This morning many of us in the UK woke up to these headlines: ‘Libraries lose a quarter of staff as hundreds close’ (BBC); ‘Libraries: The decline of a profession? (BBC)’; ‘Libraries facing ‘greatest crisis’ in their history’ (Guardian). [Post-publication Update: at the same time I was publishing this post, the Telegraph published a piece titled ‘Don’t mourn the loss of libraries – the internet has made them obsolete’].
You will notice that the three headlines start with the term ‘Libraries’. The second headline suggests ‘a profession’ (we are to understand ‘librarianship’) is or might be in decline. Like many people I saw the headline shared on Twitter. I suppose the headline is meant to promise the reader an answer in the linked piece; it is designed to make the reader click on the link and therefore read the piece: is the library profession as a whole in decline?
In this brief comment I will not be providing the reader with alternative statistics (those so inclined can look at Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals‘ CEO Nick Poole’s CILIP 2020 strategy slides). I was however moved to write this quick post as a means to briefly expand on some thoughts I have already shared this morning on Twitter.
The BBC Freedom of Information requests results have been made available as a Google spreadsheet. The BBC offered some insights:
Change across UK
4,290 Council-run libraries in 2010
3,765 Council-run libraries now
343 libraries closed, 207 of them buildings, 132 mobile and four “other”
232 transferred, 174 to community groups and 58 outsourced
50 new libraries started, 20 of them buildings, 8 mobile and 22 “other”
111 proposed for closure over the next year
Source: BBC FOI requests
These are, no doubt, distressing figures, and they provide evidence of the extent of public budget cuts to Council-run libraries. I don’t think there is anyone remotely related to the Library and Information sector who won’t think this is frankly terrible, but I don’t think there is any of us who were suprised by this news. It mainly confirms the extent of the damage of the government funding policy in the last six years to the public library sector.
What I would like to say here though is that the way the news have been disseminated, and this includes the way it is being shared and discussed in the media including social media, shows to me there is now more than ever before a need for Library and Information Science skills. Take for example the obvious absence of the adjective ‘Public’ or the adjectival phrase ‘Council-run’ from the headlines and bodies of the BBC and Guardian news items linked to in my first paragraph. The result is the confusion of public or council-run libraries and the library sector as a whole.
A library is not a library is not a library because not all ‘libraries’ face the same challenges and not all librarians do the same jobs. Abbreviating ‘public libraries’ to merely ‘libraries’ creates misinformation as it feeds cultural anxieties regarding the role of information professionals in a digital age. Confusing ‘public libraries’ with all libraries and even worse with a whole profession confuses a specific situation (public library closures in the UK due to public funding cuts) with ‘the demise of a profession’. The library profession is practised well beyond the specific realm of public or council-run libraries, and often in places that at first sight do not look at all like what many people would idenfity as a ‘library’. Like GPs and other medical specialists, or lawyers, or most other professionals, those in the library profession are active in many sectors requiring advanced information and knowledge literacy and management skills, which in the 21st century amounts to most organisations in most if not all domains.
Like Gertude Stein’s rose in her ‘Sacred Emily‘ poem (1913), the word ‘library’ names a phenomenon which invokes the imagery and emotions that individuals in a particular context associate with it. All libraries, of course, have something essential in common. At the very least they share the professional, systematic selection, organisation, storage, management, preservation and dissemination of information, amongst other taks requiring specialised skills. However, it is important to be able to make distinctions, and state what may seem obvious, that not all libraries are the same: public or council-run libraries face a series of quite specific challenges, in the same way that academic libraries, or libraries in say legal or media organisations face different challenges that public libraries do not.
Everyone interested in libraries as a whole should be concerned about the demise of public funding for council-run libraries, but this does not mean that the whole library profession is facing a ‘demise’. Everyone interested in the public good should be concerned about the demise of public funding for public services, and this includes council-run libraries. The vicious circle is clear, as media coverage and public discourse around the closure of public libraries often goes back to expressing cultural anxieties regarding the role of libraries in general in a digital age. Innovation is accepted as a pressing need, but without funding technological innovation including the hiring of specialised human resources proves harder if not impossible. You need the funding to up your game but if you don’t up your game, the official narrative goes, you won’t get any funding because you haven’t upped your game.
