Radical Librarians

The idea of a radical librarian, or the library as a radical place, may seem odd to some. People often think of librarians as nice, helpful people or as middle aged women with reading glasses and tight hair buns who shush noisy patrons. But the idea of a librarian or a library as a radical person or place is not usually brought to mind. Yet the modern public library came into existence as the result of nineteenth century populist/progressive thought. The idea that citizens would tax themselves in order to purchase books and magazines that would be made available to all members and classes of society was a radical idea in the late nineteenth century, and it is no less a radical idea in our anti-tax society of today.

Like all good ideas, the free public library has often proved truer in theory than in practice. Many libraries do not live up to the ideal of providing access to the widest possible cross-section of knowledge because of budget constraints. Other libraries fall short because librarians cater less to the needs and interests of the working class and minority members of their community than they do to the needs of business and the middle and upper classes. And some libraries limit the scope of their collections because individual librarians don’t consider certain ideas appropriate for “their” collections. The reasons are many and complex, and there are numerous articles written about the phenomena in scholarly library literature. However, the result is the same – library collections that reproduce the dominant ideas and literature of American society. There is an ongoing battle in the library profession concerning this issue. Many librarians who are critical of the profession’s bias towards the dominant culture are active in progressive library organizations; two of the more well known are the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association and the Progressive Librarians’ Guild.

One of the reasons your local library may not own many alternative and small press publications is the fact that these publications are not reviewed in mainstream review sources like the New York Times Book Review,Publishers’ Weekly, Booklist, Choice, etc. Because library budgets are often tight, librarians are careful about the books they purchase and rely heavily on book reviews to help in selection. The problem with this selection process is that most of the mainstream book review resources do not review alternative and small press titles. There are a number of alternative and small press review resources, like the Alternative Press Review andCounterpoise. However, these resources are themselves part of the alternative press and are not listed in the mainstream library literature. There are many alternative magazines and journals that review alternative publications, but if a library does not subscribe to these alternative journals, librarians will not have the reviews to read.

This situation need not be as dismal as it appears. Because libraries are public entities, and because most librarians really do want to serve the public well, there are ways to help libraries acquire and make available alternative press material. One way to help librarians collect alternative press material is to point them to alternative press review resources likeCounterpoise and the Alternative Press Review. Two other good resources are the Alternative Publishers of Books in North America, 5th edition, which lists hundreds of alternative publishers and describes the types of books they publish, and Annotations: A Guide to the Independent Critical Press.Annotations provides information about hundreds of alternative magazine and journal publications. In addition to these resources you could request that your local public library subscribe to the Alternative Press Index, which indexes over 300 alternative press magazines and journals. There is also a new web based full-text alternative press index entitled Alt-Press Watch(see Resource box). This resource might be attractive to your local public library since all the indexed periodicals are available full-text online.

In the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis Community & Technical College Library has a good size alternative press and zine collection, and a web page that describes the resources needed to build an alternative press collection. The resources are available to the public for use in the library, and the Library provides a community member card to citizens living or working in the downtown Minneapolis neighborhoods of Loring Park, Elliot Park, Downtown East, Downtown West, and North Loop. For those living outside this geographic area, the Library’s resources are cataloged on the PALS library system and are available through your local public library’s interlibrary loan service. In addition, Necessary Illusions: A Critical Introduction to the “Information Age,” and Alternative Knowledge: How Radical Ideas are Communicated in Society are offered each year as a part of the Library’s Information Studies department.