Revolution at the Reference Desk

A new generation of librarians sees information as a social cause

| November-December 2002

A dowdy woman in thick glasses shushing people who dare to raise their voices: That’s the old stereotype. When you think "librarian," do you picture a tattooed man, or someone who knows almost everything about punk music fanzines? Probably not. But just wait.

A new spirit seems to be energizing the profession. Web sites such as Snarky Librarian and Modified Librarian show the playful side of this new wave of librarians. There is a strong activist element, too, as library professionals develop new services for immigrants, resist the dumbing down of library collections, and struggle against injustice in the world at large.

The idea of librarians as social activists and community builders goes back at least to the late 1960s, when the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) of the American Library Association came to life. Part of the broad feminist, antiwar, counterculture movement of the time, SRRT was inspired by some of the contributors to a rabble-rousing 1972 book called Revolting Librarians (Booklegger Press).

Thirty years later, Jessamyn West and Katia Roberto are compiling Revolting Librarians Redux (McFarland), new writings that challenge many current library practices. Many libraries today are led by people who run their institutions as businesses: charging extra fees, outsourcing work, and supposedly giving the people what they want. Budget cuts grow deeper while technology costs explode. The false sense that everything is available on the Internet pervades even minds that should know better.

"I became a librarian because I believe information should be free," West asserts in Ex Libris (#77), a weekly e-zine Weblog turns up facts and stories related to libraries, with a flavor that is "pro-freak, pro-social responsibility, and just generally pro-information."

As well as participating in a wide assortment of social causes, from opposing corporate globalization to marching for peace, activist librarians teach classes, write articles, organize unions, and advocate for library users’ rights. They also get involved in community infoshops (see "Media-Junkie Paradise," Utne Reader, Nov./Dec. 1998) and other new venues for providing information to the public.

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