“The future isn’t something that happens to us; the future is something we make happen.”
Building the Future
BDS: Beneath us in this very building, CILIP HQ, 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?
Nick Poole: The reason I got into this business is that I believe in the value of freedom of information. Ever since there has been people there has been a need for supported, structured access to information and knowledge. Somebody needs to help access it. What fascinates me about libraries is that they embody this need. The reason we have them is because 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 the supports those people in the industry, to represent them, to shout about their 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 to best serve the interests of the current generation. So, we are rooted in tradition. We had 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 may 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 in libraries but what I see is change, I see changing user behaviours, changing society, changing technical ability and I see 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 is some very big ethical questions and some very big social changes. What excites me is partly how, as a librarian, 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. 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 fundamentally based 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 of our country depends on us being able to unlock our knowledge which, in turn, means you need librarians.
BDS: You use the word ethical. Can you expand on that?
Nick Poole: CILIP publishes a code of ethics for librarians 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, there are encoded in our principles, 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 and to do that 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 commercial sector which is an area of real growth in jobs for librarians. And one of the reasons business hires librarians is because librarians have a code of ethics that correspond to compliance and good governance which reduces their corporate risk which means they are not going to get sued.
So, as I say, a lot of my work so far at CILIP has been about getting back in touch with core principles.
BDS: Moving to the term fake news, a relatively recent term used now day to day, do you see librarianship as combatting this phenomenon?
Nick Poole: Yes. It is fundamental. I try to differentiate between three levels of fake news. There is fake news as in organised, state-sponsored propaganda, there’s bad news insofar as a lot of media outlets simply don’t have enough money to afford journalists and sub-editors and quality control, and then there is what I would regard as a lack of information skills or information literacy on the part of the reader.
I think there are a few roles for the librarian. One role is educating the population to be sceptical and question the information they are receiving. Once you enter a situation where everything presented is the result of an algorithm, an algorithm based around generating something you will click on, it destabilises the personal responsibility for questioning sources. On the bad news, I think we have a media sector that is struggling to make ends meet and so entire articles are entering the news without much human intervention. I think as consumers we have to restate our view that we want quality news. That costs money and people need to pay for it. As to the state-sponsored propaganda thing, to an extent that has always been there. But what has happened is that the perpetrators have taken advantage of the lack of critical faculty within the population to say things that people aren’t going to question.
I have been talking to a lot of data scientists about data ethics and they are saying that if we have the capability to map 220 million American citizens against five thousand points and not only to know everything about them but to know what they are going to do next then there is an ethical responsibility as to how we behave with that data. And I think that in some of the ways we have seen political states behave, they have used the power of big data without the ethical control. As information professionals, we have a job to hold society to account. All of these lines of thought track back to committed information professionals that have the ethics, have the skills, and have decided that they are going to help society.
We have Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress coming over from the US to speak at our conference in July [CILIP Annual Conference, Manchester, 2017 – ed.]. It has been really interesting to see the way the library sector has responded to President Trump in the US and by not reacting ideologically against the political program. Instead, it is holding to account, saying we have structures for checking accountability and transparency and we need to hold fast to those. I think there is a real need to restate those principles.
BDS: US librarians are quite vocal and socially active. Is it the same in Britain?
Nick Poole: There is a whole spectrum of people out there in the library community. There are two issues: our ability to claim credit. Here are people who are committed public servants, who do an excellent job, go the extra mile, and then allow other people to take the credit for the outcome of their work. So, if the community is stronger the librarian rarely stands up and says, well, that’s because of me. Public libraries are remarkable institutions that have taken on so many more functions, for example, universal credit, without any extra money, without any resource, and so it’s brilliant that we are willing to step up when society needs us, but it means that there is a risk that society takes advantage. The second issue is that we as librarians don’t aspire to lead, we aspire to offer the best possible service that we can. What this leads to is that we don’t become part of senior management, so you don’t get a lot of councillors that are former librarians. And you end up in a situation where there are senior decision-makers who are exposed to a world of technology and empowerment making decisions about libraries without really knowing what they are.
