Daily Archives: January 23, 2012

Librarian or Radical Social Activist?


Last weekend began ALA’s Midwinter conference. Obviously, librarians (and others associated with the profession) got together to discuss the old and new topics of the profession – mostly old. But LIBRARYJOURNAL Online posted this on Saturday – ALA Midwinter 2012: Occupy Wall St. Librarians Wonder, When Did Sharing Become a Revolutionary Act? – about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) librarian activists.

The article reports on a panel discussion that was sponsored by the ALA Masters Series and “included the first OWS librarian”. Another of the panelists and OWS librarians, a very recent MSIS graduate, was cited in the article that “he characterized the librarians as continuing the fight for their beliefs” even though the library had basically been destroyed when the protest was broken up by New York City authorities.

What concerns me are the apparent radical activist beliefs, motivations and perceptions of these librarians that inserted themselves into this “Occupy” movement, and affiliated a social protest movement with a “library” by using totally warped reasoning.

My first questions are: Who assessed the need for (we’ll be generous and refer to their book collection and reading area as) a “library” for the protestors? Who decided that their OWS library was a “People’s Library”? What is a People’s Library? Is that a new category like Public, Academic, School, Special, etc.?

Who decided this was a “library” in any sense of the term? If that was a “library”, let me show you my library that I carry in my brief case.

That same panelist was also quoted as saying that; “I joined [the People’s Library] because building a library, any library, in times like these is an act of resistance, and protest, and hope, and love,”. ?????? SERIOUSLY? Resistance and protest against whom? Your local library Board? Your local town council for cutting the library’s budget so it can still provide police and fire protection, and teachers salaries? Protesting against the Library of Congress? Society in general because libraries are not more valued? PROTESTING AGAINST WHOM? And, since when did the mission of a library become social protest?

In my opinion, these librarians are on the wrong track as far as what librarianship is all about, as well as the role of a library, and are simply acting out their frustrations toward society under the guise of librarianship.

Another panelist “spoke movingly on the topic of libraries’ importance. “Librarianship has a long history as a liberating force in society,” she said.” SERIOUSLY? Libraries have long been about liberating society? Read my Post from September 16, 2011, 21st Century Librarianship vs. The 1876 Special Report in which I quote the authors – librarians – who professed;

So that in fact it is only just now that we are coming to the social state where we are ready to produce a trained literary class. Thus far we have not done it, whatever may have been the case with a few individuals, and we have had no business to do it. Ax, plow, steam engine, not pen and palette, have been thus far our proper implements; and we have done a noble “spot of work” with them. Exactly now, at the end of our first national century, it is good to sum and value just this total of attainments. And exactly such a scientific instruction in books and reading as is here discussed is one of the influences which will do most to correct our views, to raise our ambition, to bring us up to the present limits of attainment in knowledge and in thought, and to prepare us for extending those limits. [page 235]

“… we are ready to produce a trained literary class” can only be interpreted as elitist librarians and their more elitist scholarly colleagues making the decision and plan as to how, what and who should be educated with books. We know that from the history of education in the US. Saying that “Librarianship has a long history as a liberating force in society,” is just not true.

Librarians had a very elitist self perception not that many years ago, and it seems as though that pendulum is swinging back in that direction.

As recently as 2007, George Needham is quoted as saying; “The librarian as information priest is as dead as Elvis.” The whole “gestalt” of the academic library has been set up like a church, Needham said, with various parts of a reading room acting like “the stations of the cross,” all leading up to the “altar of the reference desk,” where “you make supplication and if you are found worthy, you will be helped.” (When ‘Digital Natives’ Go to the Library, Inside Higher Ed., June 25, 2007.) If that is not a historical example of professional elitism, I’ve never heard one.

One of the panelists is quoted as saying; “How have we come to a place where the sharing of books, and the gathering and disseminating of knowledge has come to be such a revolutionary act – one that brought the full force of the militarized New York police department down upon it?” she asked. “I think the reason is that today we see an all-out assault on what libraries stand for and what they do.”

If we concede that building a library – “any library” – would be great and a necessary act, it would only be revolutionary if there wasn’t one already! Last time I heard the NYC Public Library, and its 70 something branches, is still up and running stronger than ever. How far away was the closest NYCPL branch – 2 or 3 blocks? Who knows whether the books that were retrieved from the NYPD after the protestors were cleared out were even usable before the OWS protestors were cleared out? Does anyone really believe the NYPD wants 3,000 paperback books?

Talk about self-centered! Does this person seriously expect anyone to believe that the New York police department was targeting the “library”? These librarians want to bizarrely take up a mantel of persecution upon themselves and their cause – whatever that may be but which is totally separate from the OWS cause – simply by affiliating their “library” with an illegal protest movement. An “all-out assault on what libraries stand for and what they do” – SERIOUSLY? I can’t help but wonder if this person even knows what libraries stand for and do.

I’m very concerned about this radical activist role that new librarianship seems to be taking upon itself. It is not the role of the librarian. It does a disservice to our profession to have radical activist librarians making hysterical vague and patently untrue claims about societal assaults on libraries.

Librarian or Radical Social Activist – which one did you get into the profession to be?

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