Libraries and information

Creators not consumers: visualising the radical alternative for libraries

'Power to the People' by Ian Clark, license CC-BY. Available at:

‘Power to the People’ photograph by Ian Clark, license CC-BY.

The following post was written in collaboration with Ian Clark.

We are often presented with two choices within librarianship: a forward-thinking approach and a supposedly old-fashioned approach. These are sometimes characterised as progressive and conservative positions respectively. We argue, however, that this is a mis-characterisation and, in fact, the forward-thinking approach could be best described as conservative.

When considering what is progressive and what is conservative we need to consider our context. We exist in an environment that increasingly focuses on market fundamentalism as the default approach, and assumes markets as the most efficient path to provide solutions, drive progress, and ensure the most equitable outcome for all. Indeed, market fundamentalists argue that where there is a fault, it is due to a failure to make our economic system truly market-oriented. We see this for example in the way the cause of the current economic crisis is presented as rooted in public spending, rather than the failure of free market economics.

For us, this raises a question: what is progressive? Slotting in comfortably with the market consensus, the status quo, or embarking on a path that is visionary and alternative? Surely if we are to ponder what constitutes forward-thinking, we would want to consider alternatives that are original, distinct, and even radical?

The use of language is important. The packaging of certain ideas as “progressive” more easily allow questioning, protesting, or rejection of such ideas to be cast as old-fashioned or even regressive. Alternatives are, by their nature, a block on progress and their proponents unrealistic and outdated – perhaps even luddites selfishly putting their own interest above improvements for their service users. We see this abduction of language played out repeatedly throughout social and political discourse. A particular path – typically one that rejects a sense of ethics – is presented as inevitable, and any opposition can easily be dismissed as the archaic complaints of an isolated and outdated few.

Regarding libraries, a “progressive” approach has increasingly accepted marketised solutions to service provision. As a profession we have broadly accepted the idea of members or users as “customers” or “consumers”, and accepted the need to adopt market strategies to meet their needs. Within the broader context of a societal shift towards neoliberalism, it is hardly surprisingly the societal consensus – the common sense of our time – has been replicated within libraries. This is so accepted that a rejection of this approach, for example rejecting the label of “customer”, has become seen to be old-fashioned and outdated.

This progressive approach to libraries is problematic. It advocates a belief there is a market relationship between the service and the user, with barriers placed between the two, and reduces the relationship between libraries and users to a transactional one with the library supplying information – viewed as a commodity in a market setting. Strategies based on market approaches seek ways to overcome these barriers, to better understand users and research their needs to market the service more effectively and to more efficiently provide commodified information. However, we argue a more radical approach might see library users incorporated into the library service itself in a model of co-creation of service and co-production of knowledge, with librarians challenging dominant, marketised models of service provision. In a model of co-creation or co-ownership users would own the service as much as those running it. This would negate a need to “market” the service or to promote “customer service” as users would already be fully embedded within the service itself.

While not perfect by any means, the approach taken at Mondragon University in Spain offers an example of what can be possible if we re-calibrate the relationship between our services and our users. Rather than making the user distinct from the service, the user (in this case the student) is incorporated into the running of the university. Mondragon realises this through a democratic governance structure with a General Assembly composed of a third staff, a third students, and a third outside interested parties. As David Matthews’ article notes, this Assembly has significant powers from deciding priorities to dismissing senior managers. This is certainly radical in the current climate of higher education in the United Kingdom.

The Mondragon approach is far from ideal. It does, however, point to alternative ways of delivering HE and, potentially, for delivering services to students and our broader publics, and there are lessons we can learn and utilise for delivery of academic and public library services. There is no doubt this sits outside the normative discourse in UK HE. It is, in that sense, a radical and forward-thinking approach in opposition to the conservative marketised approach that dominates.

