A few weeks ago, Simon Barron wrote a short article in which he set out the case for ‘radical librarianship’. He defined this as a focus on the profession’s ethical roots, which are “openness, free access to information, and a strong community spirit” and which stand in opposition to what he sees as the prevalent ideology of “neoliberalism”. In libraries, neoliberalism has manifested itself in the adoption of “private-sector practices” which are being adopted “unquestioningly”. Moreover, Simon believes that “librarians at management level have shaped their library’s practices to fit the neoliberal theory”.
Simon’s post complemented (and quoted from) another recent piece, by Ian Clark and Andrew Preater, which takes issue with the spread of “market-based” approaches to library services. Andrew and Ian particularly dislike the use of the word ‘customer’ in library discourse and the way it is increasingly reached for when considering services to users. They object to the tendency to present changes made in the name of customer service as “progressive” and argue that they are, in fact, the opposite.
On the face of it, I am part of the problem as they see it. My radical days, such as they were, are long behind me. I am a senior academic library manager. I find it helpful to think of library users as customers and my personal approach is very much to try to see libraries from a student’s point of view. So: am I guilty of introducing right wing ideas into the profession?
I don’t think I am, and here’s my point. Until recently, I worked with Ian, for whom I have the utmost respect personally and professionally. On more than one occasion we discussed using the word customer in our own library. He was, predictably, very opposed to this, whereas I did so a lot. We agreed to disagree. However, interestingly, when it came down to matters of substance – team discussions about particular aspects of library practice – he was invariably on the same side as me. Frontline services, models of supporting students, training and upskilling library assistants, social media: there was very little we differed about when it came to the specifics of the service we were trying to provide and overall I saw him as an ally. My guess is that it would probably be the same if I worked with Andrew or Simon.
I’m not trying to ‘out’ Ian as a secret moderniser. On the contrary, throughout my time working with him, Ian remained true to his ideas, to a fault. My point is that, in practice, these ideas didn’t clash too much with my own, even though they are ‘neoliberal’ as defined. This suggests to me that the definition is wrong.
I don’t deny that there have been big changes in higher education in the last few years and its marketisation is a reality. Although academic libraries have, on the whole, recently enjoyed a period of relative calm and even prosperity, there are undoubtedly some strange creatures operating in senior university management and this has clearly had an impact. In particular, in newer universities at least, there is an overriding pressure to chase NSS scores which has certainly had an effect on library decision-making. However, to confuse and conflate this process with an entirely separate movement within academic libraries that is concerned with looking at what we do and trying to make sure our services are as good as they possibly can be, is to misunderstand quite profoundly what is going on.
I’d characterise this, separate, ‘customer services’ movement as liberal with a small ‘l’ and an expression of another key aspect of our professional identity, not mentioned by Simon, which is to do with service – of helping people. It’s a recognition of the fact that libraries are inevitably very process driven and sometimes slow to adapt their procedures to the ever-changing modern world. It takes junior library staff seriously and give them opportunities for personal and professional development. It is about making sure library services and librarians remain relevant to students, academics and the institutions they operate in. It is also primarily librarian-driven and I would therefore distinguish it from top down attempts in the public library sector to rebrand libraries as ideas shops or cafes. It is progressive by most definitions of the word.
What is there not to like about looking at library procedures and services with a fresh eye and with the student in mind? Is it ‘neoliberal’ to rove? To promote e-books and the digital library? To open twenty-four hours? To relax your rules about eating and use of mobile phones? To design library catalogues or even library management systems which better reflect library users’ modern needs? Of course it isn’t and that is why, on the ground, left-leaning librarians are often the ones leading these changes.
Language is of course important and can indicate wider ideological trends. But people also use language lazily, unthinkingly or because it happens to be the best available tool to express an idea at that particular moment. I think this is often the case in our profession. Radical librarians should be careful not to adopt the classic position of the intellectual left which is to see everyone else as the dupes of a ‘system’ that only they can discern. Do I use the term customer sometimes? Yes. Am I unconsciously shaping my library’s practices to fit neoliberal theory? Piss off.
Radicals often rail against the fact that neoliberalism masquerades as common sense and prevents the articulation of other narratives. Well, here’s a chance. Let’s talk specifics. Let’s talk enquiry desks and roving, automatic renewals and library catalogues, staff development and communicating with students. These are the things we are concerned with every day and where positive change can happen – is happening. Where is an alternative vision for academic libraries and what does it consist of? Who are the librarians trying to put these different ideas into practice? I haven’t seen any. Until I do, radical librarianship will remain, to me, so much tilting at windmills.
The photo is from Ian’s gallery on Flickr.