Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Less is Less, by Donna Lanclos

We can start with the end of this particular story first: There was a call for papers, it didn’t originally contain a critical spin, and now it is much closer:

screen shot of a tweet from CILIP_ARLG, the link to which is included below,
link to original tweet

When I first saw the original call for papers, my immediate response was this: It is unhealthy for libraries, for anyone, to suggest that “more is less” should drive or organize your work. If we have less we have to do less. Budgets are political documents. When we lie to ourselves and others and suggest we can do even the same with less, who benefits? Not workers, not researchers, not teachers, not students.

My train of thought was sparked by one particular call for papers, but the fact is that public and academic libraries in the US and the UK hear this sort of thing all the time, and it’s just not sustainable. Many public libraries in the UK are being shut down; that is where “more with less” ultimately ends. I would like the profession, across all of its sectors, to find a way to have a conversation about how, when presented with budgets that make things impossible, we say so, and make sure that the people making budget decisions understand that they are, in essence, saying they are happy to not-fund particular kinds of work or resources. I want to support people in speaking truth to their local powers that be, to be able to say to decision makers, “Admit that you don't value this, and that is being reflected in the ‘less’ part of your budget. Say it out loud.”  Because rhetorics of “care” that are not backed up by resources are not sincere. Every budget proposal should be annotated with what will be lost if that piece is not funded. “You want a repository without staff? This is what it's gonna cost you in terms of effectiveness.”

What happens when we try to do more with less? We fail, just like the K-12 schools in the US are failing (or hey, like our entire damn country is failing without a funded and functioning federal government) and then the teachers get blamed when in fact they are being failed by people above them and budgets that do not support public schools or services. I am put in mind of the discussions around “resilience” and how that can be damaging to individuals in difficult institutional contexts. To what extent are we, through the “more with less” discussions, perpetuating the same harms, asking individuals to weather the pain of dysfunction and austerity, rather than collectively organizing to try to shift discussions and take action towards fixing structural problems?

I appreciate that professional organizations want to try to create space for people to share strategies to deal with this kind of austerity. It makes sense. But making-do in a larger context of budget cutting won’t stop the budget cuts. It is for this reason that I want these conversations to be much more heavily weighted towards voices critical of austerity measures that ensure that the "more with less" theme will persist.  If you are in a leadership role in a professional organization for libraries, what can you do as an organization to advocate for more resources for your members?

I would encourage anyone presented with a “practical strategies” conference call to stop and think about submitting a “critical approaches” paper, panel, or other contribution. In my experience, library conference presentations tend towards the “here’s what we did” content in the first place. But there are critical strands everywhere, to be found in conferences, on social media, in journals such as Library with a Lead Pipe, and in our face to face networks. Critique and critical inquiry come from a place of care, and engagement, and I wish they were more easily recognized as such.  

I would also encourage conferences who are interested in exploring issues of the impact of austerity on education and library institutions (and the people who work in and use them) to think about providing funding so that people without resources who are actually living this reality can attend. No point in having these conversations only among people who have enough resources to get to the conference in the first place, because while their budgets might well be cut, they at least have enough budget to be in the room without assistance. What resources can be used to widen participation in these public conversations? What digital places and tools, what money can be offered? It will require organization and action to shift what requires shifting. Professional organizations can constructively contribute, especially if they invite and facilitate critique, and lift voices that are not already heard.

Though she has inspired lots of posts, this is only the second time Donna Lanclos has written for LtaYL. The first time was an interview post. Donna tweets at @DonnaLanclos.

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