July 28, 2013

Prison Literature

What would have happened, do you suppose, if Malcolm Little, instead of serving six years for petty crimes, had been imprisoned for a much longer time, locked in the conditions of long-term isolation common in what’s euphemistically called “special housing” (as, for instance, the prisoners at Pelican Bay in California are)? He would not have been allowed to receive political books, would not have been able to converse with anyone. The mind that developed through reading and talking in prison during the 1950s would probably have been crushed, and there might have been no Malcolm X.
Laura Whitehorn

In recent decades, the landscape of U.S. criminal “justice” has changed dramatically (some visualizations at The Society Pages; bibliography at LLRX.com), not that imprisonment hasn’t always been dehumanizing, racist, and generally problematic. For many years, I worked with books-to-prisoners groups, mostly NYC Books Through Bars. These are grassroots, all-volunteer projects that receive letters from individuals in prison requesting reading material of all sorts (sometimes by topic, sometimes by specific title) and then mail them donated books that—ideally—approximate what they’re looking for.

Some years ago, there was an uproar after the federal Bureau of Prisons made a decision (quickly reversed) to get rid of religious books that weren’t on approved lists for prison chapel libraries. Unfortunately, what many don’t realize is that the vast majority of incarcerated people are in state prisons, where they are subjected to the arbitrary policies of the state department of corrections, including with regard to reading materials.

When a book arrives at a Texas prison mailroom, an employee first checks the database to see if the book is already prohibited. If not, said [Texas Department of Criminal Justice staffer Tammy] Shelby, “he’ll flip it over and read the back.” If that provides insufficient information to make a decision, “they scan through it looking for key words” or pictures that would disqualify the publication. “You can pretty much tell by reading the first few pages,” she said. “We rely on them to use their judgment.” (source)

Once we got a form denying a Texas prisoner Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960 by Mary Helen Washington because “page 29 contains racial material.” Books and magazines have been rejected because they apparently present “a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the correctional system or the safety of any person” or because information in it might be “designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots,” without further explanation. (Some prison mailroom rejections and letters from prisoners are below.)

Why bring up all this now? As you may have heard, one of the largest prisoner resistance movements is underway. Thousands of prisoners in California have been on a hunger strike as part of a fight for human and labor rights (there was a hunger strike in 2011 with the same demands; the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said they would make improvements but have not, hence the renewed action).

Solitary confinement—considered a form of torture, especially long-term—is a common punishment within the prison system. Among the things that can get someone in trouble in a California prison is having particular literature. “‘[E]vidence’ of gang affiliation has included possession of prisoner-rights literature or books like Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ or Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince.’ It has included journal writings on African American history,” Shane Bauer points out. (Incidentally, The Art of War and The Prince, I have observed over the years, are on the unofficial top ten list of requested titles by people in prison around the country.) There is a lot that can be said about philosophies of reading material as proof of (bad) character or predictor of action, or, conversely, as a therapeutic tool, and as librarians we’ve spent more time than most thinking about this. Here I’ll say only that using literature as a criterion of judgment in this way, amid the general violence and toxicity of prison, does nothing to address the wrongness that the prisoners may have done to others, the wrongness that has been done to them, and the systemic wrongnesses that have brought us to this moment of mass incarceration, a “new Jim Crow,” and a correctional officer putting into administrative segregation someone who had a donated copy of Machiavelli in his cell.

Maybe you’ve done library service in a jail or are interested in prison librarianship. Maybe you’ve visited a loved one in prison. Maybe you’ve been locked up yourself. Maybe you grew up with people who got channeled into the detention system in one way or another. Maybe you live in a town where a prison is the largest and most stable employer around. Maybe imprisonment is nothing that you or your community seems to have experienced directly. I think that regardless of which category (or categories) you’re in, we should keep in mind that at least 95% of all state prisoners will be released at some point, and how we approach crime and punishment says a lot about our collective humanity. Former and possibly future prisoners are likely users of your library. Rather than being some separate element of society, they are patrons and would-be patrons.

