Radical Library Camp: Bradford 2013

On Saturday I caught an early train from Sheffield to Bradford with a hangover for the first UK Radical Library Camp.  I armed myself with coffee and flapjack, and I was very glad I made the effort because it was a fantastic way to spend a Saturday: lots of lovely people to talk to, an excellent lunch and many new ideas to discuss.  I’m not sure how radical I am – I suppose it depends who you’re comparing me against – but I certainly liked what I read on the Wiki about creating a space “for those of us who identify ourselves in opposition to the marketisation of libraries, the commodification of information, and the increasing precarity of work in the information sector.”  So without further ado, here are my thoughts on the day.

Librarians for Social Change Journal

Librarians for Social Change Journal, 1982. Image mine.

Session 1: Critical Information Literacy and Social Media Awareness

The first session I went to was pitched by Lauren (@walkyouhome).  During the first part of the session we talked about critical information literacy, which was very interesting.  I was a bit disappointed by the information literacy component of my MA – it didn’t seem to either engage properly with the practical side of teaching information literacy or the theoretical side.  In fact, it was very much a case of “make a poster about where you see information literacy in your future career, working with a group of people who all have completely different future careers in mind…then make a blog about how your poster-making went.”

So anyway, critical information literacy discusses how we can use IL skills to encourage critical thinking, the questioning of authority and political agency.  For example, when we talk about IL teaching in schools, there is often mention of “trusted” sources.  “Don’t use Wikipedia, use a government website instead, as it’s more reliable” we might say.  From a critical information literacy perspective, we might then go on to question the possible biases of these seemingly authoritative sources.  For instance, rather than saying “use this because it’s in an academic journal,” we might look at who funds research, and the processes involved in selecting what appears in academic journals and what doesn’t.   Lauren’s PhD research sounds fascinating; talking to young people about how they form political opinions, and what information sources they use.  It was felt by the group that IL teaching should include critical thinking, in order to help people make their own political decisions.   It was also discussed whether librarians should attempt to be neutral; offering information about a range of political perspectives without asserting their own biases.  It seems that as it is impossible to be objective, it would be best for librarians, like teachers, to declare their biases – for instance: “I’m coming at this from a socialist feminist perspective, and this is how it affects how I use information.” If anyone wants to know more about critical information literacy, here’s a presentation given by Lauren at a previous event (with useful reading list at the end!)

The second half of the session moved onto talking about social media awareness and online hate speech.  I’ve just read “Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet,” by Laurie Penny, which I would recommend (it’s short and easy to read).  It’s about being a woman on the internet and how sexism functions in online environments.  In it, she argues passionately that people should stop treating the online environment as separate from “Real Life.”  This was one of the main themes of the group discussion.  As social media and the internet are so much part of our lives, there could be a role for librarians in talking to people (especially young people) about social media use.  It was pointed out that in a lot of schools, access to social media is completely blocked, which seems ridiculous, as people are bound to be using it at home, and issues of anonymity (or lack of anonymity), hate speech, cyber bullying and online sexism/racism/ableism/homophobia should be discussed openly.  This is partly so that people become aware that they can get into real (legal) trouble by posting online hate speech, but also hopefully so that people are able to find spaces where they feel safe online.

Session 2: A “Crisistunity” for Public Libraries?

The next session I went to was pitched by Dan (@DanPGrace), who has written a blog about his PhD on resilience and public libraries.  The ideas discussed in this session were thorny ones – is it enough to be fighting for the state to keep public libraries open?   Can we trust the state to serve communities, or does it only act in its own interests?  Is there a better way of running libraries, and can the current crisis in funding be seen as a “Crisis-tunity?”  A successful volunteer-run library in London was mentioned, which some people felt managed to be more vibrant and engaging than the previous council-run service .  I found it all very difficult, because my instinct is to support the public sector (even though I can see the problems with it).  I can’t help worrying that any attempt to turn to a more community-run model would only be playing into the hands of the current government who wants to promote its “big society” concept.  There was a suggestion that charities could run libraries, which I think isn’t really a way forward, partly because I have problems with the concept of charity (in that it only patches up the symptoms of societal inequality rather than attacking the causes), but also because a significant amount of effort would have to go into gaining funds rather than providing a good service.  There were lots of other people who disagreed with the idea as well.  However, I can definitely see why we should look critically at the way the state runs libraries.  It is one of those things that I end up tying myself in knots over and not coming to any good conclusions, but it was interesting to discuss, and I look forward to reading more of Dan’s blog.

