Radical librarianship and the language journey

House of Knowledge by Jaume Plensa, via Flickr.

Recently I attended the 2015 Lilac conference at Newcastle University. At some point I’ll write about this a bit more on my other blog, but something occurred to me whilst I was there and it got me thinking about the process of language in public (and in this case, professional) discourse. Specifically, I got to thinking about how frequently the term “neoliberal” had come up, which seemed at odds with the things I had been hearing from people who have been to such conferences in the past (this was only my second such conference).

Upon reflection, I came to the conclusion that there is a very specific journey in terms of radical language and how it is processed in a professional context. I ultimately narrowed it down to five steps in terms of the journey of the term “radical librarian”, although admittedly I am not entirely happy with some of the terminology here:

Hidden
˅
Ridiculed/Dismissed
˅
Recognition
˅
Shift in outlook
˅
Embedded

Hidden – Virtually non-existent in professional discourse.
Ridiculed/Dismissed – Where the language emerges but the majority reject it or ridicule it.
Recognition – When it is clear a new perspective is emerging and then starts to enter the discourse.
Shift in Outlook – When the language and ideas start to shape perspectives.
Embedded – When it becomes a natural state of thinking (I’m not happy with this particular terminology actually, so I’m open – as always – to critiques/suggestions etc).

I see the Recognition stage as particularly crucial. It is at this point, after the language has emerged, that it is most susceptible to corruption and co-option. Once it becomes a thing that people are talking about, there is a danger that it begins to be seen as “a cool thing”, a thing that can enhance reputations or raise profiles rather than a thing that challenges the status quo. I see this stage as particularly dangerous if the ethos of “radical librarianship” is to remain true to itself. As the terminology emerges from the ridiculed dismissed stage, it becomes a term that some can use to differentiate themselves and enables them to be seen as visionary/alternative/leaders, capturers of the zeitgeist. This co-option waters down and weakens the radical baggage that comes with the term, turning it into something mainstream and non-radical. So, I’d argue that this shift from “dismissed” to “recognised” is very dangerous for those with a radical perspective.

The key, I believe, in maintaining the purity of the radical ideas expressed through language is to keep building radical infrastructure throughout the above language process. It’s important for radicals to keep building, to be strong and determined throughout every stage of the journey of the language. They must not be afraid to push forward when it is hidden, nor be cowed into abandoning it when they are ridiculed or dismissed. Likewise, when the recognition stage is reached, it is vital to ensure infrastructure is continually built and built openly and quickly. This would, in my mind, manifest itself in the continual growth of Radical Librarian Collective gatherings, in the further development of the journal and the various other means by which we communicate radical ideas.

I think that the process of continually building this infrastructure can undermine any attempts by the mainstream to weaken and undermine radicalism, for how can their co-option take root if authentic radical ideas are being built in parallel? How can they portray themselves successfully as radical, when it is clear that their ideas are not nearly as radical as they suggest? Rather than their ideas undermining radicalism, radicalism undermines their co-option.

It then follows if we successfully negotiate the recognition step, to continue to remain true to radical ideas, we can successfully shift outlook to a more radical perspective (rather than the mainstream, watered down variant). Once we shift outlook, we can reach a point where the radical ideas take hold and become the default as opposed to the position it held during the hidden/dismissed stages where it was marginalised. But the key is to keep building foundations, keep building infrastructure…if we stop, then we risk the danger of the recognition stage going against our favour and resulting in a perverted radicalism that serves to line pockets rather than engender real change.

As I said, these are very rough ideas that I’ve sketched out from what I have noticed in the professional discourse. I am not overly happy with some of the terminology I’ve used to describe the process as I see it (I’m unconvinced “Embedded” is a term that I believe aptly describes the final step that I envisage). But I would be interested to hear how others view this process and whether this holds true for them, or whether they have a different perspective.

My thoughts on the Radical Librarians Collective, London

Getting stuff done at RLC London.

A couple of weeks ago now I attended (and was involved in the ‘organisation’ of) the Radical Librarian Collective gathering in London. Since the day, I’ve been struggling to put some of my thoughts into words. Indeed, I’m not sure I can adequately write about the various discussions that took place (head to Lauren Smith’s blog for that). Rather than attempt to write a comprehensive ‘review’ of the day, I thought I’d just make a few broad brush observations and write about it in more general terms.

