Community, Advocacy and Freedom: CILIP 2015 Conference Report

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Spotted in the floor tiles in St George’s Hall

Last week I attend the CILIP 2015 Conference in St George’s Hall, Liverpool (2-3 July). This was a magnificent venue where references to justice and knowledge were literally built into the walls and the floor.

This was my first CILIP conference and I was keen to take advantage of discounted registration for students to hear about the profession from a range of current practitioners to complement by Masters study at #citylis (City University, London).

The conference programme featured a number of keynote presentations from a variety of speakers, many of whom were not library or information professionals but added their perspectives to ours. This was complemented by breakout sessions that covered:

  • Information management: building success
  • Information literacy and digital inclusion
  • Demonstrating value: what’s your impact?
  • Digital futures and technology

along with a track of Fringe events that included Q&A sessions with keynote speakers and an opportunity join in hack sessions with exhibitors like the Ideas Box.

It’s not nice to be a librarian … it’s AWESOME to be a librarian … we do important things … throughout history we have done powerful things for human kind … librarians have that power – R. David Lankes

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Librarians: changing the world since 2000BC

The conference received a rousing start from R. David Lankes on the position and potential of librarians and was concluded by a presidential address from Jan Parry on the importance of critically reviewing ourselves and our services, before other people do, if we are to make a good impression. These talks extolled the power and professionalism of librarianship, neatly bookending proceedings, and instilled a feeling of optimism.

In between I attended every keynote and spent most of my breakout sessions in the Digital Futures and Technology track. These sessions were held in the unusual setting of the Civil Court, a 19th century courtroom with wooden benches and ink wells and talks delivered from the witness stand. Many people will have sat in this courtroom listening and arguing and now it heard today’s advocates on the subject of “wicked problems”, research data management, user experience, access management and linked open bibliographic data.

My only detour from this track was towards the end of the conference I couldn’t resist the Delivering Value session featuring the British Library and Wigan Library Service as I thought this juxtaposition would offer a truly macroscopic view of librarianship in in the UK. I was rewarded with a frankly inspiring hour that soared from the British Library’s Living Knowledge project envisioning how to stay at the forefront of All the World’s Knowledge and embed it across the UK to how a local library service has placed itself at the centre of Wigan’s community and the promises that make up The Deal, the council’s pact with the people who elect it.

I took notes on each session I attended and links to these are available in the session notes section below. Rather than describe each session again in detail I want to draw together my thoughts and reflect on three themes that I kept hearing again and again across the conference: community, advocacy and freedom.


People were the pulsing, beating heart of a conference that celebrated both the community of librarians represented and the communities they serve. Again started by Lankes he urged us to speak more about librarians when defining libraries:

A mandated and mediated space (virtual and/or physical) owned by the community, stewarded by librarians, and dedicated to knowledge creation.

Time and time again speakers provided examples of how these spaces help create and connect vibrant communities (as in the above examples of the much admired Liverpool Central Library). Libraries may be changing but they aren’t dead and never will be as long as there are people in the world who want to learn and to be informed.

This becomes even more urgently evident during times of crisis as in Ferguson and Baltimore when libraries provided citizens with safe spaces. Another example was provided by Barbara Schack of Bibliotheques Sans Frontieres / Libraries Without Borders who talked about the Ideas Box. This is a media centre than can be transported anywhere in the world within an hour. It contains technology, content and materials that trained facilitators can use in crisis struck communities to enable people to come together, opening the boxes and creating a space where they can be human again escaping the crisis that surrounds them and contributing their information, knowledge and creativity to healing their society and their culture.

Erwin James also spoke about how books changed the way he thought about life. Prison enabled his immediate physical needs to be met fully for the first time in his life but again it was reading that enabled him to become human: to find a way to participate in society through culture. He spoke of how a single story brought wonder into his world and gave him the ambition to find “a good way to live”. He began to read, then write, then learn. Prison was for him a community resource that brought him peace, optimism and hope.

Libraries are refuges but they don’t just make communities when times are tough they co-create communities every day in small ways for all citizens. They use knowledge exchange and creation as social acts of conversation. As Lankes says “we bridge ideas into our environments”. We help people learn whether that is for their hobby, for work, for pure joy and wonder, of democracy. Librarians are people who collect resources and provide guidance that help people to learn and these resources increasingly cover digital and material technologies, such as those used in maker spaces, as well as books.