Now, there’s no point in saying, “my boss doesn’t understand what I do”, it has to be our job to get to those people in language that they understand. I do think we missed a trick with the internet, allowing people to think that the problem was solved simply by connectivity and bandwidth. What we have discovered professionally is that such access massively increases the problem because you’ve got lots of capability but not the knowledge in how to handle it. We didn’t identify and advocate for that quickly enough. So, since I joined CILIP, a lot of the work we have been doing is about visibility, not talking within the sector but about the sector to external people.
The new government strategy revolves around skills that are knowledge-based. In the latest strategy document, librarians don’t get a mention. It has to be our job of saying, “this is what our sector is capable of”.
BDS: This brings us onto leadership, something that I know you have taken a particular interest in within libraries. Perhaps you can tell us more about that?
Nick Poole: I think leadership is fascinating and there are many theories written about it. The way I see it is that there is either a problem or an opportunity you see in the world and you formulate an idea about how to change that thing, about how to make it better or how to take advantage of that opportunity and then you find people that you admire or enjoy working with and have capabilities that will help you, and then you organise yourself to go and solve that problem. I think that can happen at any level of any organisation. I think people think of leadership as hierarchical, as if “I will get there one day” but in fact, the most inspiring leaders I have seen are at lots of different points in the profession, they’re solving a problem, they’re making a difference, they’re making things happen. There are lots of skills in management, for example, fund-raising, that sort of thing. But one of the reasons I wanted to work in this job is because it touches on every part of life, it touches on health, on your kid’s ability to get a job in the future, and how successful your small business is, and how competitive your community is with the one down the road that’s got a better tourist information office and so whatever problem you want to solve in the world it tracks back to knowledge and information and so there are such opportunities in this sector to solve problems and make a big difference. It’s an aspirational thing. I want anybody with money, anybody with influence to meet any librarian and be inspired by what our sector is all about, I want every librarian to be a champion for what they do. The more we can empower and equip people with those messages the better.
And there is an issue in this sector – it is a language thing. I speak the language of librarianship, I don’t speak the language of profit and loss or community development or whatever, and if we can help people in our sector use the words that people respond to then we can empower them to lead. So, leadership can happen at any level; it is about people doing their job in such a way as it can inspire others.
I feel incredibly lucky because I have got myself into a position where I can deal with problems that affect the future of our society and our economy but when I spoke at the leadership course for librarians organised by CILIP, it was fascinating because there you have people that were so driven, so passionate about progressing in their professional careers but the thing that really inspires you to work with them is the vision of where we are going. I always check these goals. I ask the question does this get us to a better world? I want champions everywhere.
We did a workforce mapping and one of the things we found out was that we have an unusually high proportion of people who stay in the same job for twenty or twenty-five years. At first, I looked at that and thought there’s an issue with career mobility. Then you go and talk to people who have worked in the same job for some time and you find that they might be staying in the same place but they are moving the whole time so they are developing their skills, finding other things to do, growing the service, and you realise that is not just about plotting out the career trajectory and getting to that point, it’s about how you keep moving when you are in the job you are.
Having said that, I do think we need more senior managers who have been librarians so one of the things we are looking at now is can we work with people like the Chartered Management Institute to imbed knowledge of why you should be hiring people with information skills. If we end up with senior executive who can really understand what we, librarians, can bring to them, it means we are attacking the problem from both ends.
BDS: We hear of under-investment in libraries and closing libraries but at the same time we state we are an information age, an information society. Is this an existential crisis for libraries?