You can keep up with the hunger strike and support the California prisoners in a number of ways. More generally, there are alternatives to incarceration, organizations for prison abolition and projects of decarceration. And in the meantime, you can always send someone behind bars a good book.

letter from a California SHU

2006 letter from a man in a “special housing unit” (SHU) in a California prison.

Texas ad seg letter

2005 letter from a man in “administrative segregation” in a Texas prison.

James Baldwin rejection form

2008 rejection (“non-appealable”) by a Texas prison mailroom employee of “Nobody Knows My Name” by James Baldwin because “page 100 contains racial material.”

grievance of rejection of Baldwin book

2009 grievance form by the prisoner who was denied the Baldwin book.

October 15, 2012

Documentation and Narratives

The fourth session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) took place in New York City two weekends ago. According to an info sheet in the program folder, it was an “International People’s Tribunal” that “has no legal status, [but] like other Russell Tribunals on Vietnam, Chile and Iraq, its legitimacy comes from its universality and the strength that it draws from the will of its citizens and the support of international personalities…” If anyone is interested in the actual content, you can go to the RToP’s website  (and I would also recommend you take a look at Ethan Heitner’s wonderful renderings, with sketches, of each day). But I bring this up here to talk about the value and limitations of documentation.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” an acquaintance said with a laugh when I bumped into her during a coffee break on the first day of the session, and I was happy to hear that because I didn’t really know what I was doing there, either (a future Library Juice post notwithstanding). But then I reminded myself, again, that it was called a “people’s tribunal” for a reason, that our very presence in the audience was necessary and gave the event weight. (There is also something called the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, which formed in 1979 and recently held a session in India about agrochemical transnational corporations.) We were what made it all different from the issuing of another bunch of reports and essays. The jury was stacked, as it were, composed of people whose progressive politics in general and on Israel-Palestine in particular are well known. And the event certainly wasn’t about hearing the voices of those most directly affected by the issue at hand, as there were only two Palestinian speakers the entire weekend (there would have been a couple more, had illness and visa denials not prevented their presence). But there we all were in the Great Hall at Cooper Union, having gotten up early on a Saturday morning for this sold-out tribunal.

The session opened with an introduction (in French, and tant pis to the majority of the audience who didn’t realize they would be needing the translation headphones) by Pierre Galand, who told us how Bertrand Russell had formed the first Tribunal (on Vietnam) in 1966 to combat “the crime of silence.”  He also explained that as the audience, we were participants in the tribunal and as such should rise when the jury entered and filed out, refrain from applause, and generally behave as befitting a serious event in which we played a serious role. (Being asshole Americans, most of us had a hard time with even these limited directions and just laughed it off when Galand tried to shame us by comparing New York with all the other world cities where people managed to conduct themselves properly.)

And so the weekend proceeded, with hours of intricate presentations. And we listened. And I formulated questions in my head: Does the proclamation of a foregone conclusion have value? Is having a big event and inviting ordinary people (albeit those who already care deeply about the issue) to hear testimony important if only as an affirmation and inspiration to keep up with their solidarity work? Will the additional documentation and judgment change minds?

Regarding the documentation, the single livestream file is online, but this is not useful if you want to find a particular witness’s presentation. The RToP website has all of the reports, of course, including a draft one for the NYC session, but I don’t know how easy it is to find the multilingual softcover reports that detail each session. A book about the London tribunal came out from a trade publisher and, according to WorldCat, is held widely in academic libraries around the world. I wonder if any public libraries have ever done programming related to these “people’s tribunals”?

And regarding the judgment and the changing of minds – as one commentator put it, “The conclusion was essentially preordained, but its importance lies in the fact that the findings were presented by a jury full of luminaries like Angela Davis and Alice Walker to a United Nations body.” Well, but that depends on whether you consider someone like Angela Davis a “luminary” or a culturally irrelevant ex-Black Panther.

