“Paradise, no doubt, is just a huge library.” (Gaston Bachelard). 

(This paper was delivered as a keynote address to Research Libraries UK on 5 November 2020).

I am delighted to be speaking to members of Research Libraries UK.  This is my first public outing as Executive Chair of the AHRC, and I honestly cannot think of a more appropriate event for me or for AHRC, as part of the UKRI team.

I have spent a lot of my life in Libraries, and they have always had a touch of paradise about them for me.  I can remember my first visits to the Library of the Societies for the Promotion of Roman and Hellenic Studies, now bound up with the School of Advanced Study in the University of London, when I was still at school.  I’d never seen so many books in my life and I can still remember the amazement but also the realization of what scholarship meant as I tried to navigate my way around a library that was bursting out of its then confines.  All those runs which ended obscurely and started again in another corridor.  Books with uncut pages and unlearnt languages.  It was a complicated heaven.

When I started teaching at St Andrews, I would take students to the Library and plant them in front of the reference section which they never referred to; and the only time I completely overcame the worldly scepticism of an Honours class was in front of Sigonio’s 1555 edition of Livy.  I even line managed the Library for a while.  I lived above the Library of the British School at Rome, Britain’s leading arts and humanities research institute overseas, for eight years.  I got to know all the Rome libraries one way or another, including their irreplaceable photographic archives.BSR

Libraries are, then, my mental safe space; I love and care for them because it feels like they have loved and cared for me.  I know many of you will have faced difficult challenges and choices in what you can do in the physical space of your libraries – and I can only express my thanks on behalf of every researcher in the UK for all you have done to maintain services, and keep things running.  And I’d like also to say that we have heard some distressing stories, and the AHRC unequivocally condemns any and all aggression or abuse towards colleagues in library and archive services.

helsinki Laitio in Helsinki said that “Libraries have this incredible promise—that you can build your future in here. You can be your best person inside this building.”  I think there is something very powerful about the notion of the library as enabling one to build oneself – it has that element of the argument underpinning one’s mental development and spiritual growth which is so critical.  Much of what I have talked about relates to the library as a personal cultural space.  I can describe and analyse my personal relationship to physical libraries much better than I can describe my relationship to the virtual library, but of course the virtual library is really coming into its own now.  Yet both physical and virtual – and everything in between, collections, catalogues, interfaces, informatics and so on – are economic, social and political spaces too.

This makes the Library a critical object of research as well as a means of research, and that is a challenge which we need to face up to.

The study of the library over time and space is well advanced.  There is a significant body of scholarship on libraries in the Greek and Roman world.  It is a source of great joy when one has access to someone’s library or even their library borrowing record and can assess what they might actually have read.  I supervised a brilliant PhD thesis which was based on what James Wilson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, read in the Library of St Andrews, where he was  student.  We have his borrowing record, and you can find a lot of his reading of Cicero infusing his belief in the necessity for a powerful popularly elected president balanced by natural justice:

JusticeJamesWilsonThe President, sir, will not be a stranger to our country, to our laws, or to our wishes. He will, under this Constitution, be placed in office as the President of the whole Union, and will be chosen in such a manner that he may be justly styled the man of the people. Being elected by the different parts of the United States, he will consider himself as not particularly interested for any one of them, but will watch over the whole with paternal care and affection.

Well, what is he thinking now, I wonder?

I suppose it’s possible that we will reconstruct a modern scholar’s intellectual biography from her JSTOR record, but I rather doubt we shall.  And here is the challenge  – we know so much about print culture, circulation, history of collections and so on in the past, and we can map that onto major trends in access to literacy, education, the changing nature of the university, of teaching and curricula and so on.  But how will we research the contemporary library in all its bewildering distributed complexity, and what will it tell us?

I don’t know the answer to this and I hope librarians will tell us.  I also hope we will be funding that research, because it seems to me vitally important that we have a critical grasp on how we are managing the business of research – and that word critical is intended to do some heavy lifting.

As we think increasingly in UKRI not just about equality – ensuring the playing field is level if you like – and more about equity – what are the reasons why somebody never gets directions to that field at all, let alone the kit and invitation to play, the research library can look a little bit like the last rung on a ladder which is multiply broken from the very bottom.

