Tag Archives: culture

Ireland’s new National Public Library Catalogue

I would like to begin this post on an optimistic note because I want to give some thoughts on the concept of Ireland’s national catalogue in our public libraries without focusing on the inevitable teething problems that occur with any monumental change in direction that a service undergoes. So, let’s assume that the new national catalogue in Ireland works exactly how it is supposed to. Let’s take that as our starting point. Let’s forget about problems with the actual catalogue. Let’s also forget about SIERRA’s awful search engine that all too often returns unexpected and very inaccurate search results when trying to find a common title. Let’s not worry for now about the fact that paging (item request) lists cannot be trusted or that the system often refuses to clear or move along requests. Let’s not worry too much about barcodes not matching the barcodes on actual items, or the duplication of item records. Let’s not trouble ourselves with the fact that SIERRA was never designed to understand things like text messages, or fines in the public library service. Let’s forget about it’s love of connecting to printers and its complete disregard for the environment. Let us put all that aside and be positive and from there take a look at the idea of our new national catalogue from a conceptual and slightly philosophical perspective.

So what is the idea really? Well, that every public library in the country is connected, sharing items and services. A patron can search the catalogue, find an item anywhere in the country and can have that item delivered to their local library in 3 to 5 days. In many ways it reminds me of the EU. Who did not love the idea of the freedom of movement of both people and goods across the continent? Like all ideas, it was perfect in its idealogical state. But putting an idea into practice requires a measure of control and regulation. And the moment you try to regulate freedom, well, you destroy it. Library members express their surprise and excitement at the new national catalogue because, in truth, it is a brilliant idea that makes more information more accessible to more people. However, what is it like in practice? How well thought out has the idea been? How well has it been executed? And what are the future implications of this new departure for our public library service?

Cost of transportation and the environment

After expressing their joy at such a service, the next questions patrons ask are: ‘how much will that cost?’ and ‘whose going to pay for it?’ The figures will likely never be released by the LGMA as they have a penchant for secrecy at the best of times, but from what I understand the cost of transporting one item stands at around .75 cents. A request list in my local library, small and rural, is usually 20-30 items long. Not only this, but it is the library that has to send the item out that incurs the cost. I work in a smaller county that has spent a lot of its budget in recent years developing excellent stock. Because it is a smaller county it has a smaller budget. The worry is that now this budget is going to be swallowed up by the cost of transporting its excellent stock all around the country. Of course, on the upside it does mean that borrowers in libraries that are poorly stocked will now have a much better range of items to borrow. However, does transporting books around the country really make sense? Rather than sending a book out to a library ten times a year, would it not be better to spend that money on buying an extra copy in the county? Not to mention it being kinder on the environment too. What will happen to library stock in the long term? If book buying budgets are smaller due to the cost of book transportation then won’t that simply increase the demand for requests in the future because individual libraries will be buying less books every year? So while right now you can get books quicker, in the future the queues may get much longer if the service is not properly supported with generous budgets.

It is interesting to consider how wasteful this new system might be. A scenario could arise in which I send a book off to Donegal from Laois. A few hours later a patron comes into the library in Laois and requests the book I just posted to Donegal. I go onto the catalogue and place another request. The system grabs another copy of the same book from Kerry and transports it to Laois. Is this not a wasteful system? In work on Saturday I sent books from Laois to Clare, Sligo, Mayo, Dublin, Wicklow, Limerick and Cork. I checked the LMS to see where other copies of those books were available. The book I sent to Limerick was also available in Clare, which is obviously much closer to Limerick than Laois. The LMS does not understand geography. It will search the home county first, but after that it will simply take the next available copy it finds irrespective of where that copy is located. This means that every book that leaves a county is potentially leaking efficiency. The Limerick copy could have saved 150kms of distance, which will cost less money and less CO2 emissions. And anyone who works in a public library will know that a lot of items that are requested are never actually picked up in time by patrons. I wonder how much money is wasted transporting items to libraries around the country only for the item to never be collected and read? It seems like it is a system that is very wasteful and inefficient.

