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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 11. Meeting information needs for 1992 and beyond

by John Vincent

This is an edited version of the talk given at the Community Services Group Conference, "Librarians for Cultural Diversity", part of "Under One UmbrelLA", Leeds 6 July 1991. The points raised by John are as relevant today as they were when in 1991 - Editor.

In fact, I am not going to talk specifically about "1992 and beyond"! I was given a wide brief, and I intend to examine a range of issues relating to libraries and the black community.

To begin with, it is important to state why it is that I agreed to talk. All too often at conferences, contributors speak on behalf of other people, and I think it is vital to establish why, as a white man, I feel that I have a right to address you on these topics.

I was very pleased to be asked to speak, and agreed to do so for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is the role of all library workers to deal with issues around racism and services for the black community. Secondly, as a senior manager, it is part of my responsibility to ensure that the services we provide are relevant to the black community and to deal with issues such as racism. Thirdly, on a personal note, I also belong to a community that is currently under attack: as a gay man, I too suffer discrimination - for example, all of you will have heard of "Clause 28", and, whilst it has not had too dramatic an effect on services across London, it is being used by authorities elsewhere to stop theatre performances, funding of lesbian and gay groups, and so on. I too, though to a much lesser extent than my black brothers and sisters, run a constant risk of harassment and attack on the streets, and it is these sorts of issues that all library workers need to be aware of.

Whilst I have lived and worked in the Brixton area for the last 17 years, I am not intending to concentrate on Lambeth as a library service, though I may well draw on some examples from our work.

What I aim to do in my session is to set libraries in something of their social context. then look briefly at what they have achieved, and, finally, to pull this together with some pointers relating to "1992" as a kind of agenda for future action.

Within the time allotted for this talk, I can do no more than scratch the surface of the issues facing the black community in Britain today, but I hope that this will, at least, set the scene for what libraries urgently need to attempt to do. The most major issue is, of course, racism. If any of you regularly see the magazine Searchlight you will have noted the reports of horrendous increases in racist violence in the UK, and also the upsurge of racism across Europe, in Germany, for example.

As another small example, I have recently returned from a short stay in Exeter, and was horrified to see BNP paper-sellers on the High Street with a Union Jack as a back-drop. In my view, the situation of the black - and other - communities is worsening; despite glowing articles, such as a recent one in The Observer , about the growth of wealth amongst the black community, as you will realise, this is affecting only a small proportion, and, as elsewhere, the rich are getting richer, and the poor poorer. John Major's recent pronouncement about strengthening the exam system (despite his apparent inability to be successful at them!) and the whole idea of introducing further testing in schools must surely disadvantage the black community and people whose community language is not English even further, unless it can be proven that these tests are without cultural bias. The National Curriculum's apparent ideal of teaching "proper" (in their terms, British) history rather than multicultural and world history again shows the view that is held of the needs of children in school. Nandini Mane, in the previous session, has highlighted the effects that racism in children's resources can have. There are, of course, many other issues - employment, immigration, and so on - but time does not allow me to deal with these here.

So, what about the role of libraries? And, will there actually be any public libraries after 1992 anyway?

Whilst there is undoubtedly a number of exciting and worthwhile initiatives being carried out by library authorities and individual librarians throughout the country, nevertheless, I would argue that, for many people, libraries are still marginal. Why is this?

The key issue is that, still, libraries are not really part of the community which they serve. The apocryphal story of the Reference Library writing out to local groups to ask if they are out there is, unfortunately, still true. I have been arguing for years that libraries should adopt a "community librarianship" approach, yet only a handful has actually taken this on board. AS our worth is not recognised, so we become easy targets for cuts, and you will all know of the grave situation facing a number of local authorities, the most prominent of which is Derbyshire.

I welcome the recent spate of press articles about libraries, such as those by Michael Ignatieff and Richard Hoggart, but, as well as highlighting our plight, they also show that, in many cases, we have lost our way. Whilst I do not consider myself to be a Luddite, nevertheless I am increasingly concerned by the attention that is given to topics which are, or should be, marginal rather than central. For example, reading the librarianship press, one sees very little to do with service provision to the community; rather, it is full of articles about computerisation, performance indicators, customer care, and marketing. Not that I am against any of these: however, had we been pursuing a proper "community librarianship" approach, then, for example, marketing (which always sounds like my trying to sell you something that you don't really want!) would not be necessary, and customer care would be a natural part of the services we provide.

