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:

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

‘Getting smart’ in a time of change, at ARLG 2019 (Part 1 of 2)

Representing the idea of reflective thought and action, in order: the "thinking face" emoji, the "right pointing hand" emoji, and the "cool sunglasses face" emoji.

This blog post is modified from a workshop, which included a presentation, delivered at the Cilip Academic & Research Libraries Group (ARLG) Conference on 4 June 2019 at the Darlington campus of Teesside University. Rosie Hare of the Northern School of Art, who was also one of the conference organizers, co-facilitated this.

Note on terminology: below, I will use the terms critique and criticism interchangeably. When I refer to critical theory (lowercase) this does not mean a particular critical tradition, or imply there is a single critical tradition.

Our slides are available, but as with most conference slide decks this tells a partial and incomplete story. Below I will expand on our rationale for running this session and the value I feel we derived from doing so, including our first of two workshop activities. Rosie Hare has written about the second half of the workshop, in Getting smart’ in a time of change, at ARLG 2019 (Part 2 of 2).

The theme of the conference was originally, “Doing more with less” which following sharp, critical engagement from the community was later reworked as, “Working smarter in a time of change“.

It was in the context of critique, refusal, and push-back that I was inspired by Donna Lanclos‘s suggestion to submit a critically-framed response to the call for papers (thread below).

Our title is a reference to Patti Lather’s (1991) Getting smart: feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern, which has particularly influenced my thinking about language and power within postmodern textual practices. Seeking voice and making meaning through dialogue provides a direct link to Lather’s work, due to her focus on importance of removing barriers that prevent people from speaking for themselves.

Thoughts and feelings

In our reply to the call for papers we explained that although we speak as further and higher education workers, library workers across all sectors and industries will likely recognise in their workplaces a context of constrained budgets, intensification of work processes, and pressure to continuously improve to meet the evolving needs and increased expectations of library users.

In doing so, library and education workers actively involve ourselves in roles of self-government which are rooted in measurement, evaluative techniques, and a logic based on markets and competition. But inevitably, gaps appear between the service that is achievable within our organisational financial constraints, and our commitment—which is framed by professional ethics and personal morals—to providing the most effective service. Library workers at all levels can find this situation emotionally charged, unsettling, and generative of feelings of impostorship. For managers especially, one temptation is to shift into a practically-focused crisis management or damage limitation mode, without necessarily giving critical consideration to this complex set of thoughts and feelings.

We had not personally experienced at a mainstream library conference an attempt to create a supportive environment for frank conversations to explore issues like this, and we hoped that delegates could trust each other to share what we felt we needed to say and articulate in critically interrogating these challenges—which might include expressing complicated, negative feelings. We asked workshop participants not to live-Tweet the session or otherwise share it on social media, hoping to create a space for trust and good faith dialogue which would be inclusive of participants who were less familiar with discourses of critique and critical theory—of any tradition. As well as open discussion, we wanted to facilitate questions without anyone feeling they would be picked up for perceived mistakes.

In the workshop, and in our follow-up here we utilized the Chatham House Rule which states that, “Participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”.

Making meaning with critique

Our working assumption was workshop participants could come to the session with anything from little to a great deal of knowledge of any particular critical theory tradition. We wanted to strike the right balance between potentially ‘splaining basic concepts and being condescending, and assuming too much shared knowledge and falling into the trap of the ‘curse of knowledge’ cognitive bias.

We therefore opened with a explanation of brief summary of what we meant by the term critique or criticism. As simply as we could state it, by critique we mean a process which informs and directs actions which carry social and ethical implications, beyond the technical execution of library work. However this process is in itself complex, and the terminology potentially contested and understood by different people in different ways. There are different critical traditions, and your notion of a critical theory might be conceptualized and understood very differently from mine—and that is fine.

In being critical we do not mean negative finding of fault, instead we mean critical inspection of our practice as information professionals. We particularly want to place analytical focus on the structures and systems that govern what we do in our workplaces or other professional contexts, and the power dynamics which operating within and outside those structures.

We particularly mean to focus on power, not conceptualised just terms of a coercive form of authority but as more of a social force, generated within our social relations and networks. We wanted to ask what potential there is if we analyse and ‘see through’ established authority and what we may think of as dominant means of control. If we are to be critical in a negative sense, we wish to address this to that established authority.

