15 Jul 2015

A spectre is haunting librarianship - the spectre of radicalism!

Guest post by Tom Maher who works with The Forgotten Zine Archive likes long walks on the beach and enjoys Italian food....


"To be a librarian is not to be neutral, or passive, or waiting for a question. It is to be a radical positive change agent within your community.” ― R. David Lankes
When asked to write about radical librarianship, my mind naturally began thinking about how to approach the topic - should I sketch a history of radicalism in libraries, deliver a polemic on the value of professional radicalism, or showcase the wide variety of interpretations the term enjoys in libraries today? I was confronted by a nebulous topic - difficult to define, let alone espouse the various merits and demerits of - and ultimately came to the conclusion that a through-line was required from which to sally forth and return to as I wrote. Like many things, you see, radicalism exists on a spectrum of intensity along which you will find extremes of both imperceptible disobedience and full-scale revolution. Though they vary in their commitment, each point on the spectrum shares a common devotion - sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but always depending on who you ask about it - and that is a devotion to change. Radical librarianship is no different.

Firstly, what makes radical librarianship radical? What does radical mean? Briefly put, something described as radical can be characterised by its deliberate departure from convention - usually by way of vocal criticism and direct action. Radicalism is also usually positioned as reactionary and most often operates in direct opposition to an existing mode of operation - after all, something is only radical by comparison.

In the case of libraries, this radicalism can often manifest itself as an outspoken critique of current best practices and a call for the reform of some aspect of libraries, writ large, at the structural level. Examples of the issues radical librarians are most occupied with - though are not limited to discussing - include the increasing commodification of libraries, the ethics of classification and collection development, and the role libraries play in supporting or disintegrating communities. Outside the realm of mere debate, this kind of radicalism can also manifest itself as autonomous library projects, outreach programmes directed at fringe or countercultural communities, and the provision of information resources to activists.

Though many of these examples may seem misguided, scary or generally undesirable to you, your library or your community, it is important to focus on the principles guiding them when thinking about whether to adopt radical measures or not. Examine your mandate, your services, your collections, and your policies - are any of these either accidentally or deliberately exclusionary? Remember that discrimination doesn’t always come in neat, stereotypical packages - it can be subtle, pervasive and especially difficult to self-identify.

Examine your community and the groups operating in it as thoroughly as possible - open up a dialogue with these groups and listen to their feedback on the services you provide (and how you provide them). Examples of networks to concentrate on include migrant, homeless and LGBTQIA+ communities, labour movements, local artists, environmental groups, and advocacy groups for the elderly or disabled.

If you cannot affect change in your own library, consider other options for bridging the gap between what can be done and what needs to be done - offer your personal expertise to groups on any upcoming projects; volunteer at local events; start up your own research or information service or help out with an existing one; start up your own community archive or help out with an existing one; broadcast the services your library does offer and suggest ways for these groups to best use them.

I can speak in only basic terms to most of these issues, but thankfully smarter folks than I have given this a lot more time. While Ireland is sorely lacking a radical pedigree in the area of information politics - at least formally and to my admittedly-limited knowledge - much ground has been gained by librarians abroad looking to spread the Good Word. Here are some examples of players I have come across (again, in my nascent and West-centric experience) and what they’re about:


United Kingdom

56a Infoshop - The 56a Infoshop is a volunteer-run, 100% unfunded DIY-run social centre in Walworth, South London.

We are a resource for local people, campaign groups and projects as well as selling books, zines, music and t-shirts. We have an extensive radical archive of international info with hundreds if not thousands of publications that we have saved over the last 16 years of being open.

We are part of a larger Social Centres Network in London and part of a global network of Infoshops, autonomous spaces, projects & people dreaming and working for a better world.

We share the space with Fareshares whole foods co-op and a free D.I.Y bicycle repair space. Stop by for a read, to fix your bike, buy some veg, to check the squatters' bulletin board or just for a cuppa.

Radical Librarians Collective - There is no central committee running RLC. The collective grew organically out of conversations between like-minded library workers, and its membership continues to be fluid and evolving. You don’t even have to be a library worker to be part of the collective, and you definitely don’t have to commit any time or labour to joining in.

For national gatherings, an open and temporary organising committee is created from those members who have the time and energy to take it on for the planning period. This group does not represent RLC and everything it does, this is simply a group of people who have volunteered (via an open invitation sent to the RLC mailing list)to help create the space that RLC will inhabit on the day of a gathering. Anyone can volunteer at any stage, and can take on as small a role as they’d like. We are actively trying to mitigate the formation of a ‘clique’ or hierarchy in RLC and welcome fresh input.