What ever happened to e-books/ e-resources?

Libraries elsewhere have been pumping money into e-reading services. Why? Well, because it is extremely efficient and location is not really a barrier to reading. Would it not be wiser to allow libraries to develop their own stock and for the money to be put into e-reading services nationally? In fact, we do have some great e-resources available through public libraries (including books and magazine), but currently the e-books service is not actually connected to the national catalogue so when a patron searches for a book it only gives them the option of physical items and ignores the fact that we do actually have a few thousand e-books as well. If every university catalogue can be connected to electronic resources, why can’t the public library catalogue?

My search for the National Geographic magazine returned the following result on Libraries Ireland:

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 17.12.47

The results do not give me an option of an electronic copy despite the fact that I know one is available online through Zinio Magazine Collection and Laois Libraries website.

Searching for ‘My Husband’s Wife’ using the e-books filter returns the following result:

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This book is actually available to library members through Bolinda e-books services, again available through your local library’s website. Maybe spending some money connecting our already existing e-services into the national catalogue might actually prevent transportation wastage on physical items? Of course, the defence will be that it is not yet a finished product. But how much money is going to be wasted in the meantime while the LGMA work on finishing what they have started? Would it not be better to put the infrastructure in place first before rolling out a service? It certainly calls into the question the ability of the LGMA and the government to deliver an adequate and effective library service. Reading a review of a bicycle recently, a reviewer commented, “when you buy quality, it only hurts once”. Proper planning in this sense is a lot less painful in the long run, and the LGMA seem incapable of thorough research and planning.

Let’s digress: using an academic library LMS in public libraries

I worked in the UK at the University of Surrey last year. We used an academic LMS called ALMA. It is important to question why the choice was taken to use SIERRA as the LMS of choice for this new national catalogue. SIERRA was first used in Ireland by Trinity College and UCC. These are naturally two academic libraries. In fact, SIERRA is a system designed for academic libraries. I noted earlier that it does not understand geography very well. It has an option when requesting books to ‘hold copy returned soonest’. In an academic library, that may only have four library buildings (at most) in close proximity to each other then holding the next copy returned is sensible, especially because if there is more than one library in a university they will be stocked by subject anyway. The books don’t have to be transported from one location to the next. In the public library service, we have more than 300 library branches so holding the next copy returned means a book could be travelling 300kms from one branch to another. SIERRA has no understanding of geography; in an academic library it does not need to. Of course, it will search the local authority first and then default to the next copy outside of the county if none are available in county. However, by my estimation, this only actually happens about 80% of the time. I have received copies of items requested by members of my library arrive from outside the county when I know there to be a copy sitting on the shelf just a few feet away. Of course, you can alternatively find a copy of an item and make a specific item request. However, many items that were lost on HORIZON transferred over to SIERRA as ‘on shelf’ and so the item you request may never actually arrive. SIERRA does not understand time either. If a copy is due back the next day into the authority where it has been requested, it does not stall the request and wait for that copy to return. Instead, it goes outside of the county and pulls a copy from elsewhere. There does not seem to be any pattern or logic to how or where it pulls items from. It is hugely wasteful of resources and is not a system that understands public library processes or procedures.

Also in an academic library, you have a small team of cataloguers all working to the same standards. At the University of Surrey, we worked to British Library standards. With the previous LMS HORIZON cataloguing was a problem, but it was manageable. You see, some of the people cataloguing started out card cataloguing and in the last 30 years have never updated their understanding of cataloguing. When we moved over to electronic cataloguing and to AACR2, there were huge gaps in knowledge and new cataloguing standards were not followed consistently. And I imagine very few cataloguers today in the authorities really understand RDA/MARC21 because they are simply too busy to continuously up skill. In the past these inconsistencies were limited because even though the cataloguing standards may not have been the best, they were at least somewhat consistent within each authority. We now have a catalogue that has 15 million items and god only knows how many people are adding records on a daily basis in the individual branches. The catalogue is currently a huge problem. I frequently have to go back into HORIZON in order to find what I am looking for. I have seen items with mis-spellings in the author’s name. All item records should be attached to the same bib record so that when requests are place a nice orderly queue is formed. However, I saw one item with multiple bib records. The first had 6 items attached and there were more than 40 requests on the record. The second record actually had 60 items attached but with no requests on it. It was the same book, but the bib record had been duplicated. The main benefit of a national catalogue is the request system and the ability to share information, but the actual catalogue as it is is making the request system very inefficient and ineffective at times.

