Monday, 27 June 2011

Thing 3 - Personal branding

Thing 3 for CPD23 is about personal branding. Nowadays it seems like everyone is selling themselves individually: the job market is such that few people feel tied to organisations beyond their contractual obligations and so are ‘working for themselves’ even when in a nice full-time job role.

Jo’s post about Thing 3 uses the word ‘profersonal’ which is the perfect word that I never knew to describe my approach to my Web persona. I’ve never been particularly concerned with ‘hiding’ aspects of my life or my personality so in general I’m very open on this blog, on Twitter, and in person. There are some restrictions imposed by my job which is why I usually tweet and blog about library advocacy and digital libraries rather than military librarianship. The personality I project through these various mediums is probably a melange of the personal and the professional: this may be because I see no distinction and of course sometimes worry that libraries have taken over my whole life!

Delivering a workshop to eager new professionals.
One of the tasks for Thing 3 is to Google yourself and, I’ll be honest, I’ve done this before. I’m somewhat proud of how I’ve pushed myself up the Google rankings over the past year and personally it provides a tangible record that I am achieving something sitting in front of the computer for hours: my Dad may not ‘get’ personal branding and social networking and stuff but being the top Google result for my name is something he can understand and point to as an achievement of his son. Primarily thanks to The Guardian, the first 5 results for ‘simon barron’ are me and 6 out of the 10 results on the first page are me. I’m a little disappointed that my blog is the 20th result: I see it as a hub of my online presence and so wish it were a little higher. The answer may be to change the name or at least the tagline, both of which I’ve stubbornly refused to do in the past.

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to extend my personal brand. I’ve been very jealous of Lauren Smith’s unique visual style that she extends to her work: the olde-timey cartoon bookshelves that form the background of her blog which she uses in a load of other ways in her various projects (she's written about this visual style here). My blog doesn’t have much of a visual style (it’s purposefully minimal) but lately I have been using the cloudy-blotchy-grey background as headers and footers on conference proposals and cover letters. It’s a start but I really need to work on some graphic that represents me (see Jo Alcock’s penguin, Ned Potter’s wiki-man logo). I was also impressed with Katie Birkwood’s redesign of her blog and I’d like to add some ‘about’-type pages to my own at some point.

As a start, I’ve changed the picture on the left of this blog and on my LinkedIn profile using one of the excellent pictures from Sarah Ison’s photos of the New Professionals Conference. This exercise has made me realise that aside from my name and the whole XIX thing, there’s nothing much that is memorable about my online presence and this is something I clearly need to work on.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

What does 'professional' mean?: CILIP New Professionals Conference 2011

On Monday I attended the CILIP Career Development Group New Professionals Conference in Manchester. The theme was ‘Professionalism and Activism in a Time of Downturn’. With so many threats to the library and information profession at the moment, it’s important that information workers build on the qualities that make us valuable: among these, professionalism and the enthusiasm to get active. Having met so many professional and enthusiastic library folk at the conference, I believe we’ll be able to face whatever future lies ahead for the profession.

For me, the conference tackled the mysterious word ‘professionalism’. What is ‘professionalism’? What does it mean to call oneself a library and information professional? Who are ‘new’ professionals? Do these distinctions mean anything to people outside the library community – outside the echo chamber?

People within the profession tend to use the term ‘librarian’ exclusively for people in a professional post or who have The Qualification. When I’ve discussed this issue with people in the past, it’s always been my view that ‘librarian’ is just a label and I tend to apply it to anyone who works in a library or information context. This is partly because I think this is how users see library staff and because I think that having specific and esoteric labels for ourselves can appear alienating to users and others outside of the profession. Sam Wiggins and Laura Williams tackled this issue in their presentation about people’s perceptions of what makes an information professional. I was pleased by their conclusion: that being a professional is mostly a matter of attitude. Professionalism is in one’s conduct, is in getting involved with libraries and librarianship, is in how one stands in relation to the rest of the profession, and is in holding to an ethical code. In the words of Batman, “it’s what you do that defines you” rather than what qualifications, experience, or labels you have. 

This definition of ‘professional’ works both ways: someone without The Qualification can be a professional and equally someone with The Qualification in a ‘librarian’ post might not be a ‘professional’. Some people – including myself – can get complacent once they’ve qualified and got a ‘professional post’. Part of the professional attitude of a librarian is the continual development of skills and knowledge: this can be done in the workplace as demonstrated by the outreach projects in Katie Birkwood and Naomi Herbert’s award-winning presentation; as part of university studies as discussed in Ka-Ming Pang and Jo Norwood’s presentation; or outside work through the kind of volunteer activism that Alice Halsey and I discussed in our workshop. 

The conference also provided a handy way for me to work on my CPD. Helen Murphy gave a presentation on the 23 Things for Professional Development project. I’d heard of CPD23 and thought it was a great thing for people to get involved in but, rather arrogantly, I’d not considered that I needed it. The conference taught me that professionalism isn’t about resting on my laurels: it’s about working to continually develop myself and build up my skills/knowledge. Helen told us that we don’t have to do this in work: we can do it outside an organisation in the informal structure of CPD23. So hopefully it isn’t breaking the rules to make this my Thing One blog post

Developing yourself is only one part of professionalism though: being a professional means being part of a community and accepting responsibilities beyond yourself. Conferences are always fantastic for meeting new people and it was great to meet so many tweeters and other library folk. Isolation is something I feel acutely in a small military library surrounded by people with completely different cultural frames of reference (my casual references to pop culture are wasted!). As I mentioned in our workshop, being part of the Voices for the Library team has been really important for keeping me connected to other librarians and, in all likelihood, to prevent me from burning out on my own. This was touched upon in Megan Wiley’s presentation on librarians in careers services and the issue of communities in LIS was a major part of Rachel Bickley’s presentation on encouraging dialogue between new professionals and experienced professionals. Rachel talked about crossing the boundaries of technology and experience to bring these two communities together. She also raised the very real concern that new professionals can be cliquey. It worries me that people might see the new professionals on Twitter or in LISNPN as ‘exclusive’ and ‘insular’ and it presents a concern for the professionalism of the community: Michael Cook has written about this here.

