Widening participation praxis and library leadership

Book cover of the edited collection 'Critical Librarianship', in the series Advances in Library Administration and Organization (ALAO). Edited by Samantha Hines and David Ketchum.

I recently had a book chapter published in the collection ‘Critical Librarianship’ in the series Advances in Library Administration and Organization (ALAO), edited by Samantha Hines and David Ketchum. My chapter is titled ‘Widening participation praxis and library leadership’ and is about the role of academic libraries in cultural recognition and misrecognition—sometimes styled (mis)recognition or mis/recognition in the literature—of students from what are termed widening participation (WP) backgrounds.

This post is a brief reflection on this writing, with some additional thoughts on developments since I submitted the first draft of the article in March 2019.

Obviously I am team ‘love praxis!’ all the way, and aiming to keep praxis ‘with an x’ alive in LIS scholarship in 2020.

In responding to the call for papers for ALAO, I wanted to address the editors’ suggested theme of social justice in library management and leadership—interpreted specifically as it relates to widening access and participation in English higher education. In this area English universities have regulatory requirements in terms of improving access to courses, of attainment of students, and of progression of students into employment.

In the LIS literature there is relatively little attention paid to the role of libraries in WP as a political project which promotes social justice and social mobility; more common is librarianship’s contribution to liberal WP strategies which can elide or even exacerbate issues of social injustice. Working on the ground in academic librarianship, the feeling can be very much one of WP work being something that happens ‘elsewhere’, especially if there is a view that this work is concerned mainly or solely with access to courses and activities that support and promote this.

Liberal WP strategies represent a rational response to the metricisation of WP by government which regulates and funds the sector. However these approaches are also rooted in cultural difference and misrecognition within libraries as academic spaces, especially in comfortable acceptance of deficit models of WP students. The area of deficit models is one I’ve returned to over and again during and after writing this chapter. Writing the bulk of the chapter in early 2019, I had thought of myself as a ‘good Bourdieusian’. Based on my own experience of higher education and as an education worker attemping to promote equity and social justice in my work, I accept Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the forms of capital in three fundamental guises: economic, cultural, and social; and my understanding of library work is informed by the relationship of libraries and our collections to these forms and our role in the reproduction of in/equality in education.

Bourdieu’s work is too influential within the sociology of education for librarians not to know about, however Gurnam Singh’s insight into the limitations of Bourdieusian thinking has helped me understand the potential for these analyses to reproduce deficit model thinking about our students. For Singh, a social and cultural capital frame represents a development from a simple deficit model based on academic knowledge and skills, but is still one in which students are understood as lacking in social and cultural capital.

It is easy to see how a deficit approach could be combined with a model of education that reimagines Paulo Freire’s banking model of education, based on transmission of white, middle-class cultural and social capitals to students previously lacking in these. Mindful of this, two ideas became central points in my chapter: that deficit models should be radically reframed or inverted, such that we understand middle-class education professionals as those in deficit, and that library workers can recognise the cultural and social capital that WP students bring with them to higher education.

In terms of the literature, I found limited but often startling vignettes from sociology of education such as the diary fragment by Aisha that I quote in the chapter (p.28). Aisha is one of Penny Jane Burke’s research participants quoted in her book The right to higher education. I considered this example significant, because we can see how, based on a library worker’s actions and speech a student internalises and reproduces a deficit model of WP within herself.

Despite limited examples in the literature, on raising this idea with academic friends and colleagues I saw immediately recognition of the idea of libraries as spaces of social and cultural mis/recognition, both in their own experiences of libraries in education settings and from their students’ experiences. Two contrasting themes emerged for me from these discussions: a real need and expectation for libraries to be a nurturing space for exploration and affording safe intellectual risk-taking, contrasted with feelings of exclusion, marginalisation, and unwelcome based on lived experiences. On this subject I am especially grateful to attendees at the Working Class Academics Conference 2020 for sharing their experiences in our pre-conference sessions, this conference provided a uniquely supportive and trusting space.

In attempting to create linkage between WP as a political project and Critlib movement, it is certainly Penny Jane Burke I have leaned on most heavily as a theorist. For me, it is Burke’s identification of WP as a social justice project, and of critical and feminist pedagogies as a practical way of enacting and delivering that project where I see the strongest potential for developing critical practices of WP within library work and LIS theory and scholarship. However, this is also a space of challenge as by definition critical approaches to WP constrast with liberal approaches, and critical librarianship constrasts with hegemonic or mainstream approaches. Critlib movement is not simply suggesting new, optional styles for teaching or new toolkits for collection development, but aims to intervene and disrupt structural inequalities.

