Libraries and information

Information as a commodity – at #radliblon

'Ever Conquest (Evergreen Container Ship) at the Port of Los Angeles - Pictures from the Sprit Cruises 1-Hour Harbor Bay Cruise (San Pedro, California) - Saturday November 2, 2013' by Flickr use Corey Seeman https://flic.kr/p/hV31UF (license CC BY-NC-SA https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

‘Ever Conquest (Evergreen Container Ship) at the Port of Los Angeles – Pictures from the Sprit Cruises 1-Hour Harbor Bay Cruise (San Pedro, California) – Saturday November 2, 2013′ by Flickr use Corey Seeman (license CC BY-NC-SA https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

Introduction

I pitched this session at the Radical Librarians Collective (formerly Radical Library Camp) unconference in May following encouragement on Twitter from other delegates.

I wanted to open a discussion on information as a commodity using Marx’s analysis from Capital as a starting point to provide theoretical perspective. I hoped for free-flowing discussion about problems this relation introduces into information work – if indeed what I proposed was a reasonable analysis.

Commodities and the labour theory of value

Commodities in Marxian economics are products of human labour that have a value. They are typically sold or exchanged on the market and can be physical goods, or intangible services. Marx presents various ‘cycles’ of capital in his analysis, describing how money and commodities circulate by processes of exchange and how this introduces various contradictions that, Marx argues, lead inevitably to crises.

The notation takes a little getting used to. One of the simpler cycles in Capital volume 1 is:

M-C-M’

The hyphen means an exchange has taken place. Money (M) is exchanged for commodities (C) which are then exchanged for more than the original money outlay (M’) (Marx, 1976 pp. 247-257).

Marx really gets into the idea of cycles of capital in Capital volume 2. More complicated but relevant to our interests as workers is the cycle of:

M-CP-C’-M’

The ellipsis indicates interruption – here, capital moving from circulation into production. Money (M) is used to purchase commodities (C) in the form of means of production, and labour. These are used in a process of “productive consumption” (P) that forms extra value to produce new commodities (C’) which are sold for more than the original money outlay (M’) (Marx, 1978 pp. 109-143).

I like Marx’s approach here because he recognizes the central importance of living labour in the production process of society as a whole. Important to Marx’s labour theory of value is the idea invested capital is ‘valorized’ with added surplus value from the labour process of the workforce above and beyond the cost of their own labour.

One sobering implication of this cycle is that the labour power, that is our own time and energy, is also a commodity.

Information as a commodity

John Feather (2008 p. 109) states plainly information is a commodity:

Information is a commodity which is brought and sold. However difficult it may be to define how it acquires value, the fact of the commodification of information cannot be denied.

Marx’s examples are of their time and place so there is a lot about linen, iron, and corn, and less about intangibles like information. I read Feather’s comment as a rational and dispassionate statement of fact about life in the information society.

The session took place in the library of the London Action Resource Centre so I gave an example of a book on the shelf (a single author monograph) as a commodity that was produced for sale. No-one would disagree the pulp, card, ink etc. that makes up the print book are commodities and it follows the content created by the author’s intellectual process is also treated this way. Removing the print book, if we present the same information in the form of an ebook we would still have a commodity.

Commodification and commoditization

A former BT phone box containing books in rural Essex.

A former BT phone box containing books, in rural Essex.

Straying from classical Marxian economics, information can in another sense be commoditized. To avoid confusion I use these meanings:

  • Commodification means making something saleable that wasn’t before
  • Commoditization is the process of a product becoming a simple commodity, where there is little to differentiate different brands and suppliers

In the commoditized sense above, information becomes independent of its intellectual meaning. The RLC session wasn’t focused on this meaning, but I mentioned it as I find expressions of this idea particularly dangerous. It can justify thinking along the lines of closing libraries because the simple commodity ‘information’ can be delivered in other ways, for example books sold cheaply in supermarkets.

Commodities and information work

What does this cycle of exchange, valorization of intellectual work, and commodified information mean for information workers? There were thought-provoking points made in discussion of which I will give a flavour as I was trying to facilitate rather than takes notes.

Dan Grace spoke about the idea of the knowledge commons, and how commons being enclosed and commodified is the start of a process of turning knowledge commons – shared by all – into something exploited for private gain. Following the RLC conference Dan recommended The wealth of the commons edited by Bollier and Helfrich (2014) which is focused on resistance to this process. It is naturally enough Creative Commons-licensed and available online.

Charles Oppenheim noted that information has special characteristics related to its intangibility, for example:

  • It can be copied without loss of content. With digital media the marginal cost of making extra copies approaches zero.
  • More than one person can own it without depriving others of it, it is not “used up” in the way goods and services are.

