Thursday, 31 March 2011

Libraries, bias, and the BBC

Yesterday morning, author Zadie Smith appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme delivering a speech about the value of public libraries. By the afternoon, The Telegraph had published an article criticising the BBC for showing bias: the critics include an anonymous Twitter user, an anonymous BBC insider, and the TaxPayers’ Alliance. The BBC is accused of allowing Ms. Smith’s comments to become a “party political broadcast” (The Telegraph presents this quote without attribution). I’d like to argue that the accusations of bias reveal more about the political motivations of the accusers than the BBC and that because of this they are ultimately self-defeating.

Libraries are not a central Government issue. As one of The Telegraph’s bloggers points out (after the main article, The Telegraph published two blog posts about Zadie Smith’s library speech), closure of libraries is an issue for local government rather than central Government. Library advocates are challenging Conservative-run councils and Labour-run councils: if, four years ago, the Labour Party had presided over library closures, Voices for the Library would have been set up four years ago. Library activists are not in opposition to the Government or any political party: they are in opposition to anyone who would close functional library services. Criticism of the Government was not the core of Zadie Smith’s message and although it is true that she made a mistake in equating central Government with library closures, the critics make a bigger mistake in going along with this equation.

By labelling the speech as a “party political broadcast”, the critics conflate ‘closure of libraries’ with ‘the Coalition Government’. Some comments on the Telegraph article go as far as to say it represented a bias not only away from the Conservatives but a bias towards Labour. Libraries are not party political: there is no party that included the closure of libraries in its manifesto. The accusations of political bias therefore implicitly establish the Conservative Party as anti-libraries and the Labour Party as pro-libraries: this is a position that I’m sure the Conservative Party would be publicly keen to reject or at least distance themselves from.

Since libraries are neither an issue for the Cabinet nor a party political issue, there is no political bias in broadcasting a defence of them. The BBC also broadcasts defenders of other institutions and beliefs: these are permitted because they are not party political issues. Brian Cox can discuss science for an hour because the issue is not party political. The same is true of libraries and the implication that a pro-library speech is necessarily anti-Coalition is a dangerous precedent.

I have argued that a pro-library position shows no political bias and that the allegations of the TaxPayers’ Alliance et al are unfounded. However it is possible to ignore the apolitical pro-library core of Zadie Smith’s message and to believe that her surface accusations against the Big Society were motivated by political belief. In this case her comments would have been biased but the BBC almost immediately corrected this by broadcasting Shaun Bailey’s anti-library comments defending the Big Society concept. Shaun Bailey’s comments have attracted less popular support or commentary because of the mistakes involved: he based his argument on library statistics and didn’t present any actual figures; he mistakenly argued that library usage is in decline; he falsely implied both that ‘everyone has the Internet’ and ‘everything is available on the Internet’. Shaun Bailey argued – quite rightly – that library closures are a council decision and that in the case of well-used library services, councils would be loath to close them because of the political backlash: his mistake here is ignoring the obvious political backlash that has accompanied closure announcements – including Save Libraries Day, petitions attracting thousands of signatures, and a march for public services which over half a million people attended. Despite this backlash, councils such as Gloucestershire are continuing with library closures thus demonstrating that the Big society, intended to give power to local communities, is incompatible with local authority funding cuts which are taking power away from local communities.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Librarians and the March for the Alternative

This coming Saturday (26th March), I will be going to London to take part in the March for the Alternative.

There are hundreds of reasons to march: because you don't approve of the economic policies of the Coalition Government; because you value Britain's public services and don't want to see them destroyed; because you believe in affordable university education, the arts, public libraries, the NHS, council services, public toilets, or the other things that make this country work. Polly Toynbee gives the reasons more eloquently in her Guardian column here.

I am marching because I believe we need to draw the line here. As citizens, it is our duty to inform the Government when they are doing things that we do not want them to do. The Government is passing through policies which were not in either party's manifesto. The Government has received no public mandate to enact these cuts and destroy institutions that the public values. The poor are suffering - or will soon be suffering - disproportionately and I believe that promises of 'fairness' should be kept. The Government works for us and we need to make sure that this fact is never, ever forgot.

I intend to meet some friends down there and I know that lots of librarians – based in London and travelling in from around the UK – will be there. If anyone is interested in meeting and marching together, I will be meeting people below Cleopatra’s Needle on Victoria Embankment from about 1030. The march begins at 1100 and the staging point is only a short walk away. Hopefully it won't be too crowded there but watch out for my tweets on the day just in case. It is my hope that I will be able to meet some of the great people I've previously only talked to online and that together we can stand as a Coalition of Librarians.