At the gathering itself, all attendees are welcome to suggest sessions and facilitate them, by no means just the organising committee. Equally, all attendees are expected to adhere to our Safer Spaces policy, and it’s all of our responsibilities to enforce it.

The horizontalist approach RLC aims to take is an ongoing process that we’re all learning from. If you have any thoughts or suggestions on how to make RLC as inclusive and effective possible, please join in and send us an email.

The Itinerant Poetry Library - We see libraries, and in particular, public libraries as the bedrock of world citizenship. We believe that nowhere else offers such information equity, trust and dialogue, between us as individuals, as communities, as cultures.

For when we enter a library we encounter each other: encountering each other we are revealed more to ourselves. Through such meetings we begin to understand how we are connected by our experiences of a shared world. Fundamentally, when we enter a library we are offered the opportunity to learn new things and thus, as individuals, as world citizens, to grow.

Thus, with this mission in mind, continuously since May 2006 The Itinerant Poetry Librarian has been travelling the world with a free public library, installing the library & librarian and archiving the sounds, poems and poetry of the cities, peoples and countries she meets.

United States of America

Bernard Zine Library - Barnard's zines are written by women, with an emphasis on zines by women of color. A woman's gender is self-defined. We also collect zines on feminism and femme identity by people of all genders. The zines are personal and political publications on activism, anarchism, body image, third-wave feminism, gender, parenting, queer community, riot grrrl, sexual assault, and other topics.

Radical Reference - Radical Reference is a collective of volunteer library workers who believe in social justice and equality. We support activist communities, progressive organizations, and independent journalists by providing professional research support, education and access to information. We work in a collaborative virtual setting and are dedicated to information activism to foster a more egalitarian society.

Radical reference originated as a service provided by volunteer library workers from all over the United States to assist demonstrators and activists at the convergence surrounding the Republican National Convention in New York City August 29-September 2, 2004.


Archiv der Jugendkulturen e.V. - [shamefully translated using Google] There are few places where mods alongside rockers, hippies can stand next to skinheads or punks Emos next without a snide remark, the flaps of a knife or spitting at his feet. But these so different and often entangled in fighting youth cultures, including Raver, Psychobillies, New Romantics, graffiti sprayer, Gothics and many others have found in the archives of the youth cultures a place of harmony, where they would escape in the real world. They continue to live here, forever young and stylish, politically and creatively, in a library that combines the last 70 years of youth culture. There you will find rarities such as Israeli punk fanzines, the first Bravo or American student newspapers from the 40s. The material ranges from books to videos, cassettes, posters, flyers to T-shirts and wristbands.

It may be for scientific research, journalists and filmmakers of importance. As a public library without fees, we are open to all.


Want to know more? 

Further reading on the subject of radical or alternative librarianship can be found all over the internet - most radical librarianship blogs have extensive bibliographies, as well as lists of active libraries and archives in their area - but here are some recommendations to get you started:

● Tsang, C. Daniel (2004) “Taking a Stand.” Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out. Edited by K.R Roberto and Jessamyn West. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 61-65.

● Bartel, Julie (2004) From A to Zine: Building a Winning Zine Collection in Your Library. Chicago: ALA Editions.

● Berman, Sanford (2008) “Introduction: Cataloging Reform, LC, and Me.” Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front. Ed. K.R. Roberto. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. 5-11.

● Freedman, Jenna (2008) “AACR2-bendable but not flexible: cataloging zines at Barnard College.” Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front. Ed. K.R. Roberto. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

● Anderson, B. (1999). “The Other 90 Percent: What Your MLS Didn’t Teach You.“ Counterpoise Vol. 3, No. 3/4, July/October

● Marinko, R. A., & Gerhard, K. H. (1998). “Representations of the alternative press in academic library collections.” College and Research Libraries, 59(4), 363-377.

● Lawson, S, Sanders, K, Smith, L. (2015). "Commodification of the Information Profession: A Critique of Higher Education Under Neoliberalism". Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication 3(1):eP1182.

● Mai, J-E. (2013) "Ethics, values, and morality in contemporary library classifications". Knowledge Organization, 40 (3): 242-253. 2013.

● Highby, W. (2004). "The ethics of academic collection development in a politically contentious era". Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services, 28(4): 465-472.

● Althusser, Louis (1970). "Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État (Notes pour une recherche)". La Pensée (151). [English translations also exist]

And finally, check out the efforts of these industrious zinesters - "It belongs in a museum library!"


  1. Anonymous15 July, 2015

    Great piece - thanks! The idea needs to be promoted and disseminated

    Two comments. Firstly, I didn't see any mention of promoting open access publishing and the use of open source software, which is what librarians should be doing where possible

    Secondly, it shows how far to the right the political and social narrative has moved, that these moderate and sensible ideas have the label 'radical'.

