A radical librarian writes

Reading Universities may censor student reading in the Sunday Times at the weekend, I was surprised about the furore over enhancing catalogue records with relevant metadata in order to accurately describe texts held in academic library collections.

However, my surprise soon turned to confusion as this short stub of an article managed to conflate geopolitically disparate and independent discussions around more dynamic approaches to cataloguing and collections management. It was almost as though the author had mistaken their experiences of – and ability to use – a library with the possession of the knowledge and experience required to operate a library service.

I have accrued a reasonable volume of professional experience from various roles across six academic libraries over the last ten years or so. I have helped to manage electronic subscriptions, maintain and manage access to electronic resources through library-specific technologies, developed collections in liaison with academic colleagues and user communities, and lead training sessions to countless undergraduate, postgraduate, and research colleagues. Currently, I work in research support, helping institutions and researchers with their production of openly accessible research outputs, and in the more nascent aspects of contemporary research practice, such as research data management.

Contemporary practice

The production and maintenance of Data Management Plans (DMPs) are seen as an essential aspect of contemporary scholarship. As working documents, they prepare researchers for the creation, description, curation, storage, and preservation of their research data and its metadata. As working documents, researchers are encouraged to modify these DMPs to reflect the relevant amendments that are made throughout the research lifecycle.

DMPs are an increasingly mandated aspect of contemporary research practice and are commonly supported by library services embedded within universities. In terms of the evolution of library and information science and practice, this reflexive and dynamic approach to data management sets an excellent standard for wider library practices; why would we not maintain our collections, records, and associated metadata to reflect social, political, and intellectual shifts that have occurred in the wider context? It would surely seem unduly hypocritical.

I was very much looking forward to Griffiths’ piece explaining our concerns around the outrageous bureaucracy of contemporary RDM practice, and its efficacy in treating the sanctity of the intellectual freedom of scholars, and the data they produce in publicly funded research, as objective measurements of reality that require nothing in the way of planning or managing. Yet I suspect that I will be waiting for some time, as this article seemed more like a hatchet job that tries to weaponise legitimate amendments to the descriptions and management of library stock in relation to the- ahem- legitimate concerns about freedom of speech on our university campuses.

The role of the library

Many of the assertions made, such as that the enhancing of a library record to identify discredited publications as revisionist histories are being made “to protect students” are not deemed to be requiring of any substantiation. As noted above, this unsupported rationale ignores the roles of libraries and their collections in the support of the research activities at universities; creating more accurate descriptions of informational stock is not only politically astute and a professional obligation, but will also expedite the discovery of appropriate resources for our user communities. In the depiction presented, libraries are merely a passive service with a complete focus on supporting teaching and learning activities for undergraduates.

The undisclosed specifics of the proposal or debate appear to be attributed variously to the Radical Librarians Collective (or rather, “a group called the Radical Librarians Collective”), Dr. Irene Lancaster, Bod Ward, and Rowan Williams. As a regular contributor and organiser for the former, I welcome my new comrades, but I’m sure they too will be somewhat surprised at their association with our collective. Perhaps particularly so, given that the identity the only Radical Librarians Collective associate consulted- in a personal capacity- was not mentioned in the article at all.

Rather than a serious attempt to engage with a professional community that is developing more appropriate strategies to maintain their collections of information resources, we are simply offered a rather woolly attempt to orchestrate some political drama. It is somewhat of a leap to conflate amending the descriptions of David Irving’s discredited works with “censorship”, given that the texts are publicly available. It seems even more absurd to attempt to evoke a “freedom of speech” angle to long since published texts that are held within library collections and will remain both discoverable, and accessible.

Tom Sheldon’s point regarding the “strength of argument and weight of evidence” over warning “people against reading the wrong books” remains true. Because there is no attempt to remove the “wrong books” from “British universities”. Perhaps surprisingly for Griffiths, the benefits and necessity of discursive library collections are known to library and information workers.

Library collections are managed by experienced professionals in relation to their organisational and institutional objectives. This involves liaison between various stakeholders including our user communities, to provide a service that meets and hopefully exceeds demands. However, from some quarters outside of the profession, ignorant and naive ideas of libraries are reproduced. One can only wonder why.

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2 responses to “A radical librarian writes

  1. What is the most radical thing a librarian could do?

    Store all the books according to how big and what colour they are?

  2. Hi Leo Stoch.

    I’m going to take this comment in earnest rather than as a missive attempting to undermine the politics of information and informational work.

    It may surprise you that there is an 80/20 budget split across electronic and print resources respectively for most HE libraries. As such, the proportion of time (and the costs of labour pertaining to) classifying and storing print stock might be lower than other aspects of librarianship. The politics of such things- and open access, research data, licences, copyright, etc.- are just some of the things that Radical Librarians Collective opens up for critical analyses.

    The collective opearates an open access scholarly journal- library and information science is a discipline that qualified librarians must usually have studied at postgraduate level- in order to offer a space for discourse to develop. If you’re interested, we offer both double-blind and open peer review. Feel free to submit!

    Some of us are also passionate about wider social issues, including surveillance, digital security, and privacy. We offer inclusive workshops to assist people to regain control of their privacy, and we also offer labour in radical spaces to enhance collections, and share skills. In fact, there are a range of radical actions that we take, bothin inside and outside of the academy.

    So in short, there a lot of radical things that library worker can do. And moreover, there are a lot radical things that some of us /do/ do.



    NB: Your suggestion for a radical action is more of an destruction of meaningful classification for an academic library through, but I suspect it was not one intended in earnest.

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