CILIP CEO Nick Poole's speech to the Cambridge Library Group at the University of Cambridge for the Cambridge library group on the 27th February.
Not so very long ago, I was asked whether I was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of libraries and indeed of librarians. It seemed like a strange question. I am the Chief Executive of the UK’s Library Association, so it should naturally follow that I am optimistic about both our sector and our profession. And indeed I am.
But the more I thought about it, the more I understood why the question was asked.
It seems like every day there is some fresh outrage. A library service being handed to well-intentioned but ill-equipped volunteers to allow a Council to wash its hands of yet another financial obligation. A seemingly endless array of bureaucrats who understand the price of everything and the value of nothing – especially not libraries. Another intake of schoolchildren who will go through school never knowing the support of a professional librarian, who think a library is a box of books in a corridor. These are the stuff of our daily news briefings and indeed of much of our work at CILIP.
But despite all of these things, I am hugely, irrepressibly optimistic about the future both of our sector and our profession. So I wanted to spend a little time this evening explaining why.
There are essentially three reasons:
The first is because of what a librarian or information professional is – what it means to do this job for a living rather than being an astronaut or a scientist or a politician.
The second is because of what a library or information service means to the community it serves – whether that community is based in a neighbourhood, or a school, or a hospital, or a business.
The third, and perhaps most important, is because of what it means to have libraries and librarians here, now, in the period of our history that we are currently living through. The part we play in making life better for the people we serve.
The power of librarianship
So I wanted to talk first about the power of librarianship. I know it is sometimes hard to feel all that powerful when you’re coming in every day, turning on the lights, answering questions, fighting with your email inbox. But in a world that is made of information, in which information can be shared in good or bad faith, to change the world or inflict harm, it means something profoundly important to stand up and say “I am a librarian”.
To paraphrase the great librarian and teacher R David Lankes, a librarian is someone who believes they can change the world through knowledge, information and learning.
Saying “I am a librarian” is a declaration that you believe that people have a right to take control of the information in their lives, to use it to better themselves, change their future. In a world in which far too many people have no idea that information plays every bit as important a role in their lives as the air they breathe and the ground they walk on, saying “I am a librarian” is a commitment to helping our communities fulfil a vital need that many do not even know they have. It is, fundamentally, a commitment not to books, or buildings, or PC’s or wifi or websites, but to people and to their right to learn.
As librarians, we believe that people have a right to learn. Whatever part of the sector we work in, whether it is health or higher education, public libraries or the private sector, we dedicate ourselves to creating services which empower our users to learn. Because we know that learning changes lives.
CILIP recently undertook a review of the Code of Ethics of our profession, led by our former Chair Dawn Finch. Now I freely admit that I thought we would find it challenging to engage people in a discussion about ethics. But I could not have been more wrong.
Over the course of the consultation some 1800 people responded online and hundreds more participated in a ‘big conversation’ about ethics across the whole of the UK. And the message could not have been more clear – the ethics of our profession needed to be updated, simplified, modernised, made more relevant and vital for people working every day in libraries. But they did not need to change.
In fact, a librarian from the 1890’s coming to the 2019 Ethical Principles for our profession might not be familiar with the words but they would absolutely recognise the sentiment they express. Today’s ethical principles include a commitment to human rights, equality and diversity. To work for the benefit of the public. To preserve access to knowledge and promote the universal right of intellectual freedom. To strive for impartiality – not through neutrality, but through a culture of transparency and accountability and opposition to censorship. To commit ourselves to building information skills and information literacy, helping others to develop their critical faculties. And finally to protect the confidentiality of our users.
Human rights, equality, diversity, intellectual freedom, impartiality – I know these can seem like high-minded ideals, far removed from the reality of day-to-day work in libraries, but in reality, they are the culture which permeates everything we do, they are the reason why a library is something unique and different from almost any other environment. These values, whether we express them out loud or not, are what allow us to change the lives of the people we serve. Libraries are trusted because they have been consistently trustworthy for generations. They are trustworthy because they are built on the ethos, ethics and values of librarianship.