    Ok, a third comment, R. David Lankes crosses picket lines so despite the good quotes, I'm not sure he's a good example of a radical librarian

  2. Thanks, David!

    For sure, open access publishing and software are big concerns for librarians - and ought to be. As institutions, the people who need libraries the most are those who cannot afford books, internet access, paid classes, etc. and open access solutions are a key ingredient in that provision. It helps (or rather, doesn't) that as library belts tighten, so are librarians being forced down such paths for themselves. The examples I gave were just that, however - not intended to be exhaustive - so I'm sure there are many more. Another big concern is privacy in the digital age, a topic I hope to hear a lot about in this talk at the start of August if any readers will be attending: https://libraryassociation.ie/events/librarians-online-privacy

    On your second point: I agree, with the proviso that my labelling such seemingly sensible moves as radical probably had more to do with my pitching this post at the most introductory level than with my views on the alignment of political narratives today. Baby steps, as it were. Things seem to be improving in this regard, though, having said all that, especially as more and more voices and viewpoints are highlighted and surfaced by a still-fairly-open web and active independent media. Even in the shadow of confirmation bias, improved ICTs at least allows progressive groups to better organise and get themselves out there.

    That's a shame about Lankes - I hadn't heard. Thankfully the author of the quote isn't super vital to its sentiment in this case.

  3. Anonymous16 July, 2015

    You're right about privacy Tom. Where I work, open source, and to a larger extent open access, are the issues of the day (to me anyway). Privacy not so much. I guess it shows the need for any kind of grouping to have librarians who work in a variety of different backgrounds. Any group that's top heavy with academic librarians or public librarians won't thrive.

    Upon reflection, I think I'd prefer the term "progressive" rather than radical. To me the Baader-Meinhof group were radical. Syrizia aren't radical, and I don't think radical librarians are either(though I find the idea of librarians emulating the Red Army Faction somewhat amusing). 'Radical' is used to demonise groupings and I wonder if using that term may put some otherwise sympathetic folk off the idea. Or perhaps the intent is to reclaim the word?

  4. I see what you mean about the optics of radical vs. progressive, especially to the layman, but I think there's a lot to unpack about the word and why people both use it.

    Firstly, let's make no bones about the romance of the revolutionary and how enticing that can be to a profession plagued by mousy stereotypes - especially if it comes in a package which requires very little actual toe-stepping. I think the notion of radical librarianship (and how readily some adopt the label for themselves) owes a lot to the image it conjures, as much as to what it stands for, and that can be a powerful consideration when choosing what words to use to describe yourself.

    Secondly, I think the idea of reclaiming the word is a real one and this is, broadly-speaking, an example of it - but only among those who have heard the word used in such a way that warrants reclaiming. It's important to remember that many who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and Saved By The Bell first associate the word 'radical' with skateboards and surfing, and so are only too keen when they hear that there's a serious side to it that doesn't involve naff board shorts - especially if it's a movement that basically mirrors their own values already. They're not all that worried about the connotations. These people do exist.

    Thirdly, radicalism and the process of radicalisation are very closely linked to the self-image and social dynamics of many groups involved in otherwise unobjectionable movements. They speak in baptismal tones about their radical awakening and wear their radicalism as a badge of honour, rather than something they skirt around when things get heavy at Friday work drinks. To them, the only difference between a progressive and a radical is that a radical is actually doing something about it. To relabel radical librarianship as progressive librarianship would seem like a softening of commitments to many, a sort of betrayal, and that would poison some of the well of goodwill that librarians already working with marginilised groups rely upon.

    There's a lot more to talk about on the topic, and the Left is known for nothing if not in-fighting over labels, but hopefully that addresses some of what you said. I ultimately agree that radicalism can scare otherwise-sympathetic folks off, but I tried in the post to soften it as much as possible without compromising it entirely. Radicalism is, after all and as I point out, a spectrum held together by the notion of social change, hopefully for the better - you don't need to violently seize a Stockholm embassy to call yourself radical.

    I wonder if you could speak a bit more to what you understand as progressive, though - are we literally talking about applying a different label to the same set of values/ideas, or does it entail something different on some level to you?

    P.S. I really want mug that has "You don't need to violently seize a Stockholm embassy to call yourself radical, but it helps" written on it.

  5. Anonymous17 July, 2015

    Thanks for the elaboration Tom. I think we are speaking about the same set of values/ideas. I find your third point very interesting. I guess, as a group one can call oneself whatever like one likes. But the point applies that what you mean by your name and what others take from your name can be two completely different (antithetical, even) things.

    I'll be following the actions of radical library groups with great interest.

    PS If you find that mug, get one for me too :)