One hard lesson from both critical theory and our sector’s statistics showing differential outcomes for different student groups is that practices of higher education and within it, academic librarianship are not inherently those of social justice. These discussions about classed experiences of libraries and reflection on theory bring into sharper relief the differences or gaps between library workers’ personal and professional values as we espouse them, and values as we really enact them in our practice. In terms of tactics or practical next steps, Baharak Yousefi’s analysis and discussion on “the disparity between what we say and what we do in libraries” would be my first recommendation.


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) & R. Nice (Trans.). Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York, NY: Greenwood.

Burke, P.J. (2012). The right to higher education: beyond widening participation. Abingdon: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M.B. Ramos, Trans.). London: Penguin.

Yousefi, B. (2017). On the disparity between what we say and what we do in libraries. In Lew, S. & Yousefi, B. (Eds.), Feminists among us (pp. 107-125). Sacramento, CA: Library Juice. Available at: https://summit.sfu.ca/item/17387.

Tales from Covid, part I

All were quietly appalled
To imagine mankind annihilated.
What would heaven do
With a globeful of empty temples?
Alters attended
Only by spiders?

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1997, p.19)

(This blog post is modified from a shorter piece I wrote for our library staff newsletter.)

Our university buildings closed on Thursday 19 March, and along with it we closed our two physical libraries and moved to online learning support and delivery of teaching. At the time I felt exhausted but relieved, having thought about very little other than coronavirus, Covid-19, “the virus” or just “it” the past weeks. I had felt higher education was slowly, slowly—and then quickly, immediately, today—moving toward closing. Thursday was the point where we were confident we had a plan in place to support students with nowhere else to go, including those living in our accommodation and vulnerable student groups such as care leavers and those estranged from their families—so we were ready to close.

Incident management within a crisis is very different from the day-to-day working of any university. Higher education governance, committees and processes are designed to support a complex system that works to semester, annual, and multi-year cycles. We work with considerable uncertainty year-by-year, but within frameworks, expectations, and practices that provide certainties. But within a critical incident, university leadership needs to immediately engage a very different skill set, putting aside our usual tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainties and instead focusing on what is essential.

As the pandemic developed things changed each day, and accelerated the week of 16 March. At the time, it felt like being physically on one of the now-familiar exponential graphs of Covid-19 cases. Things that seemed certain or agreed 24 hours ago were overtaken by events and dropped. A few days later, that timescale had shortened to 12 hours or less. With our immediate horizon changed to what needs doing today, and our medium-term horizon changed to two or three days from now, organisational hierarchies and reporting lines are much less relevant. Colleagues do what needs to be done, and communication becomes more frank, urgent, and honest. For leaders, it is vital to perceive the underlying concerns expressed, and to be as generous as possible in our reading of colleagues’ words and tone.

At my university the library team was amazing at moving smoothly and efficiently to online learning support and delivery, while dealing with extreme stress and worry in our lives outside work. I could not have asked for better colleagues in the library and as peers—both our own heads of departments and deans of our academic schools, and also my wider peer group of library directors who worked collaboratively in sharing experience and knowledge. For me it’s worth stating that almost all of this advocacy and sharing happened behind the scenes, particularly in how we supported each other to advocate to our senior leadership teams for closing physical libraries and learning spaces. Chris Bourg’s blog post (15 March) and Helen Rimmer’s blog post (22 March) are significant public statements of this. Elsewhere in education and in libraries in other sectors, I saw advocacy being carried out at genuine professional risk. I am immensely grateful to colleagues who contacted me with their words and arguments that in turn made my advocacy much more effective.

At the same time as managing risk and immediate concerns of incident management, there were short- and medium-term scenarios we needed to plan. Once we had made our immediate, rapid and orderly shift to online delivery of teaching we needed to think about the longer term. The Covid-19 pandemic is currently open-ended. We are adjusting to new ways of working and finding out what is most effective in our own teams and our wider circles. This isn’t a blog post for sharing tips as at the time of writing I’m still decompressing, but my immediate thoughts on our shift to sustained online delivery are about the change of gear from dealing with immediate practical concerns, to ensuring we maintain resilience as a team and an educational community.

My thoughts on the Cilip sector membership survey, or, “Cilip should…”

Cilip, the library and information association, recently launched a consultation intended to find out what is important to library, information and knowledge management workers and how Cilip can better support the sector.

Personally I have heard, and uttered myself many times the words “Cilip should…” followed by an idea which would require a substantial pivot in direction or investment of time and money from our professional body. In this case though, it’s actively encouraged and I think it’s vital for all information workers to make their views heard especially as Cilip are explicitly asking for views from those who are not members as much as those who are.