Another commenter wrote afterward, “While the ‘witnesses’ were mainly international law experts at home in the world of inter-governmental bodies and narrowly-defined protocols for advancing an action, the majority of attendees (and indeed, of the local organizers who worked countless hours to make the event a success) were oriented toward grassroots activism operating largely outside of such channels. This particular contradiction resonated throughout the entire event. All through the proceedings, there was a distinct sense that different segments of those assembled were processing all of the same facts, and yet arriving at radically different conclusions.”

I don’t know if the conclusions were quite so radically different, but the sort of disconnect between the witnesses and the attendees pales in comparison to the disconnect between the overall RToP conclusions and many US perceptions of this particular subject. (Consider how the narrative in the [very minimal] mainstream journalistic coverage was unaltered.) Oftentimes facts and legal justifications are just not enough, and it all has to do instead with political will and public opinion shifts and individual reflection and critical thinking.

So, as usual, the upshot is that a rational assemblage of truthful evidence is only part of the surround of information that shapes our thinking, whether we are a US senator or a random librarian. (I also thought of the circle of information and the human role in it when juror Alice Walker spoke up after Jeanne Mirer’s particularly harrowing testimony about life in Gaza, telling her, “Thank you for going, seeing, witnessing, and sharing with us, with such compassion.”) From our personal lives to our political actions, we are usually guided by one narrative or another, and it’s everything from the recorded testimonies of expert witnesses to the stories we tell ourselves that ultimately change the world.

If you are interested in this topic, a delegation of librarians to Palestine is being planned for next summer. Get in touch with me if you’d like more information when it’s available.

March 19, 2012

Expertise and Psychology (And a Mention of the Blogosphere)

I also had a strong reaction to Rory’s recent post on “Deprofessionalization and the Library Blogosphere.” Others have made good points about his criticism of library blog-discourse, and I won’t repeat those. The main issue I have his emphasis on “expertise.” I think this is problematic because what is just as important is breaking down barriers of intimidation between the library staff and the users. (Now, I should say that I’m speaking specifically about the public library context, which I don’t know if Rory was really thinking of. I was a student worker at the university library during my MLIS program and hear a lot about academic librarianship through blogs, articles, and friends, but I can’t speak to the changes happening in that setting, much less in other types of libraries.)

Rory writes:

Making the case for the importance of maintaining our presence in libraries as professionals, is, as I mentioned, dependent on being able to claim an area of indisputable expertise. This expertise should be understood as constituting what it means to be a librarian. The knowledge and skills that make up this expertise, and the work that goes into advancing that knowledge and those skills, should be our primary concern as librarians, and should be the main content of our communication with each other as librarians, especially where that communication is before the public.

Yes, but…Expertise, knowledge, and hard skills is not all of it. To quote this terrific post by Sara at The World Is Yours:

Librarianship is not just a mystery-shrouded field of uber-professional people talking about information theory and culture to each other in academic journals. Librarianship is also talking to and about people, full stop. Librarianship, and its related fields, are functionally, in the end, fields in which our goal is or should be to help people find and use the information they need and want in their lives. It is a social field, a public field, and one in which an air of mystique and mystery is not always conducive, needed, or even desired.

My proximate goal at work may be to teach yet another patron how to email an attachment or do a title search in the OPAC, but my ultimate goal is to promote critical thinking (with a super-ultimate goal of social change and making the world a better place, but I try to keep my occupational vision modest). And who would look to me as a credible model of critical thinking without trusting me as much as a personality as a title?

I’d be shocked if any of the patrons I’ve talked to in the almost-ten years I’ve worked at my library knew or cared that there are blogs by librarians. It’s neither here nor there. Same, I think, with why the young librarian has tattoos or has an ironic bun or whatever. (Note to self: “Ironic Bun” – name for new band?) Bigger problems are that the librarians may not be receiving the ongoing training they need to give good, knowledgeable service to the people who come into the library, and that the people who don’t come into the library already doubt that they can get good, knowledgeable service, and that’s why they don’t even bother.

