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?

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Librarian or Radical Social Activist?

  1. Steve I know we differ on this point, but I think it is important to clarify a few points. I went to the presentation and the quotes miss a good bit of context. These folks did not see the city shutting down just the library, but the whole of the protest, including the library, kitchen and so on. Their remarks focused on the library obviously because who they are and who they were talking to, but they were clearly talking about the protest at large.

    The question about whether NYPD wanted 3,000 used books misses the point by a wide margin…it is not if they wanted the books, the question is who did they not want to have the books.

    I highly recommend you take a look at the video that I hope ALA will post and the speeches the panelists said they would post. In it they talk about consensus, they talk about providing information to those who need it where they need it. They talk about facilitating democracy.

    This library was run and built by the whole of the protestors there with no weight on degrees or job titles. From shelving to policies, all were a part of making decisions. If you would like to argue that whole protest is an elitist activity go for it.

    I also cede you the point about setting up any library is always an act of revolution. However, I would say that concepts such as intellectual freedom, class-blind access, a dedication to presenting multiple views on topics, and the role libraries play in educating citizens for participation in the social systems (economic, political, and such) may not be seen as radical today, but they are in relation to many other countries, systems, and in the backdrop of history.

    • David, I should have guessed that you attended this panel discussion, so I appreciate your perspective on what was or wasn’t said. Thanks for sharing.

      So, you’re saying that NYPD is part of a government conspiracy to keep information out of the hands of a certain element of society? I’m not really sure what you’re suggesting by even thinking that NYPD had nothing more important to deal with than stifling freedom of information in a dangerous, life threatening, civil disturbance situation.

      I agree that “libraries” should and do facilitate democracy – apolitically. I fail to see how providing a group of illegal protestors with reading material can be construed as facilitating democracy in any constructive way.

      Where you could possibly misconstrue any comment in my Post as my opinion that the “whole protest is an elitist activity” is beyond my understanding, especially when I wrote in bold “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.” Maybe you need to re-read my Post.

      Ah, OK, I missed the point that the OWS librarians were taking a stand for people all over the world in oppressed countries where libraries are revolutionary. Was that in their panel presentations? Thanks, I’ll look for the videos.

  2. Kay Dee

    AS a public librarian, I found their comments and actions to be incredibly dismissive of the excellent work of the hundreds (thousands) of staff of the New York City Public Library. THERE IS A “PEOPLES LIBRARY” in NYC. No- ad hoc group of folks -librarians or not- well intended or not- needs to go around setting up another one!

    Dave, you stated:
    “This library was run and built by the whole of the protestors there with no weight on degrees or job titles. From shelving to policies, all were a part of making decisions.”

    WELLLLLL..every public librarian will be really pleased to know (as will all those pesky lawmakers who constantly cut our budget) that a “library” can now be set up on the fly by any ol’ group of folks who feel they need some info to facilite democracy. What were their collection development policies? Did they adopt circ policies to protect the privacy of their patrons?

    Sure! Lets all support free access to information… information as a fundamental right of a free people…democracy. BUT lets be careful about how we throw around the word LIBRARY…if WE as librarians are willing to apply it too loosely why on earth should we expect any one else to value the truly great institution that is the FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY.

  3. So where I am having a problem here is how you balance the idea of collection policies and the work of librarians as vital and important (I agree) and then turn around and say that we have to be careful in developing a library elite. Aren’t policies and collection decisions a point of view that represents how we are shaping a community? After all we don’t collect everything. On the other hand, if we are not shaping the community through our point of view, then what is the difference between us putting things on the shelf and just anyone.

    I guess I’m asking how you can have a profession that adds value that would escape the title as elitist as presented here?

    In terms of devaluing librarians because we let folks make collection decisions and shelving, I hope that our profession offers more value than that. I see this as a library because librarians were facilitating the learning and conversations happening at the protests. If there was a fault I find with the OWS presentation it was that the work they were doing as a library was being summed up by the collection being created, not the work they did beyond the materials.

    • David, first of all, I’m the one who simply pointed out that the profession has a history of being elitist. I did not say that was a good thing, or advocate for it. Library policies and collection decisions are NOT for the purpose of shaping a community, a point which we definitely disagree on, but are the functions libraries perform to add the value to their mission. Obviously, learning through conversation is your mantra, but that doesn’t make it the only way to add value or practice librarianship.

      Second, you’re obviously not viewing the situation from the perspective of the library director and employees that depend on the funding decision makers to recognize that the librarians are the ones who provide value added to the delivery of information – not the masses. If those who fund the libraries don’t believe their library is essential to the community because of the value added in organizing, facilitating and delivering information to those within their jurisdiction – they have no reason to fund a community, school, academic or any other type library. If libraries become known as nothing more than collections of books donated and organized by the “people”, whether it is facilitated by librarians or not, funding agencies will definitely pull funding because the library becomes the Wikipedia of community organizations. I hope that’s not what you’re advocating.

  4. Certainly not. What I am advocating for is that well trained librarians provide their communities with valued and valuable services that increase the knowledge and decision making of those communities. In some cases those services will include access and organization of a collection. In some cases it will be to FabLabs and digital collections, in some cases consulting services. In most cases a combination of all of the above.