Libraries embody their communities: the people who provide and the people use them. Libraries are inherently political: they are by and of the people. Our job is to make them for everyone and defend them in a tough world.

This is not easy. Librarians, like others, are faced by “wicked problems”. Andrew Cox described these are complex, unfamiliar, stressful situations where the way forward isn’t clear. The problem is linked to other problems, there are numerous intervention points and numerous constrains and it is not clear that the situation is “solvable” by any one group. Cox used the example of Research Data Management (RDM) as an area lacking in information, agreement and relying on too many assumptions. Navigating these complex issues requires flexibility, enterprise, collaboration and courage and we must move forward with positive deviance, constructive dissent, empathy and collective intelligence. Most of all be a community of fate who stand together, but not a fatalist community: crisis narrative does us no favours.


We do not live in a neutral world and so we have advocacy: the practice of influencing decisions and changing society. Doubt is an interesting episode of The Good Wife about advocacy and using evidence not just establish the truth of things but to make that truth sing louder than any alternative.

“The problem is it’s not a good story, it’s just a freak accident, there are no villains.”

“But if it’s true?”

“But it doesn’t sound true. The prosecution’s story sounds like the truth.”

Doubt depicts informed democracy in action as a jury deliberates a seemingly open and shut case. As the episode unfolds small sections of the case are revealed in flashback fragmenting the picture and revealing competing versions of the truth. It also argues presenting the most factual version of events is not enough especially as the truth doesn’t always sound true in the face of competing narratives that offer better stories. At the end of the story the jury don’t have reasonable doubt, they have “reasonable ignorance”.

CILIP 2015 was also a story about advocacy. Many times throughout the conference, sessions urged us not to leave the senior managers and politicians who make decisions about library services in “reasonable ignorance” about the work librarians do and the value this brings to the communities they serve. Cory Doctorow told us obscurity can be dangerous and damaging.

In competitive and constrained times we cannot assume that the value of the services we deliver and love is self-evident to those who make decisions that govern the existence of those services.

Hence, the video Wigan Library Services created that summarised their contribution to their communities and council goals just over 5 minutes. The music and imagery helps transform statistics into a more powerful and eye catching narrative. It was placed in front of their chief executive and has now been seen by the entire senior management team.

We also cannot assume that times will get easier: we will always be in competition with something and there will always be challenges to face. There was some disagreement, however, on what we are competing with. Ken Chad identified choice as a key competitive forces with Google, Amazon and electronic subscription libraries like Epic! (for children) and Safari (for professionals) providing alternative library services target at specific groups.

R. David Lankes held a different view arguing that Amazon, Apple and Google are not in the advertising and consumer goods business, not the information business. His position is that libraries are in competition with the other services competing for the same public resources. Stuart Hamilton offered some suggestions on where this competition may come from. IFLA have been a partner in the development of a new set of UN Sustainable Development Goals and there will shortly be a UK Sustainable Development Plan. Demonstrating how you help the UK meet these goals will increasingly justify the funding and relevance of libraries in the post-2015 information environment. For non-public libraries your organisation’s strategy provides a similar guide to relevance.

All arguments are not created equal and we heard from Full Fact about their work as independent fact checkers sifting out information you can rely on from the misinformation. They check claims made in political arguments so we are not forced to choose between “blind faith and blind cynicism” in public discourse. Their experience showed that expertise matters and it’s possible to make fact checking systematic and impartial. Again their message was that doing their work, even communicating their work was not enough. Their third team is their monitoring team. Communication enables expertise to be vocal but monitoring of trends and issues enables it to have relevance. As information expands, attention decreases.

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Quotations on the wall in Liverpool Central Library

Whilst we must tell our story it must appropriate the language and aspirations of those we are addressing in order to be heard. For libraries to survive amidst this cacophony of competing commercial and public forces our stories don’t just have to be good, they also have to be targeted and relevant. For all the new technologies and trends we need to matter, communication and making a persuasive case are still crucial core skills.

The sum of these arguments is to suggest that librarians need to turn up, be present, go to meetings, and should be more assertive in owning the narrative around what they do and more ready to engage in the selling of that narrative to others.

We have to fill the narrative vacuum around the profession with the vibrancy, vitality and variety of ways communities use libraries. This will enable us to dismiss lazy assumptions, demonstrate value and go beyond measuring access to information towards explaining the impact that access, and its removal, has on our communities in order to ensure the “integrity, preservation and provision” of information as demanded in the Lyon Declaration.


