Beyond the Bullet Points: Political not Partisan

Some folks have recently commented that in my presentations and writings I have a political agenda. They are right, but it is not what they think it is.

I believe that librarians must be political. That is they must be aware of politics, aid their members in political pursuits, and actively participate in the political process. Now directors of libraries will see this as nothing new, but I believe that all librarians must be politically savvy. Why? Well, let’s start with my definition of politics: politics is the process by which a community allocates power and resources.

Now the obvious link would be thinking about politics related directly to the library. That is funding, staffing, intellectual property, and the policies that shape how the library works. However, the political nature of librarians extends far beyond the library as an institution.

If you seek to empower people, you are talking about how power is distributed throughout a community (the “power” has to come from somewhere). Take reading as an example: why do libraries care about reading? Is it because it entertains and distracts community members from how the community makes decision (i.e., reading is for consumption), or is it to enable the reader to participate within the community (i.e., reading as empowerment)? If you buy into the concept that libraries are enmeshed into the larger concept of democracy, then we are preparing people for democratic participation. That is preparing people to join the conversation of how they are governed…that is political. The same could be said of academic libraries educating students (we are preparing students to be part of a market, but also part of a society). While special libraries tend to focus on helping members participate in markets (industry), they are also preparing the corporation, or non-profit, or government to participate in governance (from lobbying, to shaping regulation).

So libraries are political entities, and librarians are political creatures. This brings us to the real concern people raise about new librarianship -that I am somehow calling for librarians to pick sides. That is that I am either calling for librarians to rally against the tea party and begin a massive campaign of wealth redistribution. Or that I am calling for librarians to take over city hall and shape a community to our vision and definitions of good. The implication is that I am calling for librarian to declare themselves as democrats, or republicans – progressives or conservatives, etc. This leads to a very real concern that in doing so libraries and librarians would lose their status as honest brokers, and so lose their support by their communities. I actually agree.
However, when I call for librarians to be political, I am not calling for them to partisan, that is picking winners and losers. If there is one thing that librarians understand, it is that the world is much more complex than that.

Librarians see many sides of one issue. They may believe strongly in a given idea, but they are open to all ideas, and at least seek the merit in them (realizing they may find none). If librarians were to become partisan, they not only threaten their ability to serve and the communities trust, they would collapse ideas down to simple black and whites and not stay true to their professional ethos.

Librarians need to engage in politics not to reinforce the divisions of us versus them and not to perpetuate all or nothing win or lose ideals. They must become engaged in politics to ease these divisions. Just as librarians facilitate knowledge creation with the individual, they must also facilitate conversations and knowledge across political ideology (I never said that would be easy). Just as we are trusted agents in the land of reading and job searches, so too must we be trusted agents in the land of power and political debate. Think of the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service, State Law Libraries, and agency libraries.

Furthermore, rather than thinking of political involvement as some sort of debate at the national level, realize that political conversations occur at all levels of a community and society. From school boards, to governors, and from Wall Street to the kitchen table, librarians must bring their skills to democracy. Our job is not to win some partisan point, but to ensure the very conversation on how we govern ourselves (in the city, in the classroom, in the business) is fair, open, and informed. This conversation is the heart of democracy. Libraries need to be at the Occupy protests to ensure the power of the people, and the destruction of these libraries is either horrific ignorance, or the worst kind of cynical suppression.

I have heard a lot of talk about the “American Dream” recently. On the radio, on TV, and throughout the political discourse there are questions being raised about is the American Dream dead. Certainly this is in part a reaction to the economic times and a lack of economic mobility. It is definitely due in large part of gridlock in Washington, and an increased polarization of the political debate in the media. However, I have heard all too often that politicians are to blame – when they are there at our behest. Just as a library is product of people (community, librarians, staff), so too is our government. It is the role of librarians to first remind our communities that every citizen is responsible for the performance of our government and that the best elected government is one that is elected in the light of knowledge. This is the difference between citizen and consumer. A citizen is a participant who does not simply vote and forget.

The quest for dignity. the quest for prosperity, the quest for the American dream is neither kindled nor sustained in a mall. Freedom is not bought nor consumed. The quest for a better community and a better tomorrow requires the most fertile of grounds. Our dreams demand libraries and librarians. It is in the potent mix of ideas and reality – of the radical and the mundane – in the glow of both solitude and community – that we care take the dreams of a nation. Librarians are political because we all need to be political and join the debates of how power and resources are divided in this nation and indeed the world. Librarians, however, have a special responsibility to ensure that all participation is informed, nuanced, and ongoing.

14 Replies to “Beyond the Bullet Points: Political not Partisan”

  1. Dear David
    You have long heard me rant that libraries are political sites – because they are at the intersection of ideas, learning and knowledge. People’s knowledge and understanding of the world or reality depends on the ideas they encounter. If they only meet a bunch of uninformed bigots, that’s what they will believe the world to be. If they can go to a library and hear a range of views, thoughts and understandings, they can draw their own conclusions. See my new book, Exploring education for digital librarians (Chandos, 2012). All the best

  2. “. The implication is that I am calling for librarian to declare themselves as democrats, or republicans – progressives or conservatives, etc.”

    And yet, whether you know it are not, you _are_ taking an extremely partisan stance by reducing all the possibilities of political orientation to democrat and republican, liberal capitalists versus conservative capitalists, etc.

