So You Say You Want a Revolution…? Introducing Radical Librarianship

July 13, 2015

Laura Saunders

Intellectual freedom, equal access, and challenging the status quo on SLIS Unbound

In anticipation of her upcoming course on Radical Librarianship, SLIS Assistant Professor Laura Saunders introduces some of the social justice and advocacy tenets behind a radical approach to librarianship.

Through its Code of Ethics, Bill of Rights, and Freedom to Read Statement, the American Library Association is clear in its support of intellectual freedom and resistance to censorship. Libraries are heralded as institutions that promote equality and democracy by providing free access to information sources and technologies, as well as instruction in how to access, evaluate, and use these resources. Information is essential to good decision-making and full participation in a democratic society, and ALA (1989) suggests that information literacy, or the ability to access and use information efficiently and effectively, can help to reduce socio-economic disparities. We can point to many examples of librarians standing up for equal access and fighting against censorship, from Miss Ruth Brown who worked against segregation to Ann Sparanese who touched off a campaign that saved Michael Moore’s book Stupid White Men, to the many librarians who spoke out against the USA Patriot Act. While we can certainly be proud of these instances, in reality the history and current situation of libraries is more complex and fraught than these examples suggest.

To begin with, the profession’s commitment to intellectual freedom and equal access is a relatively new development, and there are plenty of examples of librarians during the World Wars and McCarthy eras promoting government propaganda, engaging in censorship, and denying access to entire communities of people. Even now, some librarians contend that as a profession we should be neutral, avoiding taking positions on political and social issues. These librarians often pit the value of intellectual freedom against social responsibility, arguing that if librarians take a stand on social issues, they will inevitably be favoring one perspective and effectively censoring another. However, this argument ignores an important reality: libraries, like any other institution, operate within an existing political and social power structure. Indeed—since libraries deal directly with information—if we accept the adage that information is power, we could argue that libraries need be especially aware of these power structures. Libraries employ systems that were developed by and largely reflect the white, middle-class, Christian, heteronormative culture in which they are embedded. These values and perspectives are evident in our cataloging and classification systems, collections, programming, displays, and so on. By ignoring this reality, libraries are denying the impact of these legacies and are perpetuating the status quo. As such, many librarians challenge the idea of a neutral profession.

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