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Here are some slightly sketchy notes from the unconference lunchtime discussion. Please modify or add if I missed something essential.

Merci beaucoup for the enjoyable conversation!


The lunchtime conversation acted as a chance for people who were less familiar with Radical Reference to ask questions. And a very important one kicked off the discussion: What does it mean to be a member?

All it means to be a member is to sign up. There are different levels of involvement for each individual. Activities include participation in local groups, publishing, teaching, going to conferences, answering questions on the site, and conducting research and publishing, all with a focus on radicalism. Currently there are around 300 members of radical reference (in the US, Canada, Australia and other countries), but probably less than 20 would be considered really active. It’s a “flat organization,” so it’s whatever members want to make out of it. There is no ideological basis, no official statements, and members have differing political views. The dream projects page on website is a great place to see what members goals, dreams, and passions are: http://www.radicalreference.info/dream [1]. The website and e-mail discussion group are key ways for the community to interact, but local collectives are also a very important part of the organization. Online interaction is fine, but in-person, face-to-face meetings add a spark to involvement and foster commitment. The New York collective, for example, has about 10-20 people. (As a side note: a site re-design is desired…anyone with an interest is welcome to the job!)

What are the best ways to be involved? Especially online? The easiest way is to sign up to answer questions online. It is a collaborative process: everyone contributes what they know (including internal notes) and how they can help. Suggestions for getting involved in starting a local collective include leaving flyers, posting to lists, and looking in likely places for people with similar interests. You don’t need explicit purpose or outcome to start a collective—just find others and brainstorm ideas. Collaborate with groups in the community. Go to community events (e.g., radical book fair, food co-op) and sit with a laptop and a sign saying “Ask Us.” Or offer technical knowledge and resources to community groups. Issues will be driven by local needs. Social events are a great way to start (Party Girl or Freaks and Geeks / zine reading, meet in a bar, etc.)

One theme of the day was the challenges (and benefits) of being a new librarian, and one “newbie” fear was expressed: looking like a dumb librarian. So radical reference is a good way to get practice and put yourself out there. The radical reference site offers opportunities for practice and assistance (e.g., librarians can add internal notes if they’re not sure of an answer or go on the listserv and ask for help, they can set up buddies to work with in answering questions, and they can be anonymous on site).

In general, it’s very important to get involved, especially outside the library world. Especially for new librarians or folks who don’t feel particularly sure of themselves, it’s a great idea to present, write, or do a skill share in collaboration with others. Some participants got involved in radical reference from a progressive academic counselor or in organizing protests. They have found a niche and a way contribution as a librarian in a larger group.

The conversation then turned to specific instances of implementing or confronting issues in our own libraries and communities. A fundamental issue in radical reference is making information available to people. If you don’t have a computer, where do you go to get access to information? One participant talked about issue in his own library with people coming to university, knowing computers were openly available. At public libraries, need proof of state residency to log in. This brought up an argument in the library over who should have access to computers. The specific problem was with sites judged to have pornographic content. One solution was to create stand-up reference stations. Others are “white-listed,” with certain sites blocked. But what really seems to work is not to block but to monitor. Problematic to block and filter particular sites. Another attendee shared her experience in a public library that has filters associated with library cards and log-ins (by age).

One participant shared her experience of the idea of community outreach from the bottom up, as it were. She and a colleague were interested in the idea of archivists as advocates and initiated a project to document the oral history of drag kings in New Orleans. But they came to the realization that people didn’t really want to be interviewed or have an archive made of their stories. So they had to come up with other ideas and not make assumptions about what people want and need. Instead, they started by asking questions. What kinds of practices does the community already have for documentation and sharing information. Do they have the needs and desires that we think they do? Following this approach, they made a zine and made themselves available as resources/assistants for what the community wanted to do. Other projects that she helped to support as a “resource person” included a temporary exhibition to which people lent their “artifacts,” helping others to create zines, and setting up an online photo archive.

And finally, a handy publication on the topic: Friedman, Lia G., Morrone, Melissa. The Sidewalk Is Our Reference Desk: when librarians take to the streets. IFLA Journal 2009 35: 8-16. DOI: 10.1177/0340035208102029