What is a radical librarian?


Photo credit: ijclark cc-by.

I’ve considered and then abandoned writing about radical librarianship before for many reasons. In some respects, I felt it was too introspective and expending too much time and energy on something that is really a fringe concern (I’d rather concentrate on doing stuff than getting into a drawn out cycle of discussion about language etc). But it keeps cropping up as a point of discussion so I thought I’d put my thoughts down, not least to ensure that in future I can just point to a URL rather than repeat the same perspective ad nauseum.

I would like to add that these are my personal views and my personal interpretation of the terminology. They do not necessarily reflect the views of any organisation I am affiliated to (I want to make that clear in case people assume that the definition I use for the term “radical” is the definition everyone involved in RLC subscribes to) and I accept that there will be those who hold to very different interpretations of the term than that which I subscribe to. I obviously don’t believe that the following is definitive, and I would certainly very much value other perspectives on this, not least to more fully inform my thinking.

The first thing I think is important to clarify is that, for me, radical doesn’t mean smashing up windows or engaging in illegal and violent activity. You know, the kind of radical that the media likes to present to us. Radicalism for me doesn’t mean violence or even law-breaking*. I think those who have difficulties with the word “radical” break down broadly into two groups: those who think it represents a violent/law-breaking attitude and those who think the term itself is a bit, well, teenage. Being a radical (in whatever form) does not mean that one is either violent or a law-breaker. There is, clearly, a difference between a criminal and a radical.

Last year I wrote a post explaining how librarians enable neoliberalism with particular reference to Althusser’s “Ideological State Apparatuses” (such as education, which is obviously an area where librarians play a key role). Althusser argued that the dominant ideology is reinforced by these ISAs. That the dominant ideology relies on these state apparatuses to ensure it can consolidate its influence, reinforcing its dominance. This notion of the dominant ideology (ie capitalism) is, principally, where I draw my definition of the term radical.

For me, what is radical is to offer something that stands in opposition to the dominant ideology.  Rather than accept the capitalist environment within which we operate, a radical position would be to not only oppose it, but to advocate something that runs counter to it. Because for me, to be radical in the current environment is to reject the language and ideology of capitalism and to work towards something different, something that runs counter to the orthodoxy.

As the position of the radical is determined by the dominant ideology, I would argue that a radical now is not necessarily a radical “then”. In other words, with respect to librarians, the roots of our profession are tied up with certain professional ethics. These ethics, in a neoliberal society, are attacked and, if we are not careful, severely diminished. But remaining true to these ethical roots is by nature radical. Should we, despite the best efforts to erode and corrupt our values, remain true to our ethical foundation, then by definition we are remaining defiant to the dominant ideology. Navigating through a neoliberal, extreme capitalist environment whilst holding onto our core values, is a radical act, because the conditions are designed to weaken and corrupt our resolve.

Basically, for me, a radical librarian is someone who remains true to the core ethical foundations of our profession…in fact, not even stays true, has it at the core of everything they do. But it is also about rejecting the dominant ideology and about seeking to find ways to undermine this ideology. For me, undermining it could be allowing a space for these ideas to be discussed and built upon. It could be in creating a journal, in building a physical event whereby like-minds can share ideas and plan actions, in seeking to explore alternative structures/approaches to those that currently exist within the profession. It does not mean engaging in violent activity, in militancy. You are a radical, in my view, merely in challenging that dominant ideology.

I’m not sure how much all of that even makes sense and I’m certainly not sure if I have even clarified how I define what it is to be “radical”. I’d obviously like to hear more about how others define it. Whether you agree with how I interpret it or not. Ultimately, the hippy that I am, I would like to see if there is some consensus in how we interpret what it is to be “radical”. Not least because the above doesn’t even really satisfy me, even as an entirely personal interpretation.

Update 6/5/15

* I should have added here that whilst radicalism ≠ violence or law-breaking, some may wish to express their radicalism in these ways. What I am getting at here is that being a radical is not necessarily expressed through violence or law-breaking.

  • Ernesto Priego

    Thank you very much for this post, Ian. You make clear what you mean by “radical” (in your words, to “remain defiant to the dominant ideology”, in this case “capitalism”). You say that “the roots of our profession are tied up with certain professional ethics”, and then you also mention “the core ethical foundations of our profession”. Perhaps it would be useful if you unpacked what you understand those “certain professional ethics” to be, as this seems key to your understanding of “radical librarianship”? It seems to me that spelling out what those “core ethical foundations” of librarianships are for you could help us readers understand more clearly in which ways capitalism attacks them and diminishes them… (Obviously I can personally infer this– one could even say it’s common sense… but we know common sense is not as common… so unpacking stuff would be useful in order to be able to interrogate the argument more fairly).

    • Ian

      Hi Ernesto. Thanks and yes, I didn’t really make that clear. What I mean by professional ethics is the fundamental belief that information should be accessible for all, without discrimination. I think this is particularly crucial in a capitalist society that is increasingly embracing a neoliberal ideology which seeks to put a price on every public good. We can see this throughout the current environment where efforts are made to undermine both the existence of libraries (and the profession) and increasingly move us towards a place. I think that facilitating access to information is obviously fundamental to our profession…the environment in which we exist makes this increasingly difficult because we live in a world where information is commodified. Therefore, a radical librarian would seek to find ways to counter this and to ensure that we as a profession, remain true to the belief that information should be freely accessible to all, not just a select few that can afford it. (There are other ethics too…maintaining privacy of our users so that they can use information freely in that sense…but I wouldn’t want to go into them all here.) Not sure if that helps explain my perspective?