Think Like an Activist

At several points in my life I have had the opportunity to work closely with activists. I have seen political, social, and union activists up close and in action. The true activist is a special breed who is in touch with a different reality that is just outside the reach of the present. They have been touched by a holy spirit of change that drives them forward. Librarians can learn a great deal from activists.

Activists do not just have energy and passion. They are absolutely goal focused. Ego is left behind. Partnerships are a necessity because resources are always lacking. Creativity is a requirement. Community education and constant outreach drive the agenda. Activists are not afraid to break the rules when the rules get in the way of the larger goals. They are willing to suffer the consequences. Activists do not fear work…very hard work. But, activists do not see their job as “work.” Activists do not see what they do as a job. It is always my hope that this is true for librarians. I like to think that it is true for me.

My wife always tells me that she has never seen anyone who loves his or her job more than me. She mostly says this when she’d rather have me focusing my attention away from work and toward other things like painting a bathroom or cleaning the garage. People always tell me, “you are not what I picture when I picture a librarian.” I hear this all the time. I heard this when I started my job. I hear this now when I meet new faculty members. I hear this when I am out in my home community. Mostly people say this because they are trying to pay me a compliment that I am not like other librarians, but I am never happy when given this “compliment.” To me, it partly demonstrates the lack of knowledge that people have about librarianship, and it partly demonstrates our profession’s inability to overcome this knowledge gap.

I think of Howard Zinn’s famous quote, “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.” I don’t mean that libraries should practice civil disobedience. I mean that still, after all of these years, we spend too much time being obedient to the things that we have always done.

If you are reading this blog, you are aware that we are living through one of the greatest disruptions in the information ecosystem since the invention of the printing press. Journalist Jeff Jarvis reminds us that right now the Internet is somewhere around where the printing press was in 1472. The ways that we create and share information are being ripped apart, and the institutions built around information are transforming. When discussing the purpose of SOPA , Jarvis noted that “we can’t just protect the interest of legacy companies that are challenged by disruption and change…” He was talking about film and music companies, but when I heard him say this, I thought about libraries. (View interview here: DLD12 Interview Series: Jeff Jarvis). As long as we are obedient to the things we’ve always done, then we will continue to act like “legacy companies” fending off change.

R. David Lankes has challenged us to rethink libraries. In his ground-breaking book the Atlas of New Libraianship, he wrote, “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” Many of us have already embraced the “knowledge creation” part of this definition, but I am not so sure we have thought deeply about the “improve society” part. We are quick to call our libraries open-learning centers, but how ready are we to call our libraries society-transformation centers? How ready are we to really engage our communities by connecting on the challenging issues we face? How ready are we to really think like activists?

Right now, the most important thing librarians can learn from activists is that the face-to-face world exists as a complement to the online world. Activists get this. In the past, protests, marches, and demonstrations were held to get attention from bystanders and (hopefully) catch the eye of journalists who may cover the event and help spread the word. This remains partly true, but today, protests, marches, and demonstrations are held for the online world as much as they are for the actual time and place. The video, images, and Tweets that flow from these events carry on long after the event has ended. Activists are about information and communication. (See CBS News: How the revolution became digitized.) It’s not so much that the face-to-face world doesn’t matter, but that it matters in ways that are deeply entwined with the online world.

As a profession, we are stressed out. The future is blurry. The threats to the good work we do are real. But if you reminisce about the good old days and dream of going back to a format-bound world of information delivery, then now is the time for you to leave libraries. Retire, go away, get out, because you’ve missed the entire point. Activists don’t think like this, and neither should we.

-Post by Troy Swanson, Tame the Web Contributor

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

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2 thoughts on “Think Like an Activist”

  1. Amen, Mr. Stephens! I like to think of myself as a library activist as well but really it’s just a matter of taking the library to the people. Staying safely sequestered within the four walls of our buildings and waiting for our users to find us is probably the quickest route to obsolescence that I can think of.

  2. Lankes found a good marketing term, but libraries have always tried to have the best interests of their communities in mind (what these communities are comprised of has broadened, and hopefully will continue to do so), but frankly he does generations of librarians a disservice by claiming this to be “new.”

    I appreciate your passion, but from a political standpoint (especially in the face of the corporatization of the university), I want to direct your attention to the comment section of this blog entry from hack lib-school:

    http://hacklibschool.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/new-librarianship-librarians/

    I think the conflation of activist rhetoric with institutional goals is misleading. Our institutions are happy to have zealous supporters, but this also endangers the effectiveness of how and why activists operate: when institutions fail us. We need the activist mode outside of our institutional systems when we have no redress inside of them. Such co-option neutralizes the effectiveness of such rhetoric and tactics. “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience,” and the co-option of subversive rhetorics and tactics by institutions constitutes the latter.

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