Becoming comfortable with our words

One way of become comfortable with the language of various critical theory traditions is by engaging with literature from different theorists, and coming to know the terrain and contours of their landscapes. However, we argue that processes of criticism can be engaged in without having to ‘have’ an enormous amount of knowledge of theory, that is, one does not need to be an expert to engage with critical ideas. We wanted also to emphasize the practical element of theory, because our view is that being critical is fundamental to reflective practice. We see an extended form of self-knowledge about our motivations for developing critical responses, and its limits and risks, as key to this point.

The requirements of praxis are theory both relevant to the world and nurtured by actions in it, and an action component […] that grows out of practical political grounding.

Lather (1991, p.12)

Patti Lather theorizes this form of practice as politically grounded. Praxis, spelled with an x, here has a sense of being informed action—in particular action which has a political component relevant to directing social change. We feel that this practical political grounding is generated by and through a reflective approach—one which includes knowledge developed from lived experiences, as well as the new knowledge we get from reading and conversations.

We asked the participants to aim to critically inspect how established authority operates within the communities they operate in. Our social networks and relationships are often complex, and a ‘solution’ to a challenge or an issue could look more like an ongoing, continuous, and iterative process rather than a one-step solution. In this spirit, we asked participants to put to one side the idea of simple solutions which process to clean, straightforward resolution and think about a process that might evolve over time.

Activity: reflective question

Critique doesn’t have to be the premise of a deduction that concludes, ‘this, then, is what should be done.’ It should be an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal.

Foucault (2000 p.236)

Some aspects of engaging with a critical approach will make us feel uncomfortable and can feel like thankless work. For example attempting to illuminate and challenge our own internal biases, while also asking others to critically inspect long-held beliefs themselves can be extremely challenging. It may be difficult simply to hold and sit with these feelings and not be overwhelmed, particularly when there is no obvious solution or practical first steps toward a solution that we can busy ourselves with. One point we emphasized to workshop participants that I think bears repeating, managers and leaders discover themselves in that position as well, as reflective practitioners.

As a first exercise we asked a reflective question based on this Foucault quote about the use of critique in refusal, rather than problem-solving. We asked participants to think about themselves being in a position of being one who “refuses what is”, based on thinking and writing about a real-world situation where they wanted to say something but felt they could not. The scenario we described as an example was not being able to to provide a service, or a particular quality of service, due to a constraint outside their control.

We asked participants consider their thoughts and feelings about the situation, without trying to work out how to solve the problem, or jump to a preferred solution. As this was an initial exercise we asked participants be more descriptive about their thoughts, and not to pressure themselves to reach fully-formed conclusions. The initial purpose of this was to provide a period for thoughtfulness not based on talking around a table; and although brief we also hoped this would subvert experiences of conferences dominated by extraverted activity given that there was a longer small group exercise coming later.

We asked participants to concentrate on refusal and visualising themselves in a mode of refusal to, we hoped, facilitate broader ideas and thinking about strategies for change that did not drive toward immediate results. Since then, I found Donna Lanclos’s delineation of power, refusal, and agency in her recent Academic Practice and Technology (APT) Conference keynote provided a rich way of thinking about strategic refusal, and refusal as evidence of institutional rather than individual malaise or deficit:

We need to stop seeing refusal as evidence that there’s something wrong with the people doing the refusing. We need to see refusal as evidence that there is something wrong that they are communicating about, something wrong with the systems they are being presented with, with the structures in which they are placed.

Lanclos, 2019

It may seem unusual that we discussed and focused on feelings—or affect—in our workshop. Indeed, this framing was key to our approach. We did this because we know that feelings are rational, rooted in our material understanding of the world, and in practical terms can sharpen our decision-making processes as well as our motivation to enact our decisions. In relating the politics of feminist movement with that of climate change activism, Susie Orbach describes how spaces of dialogue and sharing are also affective, and build resilience:

Facing feelings is not a substitute for political action, not is it a distraction from action. Feelings are an important feature of political activity. Acknowledging our feelings—the ourselves, to one another—makes us more robust.

Orbach (2019, p.67)

I had hoped our approach would facilitate thinking at greater length about a scenario of lacking control and agency, and would prove helpful later in the small group discussion so that participants weren’t starting from scratch. Rosie and I joined in the exercises with the workshop participants, on the basis that we would not ask anyone to do anything that we were not willing to do ourselves. I personally found this a very useful shared experience, having done completely unstructured free writing exercises many times before this approach provided a similar sense of writing something purely for myself while also serving a useful purpose for the next step in the workshop where we would analyse issues from our experience in greater depth.


Chatham House (2018) Chatham House rule. Available at:

Foucault, M. (2000) ‘Questions of method’, in Faubion, J.D. (Ed.), Power. New York, NY: New Press, pp.223-238.