As Alice Halsey and I discussed in our workshop about activism for new professionals, professionalism doesn’t have to be confined to the workplace or the classroom. We discussed how and why library and information workers should get involved in advocating libraries and actively campaigning for them. We owe big thanks to our wonderful enthusiastic workshop participants and to the organisers for asking us to come and for bringing everything together. Copies of the guides to library campaigning that we gave out can be found here and here and if anyone has any questions about getting involved or wants to help out, please contact us or anyone at Voices for the Library

In a time of downturn, professionals stick together. Through events like Monday’s, we come together, we help one another, and we all leave as better people.

What other people thought

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

On the polarising of debate

Yesterday morning, I was on BBC Radio York as part of the ongoing debate about North Yorkshire’s library service (which debate, in short, involves a new report whereby the mobile libraries and eight library buildings are under threat). For the first time, I wasn’t interviewed alone. I was alongside another guest, Conservative councillor Chris Metcalfe, the Executive Member for library services. It was a engineered situation with two people who hold polarised opinions on an issue discussing that issue and in the situation I felt a certain internal pressure to conform to radio/TV debates that I’ve heard/seen in the past: I should take a contrary position to Cllr. Metcalfe’s answers, I should interrupt to ‘come back on that last point’. I felt like I had to act as I expect others to act in that kind of media debate situation. Despite feeling that I should be conforming to a stereotype, I sat quietly and spoke only when I was questioned: I’m always happy to speak for libraries but I don’t think I played the part of ‘media pundit’ very well. 

We’re familiar with this binary representation of opinion in everything from politics to religion. Humans have simplified ideas for centuries but the binary polarisation seems to have increased over the past year or so. For any debate on any issue in any media, two talking heads are wheeled out, each on opposite sides representing opposite opinions. TV and radio current affairs programmes routinely enlist one person to speak for one extreme and one person to speak for another, generating conflict and antagonism between the two. The writer Graham Linehan wrote about a recent appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme where he alleges that a debate was artificially generated about a topic as innocuous as a script adaptation. Middle-ground is not tolerated in the media. 

Where polarised political debates go to die.
And then, because it’s the media’s job to represent real-life, we believe that the polarised opinions we see/hear/read are the only opinions and that they are therefore our opinions. And so the binary representation becomes reality, further perpetuated by a two-party political system and a tendency for humans to simplify complex ideas (a tendency which predates the media: they aren’t entirely to blame). The perceived opposing sides become mirror images. In March, I went on a protest in London; two months later, there was an opposing protest in London. The only way to balance the mirror image was for one side to match the other. These opposing protests generated an astounding degree of vitriol on Twitter with both sides shouting down and insulting the other while generating very little actual debate on the serious economic issues underlying both protests. Instead of acknowledging that the other side were genuine human beings with genuine concerns about the economy, people belittled and insulted and pretended that the other side were irremediably ‘different’. 

We need reminding that this binary division of opinions is an inaccurate simplification. Rather than facing up to complex issues with all their convoluted philosophical ramifications, geopolitical assumptions, and accompanying belief systems, it’s easier to adopt a Yes-No frame of mind where everything is divided into simple propositions of affirmation and negation. 

‘Women on the front-line!’: ‘No women on the front-line!’
‘NHS reforms!’: ‘No NHS reforms!’
‘Wikileaks is bad!’: ‘Wikileaks is good!’

Truth usually lies somewhere in the middle of black and white. My philosophical outlook is a hodge-podge of various theories and ideas lodged together in what I believe to be a coherent and consistent way. This may change as I learn new things. Humans don’t have to be stubbornly binary: I believe in political freedom for the individual à la John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty but sometimes – only sometimes – I ponder the merits of a conservative benevolent dictatorship à la Plato’s Republic. We can change our minds when new information comes along, we can be unsure, we can vacillate between shifting ideologies, we can pick up elements from the different sides of political discourse and settle in between.

The collective human mindscape is awash with colour: a landscape of shades and distinctions between the binary masses of black and white; a panoply of ideology shifting and flowing as people change their minds, discover contradictory opinions, hold contradictory opinions, make tiny and glacial shifts in attitude that accumulate into continent-sized changes in belief systems. Journeys into opinion, belief, and philosophy aren’t about setting up camp in the first place that looks comfortable: they are about exploring one place and then picking up to find new places; they are about exploring the Forests of Ideas, the Valleys of Facts, and the sweeping terrains of distinctiveness that characterise the massive and beautiful landscape of human thought. 

There are colours between black and white.

Politics is not a Venn diagram with two circles that barely meet: it’s a swirling kaleidoscope of ideas and thoughts and feelings, many of which do not settle into neat camps of the left/right distinction. When we think and debate with one another in a binary way, we ignore the elegant complexity of the world around us and we forget that truth is usually somewhere around the middle.