The problem we face is, increasingly, alternatives to the market-based approach such as that offered at Mondragon, seem so far removed from the dominant ideology as to be almost impossible to imagine within the existing framework. As we have moved further down a consumerist path, the default position of our profession has shifted further towards neoliberalism so alternatives become increasingly seen as too “radical”. Whereas a rejection of a market-based approach was once seen as acceptable, partly due to it being at odds with our professional ethics, such opposition has become seen to act as a barrier or an unnecessary restrainer on progress, and those expressing such moderate views have become irritants that “hold us back”. On the other hand, those enthused by commodification of information and market approaches are motivated and driven to enact changes they feel are necessary.

As once-moderate alternatives are seen as increasingly radical, so that creates a range of problems. Spaces for resistance shrink and the effect is to make a move to an alternative seem so large, that it seems barely possible to realise. Indeed, the effort to engender such change becomes so large as to encourage a sense of hopelessness at the task ahead. This hopelessness itself paralyses opposition to neoliberal approaches and even inhibits engagement with the issues at hand. People feel that the task is so substantial, so difficult, that it is not worth making an effort to challenge the dominant ideology.

This plays out against a backdrop of economic crises and austerity economics that make any form of resistance that much more challenging. For example, in public libraries we see fears that during cuts to public services those who speak against the dominant ideology will be those targeted first as trouble-makers. In higher education we see the use of political policing and other forms of repression of student and trade union protests as a warning not to resist.

The library profession is hampered by a growing apathy at its centre. There is a motivated or “activist” core on both sides, both driven by ideological convictions to realise alternatives in the delivery of services. But there is a disengaged, detached middle who are less motivated. This middle are a powerful weapon for the forces of progression. They can be counted on not to protest or resist because they lack the motivation or will to engage on this level, due either to exhaustion or a more general apathy.

This is not to apportion blame, or pretend we can deliver a radical alternative by being a bit more professionally engaged. Across the board we see a tendency for people to engage less with the forces affecting them, evidenced by declining political party membership and declining trades union and professional organisation membership. Opposition is stymied and alternative paths are inhibited as we lack both spaces and structures within which to organise and the willingness itself to resist.

Herein lies a major challenge for radicals to overcome. The odds are stacked against them both in terms of those driving “progression” and an exhausted or disengaged middle. Disengagement benefits orthodoxy after all, not alternatives: the alternative requires action, progressives merely require a weak, ineffectual alternative to prevail.

Advocates for a radical alternative need to be patient. With the odds so stacked against them, an alternative approach will not be quickly accepted and adopted: it will take time. Radical alternatives must be constructed carefully and persuasively. At this stage, the most significant victory for the radical alternative can have is to open dialogue about the alternatives. Without dialogue, without alternatives being voiced and discussed, there is no hope for a radical alternative. So long as the progressive option is dominant and unchallenged, it will remain ascendant.

We need public discussion about the alternatives because it sparks interest, galvanises those who lean towards a radical alternative, and in doing so, builds momentum for a movement. But in sparking discourse, the radical alternative must capture the language. It has to re-frame the discussion. It has to be made clear that the “progressive” course is not forward-thinking, but rather sits within a conservative viewpoint that accepts the dominant ideology, rather than pushing against it to create something new and alternative. It is not true progression but rather it is drift – in part due to the lack of critical analysis that would accompany serious progression.

It is possible to create an alternative. We have the skill and imagination to construct an alternative vision to that which sits comfortably with the dominant ideology. But to do so we must communicate the alternative clearly and publicly. We must be careful in how we utilise language to ensure that the alternative is not perceived to be simply harking back to the past, but as something new and challenging. Something that has not previously been visualised or realised. Something that is distinct from the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. Something alternative. Something radical.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Libraries and information

Reflections on organizing the Pi and Mash conference #piandmash

Practical communications session in progress led by Meghan Jones. Photograph by Simon Barron, license CC-BY-SA.

Practical communications session in progress led by Meghan Jones. Photograph by Simon Barron, license CC-BY-SA.