And even being a knowledgeable authority does not solve the problem of the complex psychology involved in information-seeking and learning. Why, for example, does belief in climate change indicate a political leaning? After reading Too Big to Know, I noted a long passage on p. 151 that includes the following:

[E]ven scientific knowledge exists in a messy web of humans where we make decisions – for better and often for worse – based not just on information and knowledge but within a social realm of social striving, personal interests, shared hopes, motivating emotions, and barely sensed stirrings.

People who come to the public library may be scared, exasperated, annoyed, or—let’s not be totally negative—tentatively excited at the prospect of coming to one of us for help. And why do they come? They want book recommendations (yes, spontaneous reader’s advisory still happens!). They want to—ever so shyly—get a schedule of computer basics classes. They’re 15 and wondering what to do with the screenplay they just wrote. They need articles about elementary classroom management and books about black inventors and CDs about learning English for Urdu speakers. They want images of characters from Russian fairy tales for a personal art project. They want a list of accredited culinary schools in New York City because they’ve heard of the French Culinary Institute but it’s so expensive. They want to become nurses. Some of them need a nurse. In none of these cases would pure expert “professionalism” alone see you through, and it might even hinder the interaction.

I don’t think the public needs to see us as experts qua experts. They need to see us as informed, as kind, as knowledgeable, as intelligent, as caring. Our jobs in the public libraries have a lot to do with literature and culture, but we also do a lot of “community center”-type things. This is a fact and it’s probably helping our doors stay open. We need expertise, and our practice needs to be backed up by coherent theory. But it’s the practice that the public experiences.

March 8, 2012

Philosophy and Democracy in the Public Library

Something that never fails to charm me is discovering the ways that acquaintances use the library, especially when it comes up before they find out that I work there. That’s what happened one day in our main library when I bumped into someone I know from the salsa socials, and it turned out that he’s a regular at one of our philosophy discussion groups. My library system has two long-standing philosophy discussion groups, and their existence also makes me happy. It’s not an activity that will ever make it onto a bus ad or be the object of a grant proposal. They wouldn’t work in every branch. And when we have “vision”-type conversations about the library, we rarely if ever mention this sort of program – you won’t hear, say, “How will e-books change the library, and how can we strengthen our philosophy discussion groups?”

A PhD candidate I know told me she sees a push among new LIS students towards thinking of the library as place. People in the field are also considering the future of library buildings as print (and DVD!) collections surely dwindle. Can public libraries thrive as sites of creation, learning, and connection?

We’re all familiar with the long-held idea of libraries as “fostering democracy,” which has for a while struck me as being part of the overpromising that we librarians do. (Library historian Wayne Wiegand recently argued against the “conventional thinking and professional rhetoric grounded in a user-in-the-life-of-the-library perspective [that] identif[ies] the public library as a neutral agency essential to democracy because, we’ve convinced ourselves, it guards against censorship and makes vital information accessible to all.”) But I think that these philosophy discussion groups and similar programs that encourage reflection and peer education may be as close as we can come to this ideal.

I asked my two colleagues who run these programs to elaborate on them. Ed D’Angelo – also the author of the Library Juice Press-published Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education and the Public Good – has been leading a philosophy discussion group twice a month at a south Brooklyn branch for just shy of nine years. And Nomi Naeem, in the social sciences division at our main library, has been running a monthly program for the last seven years. An average of 16 people attend each of Ed’s discussion groups, with a core of about half a dozen who make it to nearly every meeting. Nomi sees 15-20 people at his programs, with 10-15 regulars.

Ed chooses readings from the Web and databases and makes copies of selected articles, representing a range of views on the topic, for meeting attendees in preparation for the following discussion. His group is a topical discussion group and as such might read excerpts or summaries but never entire books. Similarly, Nomi’s group rarely reads full books and usually discusses, in his words, “topics of current and educational relevance which are explored from multiple perspectives: natural science, social science, arts, humanities, East, West, premodern, modern, postmodern.” Topics are selected in consultation with the participants.

