librarians

Should librarians be travelling to the United States?

There’s been plenty of debate in the academic community over whether or not people should boycott the US under the current administration. The Guardian has a piece on it, Inside Higher Ed has a longer piece on it – American Libraries Magazine references the academic boycott but adds nothing about librarians doing the same thing. I’ve not seen much on this topic from an information-professional point of view. Maybe that’s just because we don’t travel around as much as academics – but seeing as the current US Government will, if there’s no kind of intervention in the meantime, probably be in charge for at least 8 years (Trump is tweeting about ‘voter fraud’ not because any part of him believes it’s an issue, but because it needs to be seen as an issue to justify what he does next – and what he does next will inevitably make it harder to get rid of him, via voting reforms) then it’s bound to come up for a bunch of librarians at some point.

I had accepted an invitation to give a keynote at a library conference in the US this year. It was arranged a long time ago, before Trump was voted in. Since his first week in office I’ve been agonising over what to do about this. I really want to go and do the talk. I’ve found a way to do the talk without breaking my ‘no more than 2 nights away from the kids’ rule. I know some info pros have done so many keynotes that they no longer get worked up about them, but I’ve done three keynotes in my life and still find it incredibly exciting; it was a huge honour to be asked. I’ve worked with the organistion running the conference and I love working with them, have loved interacting with their members. And when a country is under increasingly fascist rule from a President the majority didn’t vote for, you don’t want to turn your back and leave them isolated – you want to stand with them and support them. I wanted to go and talk with a group of librarians who, in all probability, feel exactly the same way about the current political happenings as I do.

However. Trump’s presidency is, in my view, the worst thing to happen to the world in my lifetime. I am so sick of looking at groups of extraordinarily wealthy middle-aged white men sitting around celebrating signing away the rights, prospects, livelihood, health and future of anyone who isn't essentially just like them. Pretty much everything the current administration has done since taking over is abhorrent. So to visit the country for work would seem like a tacit acceptance or legitimising of the regime. Somewhat analogous to visiting South Africa under apartheid. And in all honesty, I’ve been worried about getting in. Applying for a visa is complicated enough, but I’ve now read countless reports of people either getting turned away or interrogated at length, having their phones confiscated, and so on, including an author who was entering on the exact visa I’d be coming in on, to do more or less the exact same thing I’d be doing. So all in all, I felt conflicted.

I asked a handful of people I really respect, both inside and outside librarianship, what they’d do. They pretty much all said I should go (except for two people, one of whom, Myron, wrote this piece about it). There are lots of compelling arguments for going, not least standing with the librarians in the US. Going into Trump’s domain and speaking out against him from within. Plus the thing that came up time and again was: nothing good comes from NOT going.

The Guardian piece linked above puts it like this: “The crucial question to be answered is: what would such an action achieve?” The thing is, I don’t agree that this IS the crucial question. The crucial question is, is it the right thing to do? I'm usually quite pragmatic but it’s not JUST about cause and effect. Do the right thing because it’s right, not because of the impact it may have. And for me, the crucial aspect of the crucial question is really this: should I as a white non-Muslim man use the accidental privilege of being born in the right place to visit a country that others can’t get in to? And the answer is, no I should not. I cannot. Were it not for the travel ban I think I’d be persuaded by the arguments for going, but as it is, in the same way I wouldn’t avail myself of a business or eatery that wouldn’t serve others based on their skin colour or religion, neither can I enter a country others can’t.

Laura Woods wrote a great piece comparing US conferences with UK conferences, which chimed with a lot of my experiences. At the end she says “I would not judge a fellow professional for deciding to travel to the US” and that’s how I feel too, but I can’t quite get to the bottom of why I wouldn’t judge someone… I know that if people have to go for work – as in, they’re expected to go by their employer, rather than my situation where I’d be going in my own time – then it’s totally understandable to still go. And I know US Conferences are, as Laura details in the post, basically amazing, and hugely enriching experiences. I'd hate for new professionals to miss out on the amazing ECCA award from the SLA that I benefitted from back in 2011.

So, I don't feel like I have the answers here. I know there's a line for me personally in my particular circumstances, and the current US administration have put me way past that line. But I don't feel it's all so clear-cut as to be able to declare 'none of us should be travelling to the US', by any means. I hope that at the very least, every info pro with an opportunity to visit the US has the conversation with themselves over what to do, and I hope they find it easier to find the right answer than I did… And if, like I did, you find yourself wrestling with the ridiculousness of reducing a global catastrophe to your own moral dilemmas around travel, don’t be too hard on yourself – we all have to deal with these things as they impact on us, whilst acknowledging that of course they impact on millions of others to a far greater extent.

