In my recent blogs I talked about the call for librarians to be "political with a small p". But what exactly do we mean by that.
One answer can be found in a paper by Ann Curry published in Journal of Librarianship and Information Sciences 1994 (1). This paper explores the relationship between the chief librarians of public libraries and members of their local authority and was based in part on Bob Usherwood's investigation of public library politics and governance (2).
The paper shows that chief librarians were concerned that elected members might try to influence policy, especially library selection policy, because this might introduce political bias. There was particular concern about "special-interest lobbying groups" and both councillors and librarians felt that they had a better insight into the needs of the community than the other. The councillors felt that they were representing legitimate concerns of minority groups while the librarians complained that members were too ready to respond to unrepresentative pressure groups.
Many UK librarians (in contrast to Canadian librarians) deliberately avoided introducing a stock selection policy on the ground that it would have to go to a library committee and that would encourage a political debate that might not be to the benefit of the library. This sort of pragmatism was also reflected in policy on library displays. The aim of the chief librarian was to avoid conflict. "You have to be reasonably pragmatic. If a councillor says that you must do this, then it is no skin off anybody's nose to move or remove a book. There is no point in having a blazing row over something that is not important in the broader picture". Similarly "Exhibiting material which challenges council policies was considered by officers to be foolhardy and futile, like 'shooting yourself in the foot' according to one respondent." Examples of such taboo subjects included race, sexuality land development, education, taxation, labour relations, nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons. Librarians were particularly keen to avoid controversial media stories. They observed with 'cynical resignation' that "The political careers of the councillors would certainly come before any beliefs in the freedom to read".
This shows a high level of political awareness and skill in avoiding anything that might upset the elected members. The justification was that retaining the good-will and support of elected members was of more benefit to the library service in the long term than having arguments over individual matters of principle.
That was 1994 and seventeen years is a long time in politics. Much has changed including I suspect a distancing of councillors from any involvement in the details of library policy. The community is more empowered and I think would be less tolerant of councillors deciding what books to buy or display. On the other hand pressure groups might want to have a direct say over library policy, so the librarian is faced with a similar need to be pragmatic and avoid controversy.
But is this all that we mean by being political? For some the term means awareness of and involvement in public policy debate. An example of this is social exclusion. The report Open to All? The Public Library and Social Exclusion (3) contains statements such as "Public libraries, as institutions of the capitalist state, are thus configured like many other agencies, in favour of the middle class, who consume public goods to a disproportionate extent". This is a long way from a desire not to upset elected members. The report draws attention to the accelerating problem of exclusion in the United Kingdom, and the widening gap between rich and poor. "This is of concern to the Government because it has implications for both the economy and for social stability".
No one, least of all the authors of this report, would suggest that investing in libraries and promoting social inclusion through libraries could, of itself, prevent a breakdown of social stability. Libraries are a part, and a very small part, of any solution. But they are a part. As I have said before, the Darien statement that "the purpose of the library is to preserve the integrity of civilisation" is overblown and probably pretentious. But there is currently a debate on how we can preserve the integrity of civilisation. Some look to water cannons, plastic bullets and more police on the streets. Others are looking at underlying causes. Libraries are not the answer but they definitely have a part to play in giving individuals and communities some hope of a better future. As Bob Usherwood points out we must not allow councils to play off one part of public service against another. I'm sure that some will say that we can't afford to spend money on public libraries when we have to tackle the real problem of disaffected youth and a 'sick' society, but they are wrong. We should argue for the role of libraries in a political context.
So we have two concepts of what being political means. Heads of service have to work within the system and be pragmatic. They cannot damage the service as a whole for the sake of every 'principle' that comes along. Perhaps this is a function of age and experience. To paraphrase - if a librarian is not an idealist at twenty they have no heart, if a librarian is not a pragmatist at forty they have no brain.
But there is a principle at the core of what we do and we should understand what that is, explain it to our 'Power people' and seek to defend it. Without that core of principle the profession is an empty husk and does not deserve respect. We have to decide for ourselves on the right balance between pragmatism and idealism - and that choice is a political act.
1.Curry, Ann. The chief officer / councillor relationship in British Public Libraries. JLIS 1994 26:211
2. Usherwood, Bob. Public library politics: the role of the elected member: Library Association Publishing, 1993.
3. Open to All? The Public Library and Social Exclusion. Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, 2000