LIBERATION BEGINS WITH KNOWLEDGE: Libraries as Social Justice Research Labs

A few weeks ago, a young student activist made a comment in my office about how those interested in issues like human and labor rights, living wage issues, and social justice are often found everywhere BUT the average local library.

The truth is, well, activists are found often in libraries. They hide in stacks, huddle alone at study carrels or in front of public PCs. There’s group study and meeting rooms to use, electronic databases and indexes to access.

Use isn’t the problem. It’s understanding the role that libraries – and librarians and staff – often play in society as a whole, in various movements, and in community building.

Activists here in the US have been hitting up public and academic libraries since we first developed the first open-stacks publicly-held information community co-ops, since we first came up with that lovely libertarian socialist idea that, yes, it’s both better for society and the individual to collectively acquire large quantities of knowledge capital and then to let the individual seeker of that knowledge decide when and how they want to utilize it as a member of that community – no coercive strings attached, beyond a library card and the risk of having to pay to replace any resource broken or lost.

The problem has never been found in the use of libraries by activists and other seekers of truth; the problem often lies in the user’s understanding of how to navigate collections, or how to track down hidden bits of content in the electronic jungle, how to use historic records and verify information, how to cut the wheat of historical evidence from even the slickest of propaganda chaff, how to be information literate and critical simultaneously.

And it’s hard to admit that one needs help, or to even have it at one’s disposal when it’s needed.

Which is, of course why, within a century of the first true For-the-People, By-the-People libraries, somebody had this wonderful idea: maybe we should hire people specifically to help other people navigate the maze of our own human record? From that beginning, librarianship was born, an entire profession dedicated to nothing any less extraordinary than the playing of Muse for a ravenous brain and soul, all bought and paid for in the same collective manner as the books, both driven by the market and by the communal nature of man.

I remember how fascinated the student was, as I explained that libraries are, in many ways, the model for proactive social justice  – created to serve the poor and those without means to acquire content on their own, for the public good, through taxation and through donation but with an ardent hands-off approach to the individual choice of information-seeking behavior and a dedication to intellectual freedom in the face of groupthink censorship.

For centuries now, libraries have been helping those in pursuit of justice learn how to fight the good fight, providing resources to promote literacy of the one to help the plight of the many. In fact, I’ve always suspected that’s why one of the first things put on the chopping block by those in power or in public office – one of those things WE supposedly don’t need anymore – is the public or academic library. Across the US, public libraries have been decimated by cuts and closures, often in some of the poorest communities. In Higher Education, a high-ranking California university administrator recently suggested that libraries could, in essence, basically be outsourced to some electronic corporate contractor or search engine provider to cut costs.

Yes, social justice and human rights activists use libraries.

But what will happen if, while they’re not looking, those libraries are taken away from the very planet they’re trying to help? What good is a soup kitchen for the homeless, for example, if the community it’s in has no place to feed the mind? What good are living wage campaigns, if they are only to exist in a world where Labor folks have no public resources to keep up skills, research labor law for themselves? What good can any cause produce, without a foundation of public wisdom?

Liberation begins with knowledge. But slavery returns rather quickly when that access to knowledge is taken away and made only accessible to those with the resources and fortunes to acquire it.

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