Why don’t libraries share the results of UX work?

While conferencing at ELAG 2016, Simon made this suggestion for improving collaboration among libraries doing user experience (UX) work on their systems:

I’ve been thinking on-and-off about the question implied in Simon’s second tweet¬†– the reasons libraries do not generally¬†share¬†results of user experience testing of their systems.¬†Below I discuss¬†some¬†of these, which¬†are drawn from¬†examples from people with¬†first-hand knowledge from¬†academic libraries.

“Not all libraries…”

I know many libraries do share their results and analyses, whether more formally in articles, books or book chapters and conference presentations, or more informally in blog posts, conversations, and social media. I am extremely grateful for any and all sharing of this type.

What about libraries that are doing such work but not reporting it? When I know about such work, though it requires extra effort I have had good success asking colleagues about their findings. People are usually generous with sharing Рsometimes surprised in the interest, but delighted to be asked about their work. In my experience the trick to doing this effectively is:

  • Knowing that others have¬†been doing¬†something in the first place, for which an active stance towards professional networking helps enormously.
  • Finding the best way to engage colleagues on their terms, and making it easy for them to help you. If you’re nearby offer to visit, or set up a video chat; ask for an hour of¬†conversation rather than anything in writing or a¬†presentation. Manage the time and conversation effectively:¬†focus on what you are asking about;¬†be explicit about¬†asking for honest opinions;¬†always¬†ask about lessons learned.

Why we¬†don’t share

Time and money

By this I primarily mean a lack of time and money to refine the work into something publishable by traditional routes, such as a peer-reviewed journal or presenting results at conferences. I think this is a huge barrier, and I have no simple answers. There is an huge qualitative difference between libraries that invest time and money in this way and those that do not, which is only really apparent with experience.

There are alternative routes. For me the actuality of dissemination and sharing always trumps the esteem in which a particular route of communication is held. Some of the most effective project communications I have seen are blog posts that summarize progress and demonstrate the momentum and trajectory of the work simply with clear and engaging text. This is the kind of work I or a team member would expect to do as part of internal project communication, so text can be reused with reworking for an outside audience.

For events, workarounds such as¬†unconferences and similar events are a¬†lower-cost approach, but these aren’t without issues. Events with no registration fee¬†still favour¬†those privileged in various ways.¬†Even if one can attend¬†unconferences these don’t always attract an¬†audience with enough specialist knowledge, or are not promoted in a way that will attract such an audience.¬†This may sound¬†contrary to the Open Space Technology principle¬†that “Whoever comes [are] the right people” (Owen, 2008), but in practice¬†OST¬†principles depend on a lot¬†of work behind the scenes and careful management on the day to be effective.

Culture

By this I mean the overall stance of the library towards engagement with their sector and understanding of the value of sharing,¬†as a cultural factor.¬†Having a¬†budget for conference attendance and other development activity is not enough if¬†your workplace does¬†not value¬†this¬†type of professional engagement in and of itself, or does not have confidence in staff ability or value the work. In practice¬†this may manifest more subtly in general discouragement and ‘lack of permission’ from¬†managers in the organization, or not sending staff operationally involved in project work to events to speak and network with peers.

Competitive edge

I have heard an argument that we should not give away findings that could help competitors elsewhere in our sector, sometimes scaffolded by belief that as contemporary universities exist in a competitive market they should behave more like private companies. I disagree with the ideological foundation of this argument, but it is logical in acknowledging the reality of a market that has been deliberately created and fostered by government. At Library Camp in 2012, Liz Jolly and I argued that:

Universities have a culture of sharing both internally and externally, and also between those working in the same disciplines across institutions. Furthermore, both within and without higher education, librarianship is a particularly collaborative profession.

(Preater, 2012)

We could remove some of the ideological focus, and simply ask if the investment of time and effort to communicate our work might be less worthwhile than the other things we could spend it on. Above I argue that communication strategies in projects or otherwise should provide you with reusable material, but looking at this strategically I think skipping communication is ultimately detrimental to your library.

To be sure, there are benefits to¬†individual staff in building their¬†professional profile and to the library¬†in being seen as a place ‘where things happen’ and viewed as¬†forward-thinking, including in recruiting and retaining staff.¬†Additionally though, I see an advantage in shaping the speed and direction of thinking as a¬†form of¬†technological leadership in¬†the¬†sector, creating the ‘discursive formation’ (in the sense Foucault describes,¬†for example in part II¬†of¬†The archaeology of knowledge, 1972) of user experience¬†rather than waiting for others to do so.