(Ed) The context of our discussions partly determines the content of our discussions. Since we are a group of strangers meeting in a free public space to discuss whatever we agree to discuss, we discuss topics of common public interest. And since it is a philosophical discussion, we attempt to subject our discussion to logical analysis and to search for the fundamental or root principles behind the topics we discuss. In practice that means that most of the topics revolve around some social issue or other, and since most social, political, cultural or economic issues are ultimately rooted in moral problems, many of our discussions concern moral issues.

What does everyone talk about? Ed’s past topics include the following:

  • Is there a right to health care?
  • What is democracy?
  • The general assembly model of democratic decision making at Occupy Wall Street
  • Is ignorance bliss?
  • Does philosophy make you happy?
  • Extra-terrestrial intelligence (the Fermi Paradox, etc.)
  • Why be good?
  • Greed
  • Forgiveness and revenge
  • Manners and etiquette
  • Pride and arrogance
  • Moral egoism
  • Islam and democracy
  • Capital punishment
  • Romantic love
  • Should prostitution be legalized?
  • Economic inequality

And here are some of Nomi’s past topics:

  • The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Boton
  • The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless, and Endless by John D. Barrow
  • Philosophy and cultural identity
  • Philosophy, gender and culture
  • Philosophy and banned books across cultures
  • Philosophy and personal relationships
  • Philosophy and ethics – East and West
  • Why read Spinoza now?
  • Philosophy and the modern media
  • Philosophy and everyday dilemmas
  • Philosophy and Machiavelli
  • Philosophy and Buddhism
  • Philosophy and violence
  • Why read Plato now?
  • Philosophy and consciousness
  • Philosophy and death
  • Philosophy and American history
  • Philosophy and world history
  • Philosophy and human rights

I asked about group dynamics and memorable moments.

(Nomi) One time a devout Christian approached to hug a Muslim after a heated debate on religion. After the regular discussion, the patrons get together again for coffee. Some of them have formed strong friendships (inter-racial, cross-cultural, etc.) because of attending the philosophy discussions together. The discussions are not without laughter and forgetting despite [the] gravity of some sensitive topics such as religion, race, class, sexuality, gender, identity, politics, war, unconscious (biological, cultural, political, personal). Philosophy indeed is everybody’s business.

(Ed) The philosophy discussion group is not a democratic polity, but a democratic society requires public discussions on topics of common interest such as the ones we have in our group. Unfortunately, very few people in our society, including those who are college educated, are prepared to have these types of discussions, or have any experience with discussions of this kind. […] One of the obstacles, besides lack of education in relevant subject areas, is an inability or unwillingness to listen to others and to different points of view, and a lack of etiquette or respect towards other participants. Many people come to the group only to have a platform to broadcast their own ideas, but are not willing to listen to anyone else or to engage others in conversation. There is also a tendency to reduce all arguments to ad hominems and to personalize beliefs. When we are discussing a philosopher, for example, members of the group will immediately ask about the philosopher’s life and draw conclusions about the philosopher’s ideas based on their biography. Disagreements in the group have too often been taken as personal insults and devolved into fights.

I take these as challenges, not as irremediable problems. One of the chief successes of the group has been that members who stick it out long enough do eventually overcome these challenges and learn how to carry on a rational discussion with strangers in a public space on topics about which they disagree. This is not something that happens suddenly in a dramatic moment – the dramatic moments are marked by hostility and madness – but something that happens slowly over a long period of time.

One regular member of Ed’s discussion group who now lives out of state sent me some feedback of his own. After noting that the library branch is only blocks from his alma mater of New Utrecht High School – an institution associated with two of the Three Stooges and “Welcome Back, Kotter” – and referencing “12 Angry Men,” Mike went on: “THIS is the Philosophy Group. An exploration of subject to be sure, but at least as interestingly, an exploration of people, their experiences, likes and dislikes and, yes, biases. […] I could describe the personalities in brief form, but I won’t. I leave that to your most vivid imagination. What I will say is that no subject is ever discussed in a sterile vacuum. The insights are wide, deep, sad, humorous, often ‘off-the-wall’ but always entertaining, stimulating and enlightening. This is where Ed has learned, quite imaginatively, to ‘herd cats.’ Of course, there is also the group dynamic where over time, people get to know about one another: their problems, families and joys.”

