Street Librarianship, Without the Streets 2

Library book wagon. Tyler St. Branch

Library book wagon. Tyler St. Branch, from Boston Public Library’s photostream on Flickr

Is the axis of dh and libraries one of privilege, or does it have the potential to advance social justice? In this post, Alycia Sellie of the Brooklyn College Library, looks to street librarianship and considers the potential of the digital to create or conquer barriers.

I think of my library as being wherever I am–it’s not just a building full of shelves but a living concept, a verb. A library can be about freely and extemporaneously providing connections, sometimes on a proactive basis. Something like street theater (Dodge, 130).

There is a photocopied article that hangs on the wall of my cubicle in the Brooklyn College library. I have pulled out the staple and re-photocopied this piece for many librarians and librarians-to-be. I have probably quoted it in more of my own projects and proposals than any other piece of library literature. Sometimes I copy it to inspire those who think that library writing can’t be a joy to read. Sometimes I share it with those who are stressed and wondering whether they fit into this profession–a worry that I too started out with. Mostly I share it because I think it gets at the essentials of what we should be doing as we do library work.

The article, “Libraries to the People, Redux,” was written by Chris Dodge, self-proclaimed Street Librarian and former Utne Reader columnist, and published in the anthology Revolting Librarians Redux.* Reading this piece was a turning point for me in library school, a moment in which I could see a home for myself in librarianship. Ever since I read this piece, I’ve been striving to make each library that I have worked in a bit more like one that would satisfy Chris.

Here’s a bit more, because I just can’t help but want to share it:

The library of the streets is wherever I hang out. Nevertheless people still visit public libraries. They come to libraries because they love to read, because curiosity has not yet been murdered, and because these civic institutions still are usually a safe place to sit and read, protected from the cold or heat, to doze, play checkers, and use a bathroom. People use libraries to help find jobs, to entertain themselves with videos, CDs and novels, to learn–and yet they do not know how much they are missing, not realizing that libraries’ range of materials could be greatly more broad.

Does your library include Green Party tabloids, socialist & communist weeklies, labor papers, specialized newsletters (e.g. FAMM-Gram, publication of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums), small press litzines and chapbooks, publications from outside the U.S., magazines by and for Muslims, Hindus, Baha’is, and atheists? (Dodge, 130)

Since I started working in libraries, I’ve worked with print collections that could be described as ephemeral–serials, and mostly alternative publications and self-published materials. There is precedent for doing this kind of work. Library activists James Danky, Celeste West, Elliott Shore, Sanford Berman and many others have argued for including alternative materials in libraries since the days of the undergrounds.

Sadly, not all libraries have such librarians. There are many kinds of things that haven’t been collected–Sanford Berman has described “inside censorship” as a  phenomenon that has kept many varieties of materials out of libraries. Collecting alternative publications requires a flexibility that doesn’t always mesh easily with the workflows of many institutions. As more collection development processes are streamlined and centralized, shooting our budgets out to publishing conglomerates, it seems that small and independent publications are becoming increasingly difficult to get into libraries.

Librarians have been proud of their gatekeeper role. It behooves us, though, to notice what (and who) these gates keep out… [Libraries] I’ve used have large collections of materials catering to investors, business managers, and international travelers–upper middle class folks–but far fewer how-to items for the large percent of people who are poor (Dodge, 129).

As I have been thinking about this post and the ways that radical librarianship and dh overlap, I’ve been asking myself more questions than I’ve been able to answer: Can the digital humanities shine a light or help to break down some of the gates that are still present in libraries? Could collaborations between libraries/librarians and dh’ers patch up some of the shortcomings that brick and mortar (or budget restricted, or inside censored, or understaffed) libraries face today, or have faced historically with print? Can the internet bridge the gap that has historically existed between self-published, ephemeral, or peoples’ publications and library collections?

Or am I giving code and tools too much credit? Don’t get me wrong–I believe in the power of the digital humanities to re-frame and to provide a visionary reconfiguring of humanities work in the digital age. And I think that there is a real power in the DIY ethos of hands dirtied through making things. My approach to my own work has absolutely changed and evolved since I started thinking about dh. I’ve welcomed network theory and distance reading into my methodologies, even when still thinking about print culture. More broadly, I keep hoping that new investigations into subjects like big data, or data visualization will bring scholars away from the canon and all of its hegemonic shortcomings, or away from rote approaches to teaching and learning in the academy. Yet I also still worry about the digital divide. I worry about its hold on students that are struggling to make ends meet–students like those that attend CUNY–and whether dh (as code, tools or topics) might just be an interest of the academic 1%.

Learning how to use a computer is a privilege. Owning a device like a smart phone or a laptop is a privilege. Being able to afford proprietary software is a privilege. Access to a high-speed internet connection is a privilege. The digital humanities are privileged. They are so because they are built on technologies that remain inaccessible to many people. It might be easy to forget that these things are not available to everyone, but take a trip to any public library in the U.S., and you will be able to see just how many people will wait for the chance to use a public computer, even if it’s just for one hour a day.*

There are many things we can do–as librarians, project managers, programmers, or professors–in order to acknowledge these digital disparities. First, we need to share our own work as widely as possible. This means investigating and getting comfortable with open licenses for our writing, images and creative work as well as our code. Further, we must be critical of proprietary systems that are costly and hard to use—from Blackboard to Facebook. We need to use alternatives to the technological giants, and we should talk not just about how to use a tool or a resource but how to understand its structure and how it works (or doesn’t). We have to acknowledge the world beyond our university or our stacks, and not remain in digital ivory towers. We should invite the messiness of an unjust world into our work and confront the contradictions. We have to make it ok that not everyone feels immediately comfortable with technology, and that there are still many socioeconomic factors that create real barriers.

What could unite radical librarianship and the digital humanities as movements is a larger investment in social justice and information accessibility. Even if libraries or dh haven’t been explicitly committed to socioeconomic justice in the past, I believe that an investment in these issues would be a uniting step that we could take together. I know that I am not alone in thinking about inclusivity issues and wanting to make more space for further conversation. My own belief in social justice is why I am motivated to share the work of Chris Dodge. It’s why I work at CUNY. And it’s why I’m excited to collaborate with dh’ers and to make more work available to more people. My library is my office with my photocopies. It is the streets. It is on the web. And it is evolving.


*As library historian Wayne Wiegand likes to mention, we still have more public libraries in the U.S. than McDonalds’s restaurants. Even with all those libraries and all those machines, the demand is still extremely high for use of these computers.

Dodge, Chris. “Libraries to the People, Redux.” Revolting Librarians Redux, ed. Katia Roberto and Jessamyn West. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003. 128-135. Print.

Chris’ piece was a response to an earlier book chapter, “Libraries to the People,” written by Sanford Berman for the original anthology, Revolting Librarians, edited by Celeste West in 1972.

Click here for more information about how to unglue Revolting Librarians Redux and make a digital copy more widely available online.

This post has been published under the terms of a CC BY-SA 3.0 US license. You are free to share, remix, and make commercial use of the work under the following conditions: Attribution and Share Alike.

Alycia Sellie

Alycia Sellie is a member of the library faculty at the Graduate Center Library, CUNY. More about Alycia and her work can be found at her website

2 thoughts on “Street Librarianship, Without the Streets

  1. Joe Grobelny Apr 10,2013 12:39 pm

    I often feel like the problem isn’t just our digital tools, it’s our language tools too:

  2. Pingback: Get to Know a Steward: Jennifer Haegele | GAUnited

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