In communicating our work and engaging our¬†community in discourse we define the content of the¬†discursive formation, of the¬†body of knowledge, in¬†what is still¬†a relatively new and not yet fully-established¬†area.¬†Communication¬†has power in and of itself in bringing in to¬†existence this¬†body of knowledge, and while the practice of user experience is¬†contested, early movers are able to establish¬†how the ‘truth’ of this practice is created and sustained, in our¬†particular context.

For me this idea¬†explains some¬†of the meaning behind practitioners such as¬†Andy Priestner stating, two years ago,¬†that “UX in libraries is a thing now” (2014,¬†emphasis mine), and from¬†experience I would¬†gauge this kind of engagement¬†as putting you between two¬†to¬†three years ahead of¬†libraries that are not doing so.

External validity or being ‘too special’

In this I include¬†disbelief¬†in the external validity of the¬†work, or belief in the necessity of such¬†validity as a precursor to sharing. ‘External validity’¬†means the extent to which the findings from particular research can be generalized beyond the specific context of the work. I first heard this argument¬†when I was a participant in a library usability study, and naively asked the librarians how they were¬†going to share their¬†results – turns out they weren’t. Some libraries are indeed unusual in themselves, or¬†attract an unusual user base, or both, but there is also a cultural aspect to this problem.¬†Without deliberately maintaining wider¬†awareness, we can¬†lose¬†perspective and end up believing it ourselves: thinking our service is ‘very complex’ or our¬†situation ‘highly unusual’ when it is not particularly so.

My counter-argument is the¬†commonalities between¬†library services and membership mean ideas and concepts¬†are often very transferable. Include some caveats or ‘health warnings’ on your results by¬†all means, but let us weigh things up. Let us¬†include you in our ongoing¬†analysis. This is one¬†reason I value making¬†the¬†theoretical underpinning¬†of the¬†approaches we use in our work explicit when¬†describing what we are doing.

Fear of criticism, lack of confidence in the work

In this reason I include anything in the general space of a¬†wish not to have one’s work critiqued, research methods problematized, or particular choices judged¬†by others in the community. Perfectionism on¬†our part can also play into and amplify this.¬†All¬†engagement in professional discourse includes¬†some measure of risk-taking as there is implicit openness to criticism: speaking at a conference or using a¬†platform or network where replying is easy invites replies.¬†Criticism is tempting as¬†it can be¬†relatively easy¬†for a clever person to say something high-impact.¬†You could do as Ian suggests and start a blog and turn off the comments, but people can (and do) comment on your work elsewhere‚Ķ

I experienced this recently (with my¬†manager and her manager¬†in the room)¬†when¬†a recording of a user from a piece of UX research was shown that¬†could be interpreted as¬†strongly critical of my project team’s work.¬†This was¬†extremely difficult to accept at the time, but on considered reflection¬†seeing an interpreted piece of¬†feedback was¬†valuable, as it spurred ongoing development and provoked¬†questioning of¬†design choices that had seemed well-founded based on our research.

My recommendation is to trust your judgement if you are on top of your professional development, spend adequate time reflecting-on-action, and test your ideas by¬†taking¬†a critical stance¬†toward your methods and work – including opinions and perspectives from peers.¬†On this subject I recommend Elly’s post on ‘professional confidence’¬†(O’Brien, 2015).¬†This is a great post that really bears re-reading as part of reflective practice in judging our own expertise and focusing where best to develop¬†skills.

Concluding thoughts

Simon is right in that there is no central location for sharing results of our user experience work. I would love to see something like this created, with low or no barrier to entry so all practitioners could contribute. I think for academic libraries a space on the helibtech wiki could be a good starting point for collaboration. This is a slightly selfish request as in my workplace we maintain a list (a wiki page) of reports, presentations, industry white papers and so on about systems user experience, and used these in developing and shaping ideas for our ongoing research and development.

Absent such a location, I want to encourage practitioners to share their work. We want to hear what you have to say Рshare your methods, results, and conclusions where you can, as doing so contributes to and shapes discovery user experience as a professional practice.

References

Foucault, M. (1972) The archaeology of knowledge. New York, NY: Vintage.