Jing, who attended the same discussion group in high school and part of college, wrote: “I give the Group a lot of credit because it is my observation that there is a ‘market’ for philosophy among the young and the very old. This may be due to the former’s adolescence and creativity, and the latter’s earned right to contemplate. In either case, I think the library’s programming would benefit a lot from giving this area more development.”

I’ll end with some of my colleagues’ thoughts on the role of these sorts of programs in the public library.

(Ed) If the purpose of the public library is to provide information to the public in order to facilitate public discussions that sustain the democratic process, then the philosophy discussion group offers in microcosm a perfect model of the ideal public library. […] I hope, too, that some [attendees] will learn an even more important lesson, which is that learning is an ongoing process and one that can be largely self-directed as your research on one topic leads you to another. The philosophy discussion is not a passive process of learning, but one which requires active participation.

(Nomi) Development of an informed and educated population who can distinguish between truth and propaganda is one of the foremost values of public librarianship. Besides, what brought me to librarianship was not just the love of books but a hope that I perhaps can rise above my own natural narcissism, and the powerful forces of cultural conditioning, tribal propaganda and parochial identity (religious, political, national, ethnic, etc.) which human children are subjected to from the moment they start breathing. […] Being a work is progress is the only identity I want to subscribe to and [I] always hope to be mindful of what Spinoza said: ‘I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.’

January 27, 2012

Who Does Your Data?

As we’ve been reminded again recently, in case we somehow forgot, the “facts” of news reporting are not actually neutral. Just plain data is part of a political context, too. For example, New York City counts homeless people, in an annual pavement-pounding overnight effort. But the city – despite its technocratic, data-driven mayor – has never counted homes without people. Why not?

Yesterday I went to the official release of “Banking on Vacancy: Homelessness and Real Estate Speculation,” a report based on a study conducted by Picture the Homeless (PTH) here in NYC. The results demonstrate that there is more than enough space for everyone living in the city to have a roof over their heads. And the fact that the hard data proving this deceptively simple point had to come from a grassroots group illuminates the resistance that the powerful have towards information that might challenge them.

I’ve long liked PTH because, first of all, they’re a membership organization that’s founded and led by currently and formerly homeless people – i.e. the people most affected by what the group exists to fight. There’s a small staff, but the members are directly involved in all organizational activities. Furthermore, they use a combination of more traditional channels (legislative proposals, legal reform) and direct action (demonstrations, banner drops, building occupations) in their work. And sometimes they do both at the same time. At a pre-release event in the fall, a PTH member summed up their attitude to bureaucratic static on the question of whether the city would ever sponsor a citywide vacant housing count: “We’re going to do it, whether you like it or not!”

City officials had told PTH that NYC has a 2% vacancy rate, which turned out to be calculated by whether a building had been occupied two years prior. So if a building has been empty of residents for three or more years – because of, say, a landlord who can make a good profit off a street-level business’s rent alone without the hassle of tenants in the apartments above – it’s not considered “vacant.” PTH was also told repeatedly that a city-sponsored vacant housing count would be complicated and prohibitively expensive, in the millions of dollars. (In the end, around $150,000 was spent to count a third of the city in a third of a year.)

“Banking on Vacancy” came out of a collaboration between PTH and Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning & Development (HCCCPD). The philosophy of the campaign was illustrated by Hunter professor Peter Kwong at yesterday’s event when he talked about “activist scholarship,” where the questions being addressed in the university come from the needs of the community, and engagement with those questions is a joint effort between the academics and the community members. Other speakers ranged from the Manhattan borough president and City Councilmembers to a PTH member who passionately reminded attendees that the work is not just about issuing a report (“Take back the land! Take back the buildings!”).

