Annoyed Librarian
Search LibraryJournal.com ....
Subscribe to LJ
Inside Annoyed Librarian

Radical Librarians: Cultivate Your Own Gardens

A kind reader forwarded me something about radical reference group meeting of some kind in her area. I’m not sure if this meeting was affiliated with the "official" Radical Reference folks, but if not then they’re conceptually related, along with the Regressive Librarians Guild and the Social Responsibilities Round Table. There are definitely differences among them. The Radical Reference librarians actually answer reference questions, while the Regressive Librarians Guild and the SRRT don’t do much at all besides make radical librarians feel good about themselves. However, they’re all dedicated to social justice and niceness instead of evil and things like that, but I find it hard to take these groups seriously.

It’s not because I disagree with their goals, though I might. The goals of groups of the left are so disparate that it’s hard to generalize. There have always been leftists ranging from totalitarian communists to free loving hippie anarchists. V.I. Lenin and John Lennon were both men of the left, but they sure didn’t have much in common.

The reason I can’t take them serious is that they want to bring social justice as they define it to all, but they can’t even bring it to libraries. If librarians can’t make their own workplaces into models of just organizations, or libraries into models of educational institutions in a democracy, how can they help much with everything else?

In the workplace, some parts of some libraries achieve something like the goals of some socialists. (How’s that for vague?) For example, if you’re at a university library and unionized and have tenure, you would often have a lot of control over your worklife and some protection from getting randomly fired because your CEO wants to turn your pay into his profit.

But consider the state of most librarians. They aren’t paid well in accordance with their knowledge. They can be fired without cause. Their workplaces are intensely hierarchical, with the management making all the decisions. Add in the growing trend to run libraries "like businesses" and all the banal and inappropriate business-speak we’re supposed to salivate over, and the situation is only going to get worse. If libraries are all about customers and marketing and the bottom line, then they’re not only removed from the important social functions they were designed to serve, but they’re also hardly models of radically approved institutions.

This is especially ironic considering that librarians in general are among the most left-leaning and least socially rapacious people around. This isn’t a profession designed for people who want to succeget ahead at any cost and it doesn’t tend to attract people people like that. There are plenty of petty and mean librarians, but you’ll find a higher percentage of librarians who are motivated by unselfish goals than you will investment bankers and corporate lawyers.

It’s not just libraries as workplaces that suffer, either. While radical blowhards on the ALA Council endlessly debate social issues having nothing whatsoever to do with libraries and concerning which the ALA will have no control or even moral suasion, our libraries are turning into frivolous playgrounds. The mission to promote an educated citizenry, necessary to a democracy, has been diluted by the mission to entertain ourselves to death. It’s obvious that the gamey librarians and the twopointopians have no political designs and are quite content with the political status quo as long as they have shiny new gadgets to play with. But wouldn’t one expect the radicals to come up with some sort of effective critique? To work specifically to make libraries into primary educational institutions to support democracy instead of institutions designed to distract the populace?

And so we have our various shades of radical librarians who want to make the world more just and democratic as libraries become less so and their political missions erode. I’d take the radical librarians more seriously if they’d focus less, for example, on browbeating the ALA Council into passing irrelevant political resolutions and more on browbeating library administrations into being more democratic and supportive of their staffs and librarians in general into being less frivolous and more civically minded. Nothing the ALA says is going to bring about same-sex marriage or end the war in Iraq, but concerted efforts of librarians could enact positive changes in the worklife of librarians and in the role libraries play in a liberal democracy.

I guess it’s easier to trumpet your good intentions and scream into the wind than it is to cultivate your own garden. Some activists have a saying – think globally, act locally. Some of the radical librarians seem to have a different saying – think globally, talk a lot, and don’t act at all.

PrintFriendlyEmailTwitterLinkedInGoogle+FacebookShare

Comments

  1. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    “Some of the radical librarians seem to have a different saying – think globally, talk a lot, and don’t act at all.”