O’Brien, E. (2015) ‘Professional confidence and “imposter syndrome”‘,¬†Elly O’Brien, June 29.¬†Available at:¬†https://ellyob.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/professional-confidence/

Owen, H. (2008) Open space technology: a user’s guide. 3rd edn. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Preater, A. (2012) ‘Free and Open Source software and cultural change, at Library Camp 2012’,¬†Ginformation Systems, 15 October. Available at:¬†https://www.preater.com/2012/10/15/free-software-and-cultural-change-at-libcampuk12/

Priestner, A. (2014) ‘Why UX in libraries is a thing now’, Business Librarians Association conference, Leicester, 11 July. Available at:¬†http://www.slideshare.net/AndyPriestner1/why-ux-in-libraries-is-a-thing-now-36899649

Feelings on critical systems praxis, for #critlib

I wrote this to reply to the ‘recommended writing’ suggestion by Kevin Seeber¬†for the¬†December 15 2015 #critlib chat on #feelings.¬†I very likely won’t be at the chat itself, so I haven’t quite addressed the questions as posed.

Why practice critical librarianship?

I understand #critlib to mean critical theory approaches to library work as a whole so will say something about why I find this interesting, and why I think it is important and useful in the undertheorized area of library systems. In this piece I refer to #critlib, the idea of critical librarianship, and the critically-informed stance of Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) interchangeably.

I found out about #critlib chats when I was already aware of #critLIS, a critical theory reading group at the University of Sheffield iSchool. The students involved in #critLIS tweeted some of their discussions and I read the things they talked about. I could only join in minimally but what I saw of their discussion seemed thrilling in how they brought social critique to information work, but also intimidatingly erudite in the works referenced.

Later¬†I attended a discussion on critical theory in LIS¬†at an¬†RLC event in London. On reflection at RLC¬†I think the whole critical theory ball of wax¬†was explained in problem-posing terms, which¬†was both¬†more useful, more challenging, and achieved more than a lecture on¬†the same subject would have. At that session¬†Kevin and Lauren didn’t offer grand solutions, but instead many new lenses¬†with which to interpret and inspect practice and some practical ideas too (Smith, 2014).¬†I realized I had some reading to do; fortunately, critical librarians (by all means imagine¬†the ‘smiling cat face with heart-shaped eyes’ emoji here) are inevitably generous with¬†suggestions.

Reading a text is learning the relationships among the words in the composition of the discourse. It is the task of a critical, humble, determined “subject” or agent of learning, the reader.

Reading, as study, is a difficult, even painful, process at times, but always a pleasant one as well. It implies the reader delve deep into the text, in order to learn its most profound meaning. The more we do this exercise, in a disciplined way, conquering any desire to flee the reading, the more we prepare ourselves for making future reading less difficult.

Freire (1994, p. 65)

I quote Freire’s uncompromising view from¬†Pedagogy of¬†Hope on¬†the challenges of engaging with reading, as though I disagree with his¬†presentation¬†of study¬†as an “always [‚Ķ] pleasant” struggle the last part chimes with how I feel on¬†trying to be “an agent of learning” in understanding social critique and develop a #critlib approach with no background in theory. To be clear this is a¬†personal reflection: I’m not telling anyone¬†to do this,¬†and¬†I’m aware¬†I¬†speak¬†from a position of privilege.

In discovering new these areas there is joy in exploring new contours of practice, and opening new discursive spaces. Given new tools for sensemaking, the materials of practice feel new themselves. I value #critlib most in providing a space to create and shape professional discourse, to disagree from a position of inclusivity and respect, and fundamentally to help us develop a reflexive praxis: that is, critically-informed action.

Well, how about it? I found¬†Freire’s explanation of the simultaneous nature and equivalence of reflection and action particularly formative in doing this:

“[M]y defence of praxis implies no dichotomy by which this praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of action. Action and reflection occur simultaneously. A critical analysis of reflection may, however, reveal that a particular form of action is impossible or inappropriate at the present time. Those who through reflection perceive the infeasibility or inappropriateness of one or another form of action [‚Ķ]¬†cannot thereby be accused of inaction. Critical reflection is also action.

Freire (1996, p. 109)

Working through the implications of this¬†allowed me to reframe reflection¬†not as an¬†introspective¬†after-the-event mulling over,¬†perhaps somewhat time-wasting given¬†there is “real work” to getting on with, but something¬†central to action itself and part of¬†an overall method¬†of praxis.