I could go on and on about the catalogue and the inaccessibility it creates. However, it is important to question why SIERRA and Innovative were chosen? The LMS is simply not fit for purpose because it is an academic library system being used in a drastically different public library setting.

The scenic route to ‘National Procurement’

Of course, national procurement is coming down the line as part of the national catalogue in which all libraries’ stock will be purchased centrally. The current national catalogue is impressively diverse. But this diversity will diminish with national procurement. Eventually, will all libraries in the country simply have the same stock anyways, thereby alleviating the need for a courier system? If every library has the same books and are equally stocked in terms of quantity, then there will be no need to borrow from around the country. Why not just do this now and save us all the hassle and expense? Or better still, develop e-book services instead?

My Open Library, ethics, surveillance, democracy, diversity and the future of public libraries

There are other questions of course. Like how does the national library catalogue tie in to the Open Library plans? Surely these two systems have been considered by the LGMA together? Surely they are part of the same long term vision. The National Catalogue certainly seems to suggest that users will have a better service if they go online and order items that they want and then drop in to pick them up at the branch. The national library catalogue does seem to be pushing people more towards online services and may well diminish the services for those who are not capable or inclined to visit their library online. This is because stock in libraries looks like it’s about to be negatively affected by the cost of the national catalogue. So, is the national catalogue simply a prelude or set up to the open library agenda?

Philosophically, there is a tendency to consider all authorities as the same in this strategy. There are fundamental problems with this. Not only in terms of reducing the diversity of library stock, but also in terms of failing to understand the diverse needs of library users which varies greatly from county to county. There is a bigger issue of controlling information rather than freeing up information. National procurement, coupled to a national catalogue, coupled to an open library results in greater control of library members and of library stock. It leads to greater surveillance in libraries (a fundamental principle that libraries are at odds with), but also greater control of information that people have access to. The cynics amongst us might suggest that what is really happening is that the government is exerting greater control over our freedoms. A national catalogue creates a national database of civilians whose personal information and reading habits are now accessible to government when before they were localised. A librarian in any branch in the country has access to a huge national database of phone numbers, emails and personal addresses, and while we cannot see reading history, we can see what anyone in the country is currently reading. I wonder how members of the public feel about this from a privacy and security perspective. National procurement threatens to centralise the control of information and people’s access to it, as well as exerting greater control over what information the public have access to freely through their libraries. And finally, add to this an Open Library system in which members of the public are no longer able to enter a public building without being video recorded and personally identified and you have the destruction of a key pillar of freedom in a democratic society. In fact, libraries could be the last truly free space left in our society and the national catalogue, for all of its promise, should not be viewed separately from other government initiatives.

Part 3: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

Will the open library provide more or less access to information for all people within the community?

I initially started this article by suggesting that open libraries could provide greater access to information and that this could potentially be a good thing. They provide greater access to information simply because the library is open for longer periods of time. However, does an open library provide greater access to information than a less technologically enabled staffed library?

