Thursday, 28 February 2008

Equity & excellence in the Public Library

Library professionals inevitably spend a great deal of their time focusing on the day-to-day issues of running library services but occasionally we debate the principles that underpin what we do. One such debate is currently taking place in the pages of our professional journals and librarians from our area are taking a leading role in this debate.

This debate was sparked by Bob Usherwood, Emeritus Professor of Librarianship, University of Sheffield and Chair of SINTO. His new book Equity and Excellence in the Public Libraries: why ignorance is not our heritage, was published last year by Ashgate. Prof Usherwood summarised his views in an Opinion piece in Update 6(12) December 2007 p22.

His argument is that too many public librarians steer clear of making value judgments when choosing stock and as a result are "failing to counteract the ignorance and prejudice engendered by a society that cultivates celebrity, cash and trash." It is a cause of concern for Bob that so many librarians "appear unable or unwilling to make a judgement about the quality of books or other material." He further suggests that libraries should focus on services to encourage and support people with learning difficulties and others who do not deliberately embrace ignorance rather than "larger louts, chavs and other imposters masquerading as [the] true working class" (Usherwood quoting Knightley). "Such groups" claims Bob "are not by any means genuine representatives of the disadvantaged, and public librarians have to be very wary of the siren voices of those policy makers and others who mistakenly seek to promote their interests on the name of inclusion and equity."

Helen Buckley Woods of Sheffield Hallam University took issue with this in a letter to the January/February Update. She argued that it was not the either/or situation that Bob seemed to suggest and that most librarians would have "[a] steadfast commitment to provide a broad range of materials and services for all parts of the community, endeavouring to offer an excellent service to every user, no matter who they are...".

John Pateman (Head of Libraries, Lincolnshire) wrote to Update to support Helen's views that we should not separate the 'underclass' from the 'true working class' but argued that "...we should be mindful of the balance between social classes in our communities and ensure that resources are allocated accordingly. He also said that Helen was right to point out that there need not be a tension between equity and excellence in public libraries. However in a later piece in the Library & Information Gazette headlined "Equity not excellence" John says "My view is that we should not put our focus on excellence in terms of bookstock, but on equity with regard to social inclusion." He continues "Surely it is better to compromise on high professional standards so that libraries can truly be open to all?" John concludes by saying "In the modern public library service, excellence has its place - as a secondary consideration. But it has not served public libraries well in the past. Equity must be the watchword for the future."

On the face of it this is a clear conflict between the supporters of Excellence on the one hand and Equity on the other. However, Bob's definition of Excellence is about the quality of the material that we select and the need to provide knowledge and enlightenment. John chooses to interpret this as support for "high and elitist culture" which panders to a "predominantly middle-class, female, white and middle-aged" minority. Bob's comments about the "perils of populism" may justify this interpretation. The OED definition of populism is support for or representation of ordinary people or their views; speech, action, writing, etc., intended to have general appeal and a rejection of this inevitably suggests an elitist approach which may not be what Bob intended. The word quality has many definitions (including the archaic people of high social standing) but in the sense of excellence or superiority it is not an antonym of popular.

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