Catalog This: An Interview With Activist Librarian Jessamyn West

As mainstream awareness of censorship and privacy issues involving libraries has grown in the past few years, so has librarian.net, which has evolved from a general library news weblog into an online resource for activist librarians and their allies. Behind the weblog and the struggle to keep libraries open for free exchange of ideas is Jessamyn West, progressive librarian and activist.

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Interview by Keidra Chaney

May.19th.2003

The last few years have been politically volatile for the library profession, usually considered to be a haven for reserved, non- confrontational types. In 1999, public libraries were put on the defensive as "porn peddlers" as a result of Dr. Laura Schlessinger's highly-publicized attack on the American Library Association's position against internet filtering software. More recently, budget cuts and the ongoing battle over the USA Patriot Act -- the 2001 "anti-terrorism" bill that allows the federal government the right to covertly monitor library patrons internet browsing and borrowing records -- have put libraries in the news almost daily.

While the connection between librarians and political activism might seem incongruous, a search of the word "librarian" on Google.com reveals an active web community of progressive and radical librarians, featuring a sizeable number of sites and weblogs with names like Street Librarian, Anarchist Librarians, Librarian Underground. This online community is part of a history that links librarians and progressive politics, according to Jessamyn West, writer/editor of librarian.net, a daily weblog of library news and culture. From organizing labor unions to defending banned and challenged books, librarians remain "on the forefront of activism," according to West. "It's part of [a librarian's] job to make decisions that could be considered to be politically loaded," she says.

As mainstream awareness of censorship and privacy issues involving libraries has grown in the past few years, so has librarian.net, which has evolved from a general library news weblog into an online resource for activist librarians and their allies. West's posting of five "technically legal" signs to warn library patrons about FBI snooping recently attracted the attention of Wired News and a few other high-traffic websites.

West's own career has similarly evolved. Her personal labor of love for the past seven years continues to be her 300+ page personal site, which includes her online journal, photo essays, lists of recommended books, and a site dedicated to her namesake, early 20th century author Jessamyn West. Dividing her time between Vermont and Seattle, she currently works as a freelance librarian, writer and researcher, and occasionally speaks at conferences about libraries and free speech issues. Most recently she has co-edited a book, Revolting Librarians Redux, to be released in June 2003 by McFarland & Co. Inc.


How did librarian.net get started?
After I graduated from library school, I worked at a community college library. I was just sitting at the reference desk, screwing around, seeing what domain names were available, and I noticed that 'librarian.net' wasn't taken. That was in 1998, at a time when everyone was buying up domain names, so I was like, "Oh my god, I can't believe nobody has that!" I registered it immediately, and sat on it for awhile ... [At the time] there weren't very many places for activist librarians like me to go online and find the stuff that we found was really interesting. The whole blogging thing hadn't really blown up yet, but people I knew were starting to have weblogs, get attention for them, and cross-link to each other. I thought, maybe instead of having a personal, chit-chatty weblog, I could start a focused news weblog, just to get the hang of doing it, and maybe give some pointers around to the stuff I thought was really useful on the web.

It started out in April 1999, with [links to] Bellydancing Librarian, Lipstick Librarian, Street Librarian, the six or seven librarian websites that existed at the time. Then I found it was really easy to continue to provide content for it, especially because there is a lot of historical library stuff online that kind of buried in public and academic library websites, so when it was a "slow news day", I could always mess around and look for stuff from a long time ago that maybe wasn't finding its way into people's consciousness.

Where do you get most of your news and information from?
The site is probably about 60-70 percent reader submissions. I've got five to ten people [who supply 90 percent of the information]. I've got a cadre of people all over the place actually ... some UK people, a lot of US librarians, some random people, my mom ... I don't know if they are at the library at a reference desk, and they find something online and think "Oh, Jessamyn might like this", or if they actively seeking stuff out. But I get a lot of email from people that wind up going into librarian.net, which is why I end up having so many thank yous on the site. And there are a couple of websites I keep tabs on, certain weblogs that I read, such as Library Stuff, Library Juice, Bookslut, and I try to keep tabs on [ALA's website].

Now that there are a lot more radical/progressive library sites on the web, and getting some attention, do you think that's helping to change the public's view of librarians, that maybe more people see the connection between libraries and activism?
Yeah, It's interesting, I gave a talk in November about what I perceive as the "third wave" of library activism. It used to be that when libraries were filled with women because it was easier to pay them less, women started organizing [for pay equity], and then it shifted into '60s and '70s workplace and labor activism, with people unionizing and demanding rights on the job. It's moved beyond the library now, so a lot of activist-librarians are known as activists almost more than they are known as librarians. A lot of activism is about freedom and perceived attacks on freedom. When people see attacks on the library it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that's an attack on democracy. As public spaces are becoming more and more privatized, and big companies who own, for example, the mall, tell you what you can or can't do there, [anyone] aware of the Constitution and the First Amendment knows the library is not a place like that. I don't think everyone feels that way, I have a lot of friends that just don't go to the library, and that depresses me, but I think [generally] more and more people are becoming aware of what libraries stand for.