So, this is why I participate in #critlib and RLC. I want to see the loop between theory and practice closed in ways that appreciate it is not just the job of LIS academics to develop theory and practitioners to employ it, but that theorizing from our practice and experience should be an accessible process for all of us.

Theory in an undertheorized field

One of Kevin’s questions for the chat asks if we think #critlib is “worth it,” that is, does¬†talk¬†about theory make¬†any difference to¬†your own professional practice, and more broadly? I argue yes, but‚Ķ

I think #critlib¬†starts with a¬†set of challenging positions to work from rather than a set of¬†agreed¬†ideological fixed ideas¬†or ‘how to’ guides for¬†library¬†work, management, and leadership.¬†Even if someone wrote¬†such a thing,¬†the texts we read and discuss are steeped in¬†and reproduce ideologies and this would remain a¬†problem to¬†grapple with.

#critlib offers multidisciplinary ways of seeing and interpreting our practice that are¬†necessarily critically informed and framed in terms of inclusivity and diversity, but¬†that might¬†not be applicable to practice in straightforward ways. This bears analysis of our¬†situation, and for me, giving up the idea of applying #critlib with a¬†particular framing ‘context’ as this term obscures¬†a great deal. I’m indebted to Clarke’s work on grounded theory (2005, pp. 71-72)¬†in¬†understanding this last point.

In my view¬†systems librarianship is relatively undertheorized and ahistorical in its understanding of thought and practice; not obviously¬†fertile ground to¬†develop #critlib.¬†As the¬†head of a systems team I see¬†systems as occupying an important nexus in two areas often claimed neutral in various ways: libraries and technology. Of course neither are neutral, when put like this it’s laughable to suggest they are, but it’s easy to slip into such¬†positions by default if we don’t¬†interrogate our practices and¬†how we utilize¬†technology.

It can be¬†easy for systems workers to think if we are¬†satisfying¬†the requirements of library¬†staff as clients and library users as customers that’s enough, and we needn’t¬†over-think the technology we employ beyond compliance with law (such as¬†data protection legislation), our professional ethics (such as CILIP’s¬†Code of Professional Practice), the¬†standards of our employers, and so on. I’ve heard¬†very¬†reasonable positions voiced in the profession that this is “just good librarianship”.

I argue that this¬†is not enough and our response should be¬†non-neutral¬†as our technology¬†and information¬†management is non-neutral.¬†But to exaggerate for hyperbolic¬†effect, critically-informed¬†ethical approaches are more complicated¬†than lazily rejecting every new idea¬†as “problematic” while maintaining our own comfortable, compartmentalized silos. A systems approach to¬†#critlib (#critsyslib?) means¬†delving into¬†our underlying assumptions by using¬†reflective practice as a technique, taking critically reflective and reflexive approaches in our implementations of new systems and technologies.

For me developing a critical systems praxis means reject instrumental or mechanistic approaches to information, its storage and indexing, its use and understanding by our users, and the stack of technologies that underpin all of these things. A #critlib perspective would mean taking critical approaches throughout systems work including in selection, procurement, and implementation of new technologies and systems, and using critically-informed methods in researching them and in directing their development. For managers and leaders in systems it means role-modelling positive behaviours, and taking an authentically #critlib stance in what we do in our work, including for example line management and hiring practices.

I struggle with these things and cannot claim to do all of them or that my team do all of them, yet, but referring to the Freirean equivalence of reflection and action, taking on #critlib viewpoints and approaches begins the necessary perspectival shift to move towards a critical turn in systems praxis hence, why I #critlib.

References

Clarke, A.E. (2005) Situational analysis: grounded theory after the postmodern turn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the oppressed. 2nd edn. London: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of hope. Reprint, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (part three): critical theory’, Lauren Smith, 16 May. Available at: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/

Reflective practice and critical reflection recommended reading

I was recently asked for some recommended reading on reflective practice in general and critical reflection in particular, and as several people asked me to share this I thought I would do so here.

Reflective practice in general

Schön, D.A. (1983) The reflective practitioner. New York, NY: Basic Books.

A¬†classic text, and¬†one that should be seen in Sch√∂n’s context of time, place, and employment. Heavily critiqued and interpreted¬†in the last 30+ years; I’d argue understanding reflection-in-action vs. reflection-on-action remains core to effective reflective practice and that¬†this is still a challenging work¬†when considering professional technical skills for practitioners.

