The Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) started life in response to perceptions that the ethical principles of librarianship have been marginalised, work has been increasingly marketised, and professional discourse has been depoliticised.
These concerns were exacerbated by concerns around the commodification of information, in which a public good is turned into a private (and privateisable) commodity. The adoption of the term “radical” aimed to emphasise the primacy of these ethical principles, as well as an identification with radical left politics. As Angela Davis argued “radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root’”.
It is this getting to the political root of our profession that is the foundation of RLC.
How RLC was formed
In 2013, a group of library workers acted on their feelings of estrangement from the majority of professional discourse and created alternative spaces to discuss professional issues. It was through these concerns that RLC emerged.
Under the loose umbrella of RLC, moves began to create a public space in which people could build a network of support and solidarity, offering an alternative to the dominant discourse. The very first RLC national gathering was held in Bradford in September 2013 at the Bradford Resource Centre. The aim of the event was to provide a space for discussion of key political issues in librarianship and develop ideas for alternative approaches which are more closely aligned with what we felt to be the ethics and principles of librarianship.
A further national gathering was held in London in May 2014. Issues discussed included Open Access, surveillance, and the ways in which we can protect communities from corporate or state harvesting of personal data. Of course, the provision of a safe space to inquire without state interference is a key ethical principle of librarianship, enabling and protecting intellectual freedoms. In an increasingly networked world, where state surveillance justified as a norm, these ethical concerns are under increasing pressure. It is as a result of these concerns that we have sought to collaborate with our American counterparts, including the Library Freedom Project.
Following the London gathering, several RLC members acted on the issues discussed, including through producing an Open Access (OA) declaration (hosted by Informed) which enables information professionals to make a personal and public declaration that all written outputs would adhere to OA principles. An OA radical librarianship journal - The Journal of Radical Librarianship - has also been launched, as well as aJisc mailing list to enable conversation and dialogue.
Building an RLC network
In terms of building solidarity between those critical of the marketisation of libraries and commodification of data, creating smaller, local networks is a more effective way of challenging the dominant ideology as they are more flexible and less bloated with bureaucracies. Actions and practice can then be shared at a national level, mainly, but not exclusively, through national gatherings held each year.We feel building smaller local networks to be a more effective way of challenging the dominant ideology and build solidarity between like-minds as they are more flexible and less reliant on centralised bureaucracy than national organisations. Actions and practice can then be shared at a national level, mainly, but not exclusively, through national gatherings held each year.
The first local network to develop was the London and South East group, after the RLC gathering in 2014. Monthly meetings are hosted in the London Action Resource Centre (LARC). Maintaining non-hierarchical principles, the agenda is set on the day in collaboration with attendees who are also encouraged to bring along points for discussion. Coming together as a smaller network has allowed the group to be productive in challenging the dominant ideology that RLC seeks to critique. To date the London group has had visits from people such as Alison Macrina(Library Freedom Project) to discuss her work in online privacy and learn how it can be implemented practically, as well as the anthropologistDonna Lanclos discussing radicalism in professions. The group has also helped to catalogue the LARC’s library on LibraryThing, making it a more accessible resource for other radical or activist groups using the space.
More recently, RLC Oxford held their first meeting in April 2015. Also fortunate enough to have an Action Resource Centre, they host the majority of their meetings there, but also occasionally have informal socials around Oxford, which focus less on the politicised side of discussion and are more about allowing library workers across Oxfordshire to meet each other on an informal basis. The Oxford group are looking at ways they can gain more momentum in the local area, which includes establishing a critical reading group for librarians, and offering some basic information management assistance to other local radical and charity groups. Nonetheless, it’s this kind of local group that RLC aims to foster across the country to build solidarity amongst like-minds, and this was a key component of the recent Huddersfield gathering.
How we organised the RLC gathering in 2015
A core value of the RLC is that it is important for the collective to avoid developing hierarchies within its membership. One way in which the collective ensures this is by having an open, temporary and voluntary organising committee, which is created to organise each annual gathering. This group does not represent RLC and everything it does, it’s simply a group of people who have volunteered to book a venue and help create a safe space for a gathering.