People at Radical Library Camp discussing "Crisistunity"

You can just about spot me in this photo, trying to decide what I think and not succeeding. Attribution “Radical Library Camp” on Facebook.


Lunch was excellent. There was daal, and banana bread (two excellent foodstuffs), and also sherry.

Session 3: LGBTQ in libraries

After lunch, I went to the session hosted by Liz (@lgbtlibrarian).  As her name suggests, her PhD research is on the provision of LGBTQ materials in public libraries.  Another library camper had also just finished her MA Dissertation on the same topic but based in school libraries, so there were lots of things to talk about.  We discussed why although librarians in public and school libraries are fairly positive about supporting the LGBTQ community, in reality they often fall short.  Is it because they think it’s a niche concern and they have lots of other things to do, because they don’t have enough knowledge of what materials are available or because they are afraid of being challenged?  It was suggested that it could be a mixture of reasons.  We also discussed visibility of LGBTQ material, especially in schools.  On one hand, it’s important for the material to be visible so that LGBTQ people know it’s there.  On the other hand, the stigma still attached to queer sexualities means that at best people may feel uncomfortable about approaching a separate ‘section,” and at worst may face actual physical violence for doing so.  There is also the issue about LGBTQ fiction being seen as “other,” – if everything is stuffed in a separate section then many straight readers might miss out on novels featuring LGBTQ characters.  It was agreed that probably the best approach was promoting visibility through displays and posters, and discoverablilty through recommended-reading lists and the catalogue, but keeping collections integrated.   Quality of LGBTQ fiction was also discussed as being not just a librarianship issue, but also a publishing one.  Although as a teenager I appreciated the LGBT section at Sheffield Central Library, I remember being disappointed that once I’d got through “Tipping the Velvet,” all that was left was erotica for gay men!  As I looked into it more with the help of the internet, I found that there were quite a few novels with gay and lesbian characters.  However, when you get to the other letters in the acronym; B (bisexual) and T (transgender) there is a lot less material out there.  And as for I (intersex )and  A (asexual), it is difficult to find anything at all.    Librarians and publishers need to work together to make sure that there is more good quality fiction and non-fiction material to support these groups.

For the second part of the session, we moved on to discuss radical libraries and archives, and their role in creating a record of LGBTQ history, which has traditionally been obscured and marginalised.  We discussed the ethical considerations of creating this record – although it is very important to increase the visibility of queer history, it may not be helpful to “out” people through making photos and documents publicly available, especially online, when they and their families are still alive.  A suggestion was made that anything digitised and put online should have an option for people to identify themselves, and request for the image/document to be taken down.  On a related note, I went to an archive recently that respected radical feminist requests to keep certain documents/newsletters  (published in the 70s and 80s) “women only”.  Although this type of policing throws up issues surrounding trans* women that I wasn’t comfortable with, it is still an interesting reminder that the history recorded in radical archives can be seen as politically relevant today, especially if (as in this case) the original creators of the material are involved in preserving and managing the archive.

Pamphlets from "Gay's the Word" Bookshop

Pamphlets from “Gay’s the Word” Bookshop. Image Mine.

Session 4: Supporting the Information Needs of Activists

The final session I went to was about supporting the information needs of activist communities.  Although I’ve been involved in a few activist-y type groups, I’ve not been an “information professional” for very long and therefore haven’t had the same experience as some of the people there, who found they had become the “go-to” person for seeking information.  Reliable statistics, legal information and research about companies are just a few of the reasons that activists need good information skills (and good access to e-resources).  We discussed a US service called “Radical Reference,” which sounds really interesting.  Designed for activists and independent journalists, it allows people to ask a research question, which is then answered by a team of volunteer librarians.

We talked about some of the problems that running such a service would throw up.  The main one is the need for extremely dedicated volunteers – some of the enquiries posted on the site are very complicated.  For example, one query was from someone running a workshop for disabled activists looking for studies on how many prisoners are denied medication whilst incarcerated; another looking for analyses of politically motivated children’s picture books from the 80s!  If there were only a small group of volunteers, or a larger group of very casual volunteers, it would be easy for complicated queries to be left unanswered.  Some of the group members in this session commented that they already found it hard to support activist groups that they belonged to because research took up such a long time, especially when you had to juggle it with a full-time job.