If the user is computer literate then the staffed library and open library provide the same access to information. However, if the user is not computer literate then the open library provides less access to information. This is because many people do rely on the librarians to help them use the IT facilities in the library. Many users do not know how to search the catalogue in order to find the books they are looking for; others do not know how to log on to a computer let alone search a digital database effectively; most users cannot use the photocopying and scanning facilities without help; and in libraries when there are self-service machines, most users come to the desk with their items anyway preferring the human interaction and service they get from the staff. Open libraries exclude all of these people. So, if it is cheaper to staff a library than to set it up for open access, and if open access excludes users, then is it not true that staffed libraries provide greater a access to information than open libraries given that a staffed library service in the evening provides access to more people and for longer periods of time? The simple truth is that librarians are as much a part of the access infrastructure of a library as computers are.


Solutions to Controlled Vocabularies Part Two……


Structuralism can be understood as a normative science in which a classification system would begin with the norm and afterwards, if necessary, treat of any exceptions. This, in many ways, goes a long way towards explaining how some of the solutions to classification biases are conceptualised. Both Olson and Mai have basically inserted into the old systems a new way to deal with any exceptions to the norm. They both imply an understanding and incorporation of difference into their models, but only once the normative system has been first applied. However, in Poststructuralism, there emerges a more appropriate definition of difference, and not as an exception of ‘limit’ to the ‘core’, but as a regulating principal that functions to define the core of a subject. As James Williams (2104) demonstrates, in poststructuralism “the limit is not compared with the core, or balanced with it […]the limit is the core”. Poststructuralism sees dualism as a problematic approach to understanding language, and even more problematic with the dualist approach of classification theorists is that they imbalance the dualism between sameness and difference, lending more significance to sameness than difference. Perhaps it is better to explain the principle of ‘core’ and ‘limit’ through an example. Defining something like ‘Irishness’ is traditionally understood through what is at its core, that is, being born in a certain place, time, to certain parents, being a certain skin colour, speaking a certain language, etc. This understanding of Irishness is what regulates our political system and society as a whole. The ‘limit’ in this example would be the problems that arise with the definition once we factor in ethnic minorities who become naturalised with their own set of cultures and histories. But in a traditional, structuralist understanding, these minorities are the exception, and while the Irish government may legislate to create better conditions for ethnic minorities, there will always be discrimination because the limit does not change the core. However, poststructuralism, in James’ (2014) words, would argue that “The truth of a population is where it is changing. A nation is defined at its borders”, that is, at the point of difference because everything that happens at the borders of a country changes how the core is defined. It is the ‘difference’ of ethnic minorities that is most representative of a where a nation is going to in the future and so the ‘limit’ for poststructuralism is the most meaningful way that a nation, or a text, or indeed a classification system can be defined. In terms of vocabulary control then, what defines how a text is classified should not be a biased and static system. Texts should be classified by emphasising how those texts are being, or could be used in ‘different’ ways, by different disciplines. A book like ‘Words of Power’, that would be classified under LCSH and DDC as Philosophy: Logic, would no longer be limited to such static systems. This book could also be used by feminist scholars, by those working in ethics, or anthropology, sociology, psychology, gender studies, linguistics, and so on. Defining the book under strict controlled vocabularies denies access to ‘exceptional’ groups which results in a lack of real innovation and creativity in academia. In this sense, there are lessons to be learned form poststructuralist theorist Deleuze who argues for the power of openness in creativity.

To reassert, then, poststructuralism denies the traditional approach to classification through controlled vocabularies and aims to positively disrupt traditional classification systems in order to achieve greater autonomy for texts and their users. The problem with the solutions is that they are developed from the point of view that it is too disruptive to completely change our classification systems. But here disruption is seen negatively rather than positively. The seriousness of this ultimately limiting attitude and of the reliance on outmoded classifications can best be understood by applying the work of Jacques Derrida to the topic. Derrida’s (1976) ‘textual positivism’ would not ask ‘what is this book about?’, but rather, ‘what does this book do?’ This question radically changes the way we would categorise texts because it places an emphasis on multiplicity of use rather than the singularity of meaning as defined by ‘specialists’. Derrida’s approach distinctly adopts anthropocentrism and sees the classification system as onto-theological. Derrida’s ‘origin’ is constantly being affected by a texts ‘presence’, thats is, what a text is doing in the moment. It is this ‘presence’ that leads to both the future and the past, that essentially pulls the ‘origin’ into ever-evolving new contexts. A ‘sign’ then for Derrida is nothing more than a ‘trace’ of that change, a trace that can be followed to a point of difference so long as we understand that once we reach the trace, we have too altered its origin which has moved off beyond our grasp. It is this point of difference that allows for creativity to emerge in what Derrida defines as ‘play’. In this sense, and applied to classification systems, the moment at which a reader reads ‘Words of Power’ in relation to psychoanalytical studies, is the moment that changes the origin indefinitely, opening up that text to new contexts in the future and the past, and thereby changing how that text should be defined in a classification system.


