Friday, 11 November 2011

At the CILIP 2012 hustings

So I'm on the train, heading back to the cultural capital of Britain (Birmingham) after my day of fun in London (over-rated city on the River Thames, near to Heathrow airport). And as my wifi signal is up and down, I'm typing in a few offline notes about the CILIP hustings today.

This is the second year in the "Age of Annie" that CILIP has held election hustings. The first, last year and organised by CILIP West Midlands and the brilliant JoeyAnne, was an entertaining affair to attend. In that one, as well as CILIP councillors, the two candidates for 2011 Vice President of CILIP were also vying for people's votes. This year, it was just six candidates vying for four places on the board, as Lauren Smith stood unopposed for the position of CILIP vice.

CILIP is a bit of an odd organisation. It's the "official" body for librarians and information professionals, and has a Royal Charter and various olde history seals and legal stuff which it has on the walls. It's a tad misunderstood - not so much in what it can do, but what it can't e.g. man the barricades, and there's been some long term misconceptions about who it serves. For example, only a surprisingly small minority of the membership are public libraries and librarians. It would be nice to have a blunt something somewhere showing how CILIP and organisations and campaign groups such as Voices for the Library differ in what they can do.

First off, I got a much warmer welcome at CILIP than I did at the British Library. Went to the latter first. Approaching the main entrance of the BL, noticed that other people were being turned away. Got there; security. "We're closed." No smile, no politeness, no explanation. "Why, and when do you reopen?" (I had a few hours to kill). "The Queen is visiting. Come back tomorrow." A sign, or politeness, or even the merest flicker of humanity would have been nice. What a shit welcome, especially to overseas people, to one of the worlds great libraries.

After wandering around the streets for a while, looking and laughing at menu prices (Pub special: salad £10. Hahaha) I got a cheap spud and set off for CILIP HQ. This is in a slightly seedy part of London with some dodgy places nearby, and now I understand why [name redacted] turned up two hours late for his first trustee meeting as he mistook* "Exotic sauna, by the hour" in the next street for "Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals". Easy mistake to make, and good luck with the expense claim. And the rash.

I was escorted into the Ewart room, which reminds me of the dining hall from primary school (no, for once, seriously; it's the tables), where I changed, took photos, bought a 25p of coffee from the vending machine (despite the warning), noticed that CILIP have a padlock on their fridge, and looked at the boards of past presidents. Something odd; the Library Association board finishes as 2001 and then ... nothing. There's no CILIP "roll of honour" board, which was strange.

I met Rachel for the first time, who gave me tips on writing for CILIP Update, which was useful. Yes, everyone I've met in CILIP so far has been cool (unlike my previous ... more of that in a moment). More people were escorted in to what became a holding pen, as lowly members of the public were not allowed into the gladiatorial arena of death for the debate rally until the candidates were seated and the tech was working. I politely mentioned a few topics on the eHustings forum and immediately an argument started on one, the costs paid by overseas members. Will come back to this.

When six o'clock came round, we were escorted into the conference room upstairs, and the event began. Did the important thing - taking a photo of the panel, turning on the laptop, and most importantly, opening a browser tab to follow the Twitter stream for the evening.

It's quite a nice room, and I like it and the CILIP building. My last memories of the place were ... not pleasant, as they were from over a decade ago, when I was at a bad-tempered meeting regarding a library conference website. At the time, and from experience at UKOLN back further in the 1990s, the Library Association were not the most pro-Internet organisation (this is a massive understatement) and the meeting was not good (think I swore I'd never have anything to do with the LA again)(at several people)(with, literally, swearing).

Things have changed a lot - a heck of a lot - since. If, just a few years ago, someone would have suggested that CILIP would tweet about a forthcoming 'games in libraries' column in their monthly magazine, people would have laughed. Well, it happened this week. It may not quite be at the ALA levels of engagement in this particular field, but CILIP has come a long way in just the last few years. This gives grounds for (cautious) optimism.

Back to the event, which started a little late as one of the candidates was delayed. Another one was up on the screen, using Skype video to participate. This was Liz in the far north, so we got to see her speak from a heather-laden moor*, with herds of haggis roaming under snow-laden mountains in the distance, while her arrival was preceded by kilted bagpipers warbling "Flower of Scotland". Seriously; the use of technologies such as Skype is sensible. Cuts costs, saved a bit of CO2 pollution, makes people more accessible.

