On Librarianship and Activism

A professor recently posed the following question to my class: are librarians required to be activists?

The question came out of a conversation about open access after watching this video. The film discusses the actions of Aaron Swartz, who brought on a lawsuit when he downloaded about 80% of MIT’s JStor database onto his laptop, presumably to make the articles freely available to the public (to read more about the controversy, check out this article from the Boston Globe). Swartz was not a librarian, but he was an advocate of open access and certainly an ally of libraries.

Photo from Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC2.0.

Photo from Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC2.0.

There are librarians out there doing some pretty badass things. Molly Molloy, for example, runs a site called Frontera List, which tracks information related to the death rate in Juarez, Mexico. She single-handedly provides access to previously untracked, critical information about Mexican crime. Last year HLS profiled Alison Macrina, Director of the Library Freedom Project, about her work advocating for digital privacy rights.

The actions of these librarians are inspiring. As students, it can be overwhelming to imagine taking on projects on such a grand scale, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that even the small, everyday things we do make us activists. Mirriam Webster’s definition for activism is:

“a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue”

Activism is anything you do that supports a cause and encourages change.

Some of us (myself included) are sometimes so blinded by coursework, reference desk shifts, committee meetings, lesson plans, or budgets that we do not have time to see the greater impact of our actions. I’ve got a secret for you: all of us are activists.

You’re an activist if you help to provide resources to undocumented people.

You’re an activist if you read “And Tango Makes Three” at storytime.

You’re an activist if you encourage homeless people to use the library, rather than turn them away.

Heck, you’re an activist if you direct patrons to MOOCs to take their education into their own hands.

So what’s my point? Stay inspired! Being an activist doesn’t have to mean organizing a huge rally for some grand cause. The little things we do everyday make us activists.We are all in a unique position to influence members of our community in big ways, even as students. Keep questioning, keep engaging, and keep changing.

Check out the Progressive Librarians Guild for further information and to get involved.

7 replies

  1. Thanks for this post – good to be reminded that all the little steps that we as librarians take, in our personal or professional lives, can support the Bigger Picture of freedom of information, open access, and educated decision-making. Thanks too for the link to Progressive Librarians Guild – great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

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