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 LISNews.com 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….