Building your professional reputation. Library adventures in Cape Town part 1

In October I was invited to South Africa to speak at LIASA 2013, the 15th annual Library and Information Association of South Africa conference. It was in the fabulous City of Cape Town and it was incredible; I just haven't had a chance to put my thoughts down in a blogpost until now. But I know not everyone is particularly interested in a 'here's what I did' type post so I've put that separately in Part 2. There's also a Part 3 to follow about the differences between UK conferences and international ones. I was asked to do three things at the conference - a marketing workshop (half a day on strategic marketing and half a day on emerging technologies), a session for the Higher Education Library Interest Group on induction / orientation here at the University of York Library (the presentation is here, although it doesn't make much sense without me talking over the top, I'm afraid), and a talk aimed primarily at new professionals on building your reputation and professional brand. It's a tiresomely controversial subject, this; what it comes down to for me is that people fairly new to the profession can sometimes worry about being some sort of super librarian and DOING ALL THE THINGS, but actually you don't have to be like this at all. You just have to get involved with the areas of librarianship which correspond to your goals in the profession. So the talk was about that, and about different ways to be part of the wider community.

Below is the talk: it consists of my slides, the audio of the talk (recorded from my iphone in my jacket pocket!) and a couple of pictures to look at while I talk about some things I wasn't intending to talk about, at the very start.

It was fun doing this talk, it was different to the normal things I do. The room was bigger - this is the first time, outside of the webinar environment, that I'd talked to several hundred people at once. Speaking to a room that size is very different to speaking to 30 people - my usual very conversational presentation style wouldn't have worked. Presenting is a bit like drawing a picture in that the further away the audience, the broader the strokes needed for the picture; the detail gets lost.

The atmosphere was different in SA that from conferences I've presented at in the UK, too - people were laid back, ready to laugh. I was one of only three international speakers so everyone was very welcoming. And also, this talk is a version of something I'd originally delivered at a New Professionals Day back in 2012 which was designed primarily to address an anxiety about branding I'd heard many new professionals express - an anxiety which, having arrived in South Africa and been at the conference for a couple of days already, I'd found to be largely absent! So I felt a bit like my talk didn't match my slides - certainly I was trying to manipulate the slides to tell a slightly different, more widely applicable story, as I went along. But anyway I really enjoyed it and I've had some genuinely touching feedback about people feeling inspired.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow!

 

How would you behave if Privacy didn't exist?

Picture of a padlock

A lot of the prominent stories recently emanating from our world, and the wider world, are linked by the subject of Privacy. It runs like a vein through so many contemporary stories, that I wonder if people will look back on the years around the turn of this decade as a tipping point for privacy. Perhaps we're about to go one of two ways - a future in which nothing is really private, or something a little more Orwellian where privacy is shut down, globally, off the back of Bush-administration style rhetoric about 'national security'.

Sometimes, the privacy stories directly intersect with library stories (such as the controversy around the Library of Congress's handling of the wikileaks saga), but even when they don't, it's all relevant. Privacy is about access to information, and we are the Information Professionals.

The big stories

Many of the biggest stories at the moment are privacy related. The phone-hacking scandal currently rocking the Murdoch empire, for example. Of course Wikileaks is the most obvious one - there are many levels of privacy involved here. People were doing or saying things they thought were private, which were recorded by third parties who in turn thought this would be kept private. Then along comes a whistle-blower who makes the information available to a website, who in turn make it available to the world. For the most part the information only has value because of some distinctly librarian-like intervention between the data being leaked, and we the public ingesting it. 300,000 files on a memory stick is pretty useless on its own - hours and hours of collating, sorting, curating and research, in this case by journalists, give the information the accessibility it needs to be communicable to a large audience. Information overload is also a factor here - absolutely incredible stories, scoops of the year in their own right at any other time, get down-graded because of their proximity to so many other high-interest pieces of information. We become immunised to scandal when we get too much of it at one time.

It is interesting to think how much revelatory material is currently waiting to be unearthed, once someone has done the research to make it viable for public release. It is interesting to wonder how diplomacy will work in the future, if everyone knows that everything they say may one day be read in the paper by you or I.

