September 29, 2008

A question for Radical Reference

Over time, Radical Reference moved from being simply an experimental virtual reference service for political radicals to being an activist organization sharing the same space as PLG and SRRT, but offering a different flavor and a different set of political ideas. Its primary activity, however, remains what it was when the group was originally formed around the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC: to provide reference service over the web for a specific radical or progressive target audience, one that identifies with the Rad Ref tagline: “Answers for those who question authority.”

The target audience is well identified and sought out through the use of youth-speak on the site and ample references to radical political ideas, most often with an anti-authoritarian or anarchist orientation. The benefit of this, and the thing that I think makes Radical Reference most valuable as an example for virtual library services (though there are other features worth learning from as well), is the way it establishes a connection between the service and its users in sharing like identities. This strong message of shared identity serves to enhance trust, improve communication, and create a sense of the service as being a part of a community – by, of, and for it. I think public libraries might do well to consider following this example and identify target audiences, or market segments, for the creation of separate interfaces and service points according to cultural needs and identifications.

An interesting question arises, though, from the fact of targeting an audience that shares cultural reference points in common with the service, especially given the political nature of the audience identity. The question, of course, is about point of view and potential bias – that is, the neutrality question.

The professional establishment has, from the dawn of the modern library movement in the late 19th century, treated neutrality as an important ethic of the profession. Progressives in the field have been challenging this idea since the late 1960s, to various degrees.

Radical Reference, as a service, a website, and an organization, is vague about its position on the question of neutrality in library services. On the one hand, in identifying with radical or progressive librarianship Rad Ref positions itself within a tradition that has for many years challenged the ethic of neutrality in librarianship in favor of information activism, or at least in favor of the idea that 1) true neutrality is impossible and 2) a stated bias is better than a hidden one.

On the other hand, the Rad Ref about page ends with a statement intended as a clarification that substantially backs away from the idea that Radical Reference has a political orientation, other than the idea that librarianship itself is radical. For the purposes of this post, I think that passage is worth repeating in its entirety:

So, on August 1, 2004, there was a post on titled, “Extreme-left librarians launch “Radical Reference” blog“. We posted a comment that we’d like to share here as a way to diffuse some folks’ angst about this service, or at least explain ourselves a little more clearly. There will always be some that refuse to understand but here it is nonetheless:

…If they had taken the time to investigate — rather than getting caught up with the term “radical” — they would have seen that we provide services regardless of political leaning. Remember, language is not a static thing; rather, it is a place where social struggle takes place. The term itself is interpreted within a specific social context. By using the term “radical” to define our service, we are challenging the maintream meaning which largely marginalizes the term and along with it certain groups.

We face a society where citizens are less and less informed due to consolidation and corporatization of media. I think it is our core code of ethics to help to inform citizens so that they can participate fully in the democratic process. In this way, we are forwarding the profession by reaching out to the community. Every librarian should go out to his/her own community and use his/her information skills to affect positive change. If this is radical, then by all means I am radical.
–Discordia, August 25, 2004

It is possible that Rad Ref may have erred in responding to pressure from the center-right LISNews blog by backing down from its political stance, and that its explanation is not actually true to Rad Ref’s activist practice. On the other hand, it is also possible that Rad Ref’s political identity might serve to define the target audience (anti-authoritarian political radicals) without actually compromising the neutrality of the service in terms of established conceptions of the neutrality ethic.

I have spent a lot of time reading the archive of questions and answers that Rad Ref makes available on the site (a very interesting feature that is worth contemplating as a part of a virtual reference service). I formed these impressions in my reading:

  1. The Rad Ref service does have a special ability to serve a target audience of political radicals through the knowledge base of its volunteers, in the same way that subject specialists in an academic library have a better ability to serve graduate students and upper division undergrads through their subject knowledge. This is a quality that could be transferred to other virtual reference services based on other “market segmentation” ideas.
  2. Because the target audience and the service providers are mostly like-minded, there is no question of a need to promote particular political ideas, which is the strong challenge to neutrality posed by activist librarians since the late 60s. This means that the Radical Reference project does not by necessity imply a strong challenge to the ethic of neutrality, despite the radical political identity involved.
  3. Because the target audience and the service providers share a point of view in some regards, a philosophical question arises about whether that point of view might involve a bias or a frame of reference that has an effect on what is known. This potentially raises what could be called a weak challenge to neutrality, in that facts and information sources are necessarily going to be looked at through a certain political lens in Radical Reference interactions, and that this can be chosen as something good.