    Some of us don’t want anything to do with the state and capitalism and wouldn’t choose democrat or republican if we had a gun to our head. And yet those are the only choices that mainstream hacks like yourself give people.

    1. The point of that line (and the entire post really) was not to be limited to parties or false choices. Hence the line about seeing things as complex and not reducing issues to winners and losers.

      In any case thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  3. @M.
    Dave is not limiting choices; he’s not making people pick and choose. People who wait for what is given to them are limiting choices all by themselves.

  4. “Just as librarians facilitate knowledge creation with the individual, they must also facilitate conversations and knowledge across political ideology.”

    Right on! (as usual).

    Mega knuckle bump!

    PS I quoted you in almost every paper I wrote for library school.

  5. Dave – a comment I left today on Andy Woodworth’s blog speaks to this idea. Andy asked whether practices around intellectual property rights would be the “next economic crisis”. I replied by sharing my vision of how strong libraries can empower citizens and help prevent catastrophic events like these. Your readers may infer some partisanship in my comment below, and that’s okay. In the context I described, I wouldn’t want a librarian to advocate for a particular view, but rather to help me and members of my community learn how to check the facts of our statements and those of others. I’d also want the librarian to help us identify credible & appropriate materials we could use to develop a stronger understanding of the complex issues that affect our lives. This would take time & commitment from citizens and their libraries. I believe, and suspect you do too, that this is part’n’parcel of living in a free, democratic society.

    Andy, I see this topic as as part of the larger dialogue OCCUPY helped catalyze. All our resources – natural, financial, political, intellectual – are being concentrated in the hands of a very few corporations/individuals. The rest of us share the risk, the dangers, the fear. In addition to padding the Halls of Congress with money, as Jimmy noted, over the past generation the power elite has, through patient incrementalism, masterfully distracted and impoverished the American people so we cannot confront their corruption.

    One of the reasons I advocate for strong libraries is because I see them as a potentially effective antidote to the distraction, isolation, animosity and ignorance the power elite has engendered within us.

    Things aren’t so far gone that citizens can no longer meet in a library to sort out issues of importance to them. With some fact-checking, research and common sense we can better understand some of the things that now seem unfathomable to us. It would be a lot of work, but with some motivated citizens and skilled librarians among us we might have a better chance of separating the wheat from the chaff. The media sure ain’t helping us do it.

    Because so many people still associate libraries with our best ideals, within our library walls we have a chance of truly seeing one another and realizing that much more unites us than divides us. I know I’m a big enough person to stand alongside someone who may disagree with me about how we conduct ourselves in the middle-East and who also loves his family as much as I love mine and who is as scared about losing his job and healthcare as I am …

  6. I see your points and they are valid. However, I have a question: Early in my career a mentor told me that in the context of reference and research we should transcend controversy. My job as a [then] reference librarian is to get the student or faculty to the best source material, regardless of if I agree with it. So I’ve followed that advice for 10 years and it’s served me well.

    Perhaps the activism you speak of should come at a higher level? Either within the library (i.e. library admin?) or perhaps at the regional or national level?

    I have seen instances where a librarian has shown his or her colors on a topic and, by doing so, lost a customer.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!



    1. In a good reference transaction, or in all things librarians must remain intellectually honest (not unbiased because that is impossible)- that is they must strive to present multiple points of view. They also need to do that on all topics asked, not just the uncontroversial ones. They must also seek to inform political dialogs, once again with all points of view, not avoid them. For example, fact checking statements of candidates is a political act, but an important one for librarians – and they need to fact check all candidates, not just the ones they don’t agree with (hence non-partisan).

      The political aspect comes in when the member wants to go beyond simply investigating a situation, but wants to move to action. Does the librarian help the member campaign? Does the librarian help them link up with like minded folks from the community?

      To be clear I don’t think the reference interview is the time to debate a members position on gay rights or universal health care, but by insisting on providing multiple points of view on these topics the librarian is being political – they are furthering the conversation on these topics. Avoiding these topics means we are also being political by determining which topics we support and which we avoid.

  7. *thumbs up* Loved the blog Dave, very nice.

    @ M. 1)Lankes is not a mainstream hack, thank you very much.
    2) I am a libertarian and I was not offended by his using the examples of political parties that he used, because this was NOT a blog about the different parties that exist in our political system, it was a blog about the role that libraries and librarians should take in political discussions in their communities. It is about having open discussions that cover all the different political views and not restricting those conversations with partisan bias.

  8. I’ll agree that librarians have a responsibility to empower informed participation in our communities, but only to the extent that it’s called for and relevant. Put simply, not everything we do is political. From helping a student find sources for a paper on King Lear, to helping a patron cite a source in APA, to locating the Chilton Guide for an ’84 Dodge Aries, I would contend that the majority of our work is apolitical. Granted, you could go with the “everything is political” argument, but that can’t be of any help: if everything is political, then “political” ceases to be a meaningful term. We could just as well say that everything is economics, or everything is philosophy.

    The way I see it, we need to be politically aware and engaged when standing up for the library in society (which, I agree, we need to do a lot more of), when dealing with issues of power, and when assisting patrons who have political needs. But, we shouldn’t treat reading as political empowerment or knowledge as a mere means to some end, or as a proxy for political activity. We should treat learning and knowledge as ends-in-themselves. If a more informed public is a more politically astute public, then that’s a good thing, but knowledge isn’t valuable *because* it leads to informed political participation, knowledge is valuable per se.

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