A week on from Radical Library Camp…

This way!

A week on from Radical Library Camp, and I thought I’d put together some of my thoughts on the event. If you want some background to my perspective on the event itself (plus a rough outline of my pitch) it’s probably best to head back to an earlier post explaining all this (in summary: we felt the need for something to discuss more political issues around information and libraries – and I emphasise the former, it was, for me, an opportunity to discuss big issues around information, not just libraries/librarians). In addition to that earlier post though, I would add that I struggle to remember exactly how we got the ball rolling on this…I just know that a group of us of a like-mind decided we should do this, and did it. I’m sure one of the other members of the Bradford Collective will be able to fill you in, but I certainly can’t…

I have to hold my hands up right from the start and say I wasn’t overly keen on the event being in Bradford. Not because of an issue with Bradford (I’d never been before so was not in a position to judge), but living in the south-eastern corner of the country anything north (or west) of London is a bit of a pain to get to. However, I am equally conscious of the fact that for a HUGE number of people, London is also a pain to get to. So, Bradford it was.

Needless to say, I was incredibly nervous on the day itself (I drove up the night before and stayed in a well-known chain of short stay hotel establishments). Worries mainly centred on: what if hardly anyone turns up, what if people hate it, what if my session is a complete disaster…I’d sort of had some experience of putting on events before for CPD25, but there is a lot of support in putting on such events…this was just a gaggle of people (many of which I had never met before) putting together an event. A different kettle of fish entirely, and one that exacerbated the nerves.

The venue itself was, without doubt, utterly fantastic. There was a good range of rooms available for us to use and it had a very communal, warm feel to it. The guy who looks after the venue was also incredibly helpful and generous to us on the day and I instantly felt that this was the perfect venue for such an [un]conference. More than anything else, I was amazed at what we got for the fee (approx. £100). I just cannot for one moment imagine getting a suitable venue of that scale in London.

Pitching sessions...

After a bit of time spent sorting out the rooms so they were ready for the event, the first of the delegates stepped through the doors and signed in. Someone had arrived! Suddenly, I felt some of my fears slightly ebb away. Surely if one person has arrived there must be others who will come along? Luckily, they did come. Lots of them. Old friends I had not seen for what seemed like an age, friends I see fairly regularly on trips to London, and friends who I had never actually met in real life before.  All in all, around fifty people came through the doors, if my memory serves me correctly. One worry to cross off the list. People had turned up. The question remained, what about the other two worries…

The signs certainly seemed good at the start of Radical Library Camp. There was a kind of exciting buzz of anticipation around the room as we got started. Whilst these types of event are hardly new, there was kind of a feeling that this was slightly different although, in many respects, it was clearly in a similar vein to previous Library Camps. This was good. The signs were encouraging…not only had people bought into what we had hoped to achieve, but they seemed to be genuinely quite excited in what the day would bring.

We had decided early on to ensure that, as much as possible, every session took place, even if it might mean that we would have to condense or adapt the plan for the day. Pitches were made at the beginning to give an outline of the nature of each session, no votes were taken but pitches were then subsequently added to the schedule for the day which was quickly made available to all delegates so that we could get on with the business of ‘running’ the event. In terms of the pitches, we realised afterwards (thanks to the feedback) that there perhaps should have been more explanation as to what the pitches were all about, their purpose etc. Something to remember for next time…

And so, the sessions…

Crisitunity!

Sadly for me, my session was scheduled at the same time as Lauren Smith’s which was a shame on a number of levels (I think it’s fair to say we share an interest in similar areas…as well as being good friends) but, as I was to find when it came to choosing which sessions I wanted to go to, the feeling of ‘what the hell should I go to now?’ permeated throughout the day. Never had I seen a programme of sessions, speakers, topics etc that was so full of interesting ideas that I was spoilt for choice. Normally I find when I head to any kind of event or conference there is one or two sessions I am really interested in and the rest are of moderate interest. In this case, I would have thoroughly enjoyed every single session…which I think is a good sign.

My session did not go quite as I had hoped. When scheduling the day, we thought 45mins would be plenty of time. Of course, it wasn’t. Although I think, judging from my experiences, many sessions would have felt too short if they were an hour long. We were dealing with complex issues without easy answers, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect a discussion on these issues to last for 45mins and walk away thinking we had come up with answers, actions, resolutions. The best we could hope for is a crack in the nut, rather than eating the nut…

Whilst the session was billed as an investigation of disobedience in the profession, I was particularly interested in how the information profession can challenge misinformation (or concealing information) by the state or corporate actors. We sort of only really got to this area towards the end of the session, which I put down to my failure to really outline the topic sufficiently (and, in turn, I blame this on my never having experienced a library camp before). When we did get onto this area, we discussed Wikileaks, Full Fact and how the government push out an agenda based on misinformation and how we as information professionals can (or even whether we should) challenge that. We know, for example, that the facts about social security undermine the government’s assault on welfare, so how do we use or distribute that information to undermine this assault? It seems to me that, as I said in my session, information professionals are slow to this. Perhaps it should have been librarians/information pros that were leading on Wikileaks, on Full Fact, even on What Do They Know? Why were we not (unless they are librarians who have led on these things of course!)? What can we do now to take a lead on these areas? Whilst I wasn’t satisfied with my session, I did have some encouraging feedback afterwards, so I guess I need to look at how I would do such a session again).

