The Semantics of Subversive Librarianship

Let’s get political.

A large number of librarians, myself included, identify with left-leaning, progressive politics.  Whether we actively oppose GATS meetings, actively write against and criticize GATS negotiations, work to help the disadvantaged get the information that need to get a fair shake in life, or simply believe that public information access and dissemination is at the core of librarianship, these librarians are willing to merge their personal ethos with their professional lives.

Some of us revel in being labeled “subversive” for these politics.  The word’s connotations of public protests and discrete or grand actions to disrupt the status quo comfort us.  We’re the kind of people who want to make a difference in the world in our time, so being called subversive reminds us that we are in fact doing our part to fight social ills and defend civil liberties.    And we love the words spoken by Michael Moore (even if we don’t like the man – there are subversives who don’t appreciate all his work) on subversive librarianship.  Moore, a touchstone of progressive politics, praised the librarians of the Social Responsibilities Round Table who protested loudly against HarperCollins and ultimately ensured that Stupid White Men went to press after 9/11 with its criticisms of the Bush administration intact.  Humbled by the work of the librarian profession, Moore said:

I really didn’t realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group.  They are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them. You know, they’ve had their budgets cut. They’re paid nothing. Books are falling apart. The libraries are just like the ass end of everything, right?

And there we are: praise from on high.  Affirmation that we are doing our part in the fight to protect civil liberties.  And we really are! Socially responsible librarians every day defend an individual’s personal freedoms, such free speech or a right to privacy.  It’s no surprise then, that I love the SRRT, the BCLA, Library Juice and other like-minded associations and endeavors.

I strongly believe that my personal moral code cannot be tossed out the window when on the job.  My professional code of ethics marries the ALA’s Code and the CLA’s Code, the guidelines of my employers, and my personal ethical behaviour. And to put it bluntly, I work only for organizations that encourage learning, information access and information rights, a freedom to read and a freedom to speak, and an open discourse with the community on the issues affecting it daily.   That’s not to say I’m marching with fists raised whenever I shuffle along from one building to another when on campus – I packed away my Doc Martens long ago – but I do ask on a regular basis if the actions in my daily life, let alone working life, are for the greater good of society, and I work to answer in the affirmative.

But I’m bothered by the fact that these actions and values are often considered “subversive.”  I largely agree with and understand that subversive actions can never come to an end because the very nature of subversiveness implies continued action as a watchdog of state and corporate interests, but I don’t appreciate the negative connotations that are brought to bear with the use of the term.  The word, “subversive,” has physical, if not violent connotations attached to it.  To subvert something is not to upset the balance or undermine an imperfect authority.  Rather, “to subvert” is simply “to overthrow.”  And to institute regime change is not the ends our endeavour to protect civil liberties.  In protecting civil liberties we aim to defend individual freedoms.  We aim to be openly critical of government and corporate interests of all political stripes in order to defend the interests of the individual and to protect the interests of those who can’t defend themselves.

I may be quibbling about semantics and rhetoric, but it’s a strong point that I believe warrants discussion in the wider community.  To use the word “subversive” is to use language which suggests that we are only muckrakers when we are in fact social critics and defenders of the same freedoms that people who often oppose our actions hold dear.  Couldn’t we just embrace the term “subversive” as our own and try to subvert the understanding of its use, you might ask?  I think we’re still trying to do this, but in doing so we find ourselves preaching only to the choir.  Those who have not heard our message or who do not agree with it do not understand any ironic ‘subversion’ of the word “subversive.”  Rather, we must be clear and concise with our message and our terms.  Just as I am pro-choice instead of anti-life (as some abortion opponents would have it), we should pronounce ourselves as pro-civil-liberties, or something to that effect, in order to help the world understand our message.  We’re not here to take down the government, overthrow our national institutions or destroy capitalism and all its vestiges.  Rather, we’re here to promote, defend, and maintain the rights of the individual.  Perhaps a term other than “subversