Radical Library Camp: in the fight over information, librarians start to get organised

They say that ours is the age of information. Libraries gave us power. But now, the forces of neoliberalism are trying to take it away. In Bradford, a group of radical librarians gathered to discuss how to defend and extend the openness of one of our most important institutions..

The Bradford
7 October 2013

There has been a growing trend across our profession in recent years to host so called ‘unconferences’ under the ‘Library Camp’ banner. These events have proven incredibly popular, affording, as they do, an opportunity to attend a conference that is participatory rather than passive in order to facilitate active engagement in proceedings rather than mere consumption of information. However, much as we have enjoyed these [un]conferences, some of us felt that there wasn’t scope to discuss more radical ideas, which is where the idea for a Radical Library Camp emerged.

So what makes a ‘Radical Library Camp’ radical? We felt that it was becoming increasingly tiresome to constantly argue against the neo-liberal, professionalist view that exists in our workplaces and amongst our fellow workers. Whilst it is good to be challenged and to challenge others, we also believe that it is productive to engage with like-minds in order to build networks of solidarity across the profession. These networks of those alienated by the corporate language that is creeping into the profession, and from the growing marketisation of libraries, as well as those who were alarmed at the increasing commodification of information expedite a discourse that runs, as the Zapatistas might have it, from below and to the left of the commodified library’s trajectory.

However, the intention was not to create yet another network of activists occupying the fringes of the anarchist or anti-capitalist left. Whilst it is clear that a certain anarchistic/anti-capitalist viewpoint fed into the thinking behind the conference, with discussions touching on the divergent interests of communities and the State and how that affects public library provision for example, it did not necessarily reflect the politics of everyone attending the event. Conversations on the day, and feedback from participants, suggested they did not all identify themselves with the radical left: While attendees were certainly concerned with the issues of neo-liberalism and marketisation, not everyone readily identified themselves as anti-capitalist/anarchist etc.

The sessions proposed and delivered by participants throughout the day covered a wide range of areas affecting the information sector. Issues surrounding censorship and misinformation in relation with libraries’ reflexive engagement with broader social issues surrounding BDSM, the possibility of radical leadership in library management and the historical precedent of public libraries as radical institutions were just some of the topics covered.

Some pockets of topics could be identified. The confluence of professional values, intellectual property, copyright, Open Access and the Research Excellence Framework was one such group. This was said to be leading towards an apparently paradoxical neoliberal agenda for Open Access.

Concerns were raised that, rather than facilitating an enhanced and rapid research cycle, the control and auditing of academic outputs has derailed the principles of open access to information produced by the scholarly community. Instead, this process has fostered academic inertia for outmoded models of dissemination where an author submits to a journal of apparent historical prestige, in order to promote the quality of the work through association with a given title and its associated authorial relation.

The culture of measurement also actively nominalises divergent scholarly communications by enabling the publishers to restrict Green Open Access, where free access is provided through institutional or subject repositories, through embargo periods of up to 48 months. This control is exerted (and even exacerbated) by RCUK’s expansion of previous embargo periods in relation to the Finch report, enabling profitable publishers to retain control of the publication process and allowing them to retain their exuberant margins at the expense of libraries’ declining budgets.

Other sessions also raised concerns about corporate (and state) control of the flow of information, and how information professionals can both challenge this control and undermine it. For example, Thomas Kuhn (the renowned physicist and philosopher) once argued that contrary to the way scientific progress should occur, an old paradigm cannot simply be replaced by evidence, facts, or ‘the truth’, it will not be discarded because forecasts are wrong or theories proved unscientific. The provision of evidence or facts alone appears to be ineffective in challenging such established paradigms. Furthermore, as Bill Rees, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia argues in Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics on climate science:

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

There is, in short, a serious problem. Evidence and accurate information are discarded or broadly ignored in favour of existing beliefs and established paradigms. We see this today in the coalition’s drive towards ‘austerity’ on a false premise, a premise used to enable the current government to enact its historic ideology with zeal. Consequently the question must be asked: what can and should information professionals do to address this? How can we challenge the status quo which is built on misinformation, ideology and the concerns of special interests? It is not enough to present the information or the data, we must, perhaps, find new ways to overturn existing paradigms.

The growing corporatisation of libraries was also discussed. Many areas of the public sector are becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate from the private sector. Targets and performance indicators are increasingly seen as a way to drive ‘productivity’ which in turn, as in the private sector, simply creates new inefficiencies. The ideology of the corporate sector has gradually crept into the public sector, corrupting its ideals and turning libraries from places that provide a social good to ones that turn over a profit. The influence of the profit motive in the provision of information is, of course, one that should cause much concern. Information provision should not be beholden to the profit motive, but should be open and accessible to all. This drive towards equitable access to information, one that underpins the ethics of all information professionals, is under serious threat and perhaps radical solutions are required.

So where did these discussions take us? Well, participants identified and were supportive of the development of a network across the information profession of like-minded individuals. Loose and informal, but with a determined focus on what we agree on, rather than our differences. Open projects and collaboration are encouraged, particularly with a mind to challenging some of the issues that we see facing the flow and control of information.

We want to help provide a space for these discussions to take place and a network through which actions based on these discussions might occur. Our workplaces and our professional body, CILIP, aren’t capable of meeting these needs, so we’re taking direct action to meet these needs for ourselves. We hope it’ll encourage others to do the same and to shift the terms of discussion in contemporary librarianship. In the existing environment, right across the information profession, radical solutions must be encouraged and developed. In the face of increasing commodification of information and marketisation of libraries, it is more important than ever to show solidarity and work together to face the challenges that lie ahead, not just for the profession, but for society as a whole.


(At the Bradford Lib Camp participants decided to organise a further camp. If you are interested in getting involved email: [email protected])


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