The call to activism
It is the responsibility of each generation of librarians and information professionals to take those values, the values that have consistently been at the core of our profession throughout its history, and to apply them to help our users deal with the contemporary reality they face.
Again to quote Lankes, “The reason librarianship has existed in one form or another for 4 millennia is because it has changed to implement long held principles in light of the changing realities of those that the library serves.”
And I think the reality which our users face today is one of immense possibility and profound risk.
On the one hand, young people growing up today have grown up in a world of agency and access to knowledge that was unimaginable three generations ago. They live in a world of permission-less innovation – where you can go from a creative spark to a global audience literally overnight. A world in which our most beautiful paintings, our greatest writing, our most powerful films are available in seconds. In which alien cultures and languages are magically made familiar and accessible. In which virtual worlds respond to your every command, your progress silently smoothed by the unseen hand of algorithms.
But much as the future is already with us, it just hasn’t been evenly distributed yet, the democratising potential of the Internet and technology has not necessarily translated into a more just or equal society.
That same world of permission-less innovation is also a world in which black, Asian or minority ethnic people are more than twice as likely to be overlooked for a job application or promotion than their similarly qualified white counterparts. It is the same world in which disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as people without a disability.
This is a world in which 33% of schoolchildren are of minority ethnic origin but in which of the 9000 children’s books published in 2018, only 4% featured non-white characters, and 1% - 1% - had a non-white protagonist.
This is a world in which 30% of the UK prison population fails a level 1 literacy test on entry to the prison system.
This is a world in which we face the very real risk of a 2-tier society, with 2-tier access to basic amenities and services depending on how able your local Council is to raise funds from local taxation.
This is a world in which a serving politician can knowingly lie about Britain’s share of the post-war Marshall plan as part of a more general point about brexit and can compound that lie on national television because he knows there are people out there who will simply believe him because his lie reinforces their emotional convictions.
This is a world in which women still earn on average 20% less than men in equivalent roles, in which gender inequality in the UK has not improved by a single percentage point in the past decade.
So if we as librarians truly believe in the values we espouse as a profession, then it is not sufficient for us to be passive in the face of this reality. We have to become activists. Champions of social change. We have to use every ounce of our strength and influence to resist these injustices and help bring about a better world for our users. Because it isn’t libraries that change lives, it’s librarians. It’s us, based on our professional values and ethics. There is a profoundly important job for us to do actively to oppose injustice, to arm our users to navigate the challenges of our contemporary reality, and ultimately to bring about a better, more just and inclusive society.
The changing nature of our profession
Several times this evening, I have used the word ‘profession’. The fact that librarianship is a profession is one of the reasons why I am so optimistic about our future. It was hard-won, becoming a profession. It took us hundreds of years to become one.
But I think the concept of librarianship as a profession is coming under assault from two sources – one internal and one external. Internally, I meet too many people in leadership roles in the profession who do not have a basic connection to the values and practice of librarianship.
This internally-driven process of deprofessionalisation began 20 years ago amidst a revolutionary enthusiasm to abandon the constraints of the past and become more open and agile and creative. If we let slip the bonds of professionalism, the thinking went at the time, we will liberate libraries to be more socially-engaged, more adaptable. In my view, this was a terrible, terrible mistake. The point was not to abandon librarianship but to adapt it to the reality the previous generation then faced.
The externally-driven process of deprofessionalisation tracks almost exactly to the rise of the culture of measurement and managerialism. From the Thatcher era on, we became a society obsessed with quantification – that everything that mattered could be measured. That input A had to be linked directly with output B. But this cult of measurement is anathema to a profession which uses a combination of our values and specialist skills to support our users across such a vast range of activities. A single public library will impact on learning and health, on an individual’s quality of life and their children’s opportunity to learn, on local businesses and people’s sense of pride in where they live. In an age in which input A has to be linked to output B, how do you value a service that changes lives in countless imperceptible but profound ways every single day?
The answer, sadly, in too many cases, is that you don’t.