See you there

Monday, 21 March 2011

The National Digital Library - a personal quartet

This month I’m honoured to be featured in CILIP Update with an article arguing that the UK needs to develop a National Digital Library. My thanks go to the editor, Elspeth Hyams, for accepting the piece. 

I’ve been fascinated by digital libraries since I entered the field of librarianship. During my Masters degree, I volunteered in a cataloguing role at e-space, Manchester Metropolitan’s online digital repository. I went on to write my dissertation on the subject of developing a supremely large-scale digital library: a concept I referred to as the ‘Memex Digital Library’ but which I discovered already existed as the concept of a National Digital Library – a term I came across after reading Robert Darnton’s New York Review of Books article after dissertation hand-in.

NDL as Total Library

The attraction of the National Digital Library concept is that we now have the technology to create what was previously only an ideal: the Total Library. The Total Library would be a record of all human knowledge: collecting every record of human thought and creativity; establishing the connections between books, articles, and miscellanea; providing every person with the same access to the universal pool of collective thought; a way to turn the Platonic realm of ideas into reality. The Library of Alexandria – though not total even by the standards of the time – has come to embody this ideal. Today our strongest physical contenders are the legal deposit libraries like the British Library or Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. 

But physical libraries are inherently limited in their scope. In 1933, Vannevar Bush wrote:

The library, to which our professor probably turned, was enormous. Long banks of shelves contained tons of books, and yet it was supposed to be a working library and not a museum. He had to pore over cards, thumb pages, and delve by the hour. It was time-wasting and exasperating indeed… The idea that one might have the contents of a thousand volumes located in a couple of cubic feet in a desk, so that by depressing a few keys one could have a given paper instantly projected before him, was regarded as the wildest sort of fancy.

Bush's vision of the Memex

Bush went on to work on this analog precursor to the digital library and is one of several people in the 20th Century to have fallen short of the ideal because of the technical limitations of the time. Bush attempted to create the Memex: a device which would store and, crucially, link together all human records. Through this, he aimed to solve the problem of the “growing mountain of research results” which faces the cross-disciplinary academic researcher. Paul Otlet also strived towards the Total Library with his creation of the Mundaneum: a library/museum which would contain everything with no arbitrary limits on its collections. I studied both Otlet and Bush as part of my dissertation research and in May I will be giving a short presentation on Otlet’s Mundaneum at the CILIP Library and Information History Group Conference in London

Now we actually have the technology for developing a National Digital Library which could come closer than ever to the Total Library ideal. Digital storage, tools for creating connections, widespread access to electronic materials, and usable interfaces are common and given time, money, and resources, it is possible to create a digital repository of every textual artefact in the country. 

NDL as map

The rhizome: an analogue for the web of human knowledge
My dissertation research consisted of two parts: a survey of library folk which showed that people are generally amenable to the idea and a vast majority foresee supremely large-scale digital libraries developing in the next 10-15 years; and a feature analysis which showed that the technology and features required for a NDL are available. I focused particularly on semantic digital libraries, Google Books, and the work of Mimas: their work with Autonomy software to make connections between items and their work on visualising these connections (check out the 3D interactive visualisation feature of UK Institutional Repository Search and imagine it on a larger scale providing a visualisation of every document in the UK: a perfect map of human knowledge; a visualisation of the Platonic Heaven.

NDL as Ark

There’s a metaphor that I’m regularly coming across in my reading: the library as an Ark. Lloyd E. Cotsen, benefactor of Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library refers to the collection as an Ark. In a 1938 pamphlet for the Mundaneum, Otlet wrote: 

And now falls the deluge: wars, crises, revolutions. Men are torn from their great temple as it is itself torn from the soil in which lay its foundations. To save what is essential from it, an ark is necessary, the Navis Mundaneum.

The Ark is a striking but pessimistic metaphor. Although it evokes the completeness – the ‘totalness’ – of ‘two of every living thing’, it also implies protection from danger and isolationism. I’m not fond of it but the metaphor is disturbingly apt: at a time when we actually have the technology for the National Digital Library, the UK is shutting libraries and reducing funding to arts and humanities projects. This is partly why I campaign for public libraries as part of Voices for the Library

As I explain in the Update article, information is in danger of being lost forever. The National Digital Library would be a noble endeavour at any time but especially now when we seemingly need an Ark to duplicate and digitally preserve the artefacts of human knowledge.