Last year, I got together with a few like-minded folk who shared the same sense of longing for something a bit different. From my own personal perspective, I have been alarmed by some of the discourse across the profession for a few years now. There has been a rapid process of depoliticisation of the profession that has become increasingly noticeable in recent years (although arguably it has been part of a long-term trend – as it has been with most professions). There has been a general shift towards the rhetoric of ‘the market’ without serious consideration of the implications of doing so. We have perhaps become increasingly uncritical and, as I have noted recently, perhaps have not paid enough attention to the implications of the language that is increasingly utilised in professional discourse. For me, discussions that challenge this are welcome, and so I was really grateful for the opportunity to gather with like-minds and, as they say, ‘unpack’ some of these issues.

Bradford was, I think, a great success. It sprung together from nothing and turned into something that I think we were all really proud of. It was something new, something fresh, something that many of us who were there on that day felt was much needed. I think it’s fair to say that many people came away from it both reassured that there were others that felt the same, and keen to take ideas forwards. That said, I feel that London appears to have been the real catalyst to start building stuff.

As with any effort to actually do stuff, organising RLC London was not without its sneering. If there’s one thing I have learnt about people, it’s that people are happy to complain about various issues but should anyone step up to tackle them, they effectively become a target to be shot at. I’ve personally experienced this several times over (with Voices, Informed and RLC), try to actively do something rather than just moan and you will be a target for cynicism and sneering. To the extent where you begin to wonder whether there is an issue of prejudice at play (educated working classes should pipe down and know their place etc – and if you are an educated working class woman, you are in for some serious sneering). Sometimes it’s difficult to keep the sneering at bay. There will always be cynics trying to smash down your optimism, the trick is to remain optimistic and focus on the positives.

RLC London was, without doubt, an inspiring day. It helps, I think, that everyone in attendance was on roughly the same page. Sure a bunch of radical minded folk in an enclosed space could turn into a massive, dare I say, ‘echo chamber’ reflecting and entrenching existing viewpoints as everyone nods along in agreement. There were, however, some really engaging and challenging conversations throughout the day helped, perhaps, by a smattering of people who perhaps wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘radical’ but had certain perspectives that, in the current climate, might well be described as such.

In terms of the sessions (again, I’m not going to go into these in great detail), I attended discussions on censorship, a session on the LIS qualification, critical theory, a session on how to take the discussions and ideas back to the workplace and finally a plenary session to discuss how we take things forwards as a collective. What I found really interesting and valuable about the day was how themes ran through all the sessions. You could have a discussion about censorship which would then feed into discussions on the qualification which would then feed into discussions on critical theory. Everything was linked, helped by the event itself being broadly themed I guess.

With regards to my session, I wanted to look at the qualification and how both libraries and the professional body can and should be constructed in line with our professional ethics. This was too much for one session as I soon discovered. I ultimately decided to divide it up into three discussions, but there was only time in the day to explore one (the other two will have to be explored another time!). The discussion itself was really interesting (from my perspective) as we wrangled over the extent to which the qualification should focus on practical, vocational stuff and the theoretical/ethical side. There was much discussion about the way the LIS qualification is increasingly losing the theoretical/ethical aspects and focusing on things that will ‘get you a job’.

For me the qualification has to be built on strong foundations, which means a strong theoretical and ethical underpinning that the other stuff can be built on top of. There needs to be an element of practical stuff that can be applied within in the workplace, but there also needs to be a fundamental understanding of the ethical underpinning. Which takes us back to the start of this post, the depoliticisation of the profession. This starts on LIS courses. If we don’t tackle the problems at the heart of the qualification collectively, then we will continue to depoliticise ourselves and devalue our profession (this does not mean we all have to be radical political types, it just means we need to have an understanding of some of the socio-political issues that affect every aspect of our work). It is for this reason I think there needs to be serious discussion about what we want from our LIS programmes.

Back to the day itself (after promising not to go into great detail on any of the sessions and finding I already have)…I think what I took away from London more than anything else was the enthusiasm to build on the discussions. To build networks. To create stuff. To tackle issues in whatever way we could as a collective. There was a real will to take these discussions and not just walk away, patting ourselves on the back for having a jolly good chat, but to actually construct networks and seriously address some of the concerns that had been raised. This made me feel really positive and really excited about where the discussions might lead. Already local networks are being organised, a “Declaration on open access for LIS authors” has been collaboratively developed, and who knows what else will emerge from these discussions. Yes, when it comes to stuff like RLC London, it is very hard to smash the optimism. After all, as I now like to remind myself:

If not now, when? If not you, who?