A Finance Director in a multi-academy trust can look at a balance sheet that is driven by a quantifiable curriculum, a funding model which treats children’s imaginations as a standardised variable, and decide that the value of a school librarian is equivalent to that of a janitor. A local Councillor can look at the spiralling costs of child protection and adult social care and decide that a public library has more value as an empty shell than as the beating heart of its community. A Government can look at libraries as an isolated cost but fail totally to understand that the benefits they deliver impact every single part of our economy and quality of life.
I should emphasise that this is by no means universal – there are just as many places in which librarianship is celebrated, valued and supported as there are in which it is being undermined, if not more. But there is no doubt that the status and recognition of the importance of librarianship in our contemporary reality is not being recognised. The central challenge facing our profession, both internally and in the eyes of the outside world, is to re-connect with our identity as a profession and to establish our status as an essential part of helping our users, our communities, our schools and businesses to succeed in a modern world that is driven by knowledge, information and data.
The role of CILIP as a professional association
CILIP exists because professions in any sector, once they reach a specific point of maturity, tend to create institutions through which to express their professional identity and as a platform through which to pursue their common interests.
The original Library Association was actually founded by a group of librarians in 1877 to provide a focus for their efforts to lobby for the original Penny Tax – allowing local Councils to raise a tax to fund universal local public libraries – and to encourage philanthropists to build libraries to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887.
In 1898, we were formally awarded a Royal Charter, which has remained essentially the same with some modifications ever since. That Charter gave us 16 ‘mandates’, which essentially boil down to four main functions:
- To act as the steward of our ethics as a profession
- To foster a culture of ongoing innovation and adaptation in professional practice
- To help librarians develop and demonstrate their professional skills and
- To provide a platform to campaign for our common interests
So much as the role of each new generation of librarians is to adapt their skills and values to help their users confront contemporary reality, my role in coming into CILIP is to take these four roles – ethics, innovation, professional development and advocacy – and to adapt them to the contemporary challenges and opportunities facing our profession. So I wanted to share some of the ways in which we are going about that job.
Firstly, what does it mean to be the steward of our professional ethics in today’s world?
In my view, it means becoming an activist organisation which focuses explicitly on inspiring and supporting our members to challenge inequality and injustice and to achieve positive change through their work. It means revising, updating and revitalising our ethics and then re-connecting the profession with them so they become a living, breathing part of critical and reflective librarianship.
This is why CILIP undertook the Ethics Review. It is why we have updated our terms of membership so that every member makes a positive affirmation of these ethics. It is why the ethics and values of librarianship are right at the centre of the Professional Knowledge and Skills Base, our professional standard. It’s why we will be publishing a manifesto for an activist view of libraries and librarianship, building on the existing Libraries Change Lives. It also means ensuring that we as a professional body live by the ethics we promote on behalf of the profession, which is why we are committed to a comprehensive Diversity and Equalities Action Plan.
Secondly, what does it mean to ‘foster a culture of innovation and adaptation in professional practice?
In the old world, you could reasonably expect all of the ingredients of a library service – the user, the librarian, the content, the discovery tools and the service – to be contained within a single physical location, the library.
20 years of digital innovation have fundamentally disrupted that model. Librarianship today may or may not be bounded within a physical building. The content may be in one location or many. The finding aids may span many collections. The service might be face-to-face or online, local or global. The work of the librarian is as likely to involve facilitating the flow of knowledge, structuring data, providing a caring human face or ensuring the good governance of information as it is organising books on shelves.
This diversification and disruption means that we must constantly adapt and develop our professional skills, not just to account for today’s reality, but in light of the speed of technological change, for the reality of the day after tomorrow.
So CILIP has addressed this by publishing a Workforce Development Strategy for the next 5 years, focusing on attracting diverse talent into the profession, helping our members futureproof their skills and careers and ensuring that we are equipped to help our users take advantage of things like data analytics, AI and machine learning while avoiding the risks.
Through our publisher Facet, we provide thought leadership in information science – helping to ensure that we continue to innovate our practice to accommodate developments in the field. We also act as a convener – bringing together librarians and information professionals from more than 20 industry sectors to share insights, ideas and innovation. One of the most important innovations introduced during my time at CILIP has been opening up access to our 23 Special Interest Groups so that any member can join any group. This provides an unparalleled opportunity for our members to engage with and learn from colleagues in other parts of the profession.
