Filmmaker Michael Moore famously said: “Librarians are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them.”
This was underlined for me in a recent article published on the website Atlas Obscura. In The Radical Reference Librarians Who Use Info to Challenge Authority: An unhushable social movement is afoot author Natalie Zarrelli describes the U.S.-based Radical Reference Collective, a volunteer group of librarians who believe in supporting social justice causes.
It began in 2004, when a series of protests erupted in New York following the second Republic presidential nomination of George W. Bush. Nearly 1,800 protesters were arrested, and amid the chaos a team of reference librarians took to the streets armed with “folders of facts” around civil rights.
Since then, new collectives have formed across the U.S., all connected through the Rad Ref’s website, supporting women’s rights, worker’s rights, gay rights, and human rights of all kinds. Bottom line: knowledge is power.
That original New York group has been busy in the current divisive political climate in the U.S., making sure that the facts are at hand be they historical, statistical, or legal. Rad Ref members are information champions. They’re studying immigration rights. They’re researching free meeting places in the city. They’re making sure people have the facts.
Zarrelli notes that while it may seem like information is open to everyone via the internet, a Google search isn’t fact-checked and doesn’t provide balanced sources.
Recent findings confirming Russian meddling in the U.S. election through planted news articles shows that anyone can mess with the facts.
As a society, we have to be more info-savvy than ever before.
While the image of the bespectacled librarian persists, groups similar to Rad Ref have been popping up from Sweden to South Africa, suggesting a mental adjustment to superhero attire may be in order. Librarians help citizens sort things out. We support evidence-based critical thinking. Pretty radical, I know.
You won’t see folder-toting Nelson librarians out at the next City Hall protest, but you can see us walking the talk in our everyday activities.
We offer legal resources on our shelves and through our website: reliable resources such as ClickLaw (Legal Services Society of B.C.) and MultiLingoLegal, (legal info in a host of languages).
We help folks find the information they need be it services, stats or studies, no matter who they are, where they come from, or whether or not they have a library card.
We are connectors of people with facts, ideas, and each other through our programming.
Storytimes, inclusive of kids on the autism spectrum, demystify differences; LGBTQ hangout afternoons for teens offer a safe place for conversation; adult events and workshops help folks navigate technology, law, health, and more.
Monthly potlucks at the Library bring newcomers together for a meal, whether they came from the next town over or across the world. Author presentations introduce new ideas. Librarian visits to schools offer kids access to a world of information, so they can grow up to be the egalitarian-minded thinkers who will see us into a better future.
For centuries, books have been burned and libraries destroyed for political reasons. Leading up to the Second World War, the Nazis burned anything that didn’t comply with their ideology.
There will always be those threatened by information, whether it’s an unflattering news story or an oppositional viewpoint—which is why there will always be radical librarians. You can’t keep a true fact down.
It’s by getting to know one another that barriers are dismantled; it’s by discovering the facts that myths are broken. Libraries are all of that, and more. If that’s subversion, I’m in.
Anne DeGrace is the Adult Services Co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week.