Information is not like widgets rolling off a factory production line. Copyright is central as it represents an artificial limit on copying that, however originally intended, can be used to exert control over intellectual work. This introduces a contradiction in information work for the library worker who may oppose such control but have a responsibility of enforcing copyright in their workplace. We reached no easy conclusions about this particularly thorny problem.

I speculated on the “copyright judo” of copyleft approaches such as Free and Open Source Software and Creative Commons licenses. These approaches use copyright law as a lever to ensure enduring openness and freedom to use information-as-commodities for whatever purpose the user wishes. The question is, does co-opting these levers for our own use get us far enough? Arguably not, as this approach still perpetuates control of intellectual work and existing hierarchies of knowledge creation.

That said, access is powerful in itself because knowledge in our minds – versus information on a page or represented as bits – cannot be subject to copyright or otherwise controlled. In higher education there are drivers from Hefce (2014) and others to provide open access to the quintessential commodity made in higher education, research.

I believe this driver is strong enough to make this process part of a changed institutional approach to the research lifecycle as a whole, but a more subtle reading of the policy includes the implication academics as knowledge workers should be more sensitive to issues in licensing and copyright of their intellectual outputs.

In discussion Stuart Lawson shared a proposed declaration for LIS professionals to make their own work open access wherever possible. Since the RLC event Stuart and others have worked on finalizing the LIS open access declaration.

Overall I felt the analysis worked, and discussion provided interesting food for thought around the characteristics that make information special and how its flows are limited or encouraged. The LIS open access declaration is a particularly inspiring professional statement of intent and I hope many library workers sign up.

References

Bollier and Helfrich (eds.) (2014) The wealth of the commons. Amhurst, MA: Levellers Press. Available at: http://wealthofthecommons.org/ (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Feather, J (2008) The information society. 5th edn. London: Facet.

Hefce (2014) Policy for open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework. [Online]. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2014/201407/#d.en.86771 (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Marx, K (1976) Capital volume I. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Penguin.

Marx, K (1978) Capital volume II. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin.

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Libraries and information

Reflections on the LIS professional qualification

Introduction

For some time I’ve been trying to reach conclusions about the purpose and value of our professional masters qualification in library and information science (LIS) and this post is a reflective piece about this.

To set out my stall I am a higher education worker and I believe education has an intrinsic value, that is it has value for the sake of itself. I believe in education as a transformative process as well as an engine of social mobility, and I see professional qualifications such as the LIS masters as providing both aspects of this.

Anyone in higher education will also understand ‘social mobility’ as a polite way of noting the wage premium holders of degrees and especially postgraduate qualifications attract – a readable, recent summary of trends and issues in this area is available in Lindley and Machin (2013).

Episteme and gnosis

'fried egg on toast' by Flickr user Anastasia Liem, License CC-BY-NC.

‘fried egg on toast’ by Flickr user Anastasia Liem, License CC-BY-NC.

Personally I do not think the LIS masters should be vocational training to provide specific practical knowledge to do library work.

Rather I see the value in masters-level education of providing enough theory and knowledge of general principles that a library worker can bridge the gap between theoretical understanding and practical understanding developed in our professional practise.

To expand on this, I’ll borrow the fried egg model from Playdon and Josephy (2011) where it is presented in the context of postgraduate medical education. In this model:

  • Episteme is knowledge of fixed systems: our knowledge of what is true in library and information science
  • Gnosis is knowledge arising from relationships: our insight developed from our work
  • Importantly, gnosis contains episteme and so it is the egg white in our model; episteme is the yolk

In Playdon and Josephy it’s argued these two kinds of knowledge are not either-or, rather the masters is one way of allowing us to bridge the gap between episteme and gnosis. One aspect of being an effective and rounded professional is being able to give meaning to theoretical ‘fact’ in practice.

I believe this is one reason why we see a difference between an experienced practitioner and a newcomer in the ability to reach insight seemingly effortlessly. My argument is knowledge of LIS theory is essential to what we do but is not everything we need to know for professional practice. This comes in time by learning and developing our ability and skill in the workplace.

I absolutely have the feeling of having levelled up by completing a LIS masters, and I apply the theoretical and practical content of the course in my work every day. One highlight, a very useful module for me was research methods. This has enduring value for application in evidence-based librarianship, and rounded out my understanding of qualitative methods alongside the very quantitative focus of my first degree in biology.