Thirdly, what does it mean to help librarians develop and demonstrate their professional skills?
I should be clear that my definition of ‘professionalism’ is open and inclusive. I do not intend CILIP to be a closed shop or a high priesthood which uses professional qualifications to include some people and not others. We are about to begin a Professionalism Review to restate and rearticulate this principle, but at heart, we believe that you are what makes you a professional – your values and skills and how you deploy them to support your users.
We can help you develop those skills through CPD and training support and we can maintain the ethics of our profession as an expression of those values. Through Professional Registration, we can recognise your professionalism and help you evidence it for employers. But we cannot perpetuate the myth, as it was expressed to me by a delegate at a recent event, that “I can’t be a professional because I haven’t got my exams”.
Our aim is to open up the concept of professionalism without undermining or devaluing it. To enable more people to see themselves building a career as a professional librarian or information professional, while ensuring that our standards and recognition remain high. As part of this, we are actively working with the library schools in the UK and internationally to accredit their teaching and learning. I am also delighted to confirm that we have achieved recognition of the first Level 3 Apprenticeship standard for a Library Apprentice.
But at the heart of all of this is Professional Registration – the best way to demonstrate your commitment to your own professionalism and career, endorsed by a dedicated and experienced Professional Registration and Accreditation Board. Alongside Professional Registration for librarians, I am delighted that CILIP is currently launching the world’s first Chartership for Knowledge Managers, and we will be looking to develop similar support for people working in Information Management and Data Science over the next two years.
We are working with providers across the supply chain of skills – learning providers, careers advisers, employers and professionals – to ensure that we are creating opportunities for our members to succeed long into the future. We want there to be great jobs for librarians and information professionals which recognise and reward our uniquely valuable skills.
And finally, what does it mean to provide a platform to campaign for our common interests?
A professional association belongs to the profession – by definition. We are the independent voice of our profession and whether it was the campaign for the penny tax, our work with Health Education England on the #AMillionDecisions campaign or the forthcoming campaign on the impact of Information Poverty in the UK, we bring together resources, influence and professional campaigning expertise to help fight for the common interests of our profession.
In today’s world, being an effective champion means building networks of influence. That is why we undertake ongoing PR and political engagement to develop relationships with key influencers and decision-makers. Platforms like the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group allow us to bring together cross-platform support to help us get the message across about the value and impact of our profession against key Government priorities or to help us lobby for legislative change.
It means effective media relations, which is why we work hard to develop relationships with journalists and broadcasters, undertake around 30 media interviews a year, provide briefings and seek to place stories about the impact of our profession in the national and local press and media.
It also means being an effective digital campaigner – developing online networks and communities to leverage support and amplify our message when we need it.
My mission at CILIP is to modernise it as a professional association, to ensure that it is the champion and advocate which today’s profession needs. Not by abandoning our heritage or core values, but by bringing them forward and adapting them to today’s reality.
Our profession is changing all the time. It is also recovering from a period of neglect and deprofessionalisation. It is rising to the new challenges of social justice and activism while continuing to deliver the core work of good, accountable access to structured knowledge and information. It is adapting to digital change while being vigilant about the risks of creating new forms of exclusion or inequality. It needs to attract new diverse talent while helping its existing workforce to upskill and develop. It needs to convince people who have no functional understanding of ‘information’ that they need to employ professionals to manage it.
And so at last I return to the question of whether I am optimistic or pessimistic about the future of our profession. I would love to know your answer. I am optimistic.
For four millennia there has been something like a library and someone like a librarian. Whenever human beings come together for shelter and safety, they build a library – just look at the libraries in the Jungle in Calais. Whenever communities are at risk, they turn to the library for help – as they did in the US in the wake of hurricane Katrina. To paraphrase the great bibliophile and scholar Hermione Grainger, whenever people are in doubt, they go to the library.
We are, at the end of the day, information professionals in an Information Age. This is our time. As a profession, we are rising to the challenge. As your professional association, CILIP is right there beside you.
Image credit: Bridge, river, building and tree by Devin Kleu on Unsplash