After my session I was at a bit of a loss. Which one to go to next? I wanted to go to Liz Chapman’s session on BDSM and libraries as we had had a brief discussion about it on Twitter and I thought it would be rude not to drop in (also, I had never met Liz before so that was an extra reason to drop along). But I also wanted to attend Andrew Preater’s session on leadership roles as a ‘radical’. So I went to both, spending roughly equal amount of time in each. This wasn’t ideal, but being unable to decide I thought this was a good compromise. I certainly got something out of both sessions so I had no regrets in slipping between the two.

Then, lunch, fab daal and sherry…

Lunch!

Post lunch I attended a session on neoliberalism and libraries hosted by Simon Barron. This is an area I have a particular interest in borne mainly of my personal politics and my experience working in both retail and the public sector (I have seen the growing similarities). The session was certainly interesting and it was particularly alarming (depending on your political perspective I guess) how libraries in all their forms are mimicking the private sector. We’ve certainly seen this in some of the rhetoric that is used about libraries, how words like ‘customer’, ‘marketing’ and ‘targets’ have become increasingly prevalent. Whereas once these terms were purely the domain of the private sector, increasingly it has become standard fare in the public sector which demonstrates how deeply engrained the neoclassical economic mindset has afflicted all professionals. I have certainly found it interesting seeing the many discussions librarians engage in now, and the discussions we engaged in in the retail sector 10-15 years ago. This is something I am not entirely comfortable with…particularly as words become detached from meaning or the meaning behind the language is deemed unimportant. The question is, of course, how do we challenge this growing corporatisation of the information profession, given what it ultimately entails…?

Pitches...

Next was another flit between sessions as I jumped between Penny Andrews’ session on monocultures in libraries and a session on what IFLA is going in regard to broader information issues (personal data collection, censorship etc). Penny’s session was particularly interesting and I would have loved to have stayed for the whole thing as I agree that there is an issue around monocultures. In some respects there isn’t a truly broad range of backgrounds across the profession. We are mainly white and come from relatively secure backgrounds (I hesitate to use middle class as I am not sure that is actually the case…I certainly consider myself working class in terms of background, and I don’t feel particularly rare in that regard). But I missed most of the discussion in this session so I can’t really comment on how it developed, which is a shame as I personally thought it was an interesting and important topic.

IFLA session

I then dropped in on the IFLA session. This was of particular interest to me as I had caught some of the tweets from their recent annual conference and been very interested in what people had to say there. There was, for example, a discussion on the Arab Spring in Egypt and how it had been documented. There was also discussion, as I recall, about the more socio-political aspects of our work which I found very interesting. I was, therefore, really pleased when Maria Cotera booked a ticket and decided to join us at the event. I certainly liked what I heard and it was refreshing to hear a professional body focused on the issues that I care about within the profession. It’s rare to hear these sorts of issues discussed in the UK across the library community, certainly far less so than in America for example, so it was good to hear of one organisation seemingly adopting a principled stand.

At the close of the sessions a plenary was held to discuss where we wanted to go next with Radical Library Camp. As a collective, it seemed like there was a lot of enthusiasm to do something with this. For me it is important not to just discuss issues, but to take actions towards resolving our concerns. It seemed to me that there was a real appetite at Rad Camp not just to discuss these issues, but to work in solidarity with like-minded folk in trying to work on solutions. Without wishing to sound too corny about it, I felt like there was a real positive energy at the end of the day and a there was a palpable feeling that this was a beginning not an end. I hope this is the case, because it could lead to something valuable and vital.

In terms of the camp overall, one thing stood out above everything else, how those of us who worked to get this off the ground worked with each other. It was quite an amazing experience and one that took me a couple of days to get over. It was, to my mind, quite beautiful. Everyone fell into natural roles, there was no ‘leader’, no direction from any one individual. We just found our own distinct roles and got on with it. I still find that all a bit amazing to be honest, that clarity of knowing what we needed to do and what others were doing. It happened so naturally it appeared to me to be artificial.

But mainly it was a fantastic day and I came away buzzing from the discussions in a way I hadn’t from anything else I had ever attended. For me, the quality and breadth of the discussions, the way in which so many people embraced it and got something out of the day, the feedback that has been received and the sheer satisfaction I have felt ever since, indicate that this event was welcome and much needed. It was different, challenging and stimulating.  I look forward to the next Radical Library Camp, wherever it may be. 

TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.

It has been a gradual realization that not only is society not receptive to the data and information but that society will organize to explicitly frustrate and deny the science in order to maintain the status quo.”

- Bill Rees, ecologist and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

George Orwell on writing…

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

(Source: mtholyoke.edu)

So does the information society need the information profession? It certainly needs those who constitute it; it needs their insights, knowledge and skills. But we live, as I suggested earlier, in a deprofessionalising world. Indeed this is becoming one of the defining characteristics of the information society itself. We need to focus more on the application of our professed knowledge and rather less on the formal qualification.
Just how much of an alternative is Labour? Its leaders do continue to speak the language of social concern, yet their strategy is marked by extreme caution, an avoidance of any appearance of radicalism and a reluctance to argue for anything that might not command majority opinion-poll support. Of course, because of the government’s combination of dogmatism and ineptitude, this may not matter in opposition. But in power?
We like to think of England as a democratic country but our rule in India, for instance, is just as bad as German Fascism, though outwardly it may be less irritating. I do not see how one can oppose Fascism except by working for the overthrow of capitalism, starting, of course, in one’s own country.
Britain is a master case study to understand how ideology and propaganda work in a free market.
Today, humanity faces a stark choice: save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet.
We are breeding a new generation of human being who will learn more from a machine than from their mothers.