Recent events in Egypt have taken in Privacy related elements too. The Government wanted privacy; they didn't want easy communication between the people and the outside world, regarding the week-long protests that have been happening in Cairo and elsewhere.  So they turned off the internet.

Surely these two examples show the two ways this could go? Everyone knowing everything, or no one being allowed to communicate anything.

The logistics of leaking

As the excellent Guardian Week in Review podcast pointed out, it is very easy to breach privacy these days. Wikileaks gets hold of 300,000 files at a time - can you imagine trying to carry that many pieces of paper out of a building, at all, let alone covertly? You'd need a lorry parked outside, for a start. Electronic data transfer facilitates leaks - you send things across the ether, or you can save them onto a memory stick the size of your thumb.

Not only that but technology tends to become smaller as it gets more advanced, and so a: more discrete and b: more ubiquitous because you can fit it into more stuff. An absolutely extraordinary number of people own mobile phones – some estimates put the figure as high as 5 billion mobiles in circulation – and pretty much all of those being sold today have cameras and video cameras as standard now. This is technology which would have been super-spy territory a couple of decades ago - devices capable of recording anything, that can fit in your pocket, and that look like something else and give no indication they're recording? Everyone can create the news now.

Not only that, but we have plenty of technology at our finger tips which allows pretty much instantaneous dissemination of whatever we have to share.

The smaller stories

Many privacy stories come about simply because people act differently if they don't think they're accountable for their actions. If they don't think their private actions will become public, they don't attempt to filter their behaviour. When they do become public, the people have to apologise and show contrition - as if it was only the fact that their actions came to light publicly that somehow enlightened them as to the fact those actions were wrong.

The MPs expenses scandal is an example of this - they were comfortable with what they were doing, until the private actions came under public scrutiny, and then they were all suddenly aware of their moral failings and very sorry. The recent departures of Keys and Gray from Sky's football coverage is similar - they acted in a way they knew was inappropriate in the eyes of the public, only because they didn't think those eyes would ever see those actions.

We all do this. I'm glad Keys and Grey are gone, they were buffoons. Their comments were indicative of their misogyny, and unpleasantly bullying. But who hasn't said something privately that would get them into enormous trouble if it was made public? As a case in point, I played poker with some male friends on Friday night, and we spent much of the night satirising Gray and Keys, impersonating them and so on. But context is everything - if you were to see footage of our conversation with the context stripped away, it would be just six men sitting round a table drinking and making sexist remarks.

Our stories

This is relevant to us and to libraries and to information, for many reasons. Particularly the way we use Search Engines. Because we use them, for the first part, thinking we are doing so in private. Would we use them differently if we knew our actions would become public? As the experience of the recent Yahoo! leak shows, I think we would. It's not just that people use the internet to access the seedier side of human existence, it's that our whole lives can be pieced together from the questions we ask of Yahoo!, Google and the rest. Our hopes, our fears, our indiscretions, our health, our finances, our plans - our identity. Google is keen not to be evil now, but the information it has on us already will be around forever. Forever! Who knows what the next generation of owners / CEOs will do with it all.

Facebook is much more openly evil, and plays around with your privacy all the time. We all know this, but as Bobbi Newman pointed out to me, a large percentage of its half-billion-plus users (that's one in four internet users in the world) will not be fully aware of this or of its implications.

The future

How would you behave if privacy didn't exist? Most of us would behave differently, I think. Our private morality would be more closely aligned with our public morality. The tabloids who, happy in their own rank hypocrisy, crow about Gray's 'disgraceful' sexist comments about a female referee whilst simultaneously trying to objectify her in the accompanying out-of-context pictures of her at a nightclub, would not find it so easy to preach about what they so clearly don't practice themselves. But it occurs to me that if this IS a tipping point in privacy, then perhaps we're already happily revealing everything about ourselves, it's just that the information will be made public retrospectively.

So perhaps we should all start behaving as if privacy didn't exist now, to save embarrassment later..? In any case, the role of the Information Professional will surely be of increasing importance, in providing guidance and education, as the stakes associated with digital literacy, information literacy, transliteracy, grow ever higher.

- thewikiman

NB: Hilariously, since writing this piece this morning, and coming back to proof-read it and add the links this afternoon, I've since read a piece by Charlie Brooker in the Guardian this very day saying, in some cases, pretty much exactly the same thing - except more entertainingly... You can read his article here.