Library As A Political Arena

By dlachenm

Ever since their onset as a public institution, libraries have been political in nature. After the death of Alexander the Great and the subsequent break up of Macedonia in the Hellenistic age, there was a boom in the creation of libraries as institutions of the state, where previous collections of merit were kept privately by the elite. Kings recognized the value information had in a world that was continuously vying for power and control. In many instances they would go to great lengths to obtain scrolls and works of prominent thinkers, which in turn would draw scholars and the elite to their libraries, only furthering their prestige and power. Most notable of these first state-funded libraries was the Library of Alexandria, which became a “comprehensive repository of Greek writings as well as a tool for research” under the Ptolemaic dynasty ( Threatened by the new and growing status of the Library of Pergamum the Ptolemaic kings adopted strategies of war to ensure that the Library of Alexandria would remain at the top of the pedestal, by cutting off trade of papyrus and imprisoning scholars wishing to trade sides. While by no means as violent or even overt in its undertaking, I would argue that libraries and fields of librarianship remain arenas of political advocation today, whether used as such or not. What is born political, remains political. As Birdsall puts it, modern “libraries are the creation and instrument of public policy derived from political processes” (Birdsall, 2). And it would be more advantageous to embrace this sentiment than attempt a detached stance of neutrality or impartiality.

In the vein of the political, libraries have long been heralded as institutions embodying democratic values. Ideals of intellectual freedom, free and open access, literacy, and inclusion have been championed by public figures like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and even Keith Richards, with the library specifically in mind (Bushman, 3-4). Many of these ideals are ones that this country claims to be governmentally founded on, but have not been fully realized or enacted until quite recently. In keeping with this tradition and continuing to break with the structure of white, male, elitist hegemony, librarians are in a position to enact change in a professional and academic setting. Whether it is advocating for more politically correct classification and subject headings through the Library of Congress or using displays in local libraries to address social and cultural issues in their specific community, librarians have a great opportunity to channel democratic values, expand perspective, and seek social justice in seemingly small but penetrating ways. There are many in this field who wish to remain apolitical and would like to keep politics out of libraries altogether. This can be exemplified in a fairly recent comment by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a U.S. Representative of Florida’s 23rd congressional district and member of the Democratic party. In respect to the discussion of the Library of Congress updating the subject heading of ‘illegal alien’ to ‘noncitizen’ or ‘unauthorized immigration,’ she is quoted as saying that the Library of Congress should choose “subject headings without political influence” ( I, however, would argue that it is impossible to create an appropriate subject heading for people who wish to be and are not yet citizens of this country without any allusion to politics, just as I would argue that removing politics from the library altogether is impossible. In shadowing both Desmond Tutu and Robert Jensen, the application of neutrality in any professional environment simply does not exist. There will always be a distribution of power and to “either overtly endorse or reject that distribution is, of course, a political choice” (Jensen, 3).  Furthermore, to remain detached from the issue by claiming neutrality is essentially the same as agreeing with the powers that be or the current state of affairs, a specific stance and also a political undertaking. Instead of tiptoeing around this issue or keeping the political nature of ourselves dormant, I propose we embrace it as a catalyst and a much more constructive and productive way to bring about change.

In order to truly and fully express how this can be accomplished, I would like to showcase Jenna Freedman, a blue haired reference librarian at Barnard college, and the work she has done to actively bolster politics in the field of librarianship through her creation of a feminist zine collection at Barnard in 2003. Zines are themselves an anomaly, in that they are an untraditional medium for cataloging in libraries. They are do-it-yourself magazines that run the gamut from handwritten and stapled to professionally printed, serving as a unique form of personal expression on an array of topics and can be considered primary source material about contemporary popular culture. As a self-proclaimed anarchist and punk, it is Freedman’s nature to “critique privileges and challenge social hierarchies,” (Eichhorn, 126) “in favor of egalitarianism and environmentalism and against sexism, racism, and corporate hierarchies” (Eichhorn,126). It is through this lens that she has founded the feminist zine collection at Barnard, which currently consists of more than 1,500 zines in their open stacks collection and over 4,000 zines in their adjoining archive. All of the zines in their open stacks collection are duplicated in their archive for preservation and cataloged in Worldcat, so they are visible to not just Barnard, but the library community at large and available through interlibrary loans (Eichhorn, 128-29). The political and activist nature of this collection is two-fold, encompassing the “actual space of the library and the more conceptual space of the library catalog” (Eichhorn, 129). The fact that Freedman herself is not just a reference librarian, but crosses over the boundaries of special collections librarian, archivist, cataloger, and scholar makes her a defier of professional library tradition within the space of the library. Her decision to catalog the zines was a “way to change the status of the zines,” (Eichhorn, 129) giving them validation and making them as important as any other published material. Additionally, by adding the zines to Worldcat she has given researchers greater access to contemporary feminist material, a “discourse on feminism that, at least until the late 1990’s, was still primarily accessible in private collections” (Eichhorn, 130). There are only a few other collections of zines of this nature, including the Riot Grrrl collection at the New York University and the collection at the Sallie Bingham Center at Duke University. As if this wasn’t enough, Freedman keeps an open dialogue with the producers of the zines in her collection due to the highly personal content in the zines, in the case that they want their name removed or in the case that a female to male transgendered zinester no longer wants their work apart of a feminist collection (Eichhorn 130-31).

In an age where we have just appointed Carla Hayden, a woman and an African-American, as the first person in 214 years to hold the post of Librarian of Congress other than a Caucasian man, it is high time we went the way of Freedman. Her willingness to cross boundaries of librarianship and assert her tenacious beliefs in order to provide greater access to knowledge are most definitely political, as well as something to be admired.

The following two tabs change content below.


Comments are closed.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License

WordPress theme based on Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.