Problems in hiring and the LIS professional qualification

The Library Loon as a LIS educator has written insightfully on the ‘didn’t learn that in library school’ trope as the manifestation of feelings, especially of new professionals, of wanting to avoid uncertainty or unpleasant surprises and wanting to feel expert. I certainly don’t think a LIS masters will give everything you need to feel and moreover be expert, and it can’t be considered a replacement for getting in years of focused practice – many thousands of hours – to achieve mastery.

I think problematizing the LIS masters is an unhelpful mistake. I am particularly concerned by qualified librarians, speaking from a position of privilege, talking down the professional qualification as ‘just a piece of paper’ or ‘a hoop to jump through’. Balance is vital here. We must acknowledge the value of focused practice in a workplace context and commitment to continuing professional development (CPD) alongside any formal professional qualification a person holds.

This is one reason when shortlisting, interviewing, or writing or giving input into a person specification I always take ‘or equivalent experience’ as seriously as the ‘Postgraduate qualification in LIS’ that precedes it. Another major reason for me, and for any HR department, is this is of course an equality and diversity issue.

There are definitely aspects of my masters course I would have altered given the chance. Specifically, I think closing the loop between theory and practice is important, but equally so is feeding practitioners’ recent knowledge back into LIS education as this is one contact point between gnosis and episteme in our profession. This is something campus-based LIS courses tend to do very well, and I think with current technology it should be possible to provide a similar learning experience for the likes of me, the part-time distance learner.

I would connect this to the argument in Ian Clark’s recent blog post, that we as LIS professionals have a responsibility to be active in this area and should lobby for better degrees where think current provision is lacking.

Acknowledgement

My thanks to Dr Muna Al-Jawad for helpful discussion on the subject of postgraduate education as professional qualification. Muna blogs at Old Person Whisperer.

References

Clark, I.J. (2014) ‘My challenge to experienced librarians: lobby for a better degree’, Infoism, 13 February. Available at: http://infoism.co.uk/2014/02/my-challenge-to-experienced-librarians-lobby-for-a-better-degree/
Library Loon (2013) ‘Uncertainty will never be zero’, Gavialib, 18 September. Available at: http://gavialib.com/2013/09/uncertainty-will-never-be-zero/
Lindley, J. and Machim, S. (2013) The postgraduate premium. [Online]. Available at: http://www.suttontrust.com/public/documents/postgraduate-premium-report-1-.pdf
Playdon Z, and Josephy, A (2011) Journeys in postgraduate medical education. London: Third Space.

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Libraries and information

Management and leadership, a radical approach? At Radical Library Camp

Introduction

I recently attended, and made a very small contribution to help organize, a library unconference in Bradford. This was the first Radical Library Camp or #radlibcamp on Twitter.

There was some discussion pre-conference about the nature of a self-identified ‘radical’ unconference. I think the nature of unconferencing is already radical compared to formal conferences but what I thought made Radical Library Camp different was open space technology applied in a context of different issues and with knowledge of various issues and concepts already present with the attendees (or campers). In practical terms this meant sessions could hit the ground running with relatively little need to explain what we are about, and meant we could immediately dig into the issues at hand.

To me Radical Library Camp definitely still felt like a Library Camp event and ran along similar lines. It all went off very well. The venue, Bradford Resource Centre, was particularly welcoming and hosted us perfectly so many thanks to them.

For the event I had decided to try to talk less and spend more time listening and thinking about others’ contributions. However I couldn’t resist pitching something as I had recently been thinking about management and leadership and whether there could ever be a workable ‘radical’ approach, so…

Management and leadership session

'Leadership and radicalism...' session, modified from a photopgraph by Ian Clark. License CC-BY-NC.

‘Leadership and radicalism…’ session, modified from a photograph by Ian Clark. License CC-BY-NC.

I had done some reading about this, mainly at the excellent Institute of Education library, but really I wanted to open the question to the group and see where discussion took us. To this end I posed some questions after a brief opener:

  1. Is there an approach to managing people in libraries that remains honest? And if you manage people how do you do it?
  2. Making the leap: if you move from a ‘clerical / technical’ role to a ‘management / professional’ role, what changes? Is this just about others’ perceptions?
  3. Is it possible to be ‘management’ without selling out? How do you handle this yourself?

I explained I had been thinking primarily about leadership, but that we could easily look at ‘radical’ in different contexts such as supervision, management, or leadership. I suggested looking more broadly to be inclusive, as often staff on lower grades have supervisory or management responsibility without perceiving themselves as ‘management’ but will face some of the same issues as senior managers.

Some brief definitions of the difference between these roles:

  • The supervisor’s job is directing and instructing
  • The manager’s job is to planning, organizing, and coordinating
  • The leader’s job is inspiring and and motivating

It seems much easier to pitch a radical approach to leadership than to management. It’s much easier to bring to mind approaches exemplified by leaders, for example in trade unions or politics, who take a bona fide ‘radical’ approach. The managing and supervising context is more difficult and on reflection I do not think we were able to develop answers much beyond a leadership context.