Finlay, L., (2008) Reflecting on reflective practice. Available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/opencetl/resources/pbpl-resources/finlay-l-2008-reflecting-reflective-practice-pbpl-paper-52

For me Finlay is the best starting point for a review article on reflective practice. Written for the Open University PBPL CETL (which dates it if you remember CETLs…) but presenting, effectively, a wide-ranging literature review on reflective practice useful to anyone. Very helpful for an overview of different approaches or ways of doing reflective practice.

Bolton, G. (2014) Reflective practice : writing and professional development. 3rd edn. London: Sage.

A useful overview of reflective writing. Its utility to you may depend on your view of the importance of narrative, but worthwhile if you have any intention of writing reflective pieces on your experience.

Brookfield, S. (1994)¬†‘Tales from the dark side: a phenomenology of adult critical reflection’,¬†International Journal of Lifelong Education,¬†13¬†(3) pp.203-216.¬†doi:10.1080/0260137940130303

An interesting exploration of negative aspects (the ‘dark side’) of critical reflection for¬†adult learners. Recommended reading for how to avoid or overcome these issues in practice. Sadly not¬†available OA or free-to-read.

Argyris, C. (1991) ‘Teaching smart people how to learn’,¬†Harvard Business Review, (May/June). Available at:¬†https://hbr.org/1991/05/teaching-smart-people-how-to-learn

On challenges of applying Argyris and¬†Sch√∂n’s single-loop vs. double-loop learning¬†to professional practice.

Drucker, P.F. (1999) ‘Managing oneself’,¬†Harvard Business Review, (January). Available at:¬†https://hbr.org/2005/01/managing-oneself

Not pitched as about reflection, but contains useful nuggets on ways of thinking about development. Warning: contains some problematic ideas and sweeping statements.

Critical reflection or critical reflective practice

I take critical reflective practice¬†to mean¬†particularly the ‘two stage’ approach of analysis and deconstruction followed by reconstruction and change¬†developed and articulated in the 2000s by Jan Fook, Fiona Gardner, and Sue White, alongside contributions from many other researchers. Their particular combination of theoretical underpinning and practical method is the one I prefer because it chimes with¬†in with my own values and preferred approach to thinking about professional practice.

These researchers scaffold their approach with four theories, this list is paraphrased in part from Gardner (2014) and Fook and Gardner (2007):

  • Reflective practice itself, including an idea of experience or practice knowledge that I would describe as praxis, eg. articulated in¬†Fook and Gardner (2007 p.24), “[R]eflective practice can be seen as a process of researching practice theory, by developing it directly from concrete practice”
  • Reflexivity, emphasizing a consciousness of how users perceive themselves and us, and how we perceive ourselves and each other¬†in¬†context as practitioners and¬†researchers
  • Postmodernism and deconstruction, in this case particularly emphasizing concerns with attitudes to and influences of power
  • Critical social theory, including an emphasis on social justice as a concern

One challenge for us is taking these ideas out of their original context of health and social care and making them applicable to library and information professional practice. Personally, I think this is entirely possible as the idea of praxis implies:

  • Applying theory to practice deductively
  • Creating theory from practice via inductive formation of knowledge and new theories of practice

My¬†point, is we needn’t wait for someone to write the ‘Critical reflection in library and information science’ textbook but can work on these ideas immediately. ūüėČ

Gardner, F. (2014) Being critically reflective. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gardner’s is my favoured¬†introduction to critical reflection¬†concepts and methods. It’s written to work for students and both new and experienced practitioners, providing practical examples while referencing more complex texts for underpinning theory, some of which are below.

Fronek, P. (2012) Jan Fook: critical reflection. [Podcast]. Available at: http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/critical-reflection/

Fook, J. (2006) ‘Beyond reflective practice: reworking the “critical” in critical reflection’,¬†Professional Lifelong Learning: beyond reflective practice,¬†Leeds, UK, 3 July.¬†Available at:¬†http://medhealth.leeds.ac.uk/download/1404/keynote_janis_fook

This conference keynote and podcast can be combined with Gardner’s book on critical reflection as an overview for ‘core’ reading.¬†Jan Fook’s keynote for a medical education¬†conference¬†includes both the ‘what it is’ explanation and a retheorizing of critical reflection. I really like her summary on p. 14 for the focus on the political aspects:

“In reworking a theory of critical reflection, I would now articulate critical reflection as involving the ability to understand the social dimensions and political functions of experience and meaning making, and the ability to apply this understanding in working in social contexts” (emphasis in original)

The podcast interview is meant as an overview – Jan Fook’s style and enthusiasm are¬†compelling, start here if you are unsure about where to dive in.