Item three, I feel, shows where Radical Reference ought to own up to challenging the ethic of neutrality. In so doing it would be able to take a middle road of supporting the most basic establishment concerns (by adhering to standards about accuracy and information quality) while at the same time justifying a politicized service and challenging mainstream librarianship’s lack of self-reflection regarding its own biases. (True neutrality is impossible, and a stated bias is better than a hidden one.)

What Rad Ref does instead, however, is simply to avoid addressing the question of neutrality head-on (at least as far as anything available to the public would show us; but then most library organizations don’t publish their internal standards and policies). Avoiding a policy permits a lot of potential variation among volunteers in terms of the way they deal with the neutrality question in practice. An organization can choose that kind of a path deliberately for a variety of reasons. Maybe that’s the case with Radical Reference. But it seems to me that in its very existence as Radical Reference, the group announces an engagement with the question of neutrality that deserves to be elucidated into a clear position, for the benefit of the profession.

Personally, I think the thing that is most interesting about Radical Reference is the way it is culturally linked to its target audience. In the business world it’s called “market segmentation;” we can use that term for it or not. In any case it is a reflection of the nature of postmodern society’s fragmentation into cultural affinity groups and people’s new preference to give authority primarily to “people like themselves.” To that extent it is perhaps a preview of where library services are headed. I think that even aside from its political identity Radical Reference raises a question about neutrality and frames of reference in library service, simply by virtue of being so linked to and identified with its narrow target audience, seeing things together in a certain way. So the neutrality question would arise, to some extent, with any new virtual library service following a similar model to target a group on a cultural basis (political or not).

…. Or perhaps a new great depression will unite us all again….

September 28, 2008

Emanuel Haldeman-Julius and his Little Blue Books

From the current issue of The Believer, an article by Rolf Potts on Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, publisher of those 5-cent “Little Blue Books” that educated the masses in the 1920s: “The Henry Ford of Literature.”

Here’s how it starts:

…Selling for as little as five cents and small enough to fit in a trouser pocket, these books were meant to bring culture and self-education to working people, and covered topics ranging from classic literature to home-finance to sexually pleasuring one’s spouse. Distributed discreetly by mail order, Little Blue Books disseminated birth-control information not available in small-town libraries, advocated racial justice at a time when the Ku Klux Klan influenced politics, and introduced Euripides, Shakespeare, and Emerson to people without the means for higher education.

Haldeman-Julius’s Kansas press debuted writers like Will Durant, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow to the American public, and titles by Henry James found more readers in their Little Blue Book editions than in those from any other contemporary publisher. Endorsed by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and carried to the south pole with Admiral Richard Byrd, Little Blue Books figured in the early education of twentieth-century writers like Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, Harlan Ellison, Louis L’Amour, Margaret Mead, and Langston Hughes.

In the midst of his publishing heyday, when asked how he might be remembered, Haldeman-Julius speculated that his obituary would mention how “I sold hundreds of millions of [books] and usefully served a portion of my generation with fairness, sincerity, and intelligence…. It may mention my forthright attacks on all forms of Supernaturalism, Mysticism, Fundamentalism, and respectable and dignified bunk in general.

“It may even go so far as to say that I changed the reading habits of Americans and created millions of new readers for the book publishers who followed me.”

My Dad’s got a shoe-box full of these Little Blue Books at home. I have looked through them, and they are really great.