Lather, P. (1991) Getting smart: feminist pedagogy with/in the postmodern. London: Routledge.

Lanclos, D.M. (2019) ‘Listening to refusal: opening keynote for #APTconf 2019’, Donna Lanclos, 9 July. Available at:

Orbach, S. (2019) ‘Climate sorrow’, in Farrell, C., Green, A., Knights, S., and Skeaping, W. (Eds.) This is not a drill. London: Penguin, pp.65-68.

Cilip Conference 2019 Leaders’ Network Panel: Why self-determined learning matters for leaders

This is the text, slightly modified and with additional citations, of a lightning talk presentation I gave at the Cilip Conference 2019 Leaders’ Network Panel session on the subject of why self-determined learning matters for leaders at all levels.

I will speak about why I think self-determined learning is key to critical reflective practice for leaders. You may already have heard of self-determined learning as heutagogy (Hase and Kenyon, 2000). I say critical reflective practice because critical reflection is the method I identify with—because it focuses on concerns of power and social justice. That matters to me in part because of class positionality—social class remains a barrier to education and entry to librarianship, as Liz Jolly said yesterday in her keynote talk.

I want to centre reflective practice for leaders because it is a critical learning skill, that is associated with and connected to knowing how to learn. I also feel personally, the leaders who have most inspired me and that I think role-model an authentic approach are those who take a reflective approach in their practice.

Reflective practice as a way of understanding and dealing with unique situations is important because to be frank, leaders do not always immediately know what is right and sometimes not even a full picture of what is going on operationally. By that I mean that we will not have an effective playbook or toolkit to work with in situations that are ‘new and novel’, and we may be removed from the operational detail as well: we may not realistically have time to build that knowledge from the ground up.

When I face a new challenge I often think about similarities from experiences I’ve had in the past, and my mind starts developing analogies. But that’s dangerous ground in so many ways—it leads to situations in which cognitive biases can creep in. Remember, many cognitive biases exist because there is an advantage in allowing us to make quick, snap decisions—as such we have to remember that the gut feeling we have needs to be questioned exactly because it feels right.

A workplace role as a leader or senior manager don’t mean that you know everything or can reach good answers or wise judgements quickly; more likely in my experience is that the snap judgement is really a hot take, rooted in cognitive bias or shallow moralising. Think about this: have you ever worked for someone who you thought made a snap decision and then wouldn’t change their mind, no matter what evidence was presented? Or, have you actually been that person?

We need knowledge from outside ourselves to develop self-awareness. My colleague Jacqueline Smart at University of West London taught me yesterday at our learning and teaching conference, that the kind of self-awareness that we gain during reflective practice is also a form of new knowledge. Why we need to be self-determined is that working in new and novel situations that are ambiguous and uncertain is the key space of leadership work.

The most powerful lesson I have learned in any senior role is there are multiple ways to do things and often multiple, functionally-equivalent correct answers. In those new and novel situations there is often no practical or timely way to ask “what are others doing?” and an outward focus for learning combined diverse viewpoints and experiences as input is essential. I’ve learned that this point is often a very difficult one for leaders to make peace with. Leaders place themselves in a vulnerable position when we admit they don’t know something. Those in senior roles often don’t have many peers in the institution at their level, and commonly no-one else with our particular skill-set.

To add, the mentoring relationship you can get through Chartership professional registration is an amazing way to develop that kind of trusted relationship outside your institution—however that’s really not what I’m getting at here. What I have found effective is to draw on the professional body of knowledge of librarianship. Now, saying a body of knowledge is another way of saying “theory”, and for me theory is a living thing we embody in our work. Of course, it can be got from reading thing but it can also be gained from others including by way of what we might think of as the oral tradition of our profession.

In self-determined learning the benefit is in looking wider, outside of librarianship, is that this is your way to find the global maxima—the highest point.ĚŁ Reading within our discipline normally finds you a local maxima only. A local maxima may be enough, especially as a starting point for wider investigation. The issue I have found though is that new and novel problems demand knowledge from outside our discipline because they demands the most powerful knowledge. Our mentors’ roles here is to help us in scaffolding the knowledge we need to learn how to learn, but beyond this we need to be critical and self-determined learners.


Hase, S. and Kenyon, C. (2000) ‘From andragogy to heutagogy’, Ulti-BASE In-Site, December [Online]. Available at:

Smart, J. and Rowson, J. (2019) Reflection as dialogue in work-based learning [Conference workshop at UWL Festival of Learning and Teaching]. University of West London, London, July 3.