A highly opinionated taxonomy of librarianship

22 June 2019

The theme for this month's GLAM Blog Club is 'Radical', and I've had a lot of disjointed ideas about what to write. There's the amazing Incendium Radical Library newCardigan visited in February. Or Kevin Seeber's searing take-down of the idea of 'Fake News' and libraries' alleged need to 'fight' it. There's Mudyi's post from November pointing out that Diversity means disruption. And there's a lot to be said about continual and enthusiastic consent when it comes to sharing personal data - including about the Australian Common Reader project that was in the news this week. And then yesterday I was reminded of Jeff Sparrow's ideas about 'smug politics', which I'd fallen into again. Ultimately, I couldn't string that all into a readable post, so instead I've written a highly opinionated short history of libraries in the English speaking world accompanied by an idiosyncratic taxonomy of librarianship.

I listen to a few podcasts while I'm walking to work or washing the dishes, and my favourite one is the weekly KPFA show Against the grain. Every week they talk to a writer, activist or academic (often someone who is all three at once) about radical politics and when C. S. Soong is hosting he always signs off by "suggesting that the important thing is to never stop questioning".1 It's good advice, but being the host of a radio show focussed on radical left politics, Soong implies questioning things in a particular way.

The history of public libraries in the English speaking world, for example, is a history of attempts by the rich and middle classes to impose a particular conception of public order and social propriety upon the working classes. The State Library of Victoria originally stocked only non-fiction titles and was intended to be 'improving', whilst many early libraries in settler colonial societies in Australia and the United States were funded by mining companies to keep their workers out of the pubs and saloons.2 It's also noteworthy that the British Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850 - just two years after the 'year of revolutions' in Europe. The working class needed to be kept busy and distracted from revolutionary thought. Likewise, one only needs a familiarity with the basic ideas in Andrew Carnegie's incredibly patronising book The Gospel of Wealth to understand that his philanthropic donations for the construction of public libraries were intended to direct and control working class people's thinking, rather than simply being a magnanimous gift.

It's important to understand this history - particularly in parts of the world where British imperialism has lasted much longer, as in Australia. But there is of course another related tradition that positions public libraries as vital to informed public and therefore to a functional democracy. Whilst this tradition has its origins in the colonial United States, it is an assumption widely shared by current-day library associations and librarians. It is from this tradition that we have inherited ideas about "the freedom to read" and intellectual freedom as a core library value. These traditions set up a perennial battle most obviously exemplified by 'challenged books', whereby the conservative view of libraries argues that certain books are inappropriate for library collections (though more recently this is primarily couched in terms of what children should be 'exposed to'), whilst what we could call the liberal view of libraries says that it is up to readers to judge and the library is a neutral or objective servant of the broader public.

Then along came postmodern Critical Theory and in its wake, Critical Librarianship (aka CritLib). The CritLib perspective asks not what is allowed in the library collection but rather what (or more to the point, who) is represented in the collection. CritLib is of course broader than this, also asking things like who is represented among library staff, who is proactively made welcome within library spaces, and generally whose perspective is recognised as one that needs to be considered and included in library practice. CritLib is gaining traction, and in Australia we've seen local ALIA branches run Critical Library Schools in Sydney earlier this year and in Brisbane today. I'm excited about this development.

So what is Radical Librarianship? At the Sydney CritLib school, some attendees decided CritLib sounds a bit too American and negative, and wanted to rename their practice Radical Librarianship, but I see these as two separate , though related, ways of looking at the world. Perhaps this is just semantics, but for me at least there's a difference. To think radically is to get to the root (radix) of something. Six years ago Erin Jonaitis made a proposal on Twitter that I still think about regularly:

"If knowledge is power, then a key part of professional ethics for info professionals should be: Who are you empowering?"

In some ways, it's the only question in librarianship that matters. Conservative librarianship asks Who has wisdom? Liberal librarianship asks Who has liberty? Critical librarianship asks Who has representation? But radical librarianship asks Who has power?

The important thing after that is to never stop questioning.


I think this might originally be a Mahatma Gandhi quote.


I wrote a bit more on this a few years ago in In the library in the lead pipe, and a recent article about The Australian Common Reader notes the same thing in the Australian context.