16 May 2016

Some notes on difference: beyond a deafening silence

Guest post by Kevin Sanders, radical librarian, miscreant and Research Support Librarian at St. Mary's University.

Like many of you reading this, for sins unknown, I'm a librarian. Like a sub-section of you, I'm also involved with a few initiatives related to librarianship.

I do tend to get involved in things. This is not, I hope, because I have a strong commitment to my professional development nor a masochistic approach to work. In earnest, it happens because I'm not exactly shy about running my mouth off. I am sure that some of you spotted this trait when I met some of you at this year's really fun #ASL16 conference.

At this conference, I spoke about librarianship, DIY culture and alternative structures and practices that the profession could utilise. It was here that Martin O'Conner asked whether I'd like to write a blog post for Libfocus, so I can only offer both him and you a sincere apology in dragging my heels in getting around to this!

In some defence, immediately following #ASL16 back in February, I had the small task of moving my life over to London to undertake a new role at St Mary's University, Twickenham as the Research Support Librarian. Anything for an easy life...

For all the stresses this has entailed, this move has opened up certain possibilities for me in terms of my professional practice due to the sheer scale of the city and the opportunities it can offer. Just as importantly to me, it really opens up the liminal spaces between our profession and the ethical aspects of our politics in a much more overt way.

By being in greater proximity to my peers in the RLC_SE branch of the Radical Librarians Collective (RLC), I have far greater access to a range of colleagues engaged in activism within the context of libraries, information, and society. When I was based in the highfalutin tourist-trap-cum-life-trap of Bath, we previously connected primarily through digital means - a lifeline for me in many ways! But access to social meetings and direct action away from the monitor offer qualities that I often fall foul of omitting in the ubiquity of digital information sharing.

Of course, there's no right way of doing things, and different things work for different people at different points and for different reasons. This idea of difference in relation to our profession is something I'd like to take the time in this blog post to discuss for a little bit. The idea of difference actually picks up from a theme I raised during at #ASL16 insofar as that across our professions, "there is a plurality of resistance, each of them a special case" (Foucault, 1978).

Political difference
I consider myself to work within the ideas and practices of radical politics. In spite of how popular discourse frames radicalism, it important to be aware that it "is not a synonym for extreme or extremist, much as the media would have us believe it is, through ignorance or design" (Gelderloos, 2007). Rather, I use it to refer to a politics of "critique, action, or [a] person that goes to the roots of a particular problem rather than focusing on the superficial solutions placed on the table by the prejudices and powers of the day" (Gelderloos, 2007). This is significant because it is not predicated by an ideology. That is to say, the definition of radical politics that I largely work within and espouse does not claim to have the solution(s) to all contemporaneous problems.

However, this is is not to say I espouse abstract politics, either. On the contrary. However, I believe it does place an emphasis on the construction of solutions. As Héme (1991) notes, "[a]nyone who asserts there is a deterministic relationship between [their] fantasy and the future of humanity is a charlatan [...] there will be an inhibiting effect on anyone who, instead of looking for causal relationships between phenomena, bases his or her critique of the world on relationships of analogy or correspondence without perceiving the difference between correlation and causality."

For me, this construction of alternatives can be built through mutual engagement and cooperation with peers. This undoubtedly brings challenges beyond the barrier of embedded practices: biases, privilege, power, tone, focus, clashes of priority, availability of resources... these are just the daily grind for any attempts to build solutions collectively. However, they yield something of greater significance than the mere sum of their parts.

It is perhaps also worth noting that the building of a functioning community is not a utopia. It is not an endgame. It is an alternative structure to that which we experience elsewhere in our lives. Take our workplaces, for example.

The fruits of workplace hierarchies
I've worked in libraries in higher education for just short of ten years. I've worked as a shelver, as an "information assistant", a subject team assistant, a subject librarian, and now in research support.

The hierarchies in place could not be more stark than in the academe. Of course there is variance across different institutions, but the rigid structures are pervasive. And these structures in turn set a precedent for how our library services engage with our readers, patrons, or users. They enforce behaviours and condition us. This is a form of institutional interpellation that I can only see as a violence.

I use this term violence not with the intention of hyperbole, but because it conditions us as subjects to the institutional power which lacks the kinds of dynamic flows that could exist, even in a deeply hierarchical organisation as a higher education institution.

I don't think it would be too shocking to suggest that the discourse and practice of our profession within the academe might be thought of as somewhat stodgy in certain aspects. At least in part, a professional and social conservatism seems to have been honed through what others are perceive as  largely passive professional identity when it comes to our political engagement. As Buschman, Rosenzewieg, and Harger (1994) have noted, “[w]e somehow seem to be a profession startled to find that we really do have deeply held convictions, that our words really do have meaning and consequence, and that when we act on our professional values someone actually notices”.

All too often, we provide services for and on behalf of faculty; our resource selection is increasingly automated through the deployment of reading list technologies and patron-driven acquisition services; we fail to substantively engage with the creation of emergent electronic publishing formats and access rights control; we frame our engagement in nascent global informational practices in terms of policy compliance.