If some narratives can be reconciled, then others must be resisted and the erosion of civil liberties is one of them. The conference underlined our profession’s commitment to:

  • learning
  • openness
  • intellectual freedom and safety

but also noted that sometimes these clash and striking the right balance is difficult. In particular tension is encouraging access and openness whilst ensuring privacy and respecting creativity.

Liberty is campaigning to save the Human Rights Act

Cory Doctorow talked about the unintended consequences of Digital Rights Management (DRM). As a security process this has done nothing to prevent piracy but prevents us exposing and fixing vulnerabilities in software. It has crippled creativity and criminalised scrutiny and eroded the negotiating power of artists without doing anything to protect digital rights.

Shami Chakrabarti moved the discussion to the broader context of universal human rights and how the political and ethical debate is lagging behind advances in technology. Even as we want to be free it is important to that freedom not to totally abandon privacy. At the very least there should be public debate on the ethics of surveilling entire populations because of the dangerous acts of a few.

Open data promises to provide people with greater freedom of information, but it also threatens ever-deepening surveillance. The amount of data held in our smartphones is significant, even scary. These devices empower and enable daily but they also have the potential to be compromised and used as “digital pathogens” against us. Using this data ethically and appropriately and participating in debates about who should be able to scrutinise these data and devices relies on literacy. Expanding our literacy to encompass big data is a challenge for librarians not just citizens and Virginia Power talked about the increasing demand for digital preservation, information governance and statistical and analytical skills along with some handy resources to provide support if “this data world is scaring you witless”.

In many respects the arguments about freedom were not about being able to do or say anything but being able to fairly and openly scrutinise the systems in which we exist and that govern us: whether these be political systems or software. Freedom will never be absolute but will be constrained and qualified but our freedom is certainly curtailed when we are not able to subject the actions of others to scrutiny or we are excluded from debates.

A functioning democracy needs to be an informed democracy: we need open, reliable and relevant evidence, persuasive advocates and literacy if we are to sustain our ability and our right to make sense of our society, invent and innovate, change the world, be human and be free.

This means, more than ever, we need librarians.

Session Notes


Diving into Domains, Documents and Digital Ecosystems

CityLIS Term 1 Week 5. In which we dipped into domain analysis before going fully immersive; we practiced techniques for collecting and archiving tweets as a prelude for visualising and analysing them; intrepid citylisters took field trips to Highgate Cemetery (check out the DITA blogosphere for some interesting blogposts on this) and screened The Internet’s Own Boy; I investigated how big worlds can actually be quite small; we learnt about storing digital assets in repositories and what happens when you set them free; and we explored what makes good communication, (written and oral), and how to deal with the parts we find uncomfortable.

Catching Waves

In DITA this week we explored issues around researching social media.  Ernesto compared this to pinning butterflies.  I find that metaphor makes me think more of capturing a specimen from the vortex of ideas this course unleashes and pinning it into my dissertation so I’m using the metaphor of catching waves instead.  Forever rolling against the sands of time (and entropy) collecting and analysing social media feels like trying to map patterns in the shifting tides and waves that lap against our shores.  So much of what we see is on the surface and ephemeral.  This week’s session helped us venture into the deep.  My submersible for this expedition was a Twitter API application I called DITA Venturi.  I initially thought of this merely for it’s connotation with venturing but then I discovered the Venturi effect and realised I’d managed to quite aptly traverse from thermodynamics last week to fluid dynamics this week.  Apparently the Venturi effect can convert pressure into suction and Venturi also invented a device for measuring flow through a pipe.  Quite an apt analogy for sticking an application into the Twitter stream and trying to analyse it’s flow and extract it for posterity.

We learnt about two possible data transports for APIs: XML and JSON and noted that XML’s qualities make it more suited for documents whilst JSON’s simpler model of key value pairs and arrays make it good for small chunks of data.  It is JSON that is presented by Twitter API endpoints and we then used Martin Hawksey’s TAGS google scripting to extract the results of a Twitter search into a Google spreadsheet using our Twitter applications.  This provides a one off or ongoing capture of tweets and all the power of spreadsheet analytics for interrogating that twitter archive including provided summaries and graphs.  Hawksey has also built some great visualisation tools that can be used to visualise the twitter archive in different ways such as TAGS Explorer (you can try this with the demo spreadsheet that is provided by default).  This week’s DITA blog on putting this together isn’t due until after reading week so I’m going to wait until I’ve attended the British Library Labs Symposium on Monday and use #bl_labs as my case study.

This was all pretty cool and also beautiful.  Data visualisation is spectacular and artistic.  What I haven’t been able to make the leap to yet is what insight it gives.  I can understand archiving tweets.  The Twitter API only contains tweets from the previous 7 days and then it becomes much harder to access from within Twitter’s vast and commercially valuable data vaults.  Capturing tweets provides a handy corpus that researchers can go back and consult but I cannot yet understand what TAG Explorer is telling me.  What does data visualisation add and how to we approach using this corpus for meaningful research rather than just because it’s interesting?  We will pick up where we left off after reading week so I look forward to finding out.

The Science of Small Worlds

It’s quite good that I’m behind on the University of Southampton’s Web Science Mooc (#FLwebsci) as this week’s topic of using network theory to analyse social networks really complemented DITA thinking.  In this week we looked at network properties and scale free, small world networks … like the web.  These are networks where most nodes have very few connections but a few notes, known as hubs, have huge numbers of connections.  This network pattern makes even global networks ‘small’ because most nodes can be connected by a paths containing a small number of ‘hops’ between nodes.  This is typically 6, leading to the phrase “six degrees of separation”.  This video from PBS Nova explains how social networks look and how this pattern is replicated across many natural and human networks.

I watched this RSA Animate short on the Power of Networks provides a great visual accompaniment to an article by our tutor Lyn Robinson along with Mike Maguire on using the Tree and Rhizome and metaphors for patterns of information organisation.  The tree view of knowledge classification comes from the Aristotle tradition of branching hierarchies: the rhizome was a term developed by philosophers Deleuze and Guattari to describe and organisation model based on a continual shifting set of connections between things.  The tree is like a narrative, the rhizome is a map for a constantly shifting world.

Seeding Knowledge by Ceding Control

We had a preview of some aspects of the British Library’s experimental work that may feature at the British Library Labs Symposium on Monday in Information Management and Policy this week when James Baker from the British Library came to talk to us about his job as a Curator in Digital Research at the library.  Digital Research is exploring digital collections beyond resource discovery to research at scale and lowering the barriers to digital researchers.  the library’s legal deposit has been extended to UK published websites so the library can now archive born digital resources.

Some Examples:

(1) Personal Lives: From Letters and Diaries to Computer Forensics

The implications for archiving with the transition from letters and personal correspondence to Digital Lives. The British Library is interested not just in content as received on computers but performing forensic analysis on hard disks to understand “the life of how someone interacts with the machine”.  This raises data protection issues so hard to make this collection public.

(2) Infectious Texts

Combining text mining and close reading to map networks of re-printing in 19th-century newspapers and magazines (a kind of historical version of what we are doing in DITA with Twitter data).

(3) The Mechanical Curator

This project over one million images from within 65,000 books digitised as part of the Microsoft Books project. Initially they were posted on Tumblr, then Twitter then the whole collection was loaded onto Flickr (with metadata also available on GitHub) under a CC Zero (public domain)  licence.

| “We enjoyed losing control of the collection”

James listed some of the remixing and interactions: teaching (learning about curation), hacking, experiments, #immersive adaptions, incorporation into Wikimedia that the experiment has spawned.  Using web infrastructure and UX “off the shelf” they were able to experiment with doing  things it would be impossible or prohibitively expensive to do with BL systems.

Some Questions/Issues to Negotiate:

  • Derived Data: what to do about data built on data, additional metadata and potentially incorrect data
  • Remixed Collections: what happens when images are decontextualised
  • Reintegration: incorporating user generated data back into BL collections

Collections 2.0

This made be think more about how the nature of collections and research may both change if digital collections become more open and extensive, connecting with some of our DITA themes.

We are Digital Makers: in a more participatory web architecture and culture we all have the opportunity to curate and create our own ideas and projects from raw digital material provided by libraries into the public domain.

Hacking research: uses of collection data outside ‘serious scholarship’:

  • community cataloguing and classification
  • art
  • machine learning
  • education
  • entertainment

What is the “role of the curator?”

James is a curator and part of the experiments also involve thinking about how curation might evolve as a result.

| “How do we manage this dispersal?”

It sounded to me like seeding an ecosystem (by ceding control), a different and diverse role for a curator from the more traditional managing a collection. It made me think of Hans Rosling’s describing public data in his Ted Talk The Best Stats you’ve Ever Seen.

