- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

During the 2004 Republican National Convention as thousands of protesters massed in New York City, a group of 40 volunteers came to their aid, researching questions about the convention and offering “ready reference kits” — city maps, schedules of demonstrations, lists of telephone numbers for lawyers, hospitals and lodgings.

The group called itself Radical Reference, and its members took to the streets to provide on-the-go information, including an explanation of a protester’s rights in the event of arrest.

The group’s co-founder, Jenna Freedman, a librarian at Manhattan’s Barnard College, and many of her colleagues in the library world are proving that the stereotype of the quiet, passive librarian is just that.

Today’s librarians are using Web sites, e-mail, text messages and more to create an international community of like-minded and tech-savvy library workers. They are challenging perceptions and redefining themselves as fierce defenders of free speech who make activism part of the job.

Jessamyn West, an Americorps volunteer at libraries in rural Vermont, may be the quintessential radical librarian.

“Loosely, I believe people would be better off with less governmental interference,” she proclaims on one of her Web sites, jessamyn.com. “I’m against hierarchies, and I believe that humans have a responsibility to look after each other and take care of one another so that everyone’s strengths and creativity are utilized and maximized.”

Miss West maintains librarian.net, offering resources and information to librarians. She also is a member of the Social Responsibilities Round Table, which was formed within the American Library Association (ALA) nearly three decades ago for those who think libraries have a duty to be involved in the day’s social issues, including feminism, poverty and racism.

This kind of watchdog activism goes along with the ALA’s basic tenets, Miss West said.

Attempts at censorship are common. Librarians often encounter issues such as local legislators passing bills that restrict libraries from using public funds to buy books on homosexual, bisexual and transgender issues, she said.

This summer, at the Guilderland town library in upstate New York, trustee John Daly proposed putting an orange “PG” sticker on all young adult novels containing sexual descriptions. Mr. Daly argued that he didn’t object to the sexual content but he thinks libraries “have an obligation to help the parents.” The proposal ultimately was rejected.

“If you start labeling books for one type of content, there are lots of other things that people can find objectionable in books: racism, anti-Semitism, violence,” library director Barbara Nichols Randall told the Albany Times Union.

Neither Miss West nor the round-table group was directly involved with the decision.

Many radical librarians credit Sanford Berman with showing librarians that activism and librarianship go hand in hand. Mr. Berman, who retired in 1999 from the Hennepin County Public Library in Minnesota, has spent most of his life fighting to change subject headings in library catalog systems that are, in his words, “archaic, foolish, clumsy, inauthentic and biased subject terms.”

Because of Mr. Berman, subject headings such as “ageism” and “homophobia” have made their way into catalog systems. His work also helped change the heading “color of man” to “human skin color.” Even in retirement, he works to improve library resources for the poor and crusades for changes to the Library of Congress’ cataloging system.

Radical Reference has stayed active since the 2004 Republican convention, doing its part to help prevent censorship and spread information by teaching fact-checking to journalists, conducting workshops on library resources and participating in other demonstrations. Its members are scattered across the United States and in a few other countries. The newest collective was just established in India.

Through the organization’s Web site (www.radicalreference.info), questions are submitted to a group of nearly 70 Radical Referencers who research and post answers. Questions have included everything from how to identify the subject of an archival Ku Klux Klan photograph to recent immigration and deportation statistics. Questions can be asked and answered in at least nine languages besides English.

Miss Freedman also has been working on establishing a collection of “zines,” small-circulation, noncommercial publications that focus on subjects usually found only on the edge of mainstream media, such as transgender issues. So far, she has about 1,000 zines at Barnard, focusing primarily on women’s issues.

“The idea was that these were voices not represented in libraries,” she said. “If you want an accurate picture of society, you have to hear from everyone.”

The changing perceptions of librarians may be attracting more people to the profession. Enrollments in accredited Library and Information Science degree programs have climbed from 18,901 in 1997 to 26,521 in 2003, the library association said.

“There’s always been a group of progressive librarians, committed to free access, but it used to be harder for them to organize,” said Miss West. “The Internet has really helped to get the message out.”

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