Update – May 29th, 2015: When this post was originally written, Sellie’s chapter on Meta-Radicalism was available at a different link. I have corrected the post to include the new link the the chapter: http://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_pubs/14/. In addition, there was an error in the original post. Alycia works at the CUNY Graduate Center Library, not the CUNY Academic Commons. Apologies to Alycia and CUNY for the mistake.
This morning I read a book chapter authored by Alycia Sellie, a librarian at the CUNY Academic Commons whose research focuses on radical librarianship and print culture. The chapter is titled, “Meta-Radicalism: The Alternative Press by and for Activist Librarians.” It was originally published in the collection, Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth Century America, and a pre-print version of the chapter is available on the CUNY Academic Works repository.
Reading this piece, Sellie inspired me to think more about the concept of balance. To me, librarianship is very concerned with balance: maintaining a balanced collection, balancing your views by considering other, different views, and balancing the needs of separate patrons when they come into conflict are only a few examples. This chapter challenges the reader to think about this concept via the lens of collection development, specifically collection of alternative texts like zines, underground pamphlets, and self-published newsletters.
Sellie focuses, among other things, on the dis-inclusion of certain materials because of inside censorship. Sellie writes,
Inside censorship occurs when a librarian avoids adding materials to their collection — not because of any policy, but because they fear that the material will be challenged, cause conflict, or because the items would be too difficult to acquire.
She continues, adding that:
Alternative periodicals have long fallen victim to inside censorship: beyond difficulties with acquisition, these publications come in nonstandard formats and offer content that is vastly different from what is presented in the mainstream (Sellie, 2012, p. 3-4).
By creating and publishing alternative literature, certain librarians attempt to do activism from the inside, encouraging their peers to take these publications seriously and to collect them as a way of balancing out mainstream publications and views in the main library collection. In doing so, they engage in meta-activism, or as Sellie puts it, “Meta-Radicalism:” using the medium for which one advocates as a tool of advocacy.
I understand the collection balance issue that she brings up in the following way:
When someone typically thinks about maintaining a balanced collection, it may be tempting to think in terms of opposing viewpoints: liberal/conservative, creationist/evolutionist, western medicine/eastern medicine, etc. It could be argued that large, popular publishers – not always, but there is precedent – focus on these opposing sets of issues by selecting, printing, and disseminating books that speak to those opposing sets, often because those values are very, very visible with big readerships. These sets tend to become more visible as they are supported by publishers, and that work influences more readers which also support them, which creates a higher demand for materials that speak to those dichotomies. Even in academic publishing, it can be difficult to break out of the mold of “Either/Or,” “On The One Hand/On The Other Hand,” “Chocolate/Peanut Butter,” and so on. Colleges and universities require their students to be exposed to multiple viewpoints, which makes a different kind of thinking about balance essential.
Most of the academic librarians I have worked with tend to look at cultivating a balanced collection more like this:
Seen from the top, our view of the librarian is very different. The “Either/Or” dichotomy only occupies maybe 20˚ or 30˚ of a 360˚ circle of balance. Focusing on one side or the other means that you can still fall backward, or on your face. When a librarian looks to collect around a certain viewpoint, they are not just looking at “Either/Or;” they are looking to include many viewpoints in an effort to support critical thinking and learning within a subject area. Sellie argues that if you don’t include alternative publications in this collection, you still miss a significant portion of this circle of balance: authors and works that aren’t represented by mainstream publishers, and whose voices are ignored, though important, in the overall conversation.
For me, this question of balance extends into other areas of librarianship. For example: when we teach students how to evaluate information, we teach them to look for bias. Sellie quotes librarian and activist Celeste West, who said,
“We can try to be fair but not unbiased. We either speak out and select or else keep quiet. Keeping quiet is just another way of supporting what is going on, which is a political stance” (Sellie, 2012, p. 5).
I’ll get to the second part of the quote later, but in the first part, West essentially states that everybody is biased. Everybody privileges a certain point of view. If we accept that, then teaching students about bias is not enough. We also have to teach them how to know when an author’s bias is justified and when it’s not, and when it needs to be. We need them to learn to notice when an author has sufficiently considered other viewpoints and when they haven’t, and to decide when an author is edging into the territory of confirmation bias (which is a fallacy distinct from the common experience of everyday bias) and when they aren’t. And, most importantly, we need them to be able to identify the contexts in which information is disseminated, because that also affects bias. In short: though identifying bias is important, being able to weigh the balance of bias within a context is equally if not more so.
Another area of librarianship where we have to focus on balance is in our very mission as librarians. R. David Lankes has famously written that,
“The mission of a library is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in the community” (Lankes, 2012, p. 33).
One way to do that is to become knowledge and information creators ourselves. It could be argued that by publishing zines, by including maker spaces within the library, by teaching others, or (in my case) by creating podcasts and radio shows, we become both a generative force and a positive example in the communities in which we serve. Furthermore, by engaging in activism, librarians seek to directly impact their communities and workplaces and make them better, and to provide a model of what we want librarianship to be. However, this has to be balanced against the fact that there is also a place and a need for us to be information guides and mediators: the finger pointing the way. This requires us to step out of the way and let others lead and to find their own path. In this part of our mission, we don’t forge the way, we show all of the available paths and let the patron choose. This balance of Yin and Yang, of Passive and Active, of Introvert and Extrovert, and of many different ways of being a librarian, is more important than any one view of what we do, or what we should be doing. A living system is a changing, adaptable system. Negotiating those changes and approaches also requires balance, and appreciation and acceptance of diversity, and discerning openness.
One way in which Sellie’s writing challenged me is that it was hard for me to accept – at least on one reading – that dis-inclusion of alternative literature from library collections was completely due to inside censorship. Sellie herself admits that there are many limitations on collection development: staff size, budget, and institutional focus are just three. Providing direct evidence that censorship, definably a restrictive process, is happening within library collection development in this regard, and that it isn’t a matter of selection instead, is difficult. No librarian going to come right out and say, “We’re keeping zines out of the library because ‘x’.” It’s more likely to be framed in terms of choosing to select other materials, or a general ignorance about zines and what they offer, either individually or within the institution itself, or a lack of available collection budget or time in which to collect alternative materials, or not knowing what specific titles are out there and not having the time to research it. And these complaints may be not just sincere, but accurate. This leaves us trying to prove that it isn’t selection, and how do you prove that something is not?
Thus, Celeste West’s claim that silence in the collection indicates approval of dis-inclusion within it, as far as censorship in this instance goes, doesn’t appear to me to fit the complexity of what goes on in individual libraries. Aside from my going back and citation-chasing through Sellie’s article, and reading more of her work (as I will do, because if you couldn’t tell she makes my brain work in groovy ways), I would like to see a study that effectively looks at the reasons why zines are dis-included from library collections. I will continue to look for them, and if you, the reader, know of any, please cite them in the comments below.
Lankes, R. David. (2012). Expect more: Demanding better libraries for today’s complex world. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Available to read for free at http://quartz.syr.edu/blog/?page_id=4598
Sellie, Alycia. (2012). “Meta-Radicalism: The alternative press by and for activist librarians.” From CUNY Academic Works: Faculty Works, Paper 14. Available at http://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_pubs/14/