Beneath us in this very building is the Ewart room, a reminder of the great tradition of the library. With the role of libraries so rooted in tradition, is it difficult for CILIP, the guardian of that tradition, to be forward looking?
The reason I got into this business is that I believe in the value of freedom of information. Ever since there have been people there has been a need for supported, structured access to that information and knowledge. Somebody needs to help access it. What fascinates me about libraries is that they embody this need. They are the best means to enable people to access information. What I have done since joining CILIP is to try and get back to the first principles. Why have we got an association? Because there needs to be an organisation that supports those people in the industry, to represent them, to shout about its successes. So, one of the first things I did when I started here was to read our royal charter, to go back to the founding document. And it’s really clear in what we are here to do. Our founding principle started as a campaign around a penny tax which local authorities could use to fund books and services in public libraries and ever since then our role has been to do whatever needs doing for that generation to best serve their interests. So we are rooted in tradition. We have social reformers like Ewart, who believed in the right to knowledge, the right to learn and we carry a continuity of value as an organisation that is absolutely essential. Then we ask, where is society going and how do we carry on with those principles in the light of this? It is really exciting for me, it is an opportunity to take core values and redefine them for a changing world. I think if I were able to talk to Ewart about what we are doing today he would recognise exactly the same principles. He might not recognise the devices we are doing it on but I think the values would be absolutely the same.
So, we have continuity of values but a changing world around them and the need, therefore, for a different response?
People talk about an existential crisis but what I see is change, I see changing user behaviours, changing society, changing technical ability. We have a fantastic opportunity. I think the internet is almost unprecedented. As a change in human capability to access information it is massive. What it has brought behind it are some very big ethical questions and some very big social changes. What excites me is how, as a librarian, do you help people get the most out of those tools, maximising use of that capability but keeping them safe in terms of what is ethical, and in terms of what is good information. So there is this whole new job for us to do. It is not a matter of if we respond to this, it is happening anyway, it is how quickly and how confidently we embrace these changes. This is not the loss of the need for libraries but a new and greater need. Over the next twenty to thirty years we are going to be based fundamentally on an intellectual economy. Post-Brexit, if we are going to be anything, it will be innovation and invention that sustains us and this means harnessing all of our knowledge. Any vision of a successful future for our country depends on us being able to unlock our knowledge which, in turn, means you need librarians.
You use the word ethical. Can you expand on that?
CILIP publishes a code of ethics for librarians and we have done for many decades and it’s a really nuanced document because it doesn’t go into morality, “good” or “bad” views, it goes into professional ethics. For example, we will respect and balance the rights of information users and information creators. We will respect the integrity of the information source which in these days of fake news is becoming fundamentally important. So, encoded in our principles is the way a responsible information mediator ought to behave, and our job is not to tell people but it is to help them help themselves in as neutral and balanced way as possible. The core of public trust in librarianship is based on the values it has carried for decades.
It is interesting because we have been doing a lot more work in the comme