Choosing a venue
RLC chooses its venue based on the guiding principle of creating a space that is neutral and welcoming. Since we believe that librarianship and society more broadly should embrace intersectionality, be pluralistic and accessible in terms of space, cost and location, we look for venues that are fully accessible, LGBTQIA+ positive, non-profit, non-sectarian, and preferably social action orientated. As you can imagine, ticking all those boxes can be complex! After much consideration, we identified the Yorkshire Children’s Centre in Huddersfield as the most appropriate available space for the 2015 gathering.
Ahead of the day a collaborative document was created to enable suggestions for sessions that could be shared and discussed (we usedEtherpad; an Open Source collaborative tool). We encourage the use of plain everyday language to encourage as much participation as possible. Sharing the Etherpad well in advance also meant that members who couldn’t make it to the gathering in person, or who felt too apprehensive to do so on the day, could still be involved in the planning process. The sessions that were suggested weren’t set in stone, and more suggestions for sessions were made on the day.
A Safer Spaces policy
At 10am on Saturday 4th July, the Huddersfield gathering got under way. While the format and structure of the discussions is fairly fluid and open, it’s important to have a Safer Spaces policy that is heard, seen, and understood by all present. We borrow ours from OK Cafe, and while its guiding principle is fairly simple - respect - it is important to reflect on how harm can be inflicted on others in group situations even without intent. Increasingly, personal attributes of extreme confidence, competitiveness, and possessive individuality are lauded, and in many conference settings this is played out with having the same people talking, and the same people marginalised. Calling to mind people’s differences, imagining people’s complexities, and remembering that the stranger next to you may be a survivor of abuse reminds us to act out our principle of respect. It was also an opportunity to make it clear who the gathering’s organisers were, and to stress to all present that we could be approached for support if abuses of the safer spaces policy did occur.
What we discussed
The sessions themselves are intended to be as inclusive as possible, and having our safer spaces policy reiterated helps with that. Most 45 minute sessions involved an introduction from the proposer, followed by an open discussion including descriptions of experience and ideas for action. Discussions ranged from how to critically engage with users we see less often; ideas for grass-roots radical LIS research; how to challenge gendered power structures in work; and how to tackle the problematic nature of bibliometrics in a REF driven context (sessions listed here). A really positive aspect of the sessions was observing the commonalities of experience between people who had never met before, worked in different sectors, and had previously not publicly shared their concerns. It was also a truly member-led experience, and discussions grew upwards from the members taking part rather than being imposed by any leaders.
One session focused on experiences of creating local networks, particularly identifying the barriers that are faced and aimed to inspire people to start thinking about developing an RLC presence in their local areas. We are aware that some people have been put off getting involved in RLC because of misconceptions about its aims and approaches, and the session at Huddersfield addressed many of these issues, including how to find appropriate space, how to find like-minded people, and time management. In order to best address these issues as a collective, the attendees were encouraged to write their own potential solutions to these issues on post-it notes (available in PDF format here).
A plenary session closed proceedings, summing up discussions from each session, identifying actions where possible (available in PDF here). As part of the effort to encourage local networks to develop, the plenary sought to bring people together regionally. Attendees were encouraged to gather into their regional groups by imagining the room was a map of the UK and standing approximately in their local area. People in the same areas swapped contact details with the aim of enabling the creation of local networks. This would be beneficial to RLC as a whole, enabling collective efforts to offer opportunities nationwide for people who have concerns about the current political issues in librarianship which challenge the integrity of information workers and weaken the ethics and values of the profession.
RLC seeks to renew a focus on our core ethics and values, promoting intellectual freedom, access, social responsibility and the public good. National gatherings and local networks are key to enabling this. If you subscribe to these principles, we look forward to your participation in further discussions and encourage you to get involved!
Image source: RLC
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