But this is what we would like to see, isn’t it? The publicly-funded data is down here. And we would like flowers to grow out on the Net.

James spoke of a spectrum of information control from authority and finality (an institutional mindset?) to adaptability and evolution (a hacker mindset?).

This raises further questions like:

  • understanding and tackling the issues that arise when informations bridges different spheres
  • what is the role of the library along this spectrum?

Thanks to James for coming along and sharing his insight and some of the British Library’s Digital Research ideas and experiments with them.  you can take a look and James’ presentation on Slideshare.

On Communication

In RECS this week we discussed communication both oral and written.  This was an interactive, and humorous, session brimming with anecdotes and views on what makes good and bad writing and presenting.  When I thought about this as preparation for this session I thought about people like Hans Rosling, Daniel Kahneman, Tony Judt, Roger Deakin, Geert Mak, Hilary Mantel and David Attenborough.   I think of being absorbed by their calm authority and their skill in distilling complex subjects into clear, simple prose. They have the quiet confidence that those who don’t see will see.  They dive beneath the froth and foaming waves at  the surface and guide you into quieter, deeper territory towards something more profound.  Like skilful divers they have mastered neutral buoyancy and have the balance, control, technical proficiency, knowledge and experience to achieve this equilibrium.  More than individuals and their ability  I thought of how good communication makes me feel.  It is about transmitting the joy and awe of rising above and standing at the summit of a mountain seeing a vista clearly laid out before you as you have never seen it before.

Yet most of us find these skills difficult and uncomfortable.  So this session was designed to help us explore and confront the good, the bad and the ugly.  Afterwards I compared the discussion we had on the art of speaking and writing with ease with my constant attempts to improve as a runner and wrote myself some motivational guidelines that might help with both!

Full Immersion

In LISF this week Lyn Robinson took us right to the cutting edge and spoke to us about her recent conference paper at Internet Librarian 2014 on immersive documents (see also her blog post) potentially a future development in the history of documents as we shift to an increasingly digital and multimedia world.  Both immersion and submersion derive from the same Latin verb meaning to dip, soak or plunge.  Immersive unreality refers to virtual worlds that are so real they are perceived as real.  Lyn located this type of document emerging from the nexus of pervasive networked computers, multisensory multimedia and participatory interaction.  At the moment this is most often tied to gaming of fan fiction but if this kind of transmedia document becomes more prevalent what are the implications for libraries and information centres.  If the British Library is navigating the shift from letters to personal computers and book deposit to born digital and researchers are struggling to capture and interrogate social networks what on earth would a library or archive of immersive documents look like?

These are early days.  There are no immersive documents yet but there are some great examples from fiction of what they might be and some interesting prototypes emerging e.g. The Craftsman.  Immersive documents need new forms of creative writing and new forms of design for transmedia and for hardware, narrative form and content producers to converge (currently developing at different speeds). They also need to go through the technology adoption curve and make the leap from early adoption to mainstream use.  Part of me remains suspicious that if you asked the majority to choose between passive and participatory they would choose passive.

This session did make me reminisce wonderfully about the Fighting Fantasy series of novels.  Who didn’t read these without bookmarking the previous branch with your finger in case you’ve made a wrong turn? These were individually participatory and gave the reader some agency in determining the outcome through the branches.  I guess we are back to the tree and the rhizome again: digital immersive documents probably offer much more in making this less a branching narrative and more an evolving narrative and also more real than leaving your fingers in three different places to check that your decision hasn’t made you dead yet so you can go back and explore an alternative story if you’ve been stupid.

There are going to be ethical and cultural issues if this form takes off:

  • what are the privacy implications?  Bad enough surveillance of activity and communication but now add performance, fantasy and dreams
  • are stories define by the medium or do stories drive the medium?
  • could you experience someone else’s experience or would context awlays get in the way

Some of the issues for LIS may include:

  • are immersive experiences documents?
  • indexing and versioning
  • retrieval systems
  • dissemination
  • preservation
  • information interaction behaviour
  • immersive literacy

Rest assured though.  If it does come and you’ve studied at CityLIS you are going to be prepared!

Digital Flânerie

Not much Flânerie this week as I was busy setting up my new computer.  Next week is Reading week so apart from heading to the British Library on Monday I’ll mostly be spending my week with my nose in a book, (or its digital equivalent), and thinking about upcoming assignments.

Image Credits

Featured image: Heading up through the bubbles by Saspotato. Source: Flickr. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)