The event began. Mark Taylor was chairing it, and he did a great job that evening. He's quite positive, enthusiastic, but also sharp, as well as intellectual, a kind of young version of Bamber Gascoigne. Tweets started to flow, with several audience members sending them out. The candidates were each allowed to do an allocated time piece stating their case for being a candidate. Despite the late start, this actually finished a little bit ahead of schedule and no-one overran (that prediction of mine didn't happen). I can't remember much about this, apart from a slightly odd moment where candidate Mike was trying to remember how many libraries he had closed "10 ... no! 15!"

And then it's question time, the heat of battle, the crucible of fiery debate. What will be the first question? Will the candidates be made to sweat over some treacherous political or financial issue? Will it draw in new members, and bring back old, disgruntled, ones? Will the police be called to quell the scenes in Ridgmount Street?

"How should CILIP celebrate its tenth birthday, and the jubilee of the Queen, next year?"

For fucks sake, CILIP. This is your hustings, not the between-round chatter on Countdown :-(

Almost immediately, Twitter DMs came in along the lines of "FFS!" "Seriously?" and "Tell me this is a spoof."

The candidates gave some answers, stuff about a virtual cake or a tree of knowledge yadda yadda ydda but I lost interest and started to wonder if my evening would have been better spent at "Exotic sauna, by the hour" around the corner, rather than listening to how CILIP would be buttering up HRH. I have no clear idea of how people responded, and don't really care on this point.

The answers finished and there was time for another question before the first break, so I threw out, in exasperation:

"One quick, new, method for CILIP to raise income."

...from which the candidates flashed back looks of worry and resentment. Good; if you didn't like my question, then tough. CILIP needs more income. Quickly. Otherwise, in a few years time: no CILIP. It's that simple.

But all the candidates had a go at this one, and I liked some of the answers. Specialised training, distance training, more effective and targeted training that had been done in the past. An alumni for CILIP. There was some good stuff in there.

Then, the first break, and a short opportunity to goof around in front of the camera with the custom-made t-shirt (£14.99 from all good stores).

Even though the whole event was less than two hours long, two breaks had been put into the schedule. Unsure whether this was due to the somewhat um advanced age of many CILIP members (as [name redacted] pointed out, one cold harsh winter will solve both the CILIP pension fund problem and reduce the average membership age by 25 years), or the more exciting possibility that at the end of each session, the weakest candidate would be taken out and humanely put down as an "eliminator", leaving us with the elected four by the end of the evening.

It turned out that the breaks were for the more mundane reason that CILIP had a lot of old biscuits to palm off on people, and candidates and attendees mingled over a rubbery selection of tea time biscuits, on plates covered in cellophane and perhaps stored away since the merger of the Library Association and the IIS, back in the day.

The tea bag selection was excellent, however, and I now have enough to last me well into 2012. I chatted to Sue Cook, who had joined the LA, left in disgust over the meekness of the organisation in the face of Thatcherism and was making a second run at the organisation as Yorkshire folk don't walk away from an unsolved problem. A likable and cheerfully blunt person.

Round two started, and the questions improved, with submissions off email and twitter. We had:

"Is the library profession to blame for the current state of affairs in public libraries?"

Blimey. This produced some interesting responses - largely, "yes", which Ian Anstice has collated over on the Public Library News website. I'm not really one for doing the blame game, it being one of those negative British games, unless it means that history doesn't repeat itself. There's stuff to mull on, there. My small contribution is that renaming the organisation CILIP was a mistake, making it sound either elitist, irrelevant or possibly like something else. When advocating on the fly, you don't really have time to explain distracting acronyms, and "Library Assocation" was, well, like Ronseal, does what it says on the tin.

Other questions rolled in, such as "How can we make CILIP more visible as a promoter of reading and information?" and "How would you go about increasing membership? Which other sectors would you engage with?" If you want to know the responses to these, then the whole unedited, unrestricted or rated video is up online. You may need to turn the sound fully up, and listen through headphones; sound volume was really the only issue tonight, with the technology at the CILIP end otherwise running fine and being okay to watch for the majority of people. Kudos to Richard for doing the technical wizardry better than a lot of "webinars" (ugh), webcasts and virtual event thingies I've "been to" or endured recently.