White, S., Fook, J., and Gardner, F. (eds.) (2006) Critical reflection in health and social care. Maidenhead: Open University.

Lehmann’s chapter 14 particularly interesting as this links a reflective writing approach to critical reflective practice; the ‘five questions’ she poses are also very useful for¬†unpicking underlying assumptions.

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2007) Practicing critical reflection: a resource handbook. Maidenhead: Open University.

Other than Gardner (2014) I think this is the best introduction containing a more detailed explanation of the theory plus a plan for how to carry out practical reflective conversations as a group.

Vince, R. and Reynolds, M. (2002) ‘Organizing reflective practice’,¬†Organization Learning, Knowledge and Capabilities, Copenhagen,¬†Denmark, 28-30 April.¬†Available at:¬†http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/wbs/conf/olkc/archive/olkc3/papers/contribution115.pdf

I include this here as Vince and Reynolds link reflective practice¬†to critical management studies as a way of developing a model moving beyond¬†Sch√∂n. Their overall view of ‘collective reflection’ is a useful expansion of, and critique of some limits in¬†Sch√∂n’s work.

Ghaye, T. (2005) Developing the reflective healthcare team. Oxford: Blackwell.

Does what it says: the focus is on team-based reflection in healthcare, from a UK context. Much of what is here is generalizable and I think this is a particularly good starting point for managers or leaders looking at ways of developing reflective teamwork.

Critical theory and praxis

A major attraction for me to critical reflection was¬†how Fook, Gardner, and White combine ‘traditional’ reflective practices with¬†critical theory. With that in mind I¬†wanted to include a few suggestions for starting points I think are useful in this area that may help in understanding the above. Lauren’s recommended reading¬†list below includes these and much, much more: everything from critical theory ‘big names’ to specific library and inform¬†recommendations.

Generally I’d also recommend¬†Foucault, but struggle to pick¬†one particular work. If pressed I’d include Discipline and Punish due to the focus on power and how disciplinary mechanisms were extended to the 20th century (Taylorist, Fordist) workplace, and the classic chapter on panopticism. It’s what I’ve recommended to my team as a starting point.

Leckie, G.J., Given, L.M., and Buschman, J. (eds.) (2010) Critical theory for library and information science. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

In my opinion the best general introduction to how critical theory can be applied to library and information work.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

A foundational work on praxis and critical pedagogy, quotable and inspiring. Of its time and place (citations include Lenin and Mao) so should be taken as a starting point for developing ideas.

Day, R.E., (2000) ‘Tropes, history, and ethics in professional discourse and information science’, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51 (5), pp.469‚Äď475.¬†doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-4571(2000)51:5<469::AID-ASI7>3.0.CO;2-B

Free-to-read preprint available at: http://info.slis.indiana.edu/~roday/articles/tropes.pdf

Reading lists from our community

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (Part Three): Critical Theory’,¬†Lauren Smith, May 16. Available at: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/

This blog post links to¬†Lauren’s critical theory in LIS reading list¬†(Google Doc) but is worth reading for additional background and the wonderful top ‘All-Time Must-Read Critical Theory in LIS texts’ list.

Professional identity, impostor syndrome, and performativity: thoughts on #radlib15

Image by Flickr user Michael Podger. License CC-BY. Available at: https://flic.kr/p/s2mJjL

Last weekend I attended the #radlib15 event organised by Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) in Huddersfield. I wanted to draw some threads between sessions I attended, and follow up on a few things left unsaid on the day.

RLC has come a long way in a few years and is evolving, but importantly it has maintained a safe space for discussions in LIS that are not happening elsewhere. My grateful thanks to the organizers at RLC for their work.

Professional confidence and professional identity

During the day, I felt two discussions on impostor syndrome and team working were linked by points made about professional confidence and identity, questions about radical perspectives on management, and ideas about the presentation of an authentic self.