This seems to me to be a challenge and one we will have to face up to increasingly in the very tight world of university financing.  How do we ensure that the promise of the flow of resources across the system is actually fulfilled?

For arts and humanities, then, the 21st century Library offers challenges then that are rooted in economic and social considerations which need careful study.

The biggest challenge of all is around access.  Here I do not actually mean open access as we currently tend to argue about it.  Arts and humanities have a complex relationship with open access, and I hope you will forgive me avoiding dealing with this head on.  There’s a significant conversation which will have to happen around monographs, as well as all the other trickiness around Plan S and so on.

We will take a position but most of the passes are won or sold depending where you stand.

I want to argue a rather different point, which is that we have been significantly distracted by the questions around delivery – how do you ensure that paid-for research is delivered without cost, or how do you shift that cost around the system.

The obvious problem is that a paper which you can summon onto your computer in your kitchen or sitting room is not thereby accessible.  Hence the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research recently stated that ‘science has a responsibility towards society to ensure clarity, transparency and comprehensibility when sharing and communicating research findings, and to explain the difference between non-scientific opinions and scientifically verifiable findings.’[1]

So the key question that follows for me is, what is it we are hoping to enhance access to?  To specific publications?  To scientifically verifiable findings?  Or to the capacity to develop reasoning to understand the debates at large?

We see across all countries rising proportions of people who do not believe in climate change, think telephone masts give you viruses, and are incapable of conducting sophisticated arguments, and some make it into legislatures.  For twenty years we have argued about open access; more information is freely available than ever before; yet the quality of civil discourse is grim; and the distance between the processes of thinking scientifically and the processes of public decision making seem to me to be as great as ever.  I should stress that this is not, or not just, about COVID. It’s about the extent to which we are prepared to understand the limitations of the processes of argumentation which lead to decision making.  We don’t have and do not deploy good parameters around what the Bonn declaration called opinion and scientifically verifiable findings; and I would argue that even that dichotomy is so banal in its description of the embedded nature of knowledge, outside a few uncontested eternal verities, as to be potentially misleading.

Most of what we create in research is the product of a history of reasoning and questioning which is socially embedded and culturally constructed.  This has a huge impact on what we know, what we care to know, what we choose to ignore.  And if you don’t understand the processes which construct the knowledge world in which any given piece of research was created, you risk misunderstanding its significance and lessons.

To recognise that, you only have to ask why we are having crucial debates about slavery, race and ethnicity now that were inconceivable thirty years ago, and at the same time realize that much of the scholarship of thirty years ago has incontestable merits as well as enormous blind spots.  At least in arts and humanities, but I would argue also in social sciences and much more science than is sometimes admitted, the difference between opinion and fact doesn’t cut it as a picture of what is produced in research libraries across the world.

How far does the research library rise above this contested fray to be a disinterested instrument to be used or misused?

Well, not very far I suspect, and I imagine they wouldn’t wish to.

Research libraries seem to me to be doing everything they can to try to overcome these issues by explicit and profoundly self-critical engagement with improving methodological literacy.

In this, if we return to our wider analysis, they fight against a tide of fragmentation of knowledge which is itself a product of political, economic and social forces.  And this takes us directly to the issue of how our knowledge has changed.

I am going to refer here directly to the brilliant sociologist Andrew Abbott, and specifically a lecture he gave entitled “The Future of Expert Knowledge” in 2017.[2]  He speaks there of objects, subjects, results and activities of knowing.  It’s too long an argument to summarise and actually I disagree with bits of it, but by focusing on the process of knowing (not knowledge as such), and then seeing knowing in a variety of different lights, Abbott forces us to acknowledge that what we know and who does the knowing are intimately connected, and socially inflected; they then impact on what is known (and not known) and this has a result in terms of the activity of knowing.

Abbott argues that

  • increasingly the object of knowledge is details about ourselves;
  • increasingly the knowing subject is a group (people learn socially) or an organization;
  • this has encouraged the commodification of knowledge, so that the conclusion is more important than the argument;
  • and the consequence is that what people think knowing is, is increasingly about finding not thinking.

The very process of finding out is commodified, and, Abbott argues, universities then reinforce all this by encouraging social learning of facts rather than the artisanal work of learning of how to think.

Abbott ends saying that the 20th century attempt to build knowledge, and democratise it, has worked – the problem is that it’s over, and we are going over old ground with ever decreasing effect.  We need a new form of knowledge.

