CILIPS Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland
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The importance of understanding community

Category: Inspiration for the Nation 2016

Guest Blog by David McMenemy, Lecturer in librarianship and information science at the University of Strathclyde as part of the ‘Scotland’s Libraries: Inspiration for the Nation’ Campaign. 

One of the most over-used and arguably misunderstood words in the modern lexicon is community.  Yet from a political and professional standpoint, the word is vital in terms of how we understand and communicate our role as library and information professionals, and how we interact with governments of all colours.  In this short blog I will try to give a sketch of why.

The over-arching theme of the 80s and into the late 90s was individualism.  Whether dressed up in the clothes of Thatcherism, or Gordon Gekko’s famous quote from Wall Street, “greed is good” – many of us grew up in an era where rampant individualism was the order of the day, and this impacted all aspects of society, even into the professional practice of librarianship.  We see its remnants today, calls to be entrepreneurial, calls for leaders to take us into new eras of success, and a mistrust generally of professional bodies and collectives that seek to further the interests of the many rather than individuals.  All are remnants of an era that coloured our worldviews based on the notion that the individual was the ultimate moral arbiter, for good or ill.

There has been an ongoing change in the air, however.   In political philosophy there was early concern in the mid-80s with the atomisation of society and the worry that individualism was robbing society of important things such as family, community, country, and the like.   Key authors such as Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre sought to challenge the idea that we are little more than individuals, all seeking to promote our own interests first and foremost, with no link to any past or community.  As MacIntyre put it, “the concept of a person is that of a character abstracted from a history”.

However, it is how community is interpreted by governments that will colour our practice for the foreseeable future.  In the UK context, we see a very specific form of community emerging from the governments of 2010-2015, and 2015 onwards at Westminster.  Communities now, rather than individuals, are the ultimate moral arbiters, and thus follows the argument we must now seek to empower communities as decision-making bodies.   This is no mere cosmetic exercise; in the context of the modern era in England we see communities handed libraries and schools to run, with little or no state intervention.  As this blog is not focussed on volunteer libraries/closures, I will not comment on that aspect in this piece, but the government would argue that the communities are empowered, given responsibility, and in doing so we are immediately in a new political and professional paradigm.  One that raises significant challenges for our practice (notwithstanding the impact of the closures/volunteer aspect).

With empowered communities, we need good information provision in order that decisions made by those responsible within the communities are informed.  Communities can be all shapes and sizes, all demographic groups, all religious and cultural groups, and the dangers of no central body setting universal standards are clear and present.  Quality and standards could suffer; censorship could become an issue if communities begin to be dominated by one cultural or religious group over others.  The dangers of postcode lotteries, fragmentation of services, and a weakened collective library experience are issues we need to be prepared for and ready to address as a profession.

The empowered community is the next stage of how governments will wish services to be delivered.  We need to be at the forefront of that thinking as it applies to libraries and information, and not reacting to failure or dysfunction.

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