Revolting Librarians by West and Katz. “Do copy, do something, no rights reserved, no wrongs preserved.”

Revolting librariansNearly two generations after its publication, I offer a review of the original Revolting Librarians, edited by West and Katz. That would seem odd if my intent was to generate sales for a title that is out-of-print, but my purpose is to begin an inquiry into progressive thinking in librarianship, and this book is an early milestone. The full text is available for download (thanks Owen Massey McKnight) under copyleft: “Do copy, do something, no rights reserved, no wrongs preserved.” One article that caught my eye was missing from the online version due to individual contributor copyright, so I obtained a print copy from a used book store called Books and Old Lace via AbeBooks. Dedicated to maverick librarians everywhere, the book is a compilation of librarians speaking frankly in a time when a feeling of radical change was stirring the profession.

The late and greatly respected Celeste West introduced the book with a key theme, a conflict of interest between life and the work of librarianship. The contributors expressed their personal responses to this conflict, often with some degree of anger. I suppose one way to reduce the tension is to shrink the scope of the profession, rendering it less important; Kyson advised reducing library school to three practical courses and sending students off to work. I cannot help but think that this sort of training would mold librarians like Dunbar’s Miss Philpott, technically proficient, yet delighted to take an early lunch so the government inspector could sneak a look at patron records, eerily familiar under today’s Patriot Act. Contributions were written during the Viet Nam war, “under the non-leadership of shallow and frightening man” (131). Have times changed so little?

Other contributors sought to enlarge the profession to match personal truths. Plotnick launched the popular NO SILENCE sign campaign in libraries that rejected the long-standing stereotype of librarians as shushing old ladies. Osborn advocated for teen services in a library where even pregnant teens needed a note from their parents to access materials on reproductive health. Wolf and others challenged blatant biases in the Library of Congress classifications, such as gayness under deviancy. In Libraries to the People, Berman denounced the lack of diversity in library collections, and descried the racist, sexist and ageist subject headings. Management will tell upstart librarians that classification is merely descriptive of its community. If that is true, it is an alarming wake-up call for modern libraries that are increasingly outsourcing their classification work to central facilities. Local classification means that libraries in more progressive communities can both objectively describe their community and stand as a positive outlier, calling to attention the need for change.

Are you a librarian? Do you feel comfortable in your own skin at work? How much can a person expect to reconcile personal values with the workplace? In We Lost it at the Library, McKenny and Ericson documented their initial hope and ultimate dismay when they took seriously the offer of a library director promising radical change. In those days, ‘experimental’ in libraries meant taking social and political risks, not technological ones. A number of creative ideas tried there could still be implemented today, e.g., an Alternatives Room for collection materials too controversial for a particular community. The article is proof that librarians were innovating long before Library 2.0. Like innovators of all ages, many of the author’s ideas were rejected by management. One has to admire the lengths these librarians were willing to go to change their world. In her Free Libraries article, Katz imagined librarians living in the library. I would not recommend it. It is vital to find one’s way home at the end of the day, both physically and psychologically.

The missing title that caught my eye was called Bibliotherapy. When the print copy arrived by mail, I found it to be a poem by Tod Hawks; it did not seem very radical. But I noticed that many of the contributions in Revolting Librarians were creative pieces: allegories, poems, and plays. Radicals often use the arts because their ideas are still forming, like the Alternatives Room, not yet ready for the mainstream.

Is there a radical library element alive today? I do not hear about it in library school. The subject of the day is library technology. So … radicalize it, fuse it into the cause. Even in the pre-Web seventies, the authors sensed and welcomed a revolution in media technology. I noticed that the cover of Revolting Librarians is the banner image of the Progressive Librarians Guild Facebook group. There is Radical Reference, a group of volunteer library workers connected over the web to support activists and journalists with research. They recently hosted an LCSH Blog-a-Thon to identify timely changes to the Library of Congress subject headings. A discussion of radical themes in librarianship seems overdue. As I see it, if there is no radical in the librarian, if nothing is professed with passion, something that challenges us toward real progress, why then a profession? Turn it over to the business administrators and technicians.