    Great post, AL. Heaven forbid the RLs clean their own house first. There’s lots to be concerned about in this world, but I would love to see ALA and RLs take on the abysmal conditions in which most librarians and library workers toil. Hey! We’ll work you 9 days straight, you get 4 days off, and we’ll pay you all of $28,000!!! And since we’re the city, we’re going to give you a very generous 5 whole days of vacation after working here a year!!!!!! Aren’t we the best?

    Sheesh – you gotta love what we do to put up with the BS, no two ways about it. BTW, I live in a “right to work” state and there are no union protections, tenure, etc.

  2. bnfdk says:

    The AL is no better than then schnooks posting comments here. AL never comes out with a stand, just a reaction to something read on the Internets.

    What a country!

  3. BIG DOG says:

    AL, sounds like your description applies to a several other ALA flocks. A friend who teaches college says that the reason that the arguments in academe are so loud is because the consequences are so small. If the shoe…

  4. Librarian rookie says:

    NotMariantheLibrarian,

    I would love to see ALA and RLs take on the abysmal conditions in which most librarians and library workers toil. Hey! We’ll work you 9 days straight, you get 4 days off, and we’ll pay you all of $28,000!!!

    You are absolutely right.
    Six day weeks. Nights and weekends. Not to mention the toil of having to deal with dangerous-looking, uncivilized patrons and drunks. I have been in the public library for only a year and I am already realizing that this has been a bad move.

    I thought I was going to be a librarian, not a corrections officer-cum-social worker.

    AL, thanks for your blog. I usually always agree with your opinions.

  5. Jenjen says:

    One slightly bright note about the current economy is that running things “like a business” looks less attractive. Like a business eh? How’s that working out for business? Yeah, not so much.

  6. Emily says:

    Wha? You don’t know me, or the work I do, in my community, in my library, as a part of Radical Reference/SRRT/etc. I want to not dignify this with a response because I know you’re just redbaiting here, but man! I actually work really, earnestly hard, as do most of the radical/critical librarians I know. This swipe at us just feels totally out of nowhere. A small minority struggles mightily and still gets consumed by capitalism? And it’s OUR fault? Wow. That really bums me out.

  7. It's easy if you try says:

    Let’s see: Lenin and Lennon both imagined there’s no heaven; both were shot by nuts; one went back to the USSR, one sang “Back in the USSR”; both were married to Yoko Ono … I could go on.

  8. ig says:

    and what have you cultivated besides qvetching?

  9. Candide says:

    “I confess that when I consider this globe, or rather this globule, I think that God has abandoned it to some evil creature” – Voltaire

  10. Liza says:

    I am not a librarian, but I for one am glad that radical librarians aren’t so self-serving as to solely focus on their own situations and the situations of other librarians and libraries. Yes, it is important to think about the community in which one operates, but it is arguably more important to think about the society at large and how it affects the community. Most radical librarians I know are involved in a myriad of causes, both library and non–library related.

    From your posts it seems as though you think communities operate independently from larger societal structures. I think if you were to reflect a bit more about life beyond the library walls you might realize that this is not everyone’s experience.

  11. Anonypotamus says:

    The problem with public libraries and librarians is the idea that what we do is necessary and/or should be appreciated. Most places don’t need libraries. They certainly get used, but if they were to disappear overnight, the towns wouldn’t change. The library I work at is used primarily for its internet access and our passport services. If we disappeared, people would just go to the post office for their passports. And it’s not as if the people that come into the library for its internet access are the real movers and shakers of the world. They’re the insignificant masses. No amount of ideology waving by any librarian is going to change that. Librarians should perhaps do what they can to better their communities. But each community needs different things, and making a big deal about it (or some half-assed “stand” against the arbitrary forces of the world) not only makes librarians look naive and trite, but distracts us from actually doing what we’re making a racket about. When people (in any field) start to think that what they do is actually important, they inevitably lose all sense of the perspective that allows them to actually get things done. Anyone who disagrees with that would do well to examine their self and see whether or not they are merely trying to justify their own existence.

