills.

The sum of these arguments is to suggest that librarians need to turn up, be present, go to meetings, and should be more assertive in owning the narrative around what they do and more ready to engage in the selling of that narrative to others.

We have to fill the narrative vacuum around the profession with the vibrancy, vitality and variety of ways communities use libraries. This will enable us to dismiss lazy assumptions, demonstrate value and go beyond measuring access to information towards explaining the impact that access, and its removal, has on our communities in order to ensure the “integrity, preservation and provision” of information as demanded in the Lyon Declaration.

Freedom

If some narratives can be reconciled, then others must be resisted and the erosion of civil liberties is one of them. The conference underlined our profession’s commitment to:

  • learning
  • openness
  • intellectual freedom and safety

but also noted that sometimes these clash and striking the right balance is difficult. In particular tension is encouraging access and openness whilst ensuring privacy and respecting creativity.

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Liberty is campaigning to save the Human Rights Act

Cory Doctorow talked about the unintended consequences of Digital Rights Management (DRM). As a security process this has done nothing to prevent piracy but prevents us exposing and fixing vulnerabilities in software. It has crippled creativity and criminalised scrutiny and eroded the negotiating power of artists without doing anything to protect digital rights.

Shami Chakrabarti moved the discussion to the broader context of universal human rights and how the political and ethical debate is lagging behind advances in technology. Even as we want to be free it is important to that freedom not to totally abandon privacy. At the very least there should be public debate on the ethics of surveilling entire populations because of the dangerous acts of a few.

Open data promises to provide people with greater freedom of information, but it also threatens ever-deepening surveillance. The amount of data held in our smartphones is significant, even scary. These devices empower and enable daily but they also have the potential to be compromised and used as “digital pathogens” against us. Using this data ethically and appropriately and participating in debates about who should be able to scrutinise these data and devices relies on literacy. Expanding our literacy to encompass big data is a challenge for librarians not just citizens and Virginia Power talked about the increasing demand for digital preservation, information governance and statistical and analytical skills along with some handy resources to provide support if “this data world is scaring you witless”.

In many respects the arguments about freedom were not about being able to do or say anything but being able to fairly and openly scrutinise the systems in which we exist and that govern us: whether these be political systems or software. Freedom will never be absolute but will be constrained and qualified but our freedom is certainly curtailed when we are not able to subject the actions of others to scrutiny or we are excluded from debates.

A functioning democracy needs to be an informed democracy: we need open, reliable and relevant evidence, persuasive advocates and literacy if we are to sustain our ability and our right to make sense of our society, invent and innovate, change the world, be human and be free.

This means, more than ever, we need librarians.

Session Notes