This essay will argue then, that classification systems should take ‘difference’ as a key underlying principle in the way we organise information. To do otherwise is to consciously do ‘violence’ by excluding individuals or groups from our knowledge economy. As Derrida (1976, 140) writes “There is no ethics without the presence of the other but also, and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, differance, writing”. This is because traditional classification systems and the solutions outlined in this paper, try to regulate the past, present and future of information in order to make it more accessible. However, the adoption of a classical scientific approach only makes it possible to categories if texts, if language, are seen as static. But Derrida (1976, 67) teaches us that “The concepts of present, past, and future, everything in the concepts of time and history that assumes their classical evidence – the general metaphysical concepts of time – cannot describe the structure of the trace adequately”. This constitutes a denial that there is no ‘final’ past, present or future of a text. Derrida (1976, 69) would argue that what is really happening in controlled vocabularies is a violence and unethical act of control which is borne out of a fear and misunderstanding of ‘death’. “Spacing as writing is the becoming-absent and the becoming-unconsious of the subject. By the movement of its drift/ derivation the emancipation of the sign constitutes in return the desire of the presence. That becoming – or that drift/ derivation – does not befall the subject which would choose it or would passively let itself be drawn along by it. As the subject’s relationship with its own death, this becoming is the constitution of subjectivity.” Death in this sense is seen as continuity from one context to the next rather than a final end. In many ways, traditional classification systems are a kind of death sentence in the traditional sense in that they render entire texts and disciplines static and irrelevant as new contexts emerge and are classified in inadequate ways. Perhaps the point is best represented by Williams (2014) who claims “The demand for clarity is dangerous because clarity justifies violent judgements and exclusions on the basis of a promise of a world of understanding and togetherness.”

What is happening then in our classification systems is that subject specialists are attempting to create greater accessibility to information by categorising information under specific and specialist subject headings in order to create a sense of clarity when one is searching for that information. Texts are gathered together based around a principle of sameness and difference in which things that are similar are classified under the same subject headings. The reality is that this system, based on controlled vocabularies is extremely biased and fails to account for real difference, heterogeneity and multiplicity in our information world. There have been attempts to create new systems that, for example, are more appropriate for those interested in feminist studies, but these systems simply shift the control from one universal group to another smaller prioritisation. They do highlight a very important politics and injustice, for example, in the way texts are classified, but they do so by reverting to an equally biased system. It is at the point of difference that real innovation and creativity occurs. Our universities are set up as places in which creativity and independent thinking is supposed to lead to new innovations, while our public libraries are moving more and more towards providing creative spaces for communities to grow and develop. Yet, the way in which we search for information is limited and contradictory, and no longer fit for purpose. The argument that ‘difference’ should be prevalent in classification systems is not absurd or contradictory, but would require a complete overhaul of the way in which we understand and categorise information. Perhaps there is already a working model existent in the way in which internet search engines like Google operate. Websites on Google are presented to us in a way that can promote difference as a classifying principle. This is because those websites that have the most links to other active sites are presented as being more prevalent and relevant. What would happen if a similar approach was adopted by libraries? That when we search for information under a certain topic, that we are presented with a list of texts that are organised based around the number of connections the texts have to other texts and thus other disciplines? This would perhaps provide a classification system that would celebrate multiplicity, ranking texts according to the many possible ways they can be used and interpreted. In the field of literature, I remember my PhD supervisor suggesting to me that I include some comparative work between John Banville and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in my thesis because the postcolonial contexts of Ireland and Colombia bare many similarities. As a researcher, in all the hours spent searching for information on Banville and postcolonialism, I was never presented with any texts that implied real difference or multiplicity. Searches were singular and restrictive, never indicating that any different approach was possible. The classification system would provide no new spark of creativity for young researchers to pursue. In fact, using Boolean logic, I found that the more search terms I entered in different searches, the more relevant the results that were presented. If difference was to become an organising principle, then information would be retrieved that prioritised multiplicity and that would lead to greater inclusion and thus innovation. The problem at the moment is that the way we search the digital databases is dictated by the way in which information is placed on stacks. The stacks or the numbers on the books do not have to change. Where the information is located in the library is irrelevant because rarely nowadays do we search the stacks anyway. What needs to change is the way information is classified on the digital databases. There is nothing stopping us from radically changing this digital system to one that is more inclusive of difference and that contains less ‘violent’ vocabularies.