The bulk of the vacant housing census took place over a widely-publicized series of weekends in summer 2011. PTH members and allies (including your correspondent) convened in churches, community centers, and public library branches and then went out to identify vacant buildings and lots in neighborhoods spanning selected Community Board districts in all five boroughs. The report explains the full data collection process – the numerous Freedom of Information Law requests to almost a dozen city agencies that mostly got ignored or netted ineffective information (as one section is titled, “City Data Is a Useless Mess”), the almost 300 volunteers with varying levels of experience, the evolution of paper housing count surveys to Excel files to OASIS to PLUTO and other data utilities.

I’m writing about all this for Library Juice not because I think that everyone is interested in the vagaries of NYC housing policy (though if you’re a local, I hope you are!). The point is that community-driven data collection is important – it’s part of organizing, the process itself reflects and reinforces the values of the community, and it’s possibly the only way that a needed change can be kicked into gear.

“Numbers are power,” said HCCCPD’s Tom Angotti. But it’s not just the data, of course, which can end up sitting on a shelf. Like PTH member Willie Baptist said: “You’re going to have to get up and do something about it.”

October 4, 2011

The Occupation Has a Library

Occupy Wall Street library

There’s an occupation in my city – maybe in yours, too.

The activity itself is born of the frustration, rage, and inspiration of people who are looking for alternatives to the current corporatist state of things, but of course there’s also work to be done within the movement.  People are working to “counter the images of brogressivism and manarchism” and questioning why we don’t seem to be trying to decolonize instead of “occupy.” These are voices that are marginalized within the language of the “99 Percent.”  (Also, I wish the goddamn drumming would stop during the General Assemblies.)

And word is out about the Occupy Wall Street library.  It’s got a website and a hashtag.  It’s been evolving in leaps and bounds – I’ve been to the occupation three times now, and at first the books were in one sort of spread, then they were in cardboard boxes sorted by genre, and now they’ve moved up to waterproof plastic bins.  They’ve got a bin full of zines!  All of the books have “OWSL” written on the tops of the pages!

There was steady browsing when I was hanging around last night taking photos.  It looks like some folks from NYC Radical Reference are going down there on Friday night.  I’d like to be around to help more, but I don’t have a lot of free time (and fortunately for me it’s not all because I’m working for The Man – or because, as a waiter acquaintance said yesterday, “I serve the One Percent”).

A message is going around from “the librarians of #occupywallstreet” that says in part:

We need books of resistance and people’s history. We need economics and finance books. We need contemporary philosophy and ecology. We especially need non-English books and materials for low literacy readers. […] We also need you. Our collection is growing rapidly and we need help organizing it and keeping it orderly. We want to save the time of our readers, but to do that we need help marking, sorting, and shelving materials. We need help building our catalog and writing our history. Our readers are enthusiastic and some of them need help finding the right book. The right book for the right reader is fundamental to successful librarianship, so we need public services folks to come out and conduct reference interviews with people and help them find ‘their’ book. The Library is constantly evolving and changing and we invite you to be a part of it.

Ranganathan + protest, I love it!

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

September 9, 2011

Introduction and Some Reflections

Not to start grandiosely or anything, but I’ve been thinking about philosophies of librarianship as well the current state of the profession.

Some time ago I read a little online commentary about the people who get into librarianship as a calling that happens also to be a career, versus those who just treat it as a career.  I think I approach it as a calling but not a career, which I guess makes me the most annoying of all.  When I first got the idea to become a librarian, it was out of a love of books and reading and the space of a library.  Then, in the few years between college and library school, I started thinking about the role of libraries in civic life and how crucial a non-commercial venue for self-education and some kinds of recreation is in society.  So becoming a public librarian was a political as well as a vocational choice. Now, after almost nine years on the front lines of the same urban public library system, I’m in a new grant-funded position that will end in mid-2013, and it feels (and may be) that my life – career included – will change dramatically when I fall off that particular cliff.  Enough about me.