Technological ‘solutionism‘ is a great cover for politically motivated budget cuts to public services. This is where lack of context leads to even more misinformation, and where the debate expresses, to a meta level, the pressing need for specialised Library and Information Science skills as 21st century critical information literacy skills. Take as an example the public opinions of a news editor of a ‘free market think-tank’ this morning on Twitter: [screenshot anonymised]
These opinions are well-known by most information professionals, as they reflect a widespread misunderstanding about access to information today, namely, in the case of the example above, that 1) reading as an activity (particularly fiction) is a ‘hobby’ and therefore not important for a society’s welfare, that 2) owning a smart phone can replace billions spent on libraries, and that 3) Google Scholar provides access to millions of documents directly, making libraries unnecessary.
The example above is only a needle in a massive haystack of myths and misunderstandings about how the Internet and the Web operate, and more importantly about what it is that public libraries do. Let’s focus only in the third opinion above. For the sake of argument let’s suppose everyone in the UK has access to fast, robust, reliable Internet at home and own and know how to use a reliable up-to-date device to access it (we know this is not the case). If you can access any full content of quality through Google Scholar it is because a library or network of libraries were doing hard and expensive work behind. Even if all academic content were Open Access, or at least publicly freely available to read online, it would also have been the result of concerted efforts with libraries and librarians, even if you accessed it from the comfort of your home or train carriage. The publishing and discovery of said hypothetical content online via Google Scholar would have always-already meant the result of specific library and information skills and technologies, such as mark-up languages like XML, including taxonomies and ontologies, schemas and search algorithms, all working for your enjoyment behind the scenes. And that is just a superficial, quick example.
The narrative we need to see more of is that Library and Information Science skills are today more needed than ever before. Precisely because of important technological and cultural developments such as widespread access to the mobile Internet and search engine indexing services such as Google Scholar, LIS skills must come to the public fore as an essential critical skillset to idenfity, filter, curate, disseminate and interpret data and information of all types.
The news today have revealed again that the political arena is a rapidly-changing information landscape. The crisis of UK public libraries is a political problem. It is a situation created by a political, ideological agenda that has chosen to privilege free market as extreme individualism (the privileging of algorthimc access to information is free market ideology in full effect). The crisis of UK public libraries is not simple, but a main driver for the current crisis is not the lack of relevance of librarianship as a profession, but very clearly the result of ideologically-motivated budget cuts to public services.
I suggest that at the very least we should avoid an apocalyptic tone in discussions about libraries in general. We must be able to contextualise and to focus on the specifics of each phenomenon. Phenomena can be related to each other, and solidarity and empathy are important, but this does not exclude the importance of distinguishing domains. We must frame the crisis of ‘UK libraries’ as presented in the news today as a crisis caused by particular public funding policies affecting the everyday functions of council-run libraries. The crisis of ‘UK libraries’ is part of a larger crisis caused by, essentially, funding cuts to public services.
The larger cultural context of digital transformations demands from all of us interested in libraries and information to up our game in successfully demonstrating why the word ‘library’ means many different things to different people, and why ‘the profession’ should be more needed than ever in an age of overwhelming data deluge and information overload.
If the unfounded, misinformed opinion that smartphones or Google can replace all types of libraries and information professionals keeps gaining currency, the future will look increasingly grim. It will be grim because it will mean the triumph of an impoverished vision that privileges only the hyper-privileged, leaving the rest of the public doomed to accessing only the information they are given or the information they can personally afford.
Suggesting that librariship as a whole is in crisis and that the ‘solution’ lies in giving people smartphones only benefits those who benefit from dismantling public services, including the public right to council-run libraries as professional, reliable, fair, safe spaces for creativity, education, research, entertainment, and in a nutshell good ol’ public good.