Trapped by the Notion of “Radical Librarian”

by Melissa Powell

I just finished reading David Lankes recent post Radical Librarians in Ferguson and Beyond about the actions of the librarians in that beleaguered town.  The schools are closed and, even though the summer activities offered by the libraries were over, many saw a need and worked to continue them.  Because these libraries are in poorer areas of Missouri they already partner with the local food program to provide lunches for those who qualified for free and reduced price lunches. They are continuing this program.  Volunteers and staff are offering craft programs for children and parents.  The local museum is bringing in educational activities.  Local artists are donating their time and talent.

When Lankes tweeted this he got a response “a library always makes a difference”.  His response?  Yes and no.  Read his blog to get the full story, but basically he said it’s the people, not the building.

This got me thinking.  I am always out there preaching the ‘librarians as agents of change’ gospel.  My mantra is “it’s the people not the building”.  I am a librarian without a library, yet I am still a librarian.  How does that work?  If “libraries save lives” and “a library always makes a difference” what is my purpose? Yes, I train and inspire, however I am not changing and inspiring the library I am training and inspiring the PEOPLE.  Therein lies the crux of this post.

I often hear “we make a difference just by being here”.  Well, kinda.  As a young child in the early 70s I was terrified of the librarian in our library.  She felt children should be seen and not heard and probably not even seen.  And she was the children’s librarian!  She definitely made a difference just being there.  I refused to go to the library.

“Things have changed!” you say.  When I started my first professional library job in 1989 I heard from some patrons that they were coming back in to the library because I was there.  The previous Adult Services Librarian was, shall we say, a bit pretentious and put a lot of people off.

“That was 25 years ago!” Yes.  It was.  Thanks for reminding me.

The last eight years I have consulted, taught, and trained in libraries across the country.  I always include, even in my cataloging classes, the notion of “community” and what library staff can do for the community.   I hear “we can’t do that” and “it’s not our policy” or “we don’t have the time/staff/space/need/etc” or “our board would never go for that” over and over and over.  I also hear “I am not going to die my hair pink and dress weird”.  That is not librarianship/what a library is/professional/whatever.” That is Radical Librarianship as Paradigm.

Why do we constantly put things in little compartments?!?!

Radical is NOT pink hair, crazy clothes, over the top programming.  Yes, some of the best radical librarians do have different hair styles, dress differently, and have the Engage-Luc-Picard-1024x682.gifmost amazing abilities to create the most incredible programs, however that is not “Radical” in and of itself.  Radical is the library staff member who comes up with the idea that is “outside of the library”, in that it is outside the norms we call the library paradigm.  Makes the partnership, creates a service, opens their eyes to what the community needs.  They are aware, awake, and in tune with the role of the library as organization can play in their community, beyond books, beyond programs.

The Radical Librarian (and I mean ANYONE who works in a library) is the person who doesn’t think in terms of “this is what a library does” or “this is what our policy says” but in terms of “what does my community need to lift them up, to give them a chance, to support them?”  I say community because this means not only public but school libraries, academic libraries, special libraries.  The role of the library is to support their community to learn, enhance, create, thrive.  This mission applies to EVERY kind of library!  It can be something as big as partnering with a local food program or community service organizations to as small as setting out paper and crayons or a thought provoking article.  It is whatever you see your community needs.  You have NO idea how powerful even the smallest action is.  And it will not be quantifiable or add to your statistics (that is a whole other blog post)! You have to watch, be aware, and see what is happening in your library and community.

You must engage.

So, don’t trap yourself in another paradigm.  Be the person your community needs.