Earlier in August I had the pleasure of helping organize and run a tech-focused library unconference, Pi and Mash, at Senate House Library at the University of London. The other organizers were Simon Barron of University of London, and Ka-Ming Pang of St Georges, University of London. They were both brilliant to work with and brought enormous energy, fresh perspectives, and thoughtfulness and professionalism to organizing the day. This event was a long time in gestation, from the initial agreement back in January that we’d work together to the day itself in early August. I had previously hosted Library Camp London at Senate House in March 2013, and following that event I’d thought about running something tech-focused as a Mashed Library event. Ultimately for me Pi and Mash was that event, though full credit is to Ka-Ming for suggesting we do it, kicking off the initial discussion on Twitter to gauge interest, and starting to organize us.

As an organizer it’s always encouraging to receive good feedback, and participants said some lovely things about Pi and Mash during and at the end of the day:

What I learned from organizing the event

The limits of ‘unconferencing’

Ahead of the event we wanted to provide a programme with appeal to different levels of technical ability, and especially beyond experienced systems workers. To do this we reached out to professional contacts for session ideas and pitches so we could launch with a timetable already partly populated. This timetabling in itself introduced a contradiction to the event that was never really resolved, and caused some issues: were we running a participant-driven unconference, or a regular conference with a top-down organization? I formed an impression from feedback that on seeing our speaker lineup, some participants felt intimidated about pitching due to not feeling technically knowledgeable enough. Additionally, we presented an ‘almost full’ timetable with space for unconference-style pitching. While this helped generate buzz and encouraged people to get a ticket so they could come to those sessions, it made it easier to view the day as a traditional conference that didn’t demand participants set the agenda. A related point is I’ve noticed unconference sessions, for example at Library Camp, becoming increased sophisticated over time and more pre-planned. Sessions are often no longer discussions, but make more use of technology such as online collaborative editing, use more formal methods in research and analysis, and attempt to engage people beyond the conference for example by tying in with planned chats on Twitter. For me this increased sophistication deepens engagement, but can work against the more exciting aspects of unconference spontaneity such as pitching an idea that is not fully-formed on the day. We did get pitches ahead of time on our discussion and ideas document, but these were the only ones pitched on the day so it felt a bit more like a call for papers than pitching.

What this means for practical technical sessions

As noted we wanted to ensure broad appeal to a range of different technical abilities. We especially wanted to demonstrate practical aspects of library systems work that would give a flavour of what it is systems librarians and other systems workers do. To this end it was wonderful that many delegates saw the day as an opportunity to stretch themselves with professional development, and expressed an interest in getting more involved with systems work in future. One of the facilitators observed to me on day there is a real difficulty in how to ‘bring people along with you’ if they are at different levels at the start. This makes running sessions that rely on pre-existing technical knowledge that much more difficult. One suggestion from feedback was to provide pre-work or reading ahead of the day for sessions that would benefit from it. I have mixed feelings about this as despite having run such sessions like that at conferences, I feel participants should also easily be able to choose what they will on the day, or even move between sessions. For me, this was most apparent for the Linked Data and OntoWiki session, although I know there were issues in other sessions too. This combined with technical dependencies for participants, who needed to install software on their own computers to get the best from the practical work. In hindsight, what we needed to provide were laptop computers with the relevant software pre-installed and ready to use, so we could simply hand a machine with a ‘known good’ configuration to everyone attending the session. This would have been challenging, but perhaps could have been feasible using loan laptops from Senate House Library stock and given enough time for preparation.

Safer spaces, and an apology

Ka-Ming provided the idea of very actively promoting and encouraging women facilitators and participants. Essentially, we did not want to run yet another tech event dominated by men but rather one that better reflected how our profession is populated. It was great to get positive feedback on this aspect, and suggestions from critical friends where we erred. One point I want to apologize for is our gender binarism in the initial ticket allocations to men and women. As organizers we discussed this after it was pointed out, and learned from it. In future I will do better, I will approach gender more carefully to help avoid reinforcing bias and discrimination. I am glad we implemented a safer spaces policy, repurposed with permission from OK Café. As professionals we might prefer to believe policies shouldn’t be necessary, but I argue they help create inclusive events in the first place. Even if a policy doesn’t need to be acted on, it provides a context to set expectations and helps attendees develop confidence they will be supported in resolving any problems. I now firmly believe safer spaces policies or codes of practice are necessary for conferences.