  12. Matt says:

    So doctors and scientists who recognize the importance of their work don’t get anything done. Ridiculous. And don’t think every community is just like yours. People here do use the library for many things including a lot of reading!

  13. Morse says:

    Emily, I’m not entirely sure, but this seems related to the fight against politicization of the ALA. If progressive (or radical or whatever) librarians can’t improve the conditions in libraries, which are a small subset of society, then why would they think the ALA would have any power over anything? How could SRRT change the world when they can’t even change libraries? This could just as easily be considered a call to bring social justice to libraries as places to work.

  14. Andrew says:

    “But consider the state of most librarians. They aren’t paid well in accordance with their knowledge. They can be fired without cause. Their workplaces are intensely hierarchical, with the management making all the decisions.”

    I’m going to have to arc up a little and disagree. Whilst, it is agreed, that there are a substantial number of libraries that have counterproductive and frustrating work conditions, this is by far the norm, and certainly not the case for “most” librarians.

    I find that there are a small number of libraries with hideous conditions, which seem to create the whingers in the industry. Just as there are a small number of super-innovative “ivory tower” libraries, which create the RL’s and twopointopians, who have the time to pontificate.

    But, for “most librarians”, we get paid enough to get by, we have our own areas where we make decisions, and just do our job, and enjoy it. We usually don’t even have time to read your blog, AL. :-P

  15. Penrod says:

    I guess it’s easier to trumpet your good intentions and scream into the wind than it is to cultivate your own garden.

    Indeed. Everyone wants to save the planet, but no one wants to help mom do the dishes.

  16. anonymous says:

    I miss Buschman, this is simply lame, lame-o, lameliscious. It seems the AL is losing webfans. Where are the old standbys? As Bugs Bunny would say (of AL), “what a maroon!”

  17. Kim says:

    Anonypotamus your words don’t make sense. If you don’t think what you do (in whatever) is important, then why bother to try to do a good job? Also, for many places, the public library is a centerpiece in the community, serving needs in programming, books, newspapers, downloadable books, dvd rentals, and other materials, as well research and homework help, numerous outreach programs, joint programming with local schools, and of course computer and Internet access for those who don’t have these things in their home. The public library in my town is heavily used, not just for computers. Oh, they also don’t do passports at my public library and no one would care if they did. People would care a lot, however, if the services my local library provides were not there.

  18. AlexAxe says:

    Interesting, I`ll quote it on my site later.
    AlexAxe

  19. mjg says:

    Your post contains many grammatical errors. Are you really a librarian?

  20. 8c5eh says:

    “Your post contains many grammatical errors. Are you really a librarian?”

    Unless you are a cataloger, you don’t got’s to have good grammar. Most reference librarians I know wouldn’t know a participle if you dangled it in front of them.

  21. thelibrarygirl says:

    Anonypotamus, I’m sure your post here was more to insight outrage amongst librarians that still see the value in their work and the significance libraries can attritbute to communities. Your post is full of sweeping generalizations that do little to benefit your argument and if anything make you sound like a pontificating hater.

    I am happy towork in a community full of the “insignificant masses” you belittle. They rely on many of our services, including access to the Internet. Our community has been hit significantly hard because of a hurricane and poor economic times; thereofre, many of our Internet users are jumping through virtual government and insurance hoops and looking for employment/applying for work online. Providing access to the Internet, which they could not afford with proper employment, is greatly appreciated.

    As for the AL’s post, it is one thing to be a politically motivated individual and another to want to rally for social causes within our profession. I consider myself to be both and prefer to keep extra-ciricular political activities outside of the realm of my job.

  22. Betty says:

    The radical thing is so often just a little self-important ploy. A real radical would go into some sort of leadership area, not a service profession.

