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Radical Librarianship: Join the Movement
Posted On May 9, 2017
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In libraries of all sizes, there are some very motivated and passionate staffers who are thinking strategically, solving problems, collaborating, inventing, and taking risks despite the political climate and increased fragmentation of our culture and country. I’d almost say librarians are getting radical.

Libraries are in the midst of serious governmental threats: the deregulation of broadband internet (part of dismantling Net Neutrality rules) coupled with the administration’s proposed budget for 2018, which includes the elimination of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). If those weren’t enough, libraries are up against other forms of defunding, as well as real estate deals replacing public libraries with luxury condominiums. In the face of all of this, librarians nationwide are experimenting and implementing new projects and programs in the most innovative ways.

Wait! Librarians, Radical?

At a time in history when dramatic change is upon us, librarians are called upon to step out of their comfort zone, challenge the status quo, and do things they’ve never done before as they stand up for the foundational roots of the library—to ensure equitable access and provide important civic space for advancing democracy and the common good.

For the radical librarian, one of the most important roles is to be an advocate for civil liberties. Librarians are on the front line, as curators of information, facilitators, and, in the words of Anne Lamott, “trail guides through the forest of shelves and aisles,” helping learners of all ages get access to information and achieve educational success.

The New Is Old, the Old Is New

Radical movements throughout history, starting with the American Revolution and continuing on to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, have all attempted to change society. By exploring ideas, tactics, strengths, and differences, the actions of radicals help to raise awareness and to bring about true social change.

Being a radical isn’t a new concept. In fact, the seminal book Revolting Librarians (Booklegger Press, 1972) is a collection of essays, poems, and fiction written by library school students and library workers sharing their ideas and dreams and discussing their objections about the contemporary state of librarianship.

More recently, The People’s Library was a radical feature of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest. At first, a few dozen books could be found spread across a tarp, but soon there were hundreds of books, all donated, organized into basic categories and placed neatly in containers. Staffed by volunteers and librarians, the library offered books and media freely to the public, along with basic reference assistance and a fully searchable digital catalog.

There are numerous other examples, but the point is that this kind of forward-thinking action and collaboration can be viewed as radical in our country’s current political climate, in which the president is supportive of policies that might negatively impact certain freedoms.

A Radical Approach

During these times of uncertainty and division, librarians such as Joseph Sanchez are committed to innovative initiatives and making the time and space for them to happen. A proponent of a flattened hierarchy, Sanchez encourages his staff to take risks and mentors them on how to prototype and experiment.

A skateboarder originally from Southern California, Sanchez explains that he’s comfortable taking calculated risks. As the library director at the Mesa County Libraries in Colorado, he has been instrumental in a number of groundbreaking and hugely creative projects.

For example, he is the creator and developer of the Wild Colorado app (introduced in 2015), which can identify the local flora and fauna wherever it is used in Colorado. Partnering with Colorado Parks and Wildlife allows this outdoor recreation app to offer an educational experience that encourages tourists, avid hikers, teachers, students, biologists, rangers, and outdoor clubs to collaborate in real time.

With access to a database of Colorado mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles, users can add field notes and photos of what they find during their time in the outdoors, personalize their experience by curating collections of animals, and share their experience via social media.

“I’m most proud of the app because it’s tangible, it’s 21st century,” says Sanchez. “When people use it they realize that the library is doing something that can be customized to residents and visitors of Colorado. We’re doing something different that will encourage them to not only learn about the wildlife and plants in the area, but they will experience it first-hand.”

Mesa County Libraries’ 970West Studio

Sanchez has been working with his team to implement some of the most progressive projects to date. The most recent is the construction of 970West Studio, a 3,000-square-foot audio and video production studio that provides state-of-the-art spaces to create and edit original content.

This $1.3 million multimedia space includes a control room and a recording studio that are detached from the main building structure as separate enclosures to provide sound isolation. The double wall and ceiling construction, combined with specialty acoustical self-sealing doors, complete the room assemblies. “We didn’t spare any expense,” says Sanchez.

970West Studio is a place where nascent bands can record on, practice with, and learn about the equipment, all for free. But it’s not limited to musicians. It also provides state-of-the-art spaces for local businesses and allows videographers to create and edit original audiovisual content. The studio offers classes, a training room, and a control room as well as an Artist in Residence space that can be used on a rotating basis.  

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M'Lissa Story is the CEO and co-founding partner of the Both/And Partnership, a media consultancy and technology company based in Colorado. She is its logistics maven and key facilitator, leading Open Media Desk (OMD), its current flagship product with the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. 

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