It can seem obvious or self-evident that libraries like other organizations need management to ensure they are efficiently organized and productive. Daniel Wren for example presents management as a quite natural thing that follows the evolution of human society:

As people’s conceptual ability has been refined through evolution, they have also refined their understanding of the art of arranging physical and human resource for guidance towards purposeful ends. We call this art management… (Wren, 1987 p. 11, italics in original)

From a very different angle Marx (1976 pp. 448-451) identifies managers and supervisors as ‘a special kind of wage labourer’ with a function made necessary by the need to maximize generation of surplus value and hence profit. Marx of course relates this function to class struggle and casts management as a function necessary to make wage labourers cooperate with each other under capital.

I also gave some context about new public management (NPM) from the contemporary public sector. NPM as a concept denotes broad government policies since the 1980s that aimed to make the public sector more efficient and effective, the idea being a market-oriented management style could be used to drive cost-efficiency for government. For the organization and workers this meant a shift from a bureaucratic approach based on state administration to a managerialist approach based on performance: from ‘state-regulated’ to ‘market-regulated’ (Ward, 2012 pp. 47-52).

Discussion

Personally I took two major themes or points from the session: if there is a radical approach to management and leadership it is based on both fairness as a manager and authenticity as a leader.

Several in the group raised the idea of changing things from the inside as a manager - the idea is similar to entryism in politics and was called such by one of the campers. This deserves credit as leaders are likely best placed with opportunity, power, and freedom to act to make improvements, and certainly to lead by example. One possible trap here would be overemphasising the role of the individual and thinking it’s down to the ‘heroic leader’ doing everything themselves that drives improvements.

A general point made was that we should seek good practice in management and leadership even if this isn’t ‘radical’, indeed much of it won’t be so. Examples given were communicating well, listening even if you cannot act on everything you hear, and involving staff to get input on decision-making. One point raised in the session and beforehand by Sarah on Twitter was that good management practice isn’t linked to left or right-wing political opinions.

Authenticity and fairness

Liz raised authenticity in leadership as a vital characteristic. This is about being authentic yourself as a leader, and also how you implement an authentic approach in your context as a manager. Goffee and Jones describe how leaders translate this into behaviour to demonstrate authenticity:

  • A consistency between words and deeds – the leader practises what she preaches
  • Presentation of a consistent ‘real self’, despite the need to play different roles to different audiences
  • A sense of the leader being comfortable with her origins

These bullets are a paraphrased summary from Goffee and Jones (2006 pp. 16-17).

It doesn’t follow that the authentic leader is one everyone always agrees with or who is universally liked by staff, and the point was reinforced in discussion that it’s not possible to please everyone all the time.

Liz also raised the issue of being fair and being seen to be fair as a manager in treatment of staff as important. This means for example dealing with issues in a way that gives fair treatment to all and not playing favourites. To make one distinction here I would emphasize a difference between fairness and justice. The outcome of a situation may not be considered subjectively fair by everyone concerned, but from a management point of view it had better be just.

For me there was an outstanding question about personal responsibility and ensuring our personal values and professional ethics are congruent with our work and the values of the organizations we work for. One tweet commenting on the session discussion in this spirit from Dave:

One point raised from the audience here was this is a very difficult proposition for those in a situation of precarious labour. An example given was you may find you have no real choice but to work in an organization that doesn’t match your own ideals or professional ethics because there are no other jobs to move to. Points of principle rub up against real-world responsibilities like paying the rent or mortgage.

Stepping back from this very immediate example, more broadly from the point of view of managers and staff there is an issue here about the limits on what we can do personally to affect change. For example perhaps we dislike hierarchy, but we work in organizations that represent classic Weberian bureaucracies which rely on hierarchy to get things done. There is a balance here between going too far and selling out and being ineffective due to failing to engage with the cultural norms of the organization.

Reflecting on this further I think the key issue in authentic leadership is knowing where and how much to compromise to create progress without undermining our personal morals and professional ethics.

References

Goffee, R. and Jones, G. (2006) Why should anyone be led by you? Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.
Marx, K. (1976) Capital: a critique of political economy. Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Ward, S.C. (2012) Neoliberalism and the global restructuring of knowledge and education. London: Routledge.
Weber, M. (1947) The theory of social and economic organization. New York, NY: Free Press.
Wren, D.A. (1987) The evolution of management thought. 3rd edn. New York, NY: John Wiley.

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