Clamor: Your DIY Guide to Everyday Revolution.

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Issue 35.5

Taking it to the streets

Eli Edwards

I was very nervous my first time.  I almost shook, really, but I don’t think the other person noticed that.  And when it was over, and the other person seemed to be satisfied, I was so filled with satisfaction, joy and relief … well, I wanted a cigarette.  No one warned me that working as a reference librarian could be so visceral.

Admittedly, many library workers don’t have semi-orgasmic experiences on the job.  But a lot of them are very passionate about at least two things: providing access to information and helping people find and use information.  In fact, librarians can be demonstrably fierce about such things. If you doubt this, consider the vociferous opposition librarians have had to parts of the USA PATRIOT Act, which have made library records more easily available to federal investigators.  Librarians’ passion for civil liberties is nothing new – many librarians also opposed the imposition of loyalty oaths and attempts to label or remove “Communist” or “subversive” literature from libraries at the very beginning of the Cold War.

Passionate librarians tend to take their work and their livelihood beyond the library doors out into the wide world around them.  Now-retired Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl was so fired up about reading and literature that she pioneered the “One City, One Book” initiative, became a best-selling author and was honored by being the model for the “Librarian Action Figure.”  And in some instances, library workers successfully combine their passion for knowledge with other passions or priorities in their lives.  Pioneering librarian blogger Jessamyn West helped establish on-the-fly reference at Burning Man and the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, WA.  And now there is an ongoing project: Radical Reference.

Radical Reference (RadRef) began as a project to provide information services to political activists and independent media reporters during the 2004 Republic National Convention in New York City.  According to co-founder Jenna Freedman, a librarian at Barnard College in New York City, “We thought [the protestors] would need reliable sources of information in a time when all hell was expected to break loose and rumors would probably be flying around everywhere. Our job in the street was to be calm and knowledgeable and to have good resources available to us in the RR kits or at the other end of a phone.” 

The initial phase of the project was two-fold: live/street reference and virtual reference via the RadRef website.  Armed with cellphones, laptops, maps, and flyers of various protest and counter-convention activities, library workers (who wore baseball caps featuring an “i” symbol on the front) provided directions to and times of demonstrations, workshops and public facilities, and answered reference questions of activists and Indymedia correspondents via in-person, web-based, chat/IM interactions.

Starting on July 31, 2004, the group also launched the RadRef website, which uses an open-source submission and tracking system called Lighting Bug that allows anyone to see the questions and answers submitted to the site (the identity of those who submit queries is not displayed, thereby protecting their anonymity).  The site is currently hosted for free by the Interactivist Network.

Since the end of the convention, RadRef has continued the website for virtual reference and has added a blog, where members can post entries regarding alternative media, librarianship and radical politics. Some RadRef volunteers have organized workshops for media activists, librarians and others on fact-checking skills, independent news sources, and alternative libraries and infoshops. There are currently about 150 volunteers who work within the project, including degreed professionals, support staff, and library and information science students.

Local RadRef collectives have also been organized in Austin, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, and San Francisco.  In addition, Radical Reference has its first foreign-based collective opening in Bangalore, India.

RadRef uses a variety of resources, including free search engines and newspaper archives, government websites, online alternative media and full-text databases available through libraries.  Currently, queries in English and Spanish from activists, media and the general public are accepted and answered on the site. Recently answered questions included topics on police and prison guard abuse in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina; Winston Churchill quotations; low-cost methods to get rid of black mold in homes; the Senate confirmation hearing for former FEMA head Michael Brown; and corporate income taxes in New Jersey.

Melissa Morrone, a NYC coordinator for Books Through Bars who’s active with RadRef, believes the success of the project is based on the passion library workers have for knowledge and helping people. “Just the fact that Radical Reference was formed -- with no commercial purpose, and by people who already have day jobs -- demonstrates that librarians are eager to fill any and all perceived needs in society.  This spirit can be added to the phenomenon, experienced by me as well, of off-duty librarians being mistaken for employees of businesses they're patronizing -- we evidently exude the passion to serve!  Anyway, the point is that we library workers want to help people and be useful.”

RadRef is looking towards the future with dream projects to add to its coterie of services and resources.  Among these are:

  • Library Stop Words – an index/glossary of terms that are common or have become buzzwords in the library field that undermine a library as a public sphere (clients, marketing, branding, etc.)
  • Library Industry Corporate Watch – collecting and dissemination information on the social/political/environmental impact of corporations in the information industry. Libraries deal with many information corporations, but there is little publicly-accessible knowledge on their business practices (such as the National Archives and Records Administration hiring defense contractor Lockheed Martin to help with preservation of digital information).
  • Pacifica Radio Archive index – an indexing service/product to provide better access to the archive and its wealth of recent and historical material.

The project has received some attention inside and outside of the world of librarianship, but not all of it has been positive.  Some conservative librarians have argued that by targeting its services towards political and media activists, RadRef was violating traditional notions of unbiased, politically neutral library service and that its very name indicated prejudicial attitudes that undermine librarianship.  But these critics underestimate the passion and dedication RadRef volunteers have for providing access to information to those in need.  By melding their passions for politics, media and librarianship, the people behind Radical Reference have sparked a small but growing revolution that could impact all three arenas for the better.

Morrone sums it up this way: “Radical Reference is an organic effort to forge connections with people who don't necessarily use libraries in the course of their work --we want to show them how to use all the information out there, whether it's for fact-checking or finding an answer to a research question.  We've also been creating a variety of guides in the Reference Shelf section of the web site, which point people to resources on topics like socially responsible Hurricane Katrina relief, civil liberties and government watchdogs, and alternative bicycling sites.  Basically, I think we're a young project and still finding our way, but we wouldn't be here if we didn't think it was crucial.”

Recommended sites: (Blogger Jessamyn West)

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