Rocket Ship to the Moon

I didn’t make it through the entire Cosmos series when it was on television, but there was something in the first coupe of episodes I watched that stuck with me. The concept of the observable universe is something I’ve known, but the thought that there could be things beyond that had never crossed my mind. To imagine that the universe could be older than the oldest light we have measured simply because that light has not yet arrived was a mind blower. It’s a simple yet powerful thought that reminds me of the limits of human observation.

The concept of radical librarianship has come up in the online world recently, started off by a post by David Lankes and a reply by Melissa Powell. David says:

Too many see the idea of a radical librarianship as a sort of extreme political partisanship. That is wrong. Radical librarians see librarianship as a chance to make a positive difference in their community. They see their mission to not simply promote reading, or to inform a community. Instead radical librarians, the kind we need, see their mission as the improvement of society. They see their role and the instruments of their institutions as engaging a community and addressing the issues that have exploded in Ferguson. Addressing these issues not with tear gas and rubber bullets, but through pizza, magic shows, and learning.

A quote from Melissa:

Radical is NOT pink hair, crazy clothes, over the top programming.  Yes, some of the best radical librarians do have different hair styles, dress differently, and have the most amazing abilities to create the most incredible programs, however that is not “Radical” in and of itself.  Radical is the library staff member who comes up with the idea that is “outside of the library”, in that it is outside the norms we call the library paradigm.  Makes the partnership, creates a service, opens their eyes to what the community needs.  They are aware, awake, and in tune with the role of the library as organization can play in their community, beyond books, beyond programs.

In reading both concepts, I find myself leaning more towards David’s take.  I’m not trying to slight the idea of making a positive difference in a community, but I feel like he’s aiming too low. Like the edges of the observable universe, I wonder at how much further it could go beyond that.

I can appreciate the idea that small changes lay the groundwork to larger ones, the core of the common mantra of “think globally, act locally”. But I can’t help but wonder how many of my peers take the first part to heart. I wonder how many define success as getting people to think “wow, I didn’t know the library did that” versus “wow, the way I see the world around me is different”. The attitude about the library should be a byproduct, not part of the goal.

To my mind, radical librarianship is not about using the role and tools of the institution to make a positive change so much as it is using all of the resources possible. Like the booster rockets in our forsaken space program, the library is the means to push individuals, groups, people, businesses, communities, etc. beyond the bounds of our Earthly atmosphere. The fuel is a well known but little understood combination of “whatever it takes”: books, music, movies, downloadable content, community partnerships, grants, sponsorships, meeting groups, networking, politicians, and everything including the kitchen sink.

If you define issues and situations with the library as a constant factor, then all of your solutions will be constrained by the limitations of the library. It is not about what the library can or cannot do, but what the library chooses or not chooses to do.  There is always a choice and context provides the factors for any decision point. The library as an institution is a tool, not the entire toolbox.

As for those rockets, they don’t make it to space; they fall back to Earth, recovered, and re-used in the next mission. They also don’t make it to the moon, but they’ve sent a lot of people there. Perhaps the metaphor should have ended further up the page, but I wanted to point out that they were not discarded (at least as part of the Space Shuttle program).

But as soon as we treat librarianship as public transit, a means to get people from one end of town to the other, and not a space program for the mind, then there is no longer a need for librarians. The notion of radical librarianship needs to go beyond even what we think it is. It is not about leaving behind current practices, but expanding beyond them. It needs to push boundaries in places we’ve never gone before.

One thought on “Rocket Ship to the Moon

  1. The problem with radical anything is that it inevitably alienates large portions of the targeted audience. Libraries and radicalism draws the organization from some of it’s primary missions of informed citizenry and free access to all.

    The City of Santa Monica, California has moved it’s Public Libraries have returned to the long abandoned, and un-American, subscription based model charging fees to lend and fees to use if you cannot prove City of Santa Monica residency. They do this because the City has horribly mismanaged their pension responsibilities.

    Now the poor of Southern California, including the thousands of low-wage workers (and their families) that staff the City’s substantial number of hotels, restaurants, and retail are denied access to lending and internet access without paying substantial subscription rates or daily use fees.

    you can help right this elitist wrong by following: #freeSMPL and #FreeSantaMonicaPublicLib

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