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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 18. The Big ISsues

Part One: Past and Present

In his 1979 pamphlet Radical Librarianship (LSC, 1979) John Lindsay ran through the main components of radical librarianship, which he divided into three main sections - service, stock and study ("the study of the problems that I face on a day to day basis and the attempt to find coherent, consistent and logical conclusions to those problems"). John also wrote a section on the relations of production and consumption of knowledge. John concluded that in order to put his ideas into action "That is going to require a social transformation of such magnitude that the people who involve themselves in this process are generally called by the Sun and the Daily Mail 'revolutionaries'. What they call themselves depends on how tired they are as a result of having spent the last twenty four hours involved in it."

We asked John to contribute an article to this 10th anniversary edition of ISC. We asked him if anything had changed since he wrote Radical Librarianship in 1979 and what his thoughts were on today's LIS world and the need to change it.

1. The Big ISsues

by John Lindsay

Shortly after publishing Radical Librarianship, John Noyce and I decided to change the name of Librarians for Social Change to Information Systems and Social Change. It seemed to us that the role of the computer had become so significant that is was going to be the systematising of the processes of information which was where the political action was going to lie. And that action would not necessarily be in a libertarian or socialist, or pro poor direction.

Shortly afterwards, John decided to move to Australia. I had joined the International Socialists, now the Socialist Workers' Party, and for right or for wrong, it had been decided that after Thatcher's defeat of Labour and then the failure of a fight back, that the SWP had to concentrate on holding itself together and pull in activities. This meant I withdrew from putting resources into keeping either LfSC or Gay Rights and Work and the Gay Librarians' Group functioning. Either there was no one else, or the ideas had run out of steam.

Librarians for Social Change had never been more than a magazine and a loose group of people who shared only a general idea: the idea was that libraries were agencies of social action and that action ought to be progressive. Thereafter we divided. Some were part of the women's movement and into women's liberation, some were anarchists and libertarians, some were socialists. But there was almost as much which divided as united.

Political activity moved into Libraries Open and Free, defending a free and open public library system in the face of cuts and closures. The school in which I had done the Need to Know project had been closed down, then the whole of the Inner London Education Authority, then the whole of the Greater London Council. But it must be borne in mind that these struggles were not only over public expenditure after Healey returned from the International Monetary Fund (thirty years before Stiglitz in Globalisation discovered the role of the IMF), but were over the nature of information and knowledge in an information and knowledge society. They were over the commodity.

Now, nearly thirty years later we are in preparation for the World Summit on the Information Society and the United States first lady, a one time librarian, has joined UNESCO. How can we tease out the threads of argument I addressed in Radical Librarianship?

The first must be the role of the computer and the development of what is now called the Internet and the World Wide Web. From the point of view of the information seeker, this must have been almost unreservedly progressive. When I was a child my parents could not afford the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was in current money about £1,000. Now it is less than ten pounds on a CD. That is a shift of two orders of magnitude in price, downwards. What would be the equivalent of that in my day job, teaching? Now it is true that billions do not have access to the internet, but they do not have access to the Encyclopedia Britannica either, or a public library, or perhaps any books at all.

If you take the meaning of information and information systems in the 1977 version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I understood what it meant, in the context of radical librarianship. Now we have at least nine different meanings of information, and in the UNESCO strategy paper for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a list of activities which make an interesting combination.

The introductory paragraph held for me three sections which gives us an opportunity to consider what the summit is for and what might be gained by participating. It suggested:

"The emergence of the Information Society is a revolution comparable to the deep transformation of the world engendered by the invention of the alphabet and the printing press."

Now we might recognise the relation between the printing press and the cutting off of the King of England's head, so what will this new revolution engender?

Secondly it asserted "A new culture is emerging based on symbols, codes, models, programs, formal languages, algorithms, virtual representations, mental landscapes, which imply the need for a new 'information literacy'".

Now in what sense this culture will be new, and what it will inherit from the old challenges us as information professionals. The list of categories is interesting, and so too is the privileging of literacy which implies text and linearity.

"They also hold the promise that many of the problems confronting human societies could be significantly alleviated if only the requisite information and expertise were systematically and equitably employed and shared."

So we have information and system along with equity and sharing. This is a challenge to information professionals. What do we mean by information?

The world wide web and the internet allows anyone to become a publisher. When I first became involved in radicalising information it was working out the role of the Xerox photocopier, then the lettraset and paper plate offset litho, a step forward on the banda. Now digital cameras, html editors and a phone line allow anyone to be a publisher, and you cannot tell the difference. Perhaps for most music is even more important? Lending records was never a mainstream public library activity. Indeed in the face of tight budgets, I recall arguing that while the core public library information provision must be as a democratic right and remain free and open, there was no reason why other activities could not be charged for.

Following the logic of the computer, the political implication was access. In 1992 I tried to ensure that the joint academic network extended itself to all public libraries, schools and museums, hospitals, prisons. I thought I had achieved it, but discovered I had not.