Nick Poole: I think the way we are investing in our communities is at odds with what we are saying we want as an outcome. We say we want an economy that works for everyone. If you are going to get there you need skilled, confident, literate people, and for that, you need a library at school and you need a librarian in it, you need a public library with dedicated staff and you need mums and dads of today’s younger generation to meet with their local librarians. We are expecting all the outcomes, we are expecting to be a modern, advanced skills, competitive economy post Brexit without doing any of the groundwork. And the thing that makes me really mad, especially around public libraries, is that it costs so little compared to the economic return. It costs one to two per cent of the local authority’s expenditure overall, in order to create the people we are going to need in the future.
It’s not even a political argument. We are getting it wrong. So, there is a real motivation there to go out and talk with the policymakers and say “we can do all the things you want.” It is not a political problem nor an existential problem, it’s a hearts and minds problem. We were so successful with the Victorian library model, the red brick building full of books model, that we haven’t got an equally successful modern proposition that replaces that. Because people can’t see where things are going they can only see what they are losing. And so, what we are trying to do is create an equally powerful model that says what you need in the heart of any business, any community, any school, any hospital is the capability to bring together knowledge and information, quality assure it and then make sure people have access to it. That proposition is working well in some areas, in health it is really going great guns. There are millions of decisions to be made in the NHS every day, they all have to be evidence-based, and so the health service knows that it needs to invest in health librarians. It’s not going so well in local communities. Libraries are changing their services to meet clients’ expectations but, ironically, clients are not aware of it yet. It is one of my great frustrations when I see things in local papers saying “libraries have got computers in them now.” They have done for twenty years. Or “libraries support health and education” – yes, we have been doing that all along.
BDS: Are we getting enough people into library school and training to be librarians today?
Nick Poole: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think we are. At the moment, we are looking at our diversity and equality strategy. We are asking, “how do you make this a more diverse workforce? What does librarianship look like as a career choice, does it feel aspirational?” And we want to attract the brightest and best into this profession and so we want people to be able to see themselves building a successful career. And I just don’t think enough is being done at the moment, certainly not by us, yet, to make it clear that there is a fundamental need for these skills, that it is a totally joyful thing to do with your professional life: if you go down this path you will be helping kids to learn, if you go down this path you’ll be helping to save lives, quite literally, if you go down this path you’ll be earning 85 grand a year working for a major company offering it advice… There’s so much we can do to celebrate what this feels like as a career. At the other end of it though there is still a very high academic barrier to entry into this profession, so one of the things we are looking at is how do you make this more accessible, can we find more ways to encourage people to come in, such as apprenticeships, because I just don’t think enough people imagine themselves build a successful career in this sector.
Another interesting fact is that 45% of our entire workforce reaches retirement in the next 15 years. So, there is a huge transfusion going on as we speak. But retirement is no longer the end of your working life. We have a group of very experienced, very committed professionals who can mentor and help a new generation coming in. I think this is a brilliant connection we can make between those two groups. There is something in the idea that once you are a librarian, you are always a librarian, you don’t ever really retire from being an information professional.
You talk to an eighty-year-old librarian and there is the air of “don’t panic, we have been here before.” We have been through ’65, ’81. Also, there is real perspective on our fundamental values. It says, things have been difficult in the past but society needs you in a fundamental way, so a lot of that kind of connection into the core ethics comes from staying connected with the retiring or retired members.
BDS: Are libraries losing focus on their core function?
Nick Poole: I think we have made a tactical error in society. The idea was that you can build on top of a strong public library service all the other services you want. So, you can make it a citizens’ advice bureau, you can make it part of child protection services, you can give the police an office there. All of those are valid and legitimate things to be doing within a community on top of the core, properly staffed library but what we have started to do is blur those things. Instead of having a strong core, we are going to make this a multi-functional community hub that does some vestiges of library stuff. On every level that is a mistake.
I am by nature an optimist but society makes mistakes, policy can be bad, it can be right for one time and not for another. We are making a mistake on libraries, the job now is to help the people who are in a position to rectify that mistake. It’s not just about asking for money, it is not about saying we are special you should come and save us, it’s saying “you’ve got it wrong”. The society you want to create is an advanced skills, globally competitive, soft diplomacy, education-based economy, and that needs to be built on a foundation and we are that foundation. And we are cheap. Frankly. Compared to a lot of other things you spend money on. We are a lot cheaper than what you are going to lose by the lack of productivity that you are seeing already in the economy, and so the conversation is not a political conversation, it is correcting an error.