Because some of the text fields in the survey are quite short, I found it easier to write a coherent paragraph separately in my text editor and paste it in. Below, I’ll reproduce some of these thoughts. The text of this blog post is licensed CC0, meaning I have waived all copyright and related rights to the fullest extent possible. You are absolutely free to reuse or modify my words without permission or attribution including in your own reply to Cilip’s consultation survey.

My main priority

My main priority was advocacy and lobbying, because it was the closest priority I could choose to express the urgent need for solidarity between library workers and our professional association across sectors. Public libraries especially are embattled and beset by the ongoing and often cruel effects of austerity, and as such solidarity is needed as the most basic measure possible by which we can support each other.

In my view, Cilip is still working through some of its recent history of not campaigning or supporting library activists, and I know colleagues who say they will never join or re-join Cilip because of these actions. I feel it right that Cilip accept and own this criticism because it reflects depth of feeling of current and former members, but it certainly should not stop us moving in the direction of an activist and social justice orientation and leaning in to this work. As well, I feel those library workers who advocated inaction based on Cilip’s charity status or royal charter do also need to reflect, and look forward to what we can do right now to support activism.

Equality, diversity, and inclusion

An area of work I did not see emphasized specifically in the survey is to improve equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) within the library and information profession. I realize it is the case that EDI is represented within other areas of Cilip’s work and is a thread throughout multiple activities. In particular, I found the ‘Libraries, information and knowledge change lives’ position paper very welcome and it has boosted my confidence in Cilip as a professional body and membership organization. However, I do think this work is both urgent and important enough to be called out specifically within the consultation survey. I recognize and applaud recent excellent work Cilip has done for EDI including the BAME Network and LGBTQ+ Network, as well as moving toward an activist and social justice stance rooted in ethical activism. To maintain momentum, I would like to see guaranteed Board of Trustee representation for the BAME network and LGBTQ+ network alongside any individual Trustee’s membership of those groups.

As an individual member of Cilip, I feel I understand the role and remit of a professional membership organisation reasonably well and despite my various “Cilip should…” takes I appreciate that the diverse views of members means that we won’t always agree. I do not think Cilip needs to be a democratic centrist organization similar to a trade union to be effective. What I would like to see is a more rapid change of pace and direction toward becoming a campaigning and activist organisation, and genuine support for members’ and others’ activism within libraries. Given the tone and content of the recent position paper, I feel we need to see changes throughout Cilip’s organization and structure such that our espoused values are congruent with our enacted values. For me this needs to be seen from the CEO, from the Board of Trustees, and from Cilip in a corporate sense, and not left only to individual members who are outspoken advocates for social justice on a personal basis.

What are the main challenges of my role and how can Cilip help?

This was an interesting question to be asked. I am a library director working in a London post-1992 university so the main challenges of my role (phrased as ‘frustrations’ in the survey) relate to higher education broadly, rather than librarianship specifically. What I picked out in the survey is one major challenge acknowledged widely throughout further and higher education is that to be more inclusive, we need to improve the diversity of our workforce. Within librarianship there are multiple, interlocking forces preventing this that maintain the status quo in ways that make it appear to be a seemingly ‘natural’ state of affairs (a very loose paraphrase of Gramsci, 1971).

Firstly by definition, the lack of diversity of the library profession means the pool we can recruit from is lacking in diversity. Allied to this, the vast majority of library workers lack lived experiences of oppression based on race and ethnicity, which creates a dominant liberal view of discrimination being rooted in individual ignorance and acts of meanness which can be solved by individual approaches rather than being structural and systemic.

Secondly, the cost of postgraduate library qualifications mitigates against drawing applications from a more diverse pool. However, simply removing requirements for qualifications from what are known as “professional posts” risks the deprofessionalization of library services and downgrading of posts. One thing Cilip can do is continue to support development of Cilip-accredited degree apprenticeship courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels (Levels 6 and 7 in English higher education). This would have parity of esteem with existing qualifications based on level of study, credits, and academic quality assurance, as well as combining a job with degree-level study that is free to the student.

Finally, the cost and other difficultly of getting the kinds of continuing professional development (CPD) needed to be an effective reflective practitioner means that staff in our existing pool do not always fulfill their potential. Alongside institutional and more overt forms of discrimination this means that staff from communities marginalized within librarianship and higher education may not be as actively developed as much as they should, to flourish and fulfill that potential. One thing that could help is for Cilip’s professional registration routes to be viewed with greater esteem within and across sectors, as such I would to love see everything related to support for mentoring and professional registration strengthened by Cilip.

Works cited

Cilip (2019) Libraries, information and knowledge change lives. London: Cilip. Available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1TOq6oBuGRE7dpSxjPVEiMi528E7LuIMe/view

Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the prison notebooks. London: Lawrence & Wishart