There is a whiff of the jeremiad to all this, but there is also a sting of truth.  But he grinds to a halt on the verge of the future, and I want to say that for me the research library remains the lab where this new knowledge must be found.  It’s hugely interesting to read Urszula Pawlicka-Deger’s recent article on the library as an infrastructure of engagement; she has the beautiful line that “A laboratory is far more than just a place with instruments and equipment. It is a highly epistemologically and culturally charged concept that implies a specific way of thinking, experimenting, and seeing the world. [It is an] infrastructure of engagement.”[3]

So when one thinks, as I tend to do, of the library as a humanities laboratory, and one which critically intersects with community and with new forms of knowing, we perhaps find ourselves touching on ‘the transformation of audiences … into practitioners’, as Pierluigi Sacco describes ‘Culture 3.0.’  In an ideal world, research spills naturally into engagement and into co-creation.

Open access properly understood – that is access to thinking – and transformative knowing meet in infrastructures of engagement.

One of the key places where that will happen is or should be the research library.  If the political, social and economic conditions of the research library increasingly place it beyond the democratised world of knowers, because of different kinds of barriers to access that are far sharper than access to facts because they are barriers to the capacity to make discursive and contextualised arguments with facts, we are heading in the wrong direction.

Version1-2-9-2020That’s why it’s so important to me that UKRI has insisted in its latest vision and mission on the significance of the research ecosystem as being a much broader and more inclusive concept which requires funding throughout.  We have to get away from the idea that we at UKRI give money to the researcher and that nothing in between really matters except as a slightly resented consumer of overheads.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Our failure fully to recognise the intricately interconnected and diverse ecosystem has led to the combination of underfunding and devaluation which then in turn diminishes the system further.[4]

To return to Abbott’s taxonomy in a slightly different way, because we have excluded the connections and emphasised only some parts when defining the objects of funding, we have exacerbated the isolation of the subject of knowing into an insufficiently diverse set.  It’s not surprising that that set of knowers tend to keep on knowing the same things, and those things may tend to be increasingly divorced from innovative discursive reasoning.

Put the Research Library as an infrastructure of engagement, and the research librarian as its essential leader, and suddenly by changing the object of funding, you change the set of investigators, change the kind of questions that might be asked and refresh the process of research.

How radical is this?  I am not sure – and I’d love to know what librarians think.  The risk is it might become a more radical ask over time.  We know that libraries generally are under pressure, and whilst I welcome the commitment of research libraries to reach to the wider library infrastructure, as that infrastructure weakens, your job becomes much harder.

At the same time, universities are perhaps becoming more embedded in their communities, and more conscious of shifting from equality to equity.  This is by no means a battle lost.  Rather it’s a challenge to be understood, a battle to be won.

It rests heavily on our preparedness to sustain libraries.  I started with a wry quote about the paradisiacal library, and I have included a reference to the library as a physical space for personal growth.  But I wanted to end with a quote about the library as a place for the here and now, which express my own conviction that if we are to build back better, libraries will be part of the solution.

Georges Duhamel in 1937 wrote “If humanity were to lose its libraries, not only would it be deprived of certain treasures of art, certain spiritual riches, but, more important still, it would lose its recipes for living.”

Again and again we come back to the library as a place which critically has to be seen as a part of the ecosystem of learning and engagement which supports argument not fact, context not certainty, the connectedness of knowledge not fragmentation into facts.  This is an argument about science in general.

Arts and humanities has an obligation to make the argument most strongly because we use more of the full spectrum of what a library is than other disciplines, and the understanding of the political social and cultural context of knowing is one of our key concerns.

So I hope my time at the AHRC will be characterised by a deep conversation between the library in all its manifestations and research across the spectrum, and let’s hold on to those recipes for living which we will need for reimagining our futures.

Thank you.

[1] https://www.bmbf.de/files/10_2_2_Bonn_Declaration_en_final.pdf

[2] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSFkljMNegY.

[3] U. Pawlicka-Deger, 2020. A Laboratory as the Infrastructure of Engagement: Epistemological Reflections. Open Library of Humanities, 6(2), p.24. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.569

[4] UK Research and Innovation Corporate Plan https://www.ukri.org/about-us/what-we-do/corporate-plan/

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