Being the organizer

The way in which participants interact, learn, and spark ideas off each other is something you try to positively influence as a conference organizer, but ultimately much of ‘the magic’ is out of your control. It helped that we provided a space that participants found friendly and inclusive, with longer session times than normal conferences. This allowed for discursive conversations and digging into the technical ‘long weeds’ as participants wished. This was an important aspect for my own development, as I identified I need to move beyond running events successfully (without say, some disaster befalling us), to thinking more deeply about the value gained by delegates for their own development and understanding ways in which we can support and facilitate this. Overall I would strongly recommend (un)conferencing organizing as a means of professional development.

Thoughts on practical aspects

Middlesex South Reading Room at Senate House Library. Photograph by Andrew Preater, license CC-BY.

Middlesex South Reading Room at Senate House Library. Photograph by Andrew Preater, license CC-BY.

Following Library Camp London I’d reflected on what made the day a success, practically, and we implemented much of this for Pi and Mash. This is summarized here: Practical suggestions for running your own Library Camp. Some things that remain true:

  • Especially true for a technical event, your wireless absolutely needs to be working.
  • Individual bottles are better than glasses for carrying water around the library.
  • If you’re relying on someone for preparation such as moving furniture, survey the space ahead of time and prepare with the expectation your instructions will be followed to the letter.
  • One thing that was again a problem was noise, as we were using large rooms with two sessions in them noise carried. This was a limit inherent in the spaces available to us, which were provided free of charge by Senate House Library. However we would definitely have been better to provide smaller separate rooms, or found a way to screen off larger spaces to dampen noise.

We organized Pi and Mash almost exclusively online, which saved a lot of travelling time even with all of us being London-based. We used:

  • Google Hangouts to provide audio and video for meetings.
  • Google Docs / Drive for collaborative editing and sharing of meeting notes and actions lists.
  • for our website, plus TablePress for tables. This was low cost as we could use existing web hosting and we all had practical experience with the software.
  • Gmail for email. Specifically the trick was to push the ‘info@’ domain address to my own Gmail using POP3 and set it up to allow responding from that address. This made for quick and efficient replies to questions.
  • Eventbrite for ticketing and emails to delegates. I still favour Eventbrite despite its quirks. Checkin is a breeze and mailouts are simple, and the quirks are at least quirks I’m very familiar with.
  • Twitter – of course, the place for professional engagement in libraryland.
  • Qualtrics for our post-conference survey (Imperial College London has a subscription).

We made some choices about what not to do with social media and other tools:

  • We considered use of Lanyrd for session slides and materials, but it seemed a more useful tool for larger, more formal conferences where you would want to draw together lots of different media types, session recordings, and so on.
  • Wiki. Ultimately we decided not to set up a wiki for Pi and Mash as we felt the limited amount of collaborative editing needed ahead of the event could be handed using a Google Doc. This is the model uklibchat use successfully, but from feedback some delegates reasonably expected a wiki to be available.
  • Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to live-stream any presentations. There was demand for this ahead of the event, but it was too difficult to achieve technically and with limited staff resource. I have done this for events by using Google Hangouts on Air which can provides a slick, professional solution at low cost using consumer webcams and microphones.

In hindsight, in thinking about our approaches to communication I found Ned Potter‘s description of communication channels as white noise, peripheral vision, or line of sight from a recent conference presentation very helpful:

The main area for improvement I would focus on for future events are reaching those who do not routinely professionally engage with social media:

  • Mailing lists are still widely-used by library workers and I noticed rushes of interest when we mentioned Pi and Mash on mailing lists like lis-link.
  • Targeted personal communication is very effective at helping publicize the event by word-of-mouth. For example: encouraging library and information science lecturers to promote the event to students; and to our colleagues to encourage team members to attend the event for professional development.
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 (license CC BY-NC-SA

‘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


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:


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:


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.


Bollier and Helfrich (eds.) (2014) The wealth of the commons. Amhurst, MA: Levellers Press. Available at: (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: (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.