A step further on from answering research questions is radical information literacy training.  Mirroring the librarian’s role in schools/hospitals/universities/companies, the aim here is not to answer reference questions, but to teach people how to find information for themselves.  An example of this could be a training session on how to research companies using free information sources (I’d quite like to go to such a session, as I definitely don’t think I have the skills to deliver it!)  Although everyone thought this was an exciting idea, it was decided that no one could commit to such a big project.  However, people thought that it would be useful to take small steps in this direction when supporting activists.  For example, if someone asks you to find information, rather than just giving them the answer, you also tell them how you found it.  As I said, I don’t find myself in this situation very often but perhaps I will in the future.

Session 5: Plenary

We all came together at the end, and talked about where we wanted to take “Radical Library Camp” in future.  As there were a lot of busy people in the room, it was decided that it didn’t matter if we didn’t start on any huge projects straight away.  As someone commented:

“Desultory’s fine if that’s all you’ve got!”

However, there was talk of reviving NORLA, the Network of Radical Libraries and Archives, which would be a really good idea.  There are so many great independent libraries and archives around and people don’t necessarily know about them.  It was also decided that we needed an online space where we could share resources.   Here’s a link to the facebook page and here’s the wiki  Hopefully they will continue to grow and become a useful resource.

There was also a lot of enthusiasm for another Radical Library Camp.  I look forward to it, as I had an excellent day all round, both at the event and at the drinks in the 1 in 12 Club afterwards (it has its own radical library!)

See you next time everyone 🙂

Banner with "What's Going on in the World Today?"

Here’s a banner I took on the “Don’t Attack Iraq” Protest 10 years ago. Still relevant today. Image mine.


Library Camp comes to Sheffield!


View of my home town of Sheffield
Image by Chris Downer & reused under CC License


Exciting times last Saturday as a mini Library Camp arrived in Sheffield (where I grew up, and now study).  Sheffield Hallam University was kind enough to provide the venue, and lots of people turned up bearing cake, ready to discuss all things library-related.  One of the discussions was on whether librarians blog too much… so I decided to prove the stereotype correct by recapping the sessions here.

Session 1: Community/ Volunteer-Run Libraries

I started off with my own session on Community Libraries and volunteers.  Having never proposed a session before, I was a bit worried that no one would turn up, but they did, so that was a relief!  There has been a lot of discussion online about the recent Arts Council England report (Learning from Experience) but not everyone in the group had heard of it, so Eevee and I spent a bit of time explaining what the main issues with it were.  We tried not to push a particular point of view, as we wanted to see what everyone thought.  There was a general consensus that volunteer-libraries wouldn’t improve the public library service, and people said they wouldn’t volunteer to run a small library that was under threat of closing.  We discussed whether there was an issue with data-protection in community libraries, especially with recent announcements from the Society of Chief Librarians about public libraries providing Books on Prescription for those with mental health problems, and more generally with community-run libraries having access to the library management system.  Some group members thought that there would be a problem with this, whereas others argued that with a bit of training volunteers would easily be able to manage it.  We then argued about volunteering in general in public libraries.  Personally I would be very wary about taking any volunteer role in a public library in this economic climate (with the exception of schemes such as the Summer Reading Challenge), as I believe it could easily be used as justification for further cuts.  I also think there is a danger in thinking “I can use a public library for work experience and then get a job in an academic library” because the deprofessionalisation of the public libraries could have a knock-on effect on other types of libraries (as well as showing a lack of support for public library staff).  We had an interesting discussion, and people argued with me in several respects:

  1. That academic libraries will never be in danger of being volunteer-run as the University has to provide a certain level of service to fee-paying students.
  2. I was being too idealistic, and you need to take work-experience where you can get it.

In respect to the second point, I admit that students have a Catch-22 situation at the moment with work experience: I have come to a compromise this year by volunteering in the Feminist Archive North in Leeds, which is volunteer-run and always has been.  A friend who came to the session is doing a short term placement at a public library in Manchester as part of her MSc, and that seems another, potentially less harmful way of going about it.