This press attention shows the confusion we all face as to what our role should be, and that, simply, is to provide a relevant service to the whole community, but, especially, to target those with the greatest need.

We are also about to face renewed attempts to introduce charges: you will no doubt have seen that the Government has set up an investigation into the potential for charging (an issue which some parts of the press have already focused on), and some library authorities have already, in my view, fallen into the trap by introducing charges for all sorts of services. We thought we had seen the back of the "Green Paper", but it is returning in another guise!

The final area where, it seems to me, libraries are failing is in their adoption and development of Equal Opportunity Policies. I was extremely dismayed, when recently taking part in a debate at the Library Association on qualifications, to be accused by a librarian in the audience of peddling left-wing, trendy rubbish when I mentioned Equal Opportunity Policies. This is appalling, and, though but one example, shows the attitude that is still prevalent in librarianship.

I want to go on to look at what libraries ought to be doing, but, before that, wish to look briefly at what progress libraries generally have made in Equal Opportunity Policy terms, and, in particular, in providing services for the black community. I was present at the launch of the Library Association's review of services to the black community in 1978 , and, whilst this was late in terms of what libraries should have been doing, was, nevertheless, a welcome attempt to review the then provision and to set a small agenda for future development. Having just relooked at this, before coming to give this talk, I noted how little has really happened to change Clough and Quarmby's findings.

Are library services for the black community (and other groups) really an integral part of our provision, or are they still marginal? In the way that such services are provided by many library authorities, there can be little doubt that they are marginal. Funding is often provided in the form of separate, discrete projects, and the obvious danger of this is that separate funding of this sort is very easily identified, and therefore can be equally easily cut. Often service development relies on the work of one librarian, rather than being taken on by the whole service as part of its overall mainstream provision, and, when s/he leaves, the work stops.

Rather than funding staff from mainstream budgets, many library authorities have relied on Section 11 funds, and, as you know, the basis on which these are provided by the Government is about to alter; as a result, many of our black colleagues are facing possible job loss and uncertainty about the future of their services. All too often, it is the case that the major part of the service provision for the black community falls to the "Ethnic Minority" or "Community" (or some other euphemism) librarian, and s/he is expected to purchase, catalogue and exploit the total range of library resources - this is certainly marginalisation! In addition, some library authorities employ as library assistants, paying them some meagre salary, people with particular, needed language skills, and then expect them to carry out the full range of librarian work - this is an appalling example of exploitation.

This brings us to another issue which is of considerable importance - that of training and qualifications. Many librarians are simply unaware of the issues which face the black community, for example, and it is essential that library authorities undertake full and proper training of their staff. In Lambeth, we operate a 6-month training programme for new librarians, including issues such as stock selection within an Equal Opportunity setting, and examining matters such as racism, sexism, heterosexism and disability. We have also taken the step, since 1986, of recruiting librarians with or without librarianship qualifications. This, it must be stressed, is not a lowering of standards, but a recognition of the need to recruit as wide a range of people as possible to librarian posts, in order to reflect and serve the local community. This move has been very successful.

Nandini Mane has expertly shown some of the ways in which we should be considering stock selection, and, given the time, I will not go into this in any depth here, merely to say that, still, all too many libraries appear to adopt the curious "we will buy anything" approach, rather than targeting and prioritising their stock selection, and drawing up stock selection guidelines. Very few libraries actually turn down items requested, on the grounds, for example, that they are racist, or use their influence to raise issues of this kind with publishers, writers and booksellers.

What, then, should librarians be doing?

Whilst there is still, hopefully, time to effect things, I would argue for a radical redefinition of the role of libraries. It is essential, before it is too late, that we argue for the retention of free services and oppose the reductions in our services. To do this, we need to adopt a proper "community librarianship" approach, where we are an integral part of the communities we serve, and where libraries are seen only as the important agencies that they undoubtedly are. Only by demonstrating our value to society in this way will we stand a chance of getting some of the resources we deserve. We need to recognise and take on board the issues facing sections of our community, such as black people, and, in preparation for 1992 (and here I am going to, at last, deal with the title of my talk!) gear up for tackling racism, look urgently at our community language provision, draw up and operate stock selection policies within a broad Equal Opportunity Policy framework, and relook at our entire approach to training and qualifications.

Libraries are important, and we must fight for their continuation and development, otherwise we may no longer exist.


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