    Question about shaping and being shaped. If collection policies are not for the purpose of shaping communities (active influence), is it still possible to acknowledge that a community can be shaped by these decisions (passive affect). For example, take a small school library with very little budget. This library does not have the resources to purchase full-text databases like a neighboring affluent district. While the librarian in the poorer district does his or her best to build a strong collection, can we not say that the size and nature of the smaller collection does have an affect upon the students? Aren’t interlibrary loan, and cooperatives an attempt to mitigate these circumstances, thus acknowledging the impact in the first place?

    There are a lot of studies that show that access to information influences behavior and performance. If policies and budgets have a direct impact on collections, don’t the setting and execution of those policies have impact (what I am calling shaping)?

    If librarians are a part of setting those policies, why can’t we say they engaged in a shaping activity? Wouldn’t it be better (and more ethical) for them to do this consciously than passively and unwittingly?

    Lastly, if they are simply passing through the decisions of the larger community, thus allowing the decision makers and funders to make shaping decisions, how is this different than letting the community shelve their own books?

    • We almost agree on something – your first paragraph – except that you had to include that value judgment qualifier comment “valued and valuable services that increase the knowledge and decision making of those communities”. IF the decision makers within a community are able to make better decisions from the knowledge they are provided by their library, then kudos for the library. BTW: a community does not make decisions, people make decisions. BUT, that is not and can not be the library’s mission.

      Librarians through their libraries are not in the business of shaping communities. Shaping anything implies a design for an outcome by the shaper – whether it’s a wood lathe, or potter’s vase, or fiberglass mold, or librarian. Do ethical teachers try to shape their students? Into what image would they shape them? Librarians are not in a position to make decisions about what their community ought to be. You and I have been through this before.

      And, as usual, you leave out the library customer’s needs or demands for information and place the librarian in the driver seat for those decisions. That’s not the way it should work. And, absolutely NOT! It is not more ethical for librarians to “shape” their community by imposing their personal value system. Librarians are not responsible for what customers do with the knowledge they may obtain through information made available at their library. Are you suggesting that librarians in your library world are either shapers or mindless drones?

  5. Hi, I meant valued and valuable as in provides good service (valuable) that is recognized (valued), but you’re right I would also include that librarians have values like privacy, intellectual honesty, intellectual freedom and such as well.

    You are also right to bring up customer’s needs. So I ask – in a resource constrained environment with competing customer needs, is there a role for a librarian in mediating those needs? How does a librarian not interject themselves in a way that will effect the outcome into such a situation? Is it a simple case of majority rules – do they defer these decisions up the chain to elected or appointed officials? If so, where is the need for a professional?

    • Again, we agree on something. Librarians should have all those values and more. Twice in one conversation must be a record.

      Your question is a common and continuing management issue that thousands of librarians deal with every day. Balancing those competing elements is no different today than it was 20 years ago, which is why we need more management courses in the MLS degree program. You can teach social activism in your program and everyone else will teach mainstream management theory in theirs.

      • Anonymous

        We teach management and community needs assessment and those values. We also teach professionals to meet those needs in innovative and proactive ways. Lastly we teach them making any resource decision there are impacts and consequences to those decisions.

        If anything has changed in 20 years it is that we have become more focused on the community and that we understand that in complex environments one needs to actively anticipate and plan for affects of decisions.

        I’m not calling for librarians to turn the world into liberals, I’m calling for them to empower individuals within the community to become what those individuals aspire to be. If that is a voice of protest in the park then librarians support it. If it is a banker looking to maximize profits, then librarians support it. Just don’t think that services we provide and the way in which we as individuals do the supporting is free of bias or values.

        The concep that we can be brilliant adders of value (as defined by the community by the way) and completely neutral I think is a false choice.

        If social activism is proactive service where as librarians we have a voice based on our ethics, and play a role in helping the community determine and reach their goals (whatever they are) then guilty.

        • Thanks for sharing.
          I’m especially interested in your assertion that “The concept that we can be brilliant adders of value (as defined by the community by the way) and completely neutral I think is a false choice.”
          Since I disagree, I’d appreciate further explanation of why you believe this. Are you opposed to the idea of the neutral librarian in theory, or that it’s just not reality – not the way people are?

          • Anonymous

            This is Dave (so was the previous just using my phone it posts as anonymous). I don’t believe we can be neutral. We can be intellectually honest and strive to present all sides of an issue, but that is itself the result of our values.

            Note I am not in favor of ideology being foisted upon our customers. What I am for is understanding that as librRians we add value. That to add value is to change something. And we must e conscious of the changes we make and not believe they are universally applicable or neutral.

            I think that might be our impasse here. I also fear the blog format might be sharpening this dialog and that is unfortunate. I find in your blog so much to agree with.

            In any case, I appreciate your time and thinking on this. I am heartened by conversations that go beyond fear and loathing about our future.

            • It appears we differ most in some fundamental understanding of the use of words.
              “Neutral” to me means that a librarian must make information available without influencing that information with their own biases. Based on your belief that librarians can not be neutral, then it follows that teachers, judges, police, journalists and virtually everyone is also incapable of being neutral, which doesn’t sound like a society I’d be comfortable living in.

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