Elly¬†O’Brien recently wrote a compelling¬†article problematizing¬†impostor syndrome and professional confidence which helped inform the impostor syndrome¬†session, with¬†Elly’s article referenced at the beginning. I agree with Elly’s points about the unhelpful librarian tendency towards self-deprecation, and I¬†think Kevin nailed¬†it when he¬†called out this “syndrome” as a political creation¬†exerting power on the subject:

About lacking confidence, a point was raised in discussion about whether there is a psychological disconnect between our presentation of identity online, and our true or authentic selves:

I think Simon’s point on¬†the marketized self is good, and I would expand on it and generalize from it. From a Marxian viewpoint anyone who is worker is compelled to sell labour as a commodity, representing a market relationship between the self’s potential for labour (labour power, Marx’s¬†Arbeitskraft)¬†formed from our own living bodies, and capital.¬†In a¬†sense under capital that marketized self is no more or less than¬†one’s real self as it is reflected and understood by capital. This situation is deeply problematic.

Performativity in online identity

On Twitter, Chris followed this with a point and a question about authenticity in our online selves:

I’ve been thinking about a similar question about online identity since I read Ned’s blog post about creating online identity last year, especially his points about “consistent voice” and¬†advice on not “adjusting who you are for other people”. Here I draw a line to the session on teams and teamwork and library managers as a potentially radical subject, relating them using¬†Judith Butler’s concept of performativity.

Butler originally applied her Foucauldian reading of performativity in developing an analysis of gender, arguing that identity can be brought to life or made real by repeated and consistent use of authoritative speech, as:

There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; [‚Ķ] identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.
(Butler, 1999 p.33)

There is a subtle point here. Butler is not simply¬†suggesting that if¬†we¬†talk as if we¬†have identity x, we will have identity x, as in the “fake it till you make it” suggestion that was raised¬†in the impostor syndrome session, but that performativity¬†is:

[T]hat reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains
(Butler, 2014 p.2)

I argue online identities of LIS workers are¬†performative in the way that our use of language itself reifies, by repetition of authoritative speech, those¬†identities that we create online rather than being something authentically constructed or a mere result of “being oneself”. For example, the identity of¬†“an efficient, competent subject¬†librarian”, or “a grounded, authentic manager”,¬†created¬†exactly by the¬†discourse of¬†those¬†individuals on social media platforms like¬†Twitter.¬†I would expand this to include identities we create as¬†managers, in that management is fundamentally performative:¬†expressing power by a mode of authoritative speech,¬†a case of actions embodied in “Doing things with words” (Learmonth, 2005).

On¬†the broader question raised of library¬†management as potentially radical, I¬†have written before about¬†authenticity in management and leadership at Radical Library Camp (the original RLC unconference in 2013) where I facilitated a discussion.¬†In hindsight¬†I’m not satisfied with that perspective, because I don’t see much difference between what I described and straightforward good management.

Instead I think we need to¬†approach management¬†and leadership from a critical perspective, and that there is¬†space for a¬†critical management studies (CMS) view of¬†library management as Kenny Garcia suggested on the #radlib15 hashtag.¬†CMS is something¬†like a critique¬†of management informed by Frankfurt School critical theory; to provide¬†LIS¬†focus¬†I’d add in critical perspectives on information management and information literacy, and perhaps a¬†Marxian lens to analyze information as a commodity in a marketized society.¬†For much more development of the latter, I recommend¬†Lawson, Sanders, and Smith (2015).

This is something I’m very interested in developing in future, so if you are interested in a CMS plus LIS mashup let me know.

References

Butler, J. (1999) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2014)¬†Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”.¬†Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge.

Lawson, S., Sanders, K, and Smith, L. (2015) ‘Commodification of the information profession: a critique of higher education under neoliberalism’, Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 3(1), eP1182. doi:10.7710/2162-3309.1182

Learmonth, M. (2005) ‘Doing things with words: the case of “management” and “administration”‚Äô, Public Administration 83(3), pp. 617‚Äď637. doi:10.1111/j.0033-3298.2005.00465.x

Photo credit

Sunset Flowers. Huddersfield‘ header image by Flickr user Michael Podger. License CC BY.

Information as a commodity – at #radliblon

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-C‚ĶP‚Ķ-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 Рshared by all Рinto 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 Рversus information on a page or represented as bits Рcannot 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.

Photo credit

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)

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.

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

Radical library camp

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.