Beghtol, C. (1986). “Semantic validity: concepts of warrant in bibliographic classification systems”. Library Resources & Technical Services, Vol. 30 No. 2, pp. 109-25.

Borges, J.L. (1952). “The analytical language of John Wilkins”, Other Inquisitions 1937-1952. Souvenir Press, London, 1973.

Bowker, G.C. and Star, S.L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. MIT Press, Boston, MA.

Derrida, Jacques (1976). Of Grammatology. John Hopkins University Press, Maryland.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Mai, Jens-Erik (2010). Classification in a social world: bias and trust. Journal of Documentation, Vol. 66 Issue 5, pp. 627-642.

Miksa, F. (1998). The DDC, the Universe of Knowledge, and the Post-Modern Library. Forest

Press, Albany, NY.

Olson, Hope A. (2001). Sameness and difference: a cultural foundation of classification. Library Resources and Technical Services, 45, no. 3, pp.115-122

Shirky, C. (2005). “Ontology is overrated: categories, links, and tags”. Clay Shirky’s Writings about the Internet. Economics & Culture, Media & Community, available at: http://www.shirky. com/writings/ontology_overrated.html html (Date Accessed 28th April 2015)

Williams, James (2014). Understanding Poststructuralism. Routledge: London.

Digital Curation & Preservation: At what cost?

brainIt continues to astound me on this MLIS course how many ideas, theories and practices blindly press ahead with the supposed ‘advancement’ of the industry without ever addressing important fundamental questions about the underlying nature, impact and value of the work being undertaken. It also amazes me at how information studies academics continue to theorise while passively ignoring the poststructuralist theory that has been informing many other disciplines uninterrupted for the last 50 years. Reading Helen Shenton’s work has left me no less bemused.

Digital curation and preservation takes as its starting point the mantra ‘we must preserve’ without ever asking whether or not it is right, or indeed valuable to preserve. Poststructuralism has worked hard to ensure that history and culture are not controlled as homogenous entities, but digital curation is now threatening to undo much of that good work. Poststructuralism is a theory of language that denies words as static culture building objects, and instead views language as a highly dispersive subjective heterogenous experience. It is the theory that underlies so much of our achievements in the last 50 years. It lead to the feminist movement, to the reconceptualisation of history as a discipline, and to the destruction of periodisation in literature. With real world artifacts we still have the potential to make new discoveries about the past. However, with born-digital objects which only have a lifespan of up to 25 years, we will not have the capacity to re-write the past through new discoveries. As a result, the digital curators of today are essentially the historians of tomorrow. The files that they choose to save will create a static history that cannot be questioned in the future. Howard Zinn, a postmodern historian argued that history has traditionally been written by those who win wars. Digital Curation, which is funded by governments or private organizations, is in danger of destroying the culture it is aiming to preserve in what could be become a Big Brother like scenario.