So, what is the status of the profession, at least as I see it from my little corner of public librarianship?  My personal assessment has been that there are three main areas of service.  First, we are an access point for books and other materials – mostly physical, though that of course is evolving.  We are a repository of stuff.  Second, we are a cultural and community venue.  We host author talks, book discussions, art exhibits, children’s storytimes, teen gaming programs, and so on.  Third, we are an educational institution.  And this is the area in which I think we need the most improvement, and also where I see the most hope for the profession.

People don’t really view public librarians as educators.  Can we at least claim to be some kind of information expert?  Well, not necessarily.  Listen to this, from an ally: “I’ve read many times that librarians know how to find the most authoritative sources. Based on my experience & observations, that claim is wearing thin. […] Of public librarians, I’d say many, many are overwhelmed and not any more equipped to sort and sift information than an average intelligent patron.” (Hey, we can be like the “computer expert” in the great xkcd cartoon.)

So it’s not as simple as trying to be “better” than a search engine, or, oh god, being a “cybrarian” (the bus between NYC and Montreal goes through a town whose library actually has a big sign in the window advertising their helpful cybrarians).  There are conversations taking place in my library about our current vision, and at the forefront of many colleagues’ minds is the concept of the public library – us! – as a space for learning.  I’m happy about that, just as I really like the idea of the library as a “fourth place,” a place for social learning, that Paul Signorelli and others have been talking about lately.

“Facilitating autodidacticism” was a phrase that popped up in the live chat during Char Booth’s “Trends in Library Training and Learning” presentation, as one of the purposes of a librarian.  I loved that, and I also think that we need to remember that the patron’s goal is not the finding – the part that we most obviously assist with –  but the doing.  We’re part of that progression to get the patron to what he or she actually wants to do or be.  As one of my favorite librarian thinkers, Laura Crossett, recently put it, “People talk a great deal about how libraries are great socialist institutions, and I think that’s true. But I want them to be great anarchist institutions, too: places where we face each other not as supplicant and benefactor but as people with different skills involved in mutual aid, both trying, in our fumbling way, to build a better world.”

And the library itself needs to encourage an atmosphere of autodidacticism among its staff.  We need to think critically about what we’re doing, and why, and we can’t think that more academic measures such as, say, pedagogical theories are not pertinent to our work. Part of the problem, I think, is that public libraries are so dependent on circulation and other quantitative measures to demonstrate our worth, and also legislators and other funders tend to have a pretty simplistic view of the “digital divide.” It’s easy to lose sight of the more nebulous, less numbers-friendly things, but that’s where the intellectual rigor and integrity of the profession is located.

I mean, I’ve experienced many of the hallmarks of public librarianship – having strange conversations with children, getting hit on, getting cursed at, cleaning up vomit – and depending on my mood I’m happy to share these anecdotes with you and hear about yours.  But we can’t forget to also aim higher – yes, dealing with the public can be weird and frustrating and makes for good anecdotes.  But let’s think too about the public sphere and the collective good and what our responsibility is here.  And let’s consider the problems with an overly broad definition of “neutrality” in our field.  After all, we live in a society where, as Karen Coyle observed, “The information access gap between a university researcher and the average person on the street is immense. We have an information elite that, like most elites, considers its position to be earned, just, and reasonable.”  How is the public library, serving as we do “the average person on the street,” addressing this situation?

Some more inspiring philosophy, from the Library Loon: “Libraries and librarians have duties that extend beyond their local patron bases. Collectively, we are the voice of the poor, the young, and those desirous of learning, in societies that prefer to ignore or exploit those voices.”  That last part is key.  This isn’t an argument about how librarians need to be social workers, or whatever, in addition to everything else.  It’s about acknowledging that the status quo is oppressive to many.  And that being neutral supports the status quo.  Despite the shifting landscape of our profession, amid the changing technology and content containers, we library workers need to believe that our role is to enable not only individual but also collective education and – why not? – a more just society.