BDS: In your career so far you have been deeply involved with digitisation – how do you see this developing?
Nick Poole: We have been through a format shift globally. We now have this capability digitally that once we could only have dreamed of. In any generation, the job of the librarian has been to bring together knowledge, quality assure that knowledge and then make it available in the best format. If I was doing librarianship 200 years ago, you’d be talking, paper, woodblock etc. and you would organise a service around those formats. The formats we are dealing with happen to be transitional because we are the generation dealing with things printed on paper and things coded in bits. Looking ahead, the cost of encoding knowledge will be marginal – it already is. But there are currently crazy situations where, for example, a digital book is being printed out as hard copy so that we can then disaggregate the pages and scan them to create a digital copy. These are the kind of crazy things you do during a transitional period. I think there is a moral obligation, therefore, for our generation to get the knowledge ready for the ways in which it is going to be used in future generations. And that means digitisation. It’s a big challenge because these types of major format shift happen only once every couple of centuries, say, from clay tablets or handwritten books and then into moveable type.
We currently have a scale of printed material that is huge and the only way are going to achieve a shift to digital is if we prioritise. The collections in all of the libraries and museums around Europe are analogue and we have to convert them into a digital format. There are countless pages and in museums, there are something like 560 million objects. We can’t do them all. We have to use our best endeavours and our ethics, again, to select what we are going to digitise so that the next generation has the best possible access to the knowledge that we have but in a format that they can use.
BDS: The last big format shift was from manuscript to repeatable print. It was so long ago do you think it has given us a rather sentimental view of the book?
Nick Poole: It is really exciting, as a generation, to come in at this point and get to see the transition that is happening. I have a friend who refers to books as Binary Oriented Object Knowledge Systems because they are an encoding format. They were fantastic. They drove Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Democratisation but they are becoming deprecated and like all deprecated formats they will have an ongoing use but a lesser use than before. I love the Douglas Adams quote which says that the people upset about the demise of print are people mistaking the plate for the food. The food is the knowledge and information. I am not in the business of managing plates. I am in the business of maximising access to knowledge, to the food.
However, I don’t think that ebooks or print books are either or – they serve different use cases. But the use case for knowledge is now becoming global, networked and real-time and the book no longer serves that purpose.
BDS: Does this make metadata all the more important?
Nick Poole: A lot of my work has been around metadata, standards, discovery. Each generation believes its latest invention is going to solve the problem of discovery. Linked open data was going to solve the structure of knowledge problem. But it won’t because there needs to be an intelligent intermediary that helps you bring some organisation to the system otherwise it is all just floating bits. Again, this is a fundamental role for information professionals. Discovery, metadata, meta-description are the tools that people are going to be using over the next 200 years to find the knowledge they require.
I am not sure how much we bring this to the surface. When we look at the keywords people contact CILIP about, cataloguing and classification are most prominent alongside copyright issues. This is an aspect of how you meta-describe knowledge so that it is discoverable for people. This is an important part of BDS’s work: the future right that people have to use their intellectual freedom. There’s no point in having a right if you don’t have the capability to enact it. And so, what we are doing here is something much bigger, laying the groundwork for a properly networked society. This in turns involves questions of provenance and trustability. It goes back to core ethics. This goes back to librarians. It just a question of getting people to give them jobs.
I fundamentally believe that better knowledge leads to better democracy, and recently I had the opportunity to visit the libraries of the House Commons and House of Lords and Stormont. These libraries play a vital role in our democracy providing balanced answer to questions posed by our lawmakers. I love the fact that one of the most popular books in the House of Commons library is a book entitled, “How Parliament Works”. It’s delightful that you can see MPs asking questions such as “Who is this Black Rod? What’s going on?”