Helen Shenton’s work in ‘Virtual reunification, virtual preservation and enhanced conservation’ focuses on the digitisation of dispersed works. It is in many ways a hugely interesting project, but it needs to be taken to question about its real underlying value. It is disturbing that Shenton’s work has as its goal ‘reunification’. This word summons forth a whole litany of other terms like ’empire’, ‘colonisation’, ‘power’, ‘race’, ‘slavery’ and ‘control’ to name but a few. This word inherently references imperialism at a time when the breaking apart of the United kingdom has become a real possibility in the near future. The fact that some important texts exist in a dispersed format is in itself culturally significant because it is indicative of the breaking apart of empire itself. Bringing these texts together has the potential to create a false narrative and a homogenous cultural discourse, and in this sense Shenton, like many of her contemporary information professionals, uses an outmoded form of structuralism to inform her ideas. She argues, in relation to the Sinaiticus Project, that it requires ‘the production of an historical account of the document’ that needs to be objective. The very idea that a homogenous ‘objective’ narrative is being added to these documents is a regulating process that ignores the lessons learned in the arts through poststructuralism. Structuralism is also implicitly referenced in the layer of information in the form of digital links over the manuscripts, which again inherently asserts control and authority over the material. Shenton has not stopped to ask what is the cost of such a project. Nor has she asked why the British Library feel as though they have the right to oversee the reunification of material from different cultures around the world.

The British Library is not only collecting material, but they are seeking to play a role in culture building. I thought the function of a library was to provide non-judgemental access to information. Shenton talks about ‘enhancing’ culture through diplomacy insofar as cultural diplomacy can play a role in international relations. It shows that there is an implicit and dangerous politics behind these preservation projects. Questions need to be posed regarding for whom is the British Library attempting to play a role in international relations and to what end? This project seems to be going beyond simply collecting material, but is ‘using’ material to re-tell an old story of empire. It feeds into an attempt by governments to create and control fake grand narratives. Howard Zinn’s principle of postmodern history was a way of challenging power by telling history through dispersed narratives. Shenton’s digitisation project runs the risk of more easily cutting off avenues to the past for us here in the present, but more dangerously, for people in the future. It poses the danger of manipulating information in ways that reassert a new kind of imperialism, a new homogeny of information, and an oppressive future in which subjectivity is no longer valued.


‘Financing’ public libraries through permaculture


Glen Holt’s article ‘Getting Beyond the Pain’ assessing the impact of funding cuts on US libraries and suggests ways in which these libraries need to adapt to not only retain efficiency with less money, but also to maintain their relevance in an ever-evolving information age. Holt points out that, ‘the point is simple: unless yearly income is rising faster than inflation, the library’s annual spending power erodes precipitously. When any political leader starts talking about “stable budgets,libraries need to watch out for real-dollar income declines”. Added to this problem of placing the library within an quantitive socio-economic framework, is the fact that the ALA have adopted a strategy in which they treat the funding of public libraries as local matter. He suggests that “he most important thing is making sure that your community is aware of the library and what the library can do”. In this sense Holt argues that libraries need to improve the ways in which they communicate their funding needs and their benefits to communities and society.

There is no doubting that libraries can do more to improve their services even with less money. Holt further points out that bureaucratic processes within a library can often lead to an unnecessary depletion of finances, especially at a time when the taxpayers are less willing to provide public funding for any public purpose irrespective of how good a cause it is. Finally Holt lists four ways in which libraries can retain their relevancy and their funding:

  • Need to demonstrate the critical need for youth services, adult literacy, help for immigrants, job preparation and economic development

  • Need to tell voters, politicians and civic leaders about the critical benefits they provide to their communities

