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Radical Librarianship: Join the Movement
Posted On May 9, 2017
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“We will be hosting a CD party for a local rock band who just completed the recording using 970 Studio,” says Sanchez. “We’re really excited to be a collaborative partner and supporter of artisans and musicians.”


According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “radical” was formed from the Latin adjective “radicalis,” which simply means “of or relating to a root,” from the Latin word “radix” (“root”). As a noun, “radical” came to be applied to a person who wants to make extreme changes in the government or in society. Radicals can be described as people who remain true to the core ethical foundations of their profession. In fact, it is at the “root” of everything they do.

Radical librarianship can be viewed as a practice that is true to the library’s foundation: openness, free access to information, and a strong community spirit. Libraries are not discriminative. All are welcome. And everything is free.

Sanchez says, “I’m honored to be in this profession as a librarian. We are truly radical and support the entire community regardless of personal views and values. At the same time, there is a need for a more radical approach to get out and interact with our community, rather than expect the community to come to us. We need to get more comfortable in doing that.”

Authentically Radical

To be called a radical librarian is nothing new for Sanchez. He’s been labeled a radical before, and while he explains that he doesn’t view himself that way, he can understand why others may say that. “I’m uncomfortably comfortable with the term radical,” he says. “Unfortunately the term radical has become so clichéd to death in popular parlance. What passes for radicalism really isn’t radical, it’s more reactionary.”

He continues, “For something to be genuinely radical, it has to be against the establishment of its time. Not of the 80s, or 90s or 2000s. Our society is so fragmented, but the library is a place where it’s not fragmented. Libraries are where we bring people together, and to me that is truly radical.”

Whether someone is positioned on the left or the right, when questioning the status quo or wanting to make change, there is a propensity to lose sight of the initial quest. It can become more about the ideology rather than the experience. In order to think more creatively and radically, we need to look beyond the superficial topics to the deeper issues and questions involved. There are more fundamental issues to explore if we want to discover radical new ideas.

“I’m more interested in seeing what happens during the experiment, the changes and iteration that happens when taking risks, and the experiment itself,” Sanchez says. “I’m willing to let go of my ideas and move with the flow of what’s being questioned, rather than be rigid to a specific outcome. The change is important, but the experiment itself is what I’m most interested in.”

Thinking in radical terms can be a form of critical thinking: to examine the issue in its entirety, even holistically, to ensure a lasting and sustainable outcome. Radical thinking involves thinking outside the lines, collaborating, and cultivating partnerships that would otherwise not be viewed as possibilities for libraries and their communities.

Radical Thinking

When asked about the government’s proposed budget cuts that will affect libraries, Sanchez says, “I don’t want to worry about circumstances that I can’t control. The gravy train doesn’t last forever.” This mindset is refreshing and inspiring, especially when one discovers that Mesa County Libraries are located in one of Colorado’s most impoverished counties. “We’ve got that reputation within the community of the library that does cool stuff,” he says. “If the IMLS goes away I can still do what I need to do.”

Sanchez makes a concerted effort to reach out to his constituencies. The face-to-face interactions with various local organizations and businesses are invaluable. The result is raising awareness about the programs and projects the library is offering by communicating and encouraging discourse with those who have never set foot in the library.

Sanchez says that at the end of his presentation to the local Masonic group about the library’s Veterans Remember documentary project, one member responded, “If I would have known about what the library is doing, I would have voted for the bond.”

As librarians, we know the value of our community services, but we can’t make assumptions in thinking that this is universal. Sanchez believes it is essential to get out and connect with others in their workplace, rather than expect them to visit the library. By cultivating these relationships, there is a growing understanding of how valuable the library is to its community, and this often leads to increased support and local funding.

There’s a kind of confidence that Sanchez and his staff will continue the library’s work to invent and execute new programs with or without federal funding. That’s radical!

Time to Get Creative

Let’s not fall into a trap in which it becomes a journalistic pastime to complain about everything that’s wrong and add to the already endless grumbling about our current state of affairs. Rather, let’s celebrate the courageous efforts of librarians around the world who are creating, reinventing, and taking radical steps to contribute and transform lives in their communities in the most radical ways.

Let’s borrow this mantra from the OA, peer-reviewed online journal In the Library With the Lead Pipe: “We improve libraries, professional organizations, and their communities of practice by exploring new ideas, starting conversations, documenting our concerns, and arguing for solutions.”

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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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