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.