Looking around, we peaked at 10 people in the physical audience, about the same number as last year. A disappointing number of physical bodies, especially - as was mentioned on the night - London and the South East has the highest concentration of CILIP members, and it was a free event, on a weekday evening, with as many biscuits as you could eat. I remembered the London-centric comment about London-based meetings made by the losing CILIP Vice President candidate last year, and the near-empty hustings audience tonight proved that conclusively wrong.

Well, if you don't try these things then you'll never know, but CILIP has tried it now and the feeling seems to be that the hustings should continue to "rove" a bit. Perhaps next year they should be held in a northern city.

The second break came and went swiftly, as did the final batch of questions. These included what appears to be the most controversial topic inside CILIP, namely the fees payable by overseas members and what representation they have. I admit to being baffled by this, as overseas members form only a tiny proportion of CILIPs not-huge membership role, and the organisation has larger fish to fry (such as financially surviving this decade). When I go to American Library Association events (many) and observe what they are doing, they aren't continually arguing over this. But this particular argument comes up at the CILIP AGM, and on the eHustings forum, and in any debate which a certain faction of CILIP members and non-members are involved.

I've lost the thread of it, and occasionally the will to live trying to follow it, especially as it seems clouded in (unhelpful) emotion. Maybe I'm missing something but it also seems kind of obvious. The bottom membership cost, home or abroad, has to always be "cost neutral" as an absolute minimum; there is no way at all that CILIP has the resource to subsidise any members in any way. And by cost, it's not just the printing and posting, but the proportion of staff time, dealing with membership enquiries, the extra administration, and other elements that add up to a true cost. Over that, richer members - again, home or abroad - should pay more, thus generating some extra income. And people who pays their monies gets the same representation. Um, that seems like the basic principles to me, without the need for an epic, several year handbag fight.

Anyway, it came up again during the hustings; already bored by this particular "rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic" argument, I used the CILIP wifi to torrent some Asian movies unavailable or restricted here, while people argued on about what kind of fee banding Mr Smith-Jones of Papua New Guinea should pay, and whether it was cheapest to send his copy of CILIP update by plane, steam ship, or hand-delivered on a silver platter by the CILIP president dressed in a white Del Monte man suit. Or something.

And then it was 8 o'clock, with one candidate dashing off to get a train, and some of the others heading off in various alcohol-searching directions. To win a small bet, I took a picture of the CILIP rug...

...then headed off for several gin and tonics in one of the post-husting groups.

Despite the low numbers in physical attendance, the hustings are worth it. Looking now, the morning after, the video has been watched by 150 people, and forms a permanent record of their answers. It's also notable that the number of people commenting on twitter on the night was higher than the number of bodies in the room, with twitter fulfilling its role as the easy-to-use backchannel for attendees, and just people who wanted to follow without being there or watching the streaming video.

Holding annual hustings are sensible for several more reasons. Candidates can be questioned by the membership (and currently non-members such as me). They have to be used to using tech, and CILIP gets more practice in doing this kind of thing - and the effective use of tech in many ways (especially income generation, dissemination and cost saving) is going to be an integral part of CILIPs survival this decade. It worked well with Liz being up on Skype, and perhaps next year when it's hopefully held in a Northern city, several of the candidates will use video conferencing. Distributed candidature, and a distributed audience. Seems sensible, especially with the time, ridiculous costs, and the unreliability of transport. Adding the hustings to the online ehustings provides several mechanisms for candidates to be probed, and unlike a few years ago, there's no real "I can't find out what the candidates really stand for on the issues I'm interested in" excuse now for the voting masses.

As for which candidates I hope will be elected. Three I have faith in, two I have significant doubts about, and one I hope is never allowed anywhere near the CILIP budget. Not saying any more, as unhelpful rows will just start, and I'll be hiding from Auntie Annie and Uncle Phil for weeks. But in private correspondence with a few people on twitter, discovered that they were coming to similar conclusions, so am hopeful.

Anyway, as the only (physical) attendee at both the CILIP hustings, am wondering if I'll make it for next years with the wife (if she goes through with this whole crazy wedding thing) to make it a hat-trick and be allegedly awarded the "freedom of CILIP". This may be a hard sell; "Shall we fly across the Atlantic to explore the countries and geography of Europe, or sit in a room with some librarians one November evening?" Hmmm. See you there, maybe :)

* - may not be entirely accurate.

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