Revolting Librarians revisited

I can’t remember when I first heard of Revolting Librarians (Booklegger Press, 1972), but I do know that it was a while ago, and that reading it was long overdue. Edited by librarians Celeste West and Elizabeth Katz, this is a collection of essays, poems, and fiction through which library school students and library workers air dreams, arguments, ideas and (yes) grievances about the contemporary state of librarianship. It was followed 30 years later by Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out (McFarland, 2003), edited by Katia Roberto and Jessamyn West and featuring updates from ten of the “Original Revolters” as well as many new contributions.

Cover of Revolting Librarians (1972)

Cover of Revolting Librarians, edited by Celeste West and Elizabeth Katz (Booklegger Press, 1972). Photograph by Sarah Mae available under CC-BY-NC on Flickr.

The original Revolting was independently financed, typeset on an IBM Selectric to lay out text and illustrations, and reproduced via photo-offset. The cover by Nan Parsons, illustrations by Chris Christiano, and hand-lettered titles by Sue Ann Johnson were added to the typescript by hand along with borrowed etchings and cartoons. The writing ranges from irate to arch to reflective to exuberant. It’s like reading 160 pages of back to back to back zines, which can be exhilarating but also exhausting. Redux offers an interesting combination of academic papers with citations, personal essays, and more poems, but is heavy on the former.

Several broad themes stand out upon reading the two books together (as I did). Libraries and labor, the history and professional heritage of librarianship, and privacy are a few.

Both volumes include cases for librarians to unionize, for equitable treatment of non-MLS-holding library workers, and for librarians to extend library service to migrant workers and day laborers. Naomi Eichenlaub (“Silencing Sandy: The Censoring of Libraries’ Foremost Activist”), Chris Dodge (“Libraries to the People, Redux”), and Toni Samek (“Pioneering Progressive Library Discourse”) situate progressive librarianship within a broader social and professional history in Redux, just as Noel Peattie (“Sipapu: A Tunnel Between Two Worlds”), Elizabeth Katz (“Free Libraries and Other Ways to Fly”) and Linda Katz and Julie Babcock (“The Liberated Librarians Newsletter”) began to do with their 1972 contributions. Privacy in libraries and librarianship, which Geoffrey Dunbar (“The Unsinkable Miss Philpott”) and Bianca Guttag (“Homophobia in Library School”) wrote about in 1972, gets full-fledged treatment in Redux through numerous essays on the PATRIOT Act and its implications for libraries. Two standouts are “Taking a Stand” by Daniel C. Tsang and “Library Ethics and the Problem with Patriotism” by Emily-Jane Dawson.

Librarians’ and library workers’ quality of life and satisfaction with work has a far lower profile in Redux than in Revolting, with most of the personal stories grouped in a section called “Day to Revolting Day: Our Stories.” There is far more “I” and “we” in Revolting and more detailed, individual, real-life testimony, much of it masked by pseudonyms if not at all “toned down.” Revolting writers cannot have known the popularity and distribution their work would see, while contributors to Redux seem aware of speaking to a wide audience (or… the ages!).

I was also struck by the level of documentation and practical detail in Revolting, offering advice on how to start a free library, get a library publication off the ground, expand library collections to meet a diverse community’s needs, and teach an immersive “alternative libraries” course for high schoolers. The essays in Redux are far more analytical, if tending to address librarianship at a principle or policy level.

A number of contributors to Redux look back at Revolting with a mix of pride and dismay. Original editor Celeste West reminisces fondly about putting the earlier volume together while adding, in effect, “La lutte continue.” Art Plotnik seems pretty embarrassed about his 1972 essay, “The Liberation of Sweet Library Lips,” calling it “hippie posturing to impress flower babes.” Several former contributors appear to have moderated their views since Revolting — in part because few people are the same at age 54 as they were at 24 — and Rory Litwin’s 2003 essay (“Radicals Defending Tradition: An Appeal to the Baby Boom Generation”) calls out boomers in general for “the thorough reversal of direction and backward charge in which [they] are presently leading society.”

Perhaps the most thoughtful work in the retrospective category is from Jana Varlejs, who contributed to Revolting as a public librarian and to Redux as a professor at the Rutgers School of Communication, Information and Library Studies. Her 2003 essay opens: ‘Unlike the early days of the social responsibilities movement in librarianship, recent decades have seen more passion spent on narrowly defining what issues are germane to the profession than on promoting ‘progressive’ causes.” She indicts neutrality, passivity, and thoughtlessness in the uptake of “causes,” while recognizing that the job market and existing power structures within librarianship put library school students in a tough place.

So, what would Revolting Librarians 2015 have to say? No forum on freedom of information would be complete without revisiting privacy in libraries, this time looking at NSA monitoring programs, personal data ownership and collection, and Edward Snowden’s legacy. Contributors to both earlier volumes are concerned about the convergence of librarianship and business practices; perhaps assessment and “data-driven decision-making” would be topics of discussion today. There would be back-and-forth about library school (including the requisite complaints about group work and uncharitable swipes at fellow students), the job market, and whether and how the two match up. At least one contribution would carry forward the work of Sanford Berman — personal hero of incoming Hack Library School Senior Editor Zack Frazier! — by discussing how controlled vocabularies and classification systems continue to present problems. And school librarians might find themselves discussing the ethics of ed-tech, educational standards, and how young people both consume and create media.

The number of outlets for this kind of writing and thinking appears to be proliferating, from the now established personal-professional blog to Twitter chats to journals new and old, so it may be that a book makes less sense today than it did 43 or 12 years ago. But more platforms can only help, if the work is worth doing. As Piers Denton wrote in 2003, “As a worker I still find it difficult to take orders from paper tigers, but I persevere, as this is rare work that enhances rather than oppresses society.”

— Amy Wickner (@amelish)

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