At the end of the day, everyone came away with their own ideas, but a few of the group members said they hadn’t considered the ethical implications of volunteering in public libraries before, so even if people disagreed with me, I’m glad it provoked something to think about!

Session 2: Are Librarians Self-Obsessed?

This was proposed by @shibshabs.  As I said, the fact that I’m currently blogging about it has made me laugh.  The main debate was about the flood of librarian blogs, tweets and unconferences that appear on a daily basis, and whether they actually do any good, or encourage a lot of pointless naval gazing!  An example was the recent #librarianstress hashtag, which was provoked by a very short article listing librarianship as one of the least stressful jobs.  It caused a lot of anger, followed by anger about people being angry, followed by anger about people being angry about being angry – to no really useful purpose.  It was suggested that librarians should probably just put all that energy into delivering a really good service.  However, it was also raised that the nature of the job; always having to explain what librarians do, challenging the notion that there are no libraries any more, living with job insecurity and threats of funding cuts, makes an outlet for reflection and frustration quite useful.  Everyone wondered whether other professions suffered from self-obsession quite as much – suggestions welcome!  We discussed the usefulness of the ‘day in the life’ style blogs as a way of promoting librarianship, and wondered whether anyone outside of the profession actually read them, or would be interested if they did.  Personally, I think they’re great for new professionals and people looking to pursue a career in librarianship as they give you a taste of loads of different sectors, but am not convinced that they would be widely read by anyone else.  I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise though.

The discussion then moved on to social media in particular, and there was quite a heated debate over whether it was necessary to be active on social media to advance your career.  I find Twitter really useful for getting information about conferences and events, as well as news and discussion (it was through Twitter that I got most of the information about the ACE report and SCL universal offers for public libraries).  I have read many interesting blogs, which I have to say aren’t all naval gazing; they’re often about an issue within librarianship, or the write-up of a conference that I can’t afford to go to.  I also know some really nice people through Twitter, and would like to one day meet them in real life.  That said, I’m not on Twitter all day everyday, and I also follow non-library stuff – feminist, queer & disability bloggers, museums & theatres, political bloggers, bands etc. so hopefully I don’t get too library-obsessed.  In the session it was suggested that there were some ways in which social networking could actively help you do a better job as an information professional, particularly for solo school librarians who don’t work in a team of colleagues, but most people thought that there were dedicated people doing excellent jobs without Twitter.  It was also pointed out that many of these people are in more senior positions, and therefore will be the ones sitting on interview panels.  I’m not sure whether we came to a consensus in the session, but my own personal view is that you should only use social media if you enjoy it.  Although you should probably have some understanding of how it works, if only because one day you might be asked to manage your library’s Twitter account.


Lunch was initially just going to be cake, but then @daveyp very kindly sponsored some Subway sandwiches for us all.  We also went to the Millenium Galleries café, where tea was only £1.  Bargain.  At lunchtime I chatted to some MMU students and we compared courses and finding-a-job panic.  Then we ate flapjack to calm down.

Session 3: Research Data Management

This was proposed by @libmichelle .  It was really interesting, as I didn’t know much about it, and there were a few people there who were very informed (thanks @pennyb for her input in particular). Research Data Management is an emerging field in librarianship, as researchers are being told more and more that they have to make their data available for both discovery and reuse.  When you think of how much research data is generated in UK universities, you can see what a big job it is to manage it all –not to mention that it comes in all different formats, and therefore is more complicated than managing journal articles.  It was questioned in the session whether it was the librarian’s job to get involved in RDM, and whether, considering the size of the task, it was feasible to ask an Academic Librarian to include this as part of their job description.  Problems seem to be that there is not enough funding dedicated to creating a really good infrastructure and providing the right kind of training to repository staff (academic librarians may not be able or willing to reskill).  Also, apparently researchers are often cautious about handing over the management of their data to information professionals, as we don’t have sufficient disciplinary knowledge to undertake the role.  I’m not sure why an information professional would have to have such a high level of disciplinary knowledge – surely they would be better off knowing about different formats of data, the importance of metadata, how to facilitate access and the ethical/legal issues surrounding data?  Then they could liaise with academics about what their needs were, and work from there.  I would be interested in hearing the researchers’ perspectives on this.  Despite the problems surrounding RDM, it seems that it will grow in importance, and librarians should seize the chance to get involved – several group members mentioned jobs advertised recently which involved liaising with academics about their data management.  It’s an area I’d really like to know more about, and am even considering possible dissertation topics thanks to that session (well, I’ve taken a book out of the IC called “Managing Research Data” so that counts as a start).