    Now I think a good librarian, as with any person can radically change local and personal situations for the better. This sort of radical change — is usually not done through radical committees or pompous listservs. It’s done by actually working with and listening to your communities. Creating institutions that truely serve its constitutents is not too sexy, but is definitely important.
    So often the ‘radicals’ just are blowing smoke up orfices about tearing down institutions — loads of talk, very little work.

  23. Anonypotamus says:

    It isn’t polite to call people “haters” because you don’t agree with them.

    Libraries may be great and wonderful, but that in no way implies that they’re actually important. A given community is a close and strong because it’s close and strong; the library itself in those communities is simply an extension of that, not an enabler. This is why there are so many towns that have nice libraries that aren’t used. Libraries don’t offer anything of vital importance to communities, and we can’t shove what we think is important down their throats. For years, librarians thought peace and quiet was important in libraries, and we dutifully upheld it. Now, years later, we’re still stuck with the negative stereotype of a shushing librarian, intent to the point of neurosis upon insisting that telling a patron to shut up trumps assistance.

    It’s a ridiculous situation.

    And I do want to point out that a job doesn’t have to be important to make it worthwhile. Most of the things any of us enjoy are not important at all. Some people even watch American Idol.

  24. FancyNancy says:

    I’d have to agree with JenJen. Public schools and libraries have been, for some time now, erroneously applying business models and practices to our own work environments. As JenJen pointed out, if it’s not exactly working out that great for businesses, what makes us think it will out great for us?

  25. IAMNOTMARIAN says:

    Good on you. I am sooo tired of observing ALA Council meetings and listening to the same three “blowhards” and they know who they are – go on ad nauseum on the radical issue of the week. ENOUGH already. Let’s fight for our own libraries, politicise ourselves to get done what we need done for our own communities, because we do indeed look like idiot barbarians rather than sharp librarians when we blah blah blah about issues that don’t belong at Council.

    Good one AL! thank you.

  26. Leland Olds says:

    “But wouldn’t one expect the radicals to come up with some sort of effective critique? To work specifically to make libraries into primary educational institutions to support democracy instead of institutions designed to distract the populace?”

    I would recommend reading the following title:
    Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy. By John E. Buschman.

  27. Leland Olds says:

    Additionally,

    Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library by Ed D’Angelo

  28. 7DPP3 says:

    ‘cuz what these raydikal poseurs REALLY need to do it start a blog and whinge about stuff. maybe get picked up by the establishment press. heaven ferbid they are activist outside the lieberry until all is cured in their workplace. like Joe Strummer or d. Boon didn’t write any songs about politics until they fixed the record industry.

    oy annoyed hoi polloi goodboi

  29. LibrarianX says:

    Why are you even in this field? You seem to have nothing positive to say about librarians or libraries. Ever.

  30. Dr NahNah says:

    Hence the moniker – Annoyed Librarian. I haven’t seen her criticize people for working the desk, building comprehensive collections, doing readers advisory, promoting the value of a library to the powers that be – like a director should be doing? Have you?

  31. Mark says:

    Annoyed Librarian argues that “concerted efforts of librarians could enact positive changes in the worklife of librarians and in the role libraries play in a liberal democracy” and criticizes radical librarians for not putting forward “some sort of effective critique” on these issues.

    In addition to the already-mentioned Buschman and D’Angelo titles, Annoyed might want to check out the Progressive Librarians Guild Statement of Purpose.

    Specifically, note PLG’s opposition to “the commodification of information which turns the ‘information commons’ into privatized, commercialized zones” and its commitment to “encouraging debate about prevailing management strategies adopted directly from the business world, to propose democratic forms of library administration, and to foster unity between librarians and other library workers.”

  32. Matt says:

    Anonypotamus: You so obviously work and live in an insulated wealthy community. You have no idea how important libraries can be in the real world of smart individuals in struggling communities where world traveling isn’t an option (passports? Give me a break.).