I recently came across the following quote by Edward R. Murrow, which struck me as being so true and such a succinct statement on how we should act professionally that I added it to my Twitter banner:
“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”
To be all of the above we need think carefully about the language and terms we use when discussing issues in the library sector; who we are, what we do, what our views and aspirations for the profession should be. Language is such a powerful tool when promoting a message. It captures and solidifies the image of a ‘thing’ in our minds, transforms it into a ‘truth’.
Words influence our thinking, our perception, for good or bad; something intimately understood by advertisers and marketers. Sadly, words are also used in the service of ‘spin’ and propaganda where language is used to obfuscate and mislead. Words tell stories and stories create the reality that shape our view of the world.
Now replace ‘story’ with the word ‘narrative’ and we come to the world of libraries and how they are viewed by the public. A recent blog by Dawn Finch outlines wonderfully what libraries are and what they are not in defence of the misappropriation of the word library. In response to the post Ian Anstice’s editorial, The Highjacking of a Common Noun, also challenged the debasement of the term and what the name stood for.
It matters what we as library professionals say about libraries; what they stand for. If we are unwilling to make such arguments publicly, then others will fill the void, twisting the ‘idea’ of the library into something the profession no longer recognises. Even more importantly is the narrative used by the lead bodies in the sector and how they present libraries to those with influence over the sector; national Government, local authorities, funding bodies.
During the early part of austerity, the burgeoning crisis within libraries – the closures, the hollowing out, the de-professionalisation – became the dominant narrative as campaigners and communities fought to highlight the loss of such a vital service.
To counter-balance the negative outpouring of bad news a more positive interpretation of libraries was developed, starting with the Sieghart report, and continuing through the work of the Libraries Taskforce and its partners.
The rationale behind the approach was to increase the public messaging about libraries so that those in power would see a sector not in decline, or libraries as anachronistic, but as vibrant, thriving places, and to promote the role libraries play in contributing to local and national strategies. This is encapsulated in the ‘Libraries First’ approach.
What should have emerged from these two narratives was an amalgamation, a more balanced view of libraries that recognised the reality of the changes but also an acknowledgment of the improvements. Sadly, rather than a consolidation – an appreciation of each viewpoint – both commentaries continued at opposing ends of a spectrum with opinions becoming even more polarised.
That is not to say that either argument lacks validity but on their own they present a very binary view of the sector. A black and white picture that misses the nuance and subtlety needed to acknowledge and understand the changes and challenges that services face.
In a work context we would not knowingly mislead our users. Whether undertaking research or signposting to information we would seek to present a balanced view, based on the available resources and evidence, and allow the user to make their own conclusions. And yet most stories around libraries fall at either end of the narrative spectrum.
I would argue that as a profession the responsibility to maintain a balanced approach – which is not to be confused with neutrality – is an ethical imperative.
We need not ‘sit on the fence’ or occupy some wishy-washy middle ground. We can engage in positive advocacy and at the same time be assertive in challenging decisions that adversely impact on services and users. We can celebrate the success of a brand new library while highlighting the risks of localism and devolution where it leads to fragmentation and hollowing out of services.
That is why I hope as a profession we can move away from the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ narratives towards a more balanced viewpoint. One that does not downplay the effects of austerity and funding cuts but one that is equally willing to applaud the good news stories within the library world.
So coming back to the quote I started with, we can only be persuasive as a profession by being credible, and to be credible we need to be truthful. That is why a more balanced narrative is needed; to the public, to the profession, and most of all to those in power.