Session 4: Sustainability Literacy in Public Libraries

Another heated debate during the final session.  This one was based on the proposition that public libraries should be involved in teaching people about green issues: energy efficiency, recycling, liaising with other groups to provide bike maintenance sessions, tool libraries and all kinds of other good ideas.  I was interested in this as a friend studying for her PhD in energy use at UCL was trying to persuade me to do my MA dissertation on the way people used and sought for information about energy issues.  She was worried that people received a lot of misinformation as they didn’t know the right information sources to go to (and this had an impact on both the wider issue of climate change and people’s personal energy bills).  I’m not sure I am going to study this, but if anyone else wants to take it on it sounds like an interesting dissertation topic!  The public library seems like the ideal place to involve itself with this kind of education, and the session-leader told us that Sheffield Libraries were already taking some steps in this direction.  However, the problem seemed to be engaging the public – would people be willing to come to the library for this?  It was thought that there would be a problem with apathy.

The argument came when the conversation moved to suggestions that the public library ought to take a particular political standpoint (e.g. running sessions on left-wing activism, the Occupy Movement etc.).  The concern was raised about the value of a public library as a politically neutral space, and it was suggested that instead the library focussed on teaching people about the electoral process in a neutral way, so they could make informed decisions.  It ended up in a more general discussion about library ethics.  What would you do about a library patron who asked for times for an EDL march, for example?  Or a patron who asked for information about committing suicide?  These are not situations I’ve ever experienced so I felt I couldn’t contribute– I’ve never worked in a public library, and I can see that information professionals can never be completely neutral when answering questions.  Most of the group seemed to think that a public librarian should make every effort to be neutral, and to provide the information, perhaps alongside a discussion about the patron’s information needs.


We all went to the Sheffield Tap next to the station after the event was over.  There I got to meet some lovely people, some of whom I previously only knew through Twitter (@SaintEvelin, @LVCoombs and @sarahcchilds in particular).

I also had an interesting discussion about whether librarians from other sectors should defend public libraries.  It’s always good to have your views challenged, as I had always thought that cross-sectoral support for public libraries was a good thing – a lack of it leads to the situation that I described in the first session, where people think that it’s OK that public libraries are closing because they can get jobs in academic libraries.  The argument against this was that people who didn’t/weren’t prepared to work in public libraries shouldn’t be so prominent in either studying them academically (in the Sheffield iSchool for instance) or actively campaigning for them.  I can see how this argument is valid in that library researchers/campaigners should keep in mind that they should be in constant communication with public library workers, as they are the people who really understand the current situation.  Also, perhaps public library researchers should be taken from staff who have some experience in the sector rather than just enthusiastic library students who like the idea of the public library (although I stand by the view that it takes different skills/motivations to be an academic researcher than it does to be a public librarian).    And in an ideal world, those most vocal in support of public libraries would be the staff themselves.  However, in the real world, there are lots of reasons why this can’t happen, not least the pressure that public library workers get from the council not to campaign.  Also, some people just don’t have the time or energy to devote themselves to advocacy (families, illness, other commitments), and it seems as though there’s no strong union to support them.  In this case, support from other sectors (and also from the general public) is vital.  There are lots of library graduates who would love to work in public libraries, but I’m not one of them, simply because I don’t think my skills and experience would be best suited to it – I’d like to work with researchers/students preferably, although am open to most jobs!  However, as there are no shortage of people on my course who would make fantastic public and children’s librarians I am not really concerned about supporting them without actively seeking a public library career myself.  And leaving the profession aside, I would defend public libraries anyway as a vital service, just as I would oppose other cuts – children’s services and arts cuts as local examples.  I would be interested to hear other people’s opinions on this issue!

I hope everyone enjoyed the day as much as I did, and got back home safely from Sheffield, before the next bout of snow arrived!  My next Library Camp adventure will be to LibCamp London on March 2nd, where I have been faithfully promised that the librarians will get drunk afterwards… 😉