BDS: Do people know enough about the huge variety of roles librarians adopt and the variety of sectors they work in?
This morning I was in a meeting to draw up a strategy until the next general election which we presume will be in 2020. We were looking at the 20 sectors in which libraries operate and recognising the need to raise the profile of librarians in that sector. For example, primary and secondary schools, the manufacturing industries, financial and legal services, we are going through sector by sector, saying we know we reduce costs and risks, we increase output, we increase productivity, we know that in the private sector that if you bring a librarian in you win more pitches which makes the business more profitable, we know that if you put a librarian in a school, literacy rates and attainment go up, so let’s build up that evidence for each of the sectors and bring it all together into one picture. We all believe these observations as librarians, of course we do, but the people who need to believe them are, actually, two sectors: politicians and policymakers, and the other is centred around consumer power – mums, dads, kids – I want them to be demanding in the mainstream press and media. I want them to demand it for our children. We are going to be doing a lot of media work. We want people to demand better information services.
The BBC which has an incredibly sophisticated research department – they cannot publish unevidenced facts – are a clear line into advocacy because we all need an antidote to fake news to restore the credibility of the press or to articulate the value of quality information within that sector.
Advocacy should not be about why we need libraries but about the positive difference that libraries deliver; it shouldn’t be about “we need more money”, but that we can make for a better society, more resilient people and a more productive economy. I have yet to meet a politician who would disagree with the statement that libraries are lovely but that is not the point, the point is that we as a society have a choice to make, and the choice is whether we go down a road that is very risky with populism and misinformation and the lack of skills and a lack of equality, or we carry on down the path towards an enlightened, educated society that supports all of its members. And that question does come around to libraries; that is a lot of the reason why we have them in the first place. Advocating that is why my job the best job in the world.
I never want to whitewash. There are problems. But the answers are all there. I believe the future is something you make, not something that happens to you. It is a passion. I believe in a good world and that we can make it…
I did some work out in South Africa. There you strip everything away. Tin hut, corrugated roof. The thing that they do is send their kids out at 5 a.m., immaculate, with a satchel full of books and they put them in a van and they drive for three hours and they get an education. They realise that knowledge and education is your path to a better life. Some parts of our society have lost touch with that. We achieved material wealth, technology, social improvement and we came to believe that these are facts about society and not won through effort. I think we are re-learning the need to work towards these things. We stopped. Now we have to be progressive in where we are going.
BDS: Do you see Brexit posing problems?
Nick Poole: Yes, I think that no matter how positive or negative one is about Brexit, it is going to be immensely challenging. There are opportunities for librarians as the vision is based around an intellectual, service economy and so we can say, “ok, if that’s the future you intend to build, you need librarians”.
I think it was a tragedy that misinformation was used by both sides during the campaign, so I am also interested in the social and civic role of libraries so we can help people be more politically engaged in the future so that when we make decisions we are really clear about why and the evidence-base they are being made on. There’s a lot to be learnt around Brexit.
As a profession, we remain international, global. There is no difference between a librarian in Scunthorpe and a librarian in Burkina Faso, librarianship is not isolationist, we are united by our values and I think it is fundamentally important that we keep that unity with the global profession.
At a more practical level, the already declining numbers of foreign students is going to hit libraries in higher education because the demand for services will decline.
There is a future for knowledge management in our country and we will continue to advocate and promote that and trust that, for the rest, somebody, somewhere, knows what they are doing.
BDS: What role do you see for CILIP on the world stage?
Nick Poole: I think there are three roles.
One: exporting UK knowledge and skills. We’ve got an amazing sector over here and we should go and shout about it.
Two: Importing knowledge. Let’s go to other countries. CILIP should be a conduit to receive skills and expertise.
And third, and perhaps most important, is global solidarity. CILIP is saying we are a profession, we are globally united, we believe in what we do.