NDL as dream

Unlike the scholars of Alexandria, unlike Bush, unlike Otlet, we can make the Total Library: to make our information accessible and usable in fantastic new ways, to protect it from destruction, and to present it for the education of all humanity. The dream of the National Digital Library resonates with me more deeply than any other idea I’ve ever come across: partly for its logical completeness and partly because I believe it would solve the problem I studied in my undergraduate dissertation (that’s another story for another time). For me, the idea represents – in the words of Leonard Cohen – “the course from chaos to art”: from the disorder of the panoply of books to the art of absolute rhizomatic connection. I would love to spend my career conducting further research into digital libraries or to work in digital libraries, cataloguing, or academic collection management. Until I can do that, I will keep arguing and promoting the NDL idea in the hope of reaching someone, somewhere, with the power and the resources to make it happen.

The NDL can provide a map of the labyrinth

Friday, 18 March 2011

On the value of Twitter

Last Thursday (March 10th) was my one year Twitterversary. I have been active on Twitter for a whole year and, though I could wax lyrical about its professional benefits and its importance as a medium, I have a short analogy for those who would say that Twitter is a waste of time.

A book is a waste of time. If all you do is look at the cover, a book is a complete waste of time. But if you open it up, if you read the words and discover the meanings, if you take notes and engage with the ideas, if you grow to feel for the characters and the people inside, if you involve yourself in the palace of words inside it, then there isn’t a book on Earth that is a waste of time. 

With Twitter – like a book – the more you give, the more you get.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The psychology of books

Books can be viewed as ‘objects’ or as ‘containers’. The first viewpoint sees books primarily as physical artefacts: objects that should be preserved and made available. The second claims that the physicality of books is incidental: that their main purpose is to be containers of information. This means that ebooks – a book without a physical component – are just as effective in this purpose. These represent two extremes on a spectrum and so the possibility is not excluded that one may appreciate the beauty of books while also believing that their primary purpose is to provide information.

The position that a person occupies on this book-value spectrum determines their behaviour towards books. I’ll illustrate this with an anecdote from work. 

The original Alice's Adventures Underground. A very beautiful book.

Last week, my library launched a book sale: partially to coincide with World Book Day and mostly because we had excess stock. After announcing the sale via email and a poster campaign, we immediately had an influx of users who only came in to look at the book sale and buy books. This included people who regularly use the library, people who don’t come in often, and – most interestingly – people who had never used the library before. I found it fascinating that people were so eager to buy old books even when surrounded by newer books that they could borrow for free (with no late fees). Buying a book seemed to have more value for some of these people than borrowing a book.

Librarians buy books and librarians cherish books. But in my experience, librarians also tend to be heavy library users. Personally, I find that borrowing a book has the same value as buying a book. Before I resort to buying a book, I will search the libraries of which I am a member. I will check to see if I can get the information or entertainment required for free before I’m willing to pay for it and – except in limited cases – I would rather borrow a book than buy it. 

So on the one hand, we have people who would rather buy books than borrow them. On the other, we have people (including many librarians) who would rather borrow a book than buy it. These behaviours in relation to books seem to link to the values expressed at the beginning of this post: those who would rather buy a book view books as objects – artefacts to be owned and kept – whereas those who would rather borrow a book view them as containers of information – once the information/entertainment has been gained, the book can be passed on or shared with others from a central repository. 

Part of the remit of librarians is therefore to change people’s psychology about books to change their behaviour towards books. If we move people from the ‘object’ end of the spectrum to the ‘container’ end, we thus encourage them to view libraries as repositories of information / knowledge / entertainment-experiences rather than repositories of physical books. This psychological shift is being helped by the rise of ebooks and digital commodities: these are ‘container’ mediums which exist for the purpose of passing along information. As someone who believes that librarians are the custodians of knowledge rather than the custodians of books, I would argue that this is a way libraries can evolve and survive in the long-term (50+ years). 

This leads into the topic of the role of libraries in the 21st Century: more has been written about this than I can encapsulate in a blog post. There are some great pieces on this topic: a Tame The Web post by Justin Hoenke, a The Unlibrary post by Chris Meade, and Phil Bradley’s  seminal piece on the subject of librarians and booksellers.