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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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December 2008 Volume 6(6)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

Like something almost being said

Public libraries: political footballs?

Libraries could benefit from playing a major role in re-engaging people with politics, say Kathleen Menzies and Richard Fallis.

It’s safe to say that the British people are no longer excited by politics. As a nation, we seem more inclined to demand the heads of radio personalities who insult seventies sitcom stars than to follow the trajectories of politicians, our representatives locally and on the world stage. Could we in the UK ever hope to witness here the record turnouts and the excitement that swept Barack Obama to his victory? With perceptions skewed, perhaps, by the simplistic dichotomies of a ‘fantasy’ politics (cultivated by everything from Hollywood, to the poster campaigns of Tommy Sheridan’s supporters during his battle with Rupert Murdoch), is it any wonder that most people here recoil from the minutiae of a democratic system based on realpolitik and compromise?

Similarly, people have become uninterested in their public libraries, with membership, book issues and ‘footfall’ in the grip of a well-documented decline. In the case of both politics and libraries, massive amounts of effort and funding have been committed to initiatives designed to convince citizens of the importance of these institutions. At government level, steering groups, focus groups and committees have emerged  to consider what might be done to remedy voter apathy. Meanwhile, an appealing array of evening classes, reading schemes and new, user-focused services have blossomed in our libraries, with considerable success. ‘Get Glasgow Reading’, ‘Books for Babies’ and author events  have made an undoubted impact. However, the efforts of government to engage citizens, particularly in the current economic climate, have been less successful.

For better or worse, public librarianship has long been tied to government thinking, with national agendas and library services intertwined to reflect a commonality of purpose. Despite this, politicians are in a more fortunate position than librarians. Political posts exist and continue to be filled, irrespective of an indifferent electorate and low voter turnout, whereas libraries must grapple with an exhausting combination of performance indicators, evaluation frameworks and targets decreed from above, to prove themselves worthy of government funding.

Libraries have, in the past, prided themselves on being politically neutral. Yet their position is not as unassailable as it once was, because it is being eroded by a specific rhetoric, exemplified by a recent report, which concludes that finding staff members adequately empathetic to “groups affected by social exclusion…[ ]… will be a vital part of public libraries’ contribution to the social inclusion agenda, and should be an absolute priority for the future of community librarianship”. Priority, the report states, must be given to ‘enabling’ “advanced customer service skills” such as “influencing relationships” and “dealing with conflict”.[1]

Really? Is it not time for libraries to disentangle themselves from such buzzword-heavy rhetoric, forsaking the political landscape carved up by New Labour, with a view to redefining the terrain for themselves? By threatening library funding, and by impairing libraries’ ability to acquire the best staff on their own terms, the government may be sabotaging its own (philosophically laudable) efforts to address a culture of social inclusion, and may further disgruntle the very public sector workers with whom it needs to reconnect. After all, government initiatives wax and wane, but the issues with which public libraries are concerned have not changed.

Librarians should strive to empower users who feel politically disenfranchised, or who lack sufficient knowledge to engage confidently with the politics of their day. ‘Real Learning Centres’ and ‘Ideas Factories’ have been developed, partly to encourage the regeneration of economically deprived areas, but until local residents feel better able to express what political decisions they feel need to be made on their behalf (or, until they are ‘politically literate’), these initiatives will not have the desired, long-term effect.

Public libraries could play a valuable role in achieving widespread political literacy. The book group model could be adapted around politically-themed sets of novels, poems, political biographies, films and documentaries. The work of artists and commentators of different nationalities could be included, and the entire spectrum of political opinion represented. Upcoming local or national elections could be discussed. Evening classes could consider the implications of proposed policies and the content of the week’s newspapers, highlighting instances of bias while educating people on the basics of the democratic system. The history of political movements in a library’s local area might prove an interesting talking point, and could involve genealogical and archival materials – already popular pursuits.

Immigrants and migrant workers are already encouraged to take part in ‘Citizenship’ classes, albeit as part of a government-sanctioned programme. Public libraries are perfectly placed to offer something equivalent, but more independent, to citizens in general, and should be able to do so without fear of reprisals from government.
This might serve the dual purpose, of re-engaging citizens with their public libraries, and of instilling in them an enthusiasm for politics, on a par with that seen in the US. 

Kathleen Menzies is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Digital Library Research. Richard Fallis is an Assistant Librarian within NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde.

1. Wilson, K., and Birdi, B. (2008). The right ‘man’ for the job? The role of empathy in community librarianship. A research project by the Centre for the Public Library and Information in Society (CPLIS), University of Sheffield.

* Christopher Phillips replies to ‘Public libraries: political footballs?’ with his views on the current strategies public libraries are employing.

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Information Scotland Vol. 6(6) December 2008

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Last updated: 27-Mar-2009