This takes us beyond information, however we might consider it, to network structure. And that takes us to the privatisation and liberalisation of telecommunications markets. This is a bigger issue than librarianship in itself. It also takes me away from being able to communicate with the immediate interests of most who consider themselves librarians. This is going to be a major issue at the World Summit.

The second must be the commodification and monetisation of public service. This in Blairspeak is now called modernisation. It was with Thatcher called market testing or privatisation. One does prefer fighting people who use plain words. The public library service in Britain was in retrospect remarkably successful in defending a core. The school library service fared much worse. The university library service fared well. In terms of making university services available to the whole population the case is mixed. Now the General Agreement on Trades and Services (GATS) perhaps opens up again the whole battle. But outwith Britain the story is much less bright.

Tied to this is tradable intellectual property rights (TRIPS). One line of argument is in favour of protecting indigenous knowledge rights so poor people might play the game. But the game is wrong. A private property right has a market clearing process where the externalities are systematically under priced. The extension of copyright to business models and patents to business processes is going to increase the contradictions and make simple things inoperable.

The third might be information planning. It is twenty years since I realised the emerging importance of databases, and networking, since I was able to communicate remotely with another computer and access a resource with terminal emulator. Accessing a library catalogue without having to go to the library, accessing all library catalogues, seemed to me the first big step in information for a long time.

It is also twenty years since I called the first meeting of what became the information for development forum (IDF). That was on the premise that with what the new technology permitted we could re-organise the availability of information about international development, about the third world, about pro poor policies (to use the phrase of Clare Short in the globalisation and development white paper). Much has been written on this, and perhaps one day I shall try to pull it together.

But the experience of IDF goes in parallel with the story of the Library and Information Services Council, LISC, and what then became the National Forum on Information Planning, now hovering near death.

There are I think social rules which determine that the centripetal forces are more powerful than the centrifugal, that people orient to one core goal or mission, that detailed thinking predominates over holistic, that the pressure for competition is much stronger than that for co-operation, but it does seem the case that collaborative planning is very difficult, and being focused on the detail of what a particular organisation delivers highly driven. More needs to be done on this, and on the history of information planning, but for now I will leave it.

The fourth information literacy, for the UNESCO paper mentions it? On meeting to consider what we know about it. This is a continuation of what I had done at South Hackney School, and also of the founding of Gay Switchboard. The report is on the internet so we need no more here: as part of the preparation of the UK National Commission for UNESCO for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

The fifth metadata. If we think back to our core competences and the tools of which we have experience, Dewey, Library of Congress Subject Headings, UDC perhaps, and the arguments we had thirty years ago, now we have Dublin core and no arguments?

I remarked a while ago on lis-linkat in the context of the US invasion of Iraq that Christianity still has most of the 200 space, and while I think all religions ought to be in the 390s giving us the 200s for new concepts, it is certainly not right that Judaism and Muslim should be squeezed into a corner. That is enough to make one a terrorist.

COPAC though shows the implications of what is possible. We always needed a taxonomy of information. I used something, anything, everything, the latest, the best (SAELB). We also had to distinguish between knowing whether something existed and knowing what exists. If I have an author and a title it is now easier than ever to have access. But knowing what relates to that thing is now demonstrated with the COPAC use of Library of Congress Subject headings in the clump. But it still depends on the practice. Timothy Mowl wrote a book on Horace Walpole in which he demonstrated something of a gay consciousness in Walpole's time. But the subject headings lose this entirely.

It seemed to me strange, when I first worked it out, that classification schemes and library organising practices are ideological, and part of a process of the dominant ideas being the ideas of the ruling class, even if the contradictions open up opportunities for deviancy, that no one else seemed to be interested. This remains the case. Foucault does not mention libraries as part of the ordering of things or the architecture of knowledge. No one who considers ideologies seems to see libraries.

Now we have open government, government direct, the electronic governance interoperability framework and the government metadata framework. We also have best value, life long learning, social inclusion, sustainable environments and economic development.

Perhaps the only ray of sunshine I see in all this, is the argument following Rio in 1992, that we must focus on sustainable development, whatever that means, and for information systems designers we must concentrate on integrated indicators. This is clearly not easy. The failure of the Blair government on integrated transport, health promotion, waste reduction, social inclusion or any other of a host of polices indicates that these goods cannot be delivered within the Blairite modernisation framework. With these it is possible to argue with a new generation of potential political activists and that must be the orientation.

I think we have to clear away the undergrowth. Some talk of knowledge management and some of content management. Some of databases and some of documents.

It worries me that most of all this is probably incomprehensible to the vast bulk of the population, and probably even those with university training. I watch people in a wide variety of jobs using a computer and the internet and they seem not to have a passing understanding of what they are doing, or the implications.

I wonder now whether I have lost that clarity which perhaps I had thirty years ago? But where are the young people who were on the march against Bush and Blair over Iraq within debates on what the role of a professional now might be?

But one cannot allow oneself despondency. One antidote is something interesting, so I am building the landscape gallery, as we do not have one. Simply joining all the really beautiful places together with footpaths and public transport, and green and smart, the idea that walking and public transport are sustainable development. http://www.greenandsmart.or


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