September 26, 2008

Some good listening

Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge has an hour-long program this week on libraries, books and reading. Interviewed are Maryanne Wolfe, author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain” (which has some pessimistic things to say about the internet); Geraldine Brooks, who talks about the rare Sarajevo Haggadah; Alberto Manguel, who talks about his personal library and his relationship with libraries; and Susan Hirschmann, who talks about children’s books and children’s book authors. The show is available online.

September 24, 2008

Call for contributions: Celeste West Festschrift


Co-editors Toni Samek and KR Roberto are seeking articles, stories, poems, photographs, letters, thought pieces and other individual and collective memories of Celeste West, lesbian, feminist librarian, publisher, and activist, for a festschrift to be published by Library Juice Press in 2009. Celeste passed away in San Francisco on January 3, 2008 at the age of 65. She was a pioneering progressive librarian and one of the founders of the Bay Area Reference Center (BARC), Booklegger Press, Synergy [Magazine], and Booklegger Magazine. She was also co-editor of the now classic title Revolting Librarians. From 1989 until 2006, Celeste worked as the library director at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was a radical library worker whose practice challenged established library traditions by encouraging librarians to speak up about the need for systematic change. West initiated questions and challenged assumptions (such as library neutrality) that continue to be central issues examined in critical librarianship today. However, while Celeste released a lot of work to the world as author and editor, not much was ever shared about her as subject.

Thus, we are seeking your contributions to a Celeste West festschrift book project.

For an historical snapshot of some of Celeste´s key contributions via Booklegger Press, please see: Toni Samek. 2006. “Unbossed and Unbought: Booklegger Press the First Women-Owned American Library Publisher” in Women In Print: Essays on the Print Culture of American Women from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Edited by James P. Danky and Wayne A. Wiegand. Foreword by Elizabeth Long. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press in collaboration with the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Pages 126-155. Available in print and as an online book.

For a more contemporary introduction to Celeste´s way of thinking, see: Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out by K.R. Roberto and Jessamyn West.

Please direct your ideas and queries to the FESTSCHRIFT Editorial Assistant and Project Manager Moyra Lang (moyra @ The final deadline for all contributions is December 10, 2008.

If you have not encountered the name Celeste West until now, please see here: and here:

THANK YOU! Toni Samek, KR Roberto, and Moyra Lang.

September 18, 2008

Nancy Kranich on Sarah Palin, would-be censor

Former ALA President Nancy Kranich has an editorial in the current issue of The Nation magazine, titled, “What’s Daddy’s Roommate Doing in Wasilla?” Kranich is writing about Sarah Palin’s attempt to censor books from the library in Wasilla when she was governor, and her subsequent attempt to have the library director, Mary Ellen Emmons, fired, for refusing to do it.

Kranich notes that Banned Books Week is coming up, the week before the Presidential election. I hope librarians, columnists, and TV types use the opportunity to make hay out of Palin’s censorship story. She can’t be allowed near the Presidency.

Publishing industry shrinking pains

New York magazine has an article in this week’s issue about the pain that the publishing industry is feeling these days, titled, “The End.” “The end” is not the end of publishing, but it is the end publishing as the industry has known it, according to the article, which reports on slow sales, CEO firings, and the impact of Amazon’s growth.

September 17, 2008

Richard Cox reviews Lara Moore’s Restoring Order

Dr. Richard J. Cox, head of the archives track at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, has posted a review of Lara Jennifer Moore’s Restoring Order: The Ecole des Chartes and the Organization of Archives and Libraries in France. I find it an intelligent review that gives a clear sense of what Moore’s book is all about and the contribution that it makes. Thanks to Dr. Cox for his attentive reading.

September 8, 2008

Mother Jones article on Connecticut librarians’ defiance of the PATRIOT Act

Amy Goodman and David Goodman (of Democracy Now) have an article in the current Mother Jones magazine about the great Windsor, Connecticut librarians’ defiance of the FBI and the PATRIOT Act and ultimate court victory for all of us on constitutional grounds.