  • Funding is not only a local matter because libraries are crucial to the nation

  • Library leaders need to focus much more on customers

  • Need to ask what role can libraries play in international information industry

I have no doubt that there is a lot of waste within public libraries, but there is also a great deal of potential. There is no doubt that libraries need to become more connected to a global economic and information framework and they can do so by connecting more directly to national and university library services, as well as partnering with information services abroad. A promotion and move towards Open Access can also open up new avenues for libraries to pursue. However, for now I would like to focus briefly on a principle borrowed from agriculture that could be applied to how libraries operate within a local community. These communities may not now be willing to give financial support to libraries through public funding bodies, but they should be encouraged to contribute in other ways. I believe permaculture practices can be applied to libraries in order to find ways of becoming more efficient, saving money, and also involving the community more. Permaculture originated as an agricultural movement that promoted permanent agriculture practices by mimicking nature. In nature, nothing is given away for free and wasted. What you have, on every level, is a kind of energy exchange. Patrons in libraries are not customers in a traditional sense in that they pay for the service through their taxes. However, at times when people are not willing to fund a library, they may be willing to contribute to the library community by giving up their time and skills in exchange for services. This principle is at the heart of permaculture in that rather than providing books for free, patrons exchange time and skills for the services. Basic services could be run in this way freeing up time for librarians to do more specialised work. It creates a stronger sense of community spirit and brings the library firmly to the centre of community.

Environment, Hierarchy and Cultural Stagnation

Culture 3

Chapter two of Management Basics for Information Professionals by Evans and Alire (2013) examines the ways in which an organization’s environment influences behavior. I noticed a pervading trend within the chapter’s discussion of libraries as organization, and that trend is that all environments are retained within a hierarchal structure based around the external and parent environments. I can certainly see how a public or educational library could be considered as ‘placid-clustered’ in terms of it adopting long term goals with some short term objectives that are determined by environmental factors. However, I can also see how this kind of structure may well be limiting within a library also. Long term goals tend to be quite rigid and strict and I think there is a danger of suppressing innovation in so far as the manager is rigidly focused on the pre-established long term goals. In times of a funding lull, this may well mean that a long term project may need to be paused. An example of the negative impact that this strategy can have was given by Katherine McSharry of National Library when she spoke to our class about pausing the digitization project of photographs in Ireland. There is always the danger in an ever-diversifying information age, that long term goals blind organizations to more innovative opportunities.

I say this in agreement with Childs and the anti-environmental argument. It seems to me that a major flaw in many organizations is that they see themselves as subordinate to the ‘whole’, or parent/ external organization. However, there is scope within any organization to influence and shape the whole to the demands and innovations of the organization itself. I think the concept of relevance is important here. The parent organization would like to find ways of operating that are more efficient and effective. Libraries should not wait for the parent company to set the parameters of policy, but should look to find ways to influence the external environment. Companies have often been revolutionized by innovation that has taken place within just one small department.

I think the fact that culture is mentioned in this chapter is interesting. In many ways, there is a defeatist mentality involved in many discussions of culture in which culture is seen as something unchangeable. All too often we throw our hands up in the air and say ‘that’s just the culture!’. There is a sense in this chapter that playing with cultural norms is too dangerous for managers to contemplate, as though all culture is inherently good. I have worked in organizations that have been destroyed by an adherence to negative cultural norms. As someone who has taught English Literature at third level, I am always amazed at the collections of English Literature in university libraries. There are usually hundreds, if not thousands of books gathering dust on the shelves of academic libraries. Many of these books are wasted. Examine the curriculum of UCD’s Department of English in relation to the library’s collection of literary texts. I think 80% of those books will never be read by any students or staff at UCD. But there is a culture within libraries to hang on to and accumulate objects. Maybe many books were donated by a sponsor and the library feels obligated to retain the books on the shelves even if they are not useful? It is useful to ask how much waste exists in our libraries as a result of culture. How could that space be used in ways that are more useful? Could the opening of that space lead to more innovative use of it that might alter the environment (internal & external) for the good of the library and the parent organization? Culture, if seen as a homogenous unwavering influence can be highly destructive to an organization’s development. However, I believe that if it is seen as a heterogenous malleable condition that we can move away from its limiting influence on our learning environments.