But as Budd (2003) states: “[l]ibraries do not simply respond passively to communities’ stated desires [...] they help to construct the desires and expectations of the communities. In other words, libraries, to an extent, contribute to the legitimacy of a cultural orthodoxy” (Budd, 2003). However, the orthodoxy we're legitimising in this context is one that positions us as an administrative function.

What this culture yields is hardly what we might hope to see as the practices of those "badass" (Snowden, 2015) librarians providing support, access to information, and skills curated in liaison with their communities.

That there is still a hegemonic professional identity with a fallacious aspiration of "neutrality" is of concern to me, particularly within the now very well embedded political reality of neoliberalism.

The Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals and ARA (Archives Records Association) Workforce Mapping report (2015) highlighted the scale of our monoculture, with starkly gendered seniority and pay divides that disproportionately privilege men in a sector where nearly 80% of the workers are women, and has lower ethnic diversity than across the UK, with over 96.7% of workers identifying as white. This can do little else than reproduce the always-already (Adorno, 2003), again refuting the alternative possibilities that are available. 

That we marginalise alternative perspectives from the patriarchal and dominant norms seems distressing for a profession that has shown political resistance in various geographical, historical and contemporary examples. However, it is our reality, and we should not shy away from this if we are truly to challenge it and offer the plurality of resistances required for social and political change.
But this is not to throw the towel in and cede to the institutional strategies that have led us to this point. We still have an opportunities to make things ourselves, and this creates spaces in which to change things, to re-frame the strategies of institutions through the tactics of the individual (de Certau, 1984).

Celebrate dissidence
To build from unitary figures to local partnerships, disparate groups and disparate, decentralised cooperatives is a huge structural challenge to the very means of organisations that are "successful" in the neoliberal climate of linear, return-on-investment dynamics, and the mere sustaining of dissent is worthy of celebration. This is something the Radical Librarians Collective has, in my view, managed to achieve over the last few years.

But equally, as a community, we need to be doing things. My esteemed friend Alison Macrina is offering an example of how this can be done with regards to making connections with people in ways that are important to them.. So too is Scott Bonner at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library. And Tom at The Forgotten Zine Library in Dublin. And those operating the Feminist Library in London. And throughout the library collectives at social centres around the world.

That all of these practitioner-led examples are from outside the of the academe is not an accident. This to me serves a lesson for us. (Please don't get me wrong, many excellent library workers do many excellent things in academic libraries in the UK and beyond, but few of these are institutionally-validated programmes aimed at interacting with communities outside of their core institutional remit).

Whilst, yes, the remit of an academic library is different, and we need to ensure that we serve our communities of users. We may not be able to build social and political change within the academe immediately. We may have to build examples outside and relate this practice, playing something of a dicey game with power that will wish to dilute the radical into the liberal mainstream. But this will most likely need to be supplemented through means that offer direct dissidence.

We may have to take risks and to push the boundaries of institutional policy. This can be done by organising through secure means with GPG emails on employers' servers, or by running Tor Browser on a portable USB over their operating systems and networks. Such tactical civil disobedience can be important in our liberation.

Yes. This brings inherent personal precarity. No, this may not be be for everyone. But this is a radical alternative to:
 "the putative morality and strategic/tactical analysis in many circles [functions] as to preclude even the acknowledgement of a feasible alternative. Would-be revolutionaries need to realize that pacifism is so vapid and counterproductive that an alternative is imperative. Only then can we weigh the different paths of struggle fairly — and, I hope, in a more pluralistic, decentralized manner as well — rather than attempting to enforce a party line or the single correct revolutionary program" (Gelderloos, 2007).

The ethical social underpinnings, whilst complicated and important to place in their relative historical and geopolitical contexts, should not fail to be reflected on and learnt from as both “[l]ibraries as institutions and librarianship as a profession [are] inherently political” (Jaeger & Sarin, 2016) Whether we are pursuing knowledge production, social cohesion, or equitable provision of resources, our professional differences can unite us, and we can share our collective symbolic power to greater social and political effect towards our disparate aims.

Adorno, T.W. (2003). Soziologische Schriften I. Gesammelte Schriften, Band 8, ed. Tiedemann R. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp
Budd, J. M. (2003). The library, praxis and symbolic power. The Library Quarterly, 73(1), 19–32
Buschman, J. E., Rosenzweig, M., & Harger, E. (1994). The clear imperative for involvement: Librarians must address social issues. American Libraries, 25(6), 575-576.
de Certau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. London: University of California
Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and Archives & Records Association UK Ireland. (2015). A study of the UK information workforce: Mapping the Library, Archives, Records, Information Management and Knowledge Management and related professions.
Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality: vol. 1. London: Penguin
Gelderloos, P. (2007). How nonviolence protects the state.
Héme. (1991). A critique of half-assed radicalism.
Jaeger, P.T. & Sarin, L.C. (2016). All librarianship is political: educate accordingly. The political librarian, 2(1): 16-27
@Snowden. (2015/10/11). DHS fought to stop libraries from using privacy technology, but @LibraryFreedom beat them. Librarians are badass:


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