When I saw that Jenna Freedman won an award for being a “catalyst for change” I thought it was high time ARCLog heard from this Barnard librarian. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

Jenna, congratulations on receiving the Elizabeth Futas Catalyst for Change award.

Thank you! For me it’s an incredible honor to win what a previous recipient, Ann Sparanese, calls the “troublemaker award.” From everything I’ve heard about Liz Futas, I think she would have enjoyed that description, too.

One of the projects mentioned in the announcement is the zine collection you developed at Barnard. Why zines?

For me it was zines because I love zines, and also because I felt like I could make a case for why they belong at Barnard. I think it is essential that libraries collect and preserve these exuberant self-publications. They bring voices into our collections that are otherwise severely under-represented and under-documented: young people, people with radical politics, people with limited education and/or bad grammar and spelling. Zines are also primary source materials on activism, anarchism, punk rock parenting, riot grrrl, and other movements.

Why aren’t more academic libraries collecting zines? (MCTC is the only other academic library I’m aware of that collects zines, so correct me if I’m wrong.)

I do hate the word “wrong,” but check out my list of academic libraries with zine collections. Some are collecting more seriously than others, though and it’s still not very many collections. Many of the collections are student, rather than librarian driven, which presents a longevity problem. Presumably it also means the zines aren’t making it into the main library catalog.

Are there other aspects of contemporary culture that academic libraries are neglecting?
I think we all know the answer to that is a resounding yes! We need to collect, preserve, and provide good access to everything from free newspapers to People magazine, restaurant menus, and religious tracts.

Another way you’ve participated in change is in developing Radical Reference (with others?)

There were five or six of us in the original group that started Radical Reference, and we were in NYC, California, Illinois, and Kansas. Now we have hundreds of volunteers from all over the US and a few from other countries.

Tell us about why librarians should provide reference services out in the field. (I have a few choice words I’d like to add about the NYPD’s information seeking behavior, but I’ll wait on that…)

Oh please, do share your comments on the NYPD’s information seeking behavior! And check out this article about the FBI’s.

Here’s a recent post to the NYC Radical Reference list on the topic:

“Would any of our police subscribers care to weigh in on the current controversy regarding your participation in RNC2004-era groups such as Rad Ref? Perhaps we could start an ‘undercover surveillors’ blog page on the RR site? Or a ‘COINTELPRO then and now’ reference page?”
(John Beekman, quoted with permission.)

But back to your main question, serving patrons out in the field is essential, because they don’t come to the library on their own. The activist/independent journalist patron base for Radical Reference doesn’t/didn’t. Many are not in school and so aren’t compelled to the library to do research. Neither is the majority of them parents, so they’re not driven to the library for kids books and media. Even the journalists have no idea how much excellent free shit there is available to them for free online with a public library card. So in addition to answering their questions, we teach classes, things like
· Beyond Googling It: News and Government Information “Web 2.0″ Style
· Fact Checking for Independent Journalists, for Librarians
· Free Information! Free Space! Using Your Public Library
· Research Like a Librarian

We’ve taught at conferences, at the Independent Media Center in NY, in a classroom. This work raises the profile of libraries and librarians in a community that previously probably didn’t think of us much in the past. I may spend part of my Futas money on a portable projector so we can be even more able to speak on demand. (The rest will go to a zine library and to the salaries committee in ALA-APA.)

Is there any conflict between libraries being an unbiased source of all kinds of information and librarians being involved in activist causes?

No. The amount of time and energy I put into my job and how much I identify with it is already absurd. That it could dictate what I do when I’m off the clock is a ridiculous notion to me.

Since I know that the heart of this is the question of professional neutrality, I will say a little more about that. When I’m at the desk, I do attempt to be as “neutral” as possible, but I can’t control what my patrons are putting on to me. They will make judgments and assumptions based on my age, my clothes, my hair color, my gender, my skin color, how I sit, etc. I don’t want to enhance the possibility that they are making mistaken assumptions on my intelligence, politics, friendliness, etc., so I don’t wear political pins or anything like that while I’m working. That doesn’t mean that I can’t have politics, or that they don’t influence the resources I recommend and use. For example I prefer that a diversity of voices is examined in my students’ research. Therefore, I tend to favor ProQuest’s interdisciplinary database over its competitors because it includes Alt-PressWatch, Ethnic NewsWatch, and GenderWatch.

But this gets me to thinking . . . politics informs everything we do. I would seek out a doctor who is open to alternative medicine, or a lawyer who thinks the way I do about the U.S. government and justice system. I prefer a librarian who is knowledgeable about alternative press publications and isn’t just going to steer me toward corporate media that I perceive to be in large part racist, sexist, Christian-centric, and fed by wealthy private interests and the increasingly secretive government.

In the case of Radical Reference, our expressed mission is to serve activists and independent journalists, so it’s fairly well implied that we have a point of view. We attempt answer the questions posed to us with the most appropriate resources for the question. Some of those sources may be left oriented, but they will also be reliable. Interestingly, nowhere have we stated that our politics are anything other than anti Republican National Convention in NYC in 2004. That and possibly the USA PATRIOT Act are the only things on which our volunteers agree. We’ve had some serious flame wars on the topic of Israel, and I bet there would be disagreement on other issues like abortion rights and even internet filtering. So, if we had a question from a pro-life activist, I assume that someone would answer it. Same with a conservative journalist. Once nice thing is that this is a volunteer project, though, so if a Rad Reffie doesn’t want to answer a question or a questioner she finds offensive, she doesn’t have to. I don’t know that we’ve written too many—or any—”your question is out of scope” replies to patrons, but it wouldn’t upset me if we did.

Where are some areas where you think academic librarians could be catalysts for change within their own libraries and beyond?

Taking on vendors, college administrators, library administrators, IT, etc.—whoever is impinging on their ability to do their job well, to enjoy their work, and to not feel exploited or ignored. I think people should be activists wherever they are.

Thanks, Jenna!

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

4 thoughts on “Troublemaker”

  1. Greetings and congratulations to Jenna. An addition to her zines list: the University at Buffalo Special Collections has a good selection of zines from around Western New York circa early to mid 1990s. The project was lead by an LIS student named Colleen Hubbard.

  2. I know of another zine collection that Jenna can add to her list, but I sent it as an email suggestion to update her page. The University of Pittsburgh Libraries.

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