Was all the coverage on Dr. Laura generally helpful or harmful in terms of public support for libraries in the past few years?
I figure any antipathy is going to be there whether its below the surface or above the surface ... Like with Dr. Laura and her crazy hate speech, I'd rather her get that out in the open. I think more of that coverage has brought some of the crazies out of the woodwork, but you know, if you are a big free-speech person, you want all the people to talk, even the people you don't agree with. And having the public talk about these things out in the open, allows [librarians] to confront and deal with these issues, which I think can be very useful. The worst thing that could happen with extensive coverage of library issues is that people get bored of it, people think "Oh yeah, just another state library closing down, another budget cut," I think there's a passion fatigue that can happen.

Do you see that kind of fatigue happening now?
I think it's starting to happen because people have so much on their minds nowadays, I think people are still tending their wounds from September 11th. With really large-scale issues going on it's harder to deal with smaller, community level peace-making, I think people are like, "Well, my husband's been out of job forever, I don't give a fuck about the library right now." The more people read about it, the more they think there's nothing they can do. I don't see that as much as a problem as much as it is highlighting a much larger problem.

What do you think librarians are doing to change this perception?
Librarians are targeting their message to what people's real concerns are, as opposed to "Literacy is good; libraries are good; books are good!" I don't think we can just ride the wave of [telling people] "libraries are a good thing", and expect that people are just going to fall in line and be delighted to have us around. ... I think there's a lot more of an aspect of proving ourselves. I don't just mean "Libraries are great because we have an espresso cart", but really trying to figure out what people's needs are and trying to meet them.

Have you seen the focus of your site change with all the extra attention libraries and library issues have gotten in the past couple of years?
Librarian.net has definitely gotten more focused on activism and politics. I spend less time covering "blah blah library is having a puppet show" and I focus a lot more on what ALA is doing, what the government is doing that affects libraries. The State Library Deathwatch is new; there's a couple of state libraries that are really badly threatened and I think that's important for people to know, either if you live in that state, or if your state library is the next one on the chopping block. So I'm covering a lot of the library crisis, politics and libraries. There used to be that there wasn't a lot about libraries in the media on the internet. I could do a search on Lycos or Yahoo on "libraries" in the news search and get a couple of pages a day. Now I can search for it in the news and there's tons of stuff; you really have to filter more. I think libraries are now doing a better job of publicizing themselves, and also more librarians are online.

And, as I mentioned before, other library weblogs have proliferated on the web, and a lot of them are becoming more specialized. I no longer feel like I'm a part of a tiny, tiny club. I don't get hate mail any more, like I used to when I wrote something crappy about Dr. Laura. But I think by the same token, people who have more conservative or right-wing opinions and are interested in libraries can find other library weblogs to read and aren't really forced to look at mine and get angry at me. Which is a good thing and a bad thing. I read Cass Sunstein's book Republic.com and his opinion is that the web can help people with fringe opinions to focus and hone those opinions, perhaps at the expense of getting a well-rounded view of the issues, which I can understand. People may read my site and similar sites and think that maybe all librarians are radical and anti-censorship and that's not really true.

What role do you think librarian.net and other activist-librarian blogs play in building community between librarians within the profession and ith the communities they serve?
I'm speaking just for myself here, but my big hope is that people -- whether it's librarians, students, library techs, whatever -- are going to read the stuff that we write about and link to to get informed; take those informed opinions back to their libraries to help deal with the issues going on there. I see [these sites] as seeding the ground with ideas for progressive and radical librarians on what the issues are, what the talking points on the issues are, how other libraries are doing things, how some libraries may be doing it wrong -- cautionary tales from other libraries. So, these sites are a resource – although "resource" is kind of an overused word regarding internet content.

I think you're going to see more libraries having weblogs to bring people back to their website more frequently ... I think we're going to see more collaborative weblogs with different libraries and librarians working on issues from remote locations. I still think we're sort of cresting the wave of library weblogs, I personally don't feel we've really seen what the next step is, but I've also always seen weblogs as a tool, not as just an end to itself ... so I'm not sure. Google just bought Blogger recently, and I think that's gonna lead to a synergy between people who don't know much about blogging [and people who do]. I'm not a wide-eyed evangelist about it, but I think [weblogs] can serve a useful purpose for a community organization like the library, to communicate to people so they can use the organization more effectively.

Tell me about the book you're working on.
Me and my friend Katia Roberto have co-edited a book called Revolting Librarians Redux, which is a 30-year sequel to a book that came out in 1972 called Revolting Librarians, which was an anthology of alternative and radical library culture. The one that came out in the '70s was edited by Celeste West, it had really funky illustrations, it was published on a shoestring in their own publishing house. It was just great, a lot of really good content, really interesting opinion pieces. It was very inspirational to be me and Katia. So we pitched the idea [for a
sequel] to McFarland Publishing, which does a lot of library publications. They liked it, so we've worked with about 35 to 40 authors, including 10 of the original authors from the first book. We've got articles ranging from radical librarianship, business librarianship, "Why you should care about the Patriot Act and GATT", to libraries that collect hate literature and what interesting collection policies they have. Lots of different stuff. It's about 250 pages, it's hopefully coming out in June. We're hoping it'll be available at most libraries [because] there's a lot a good content from well-known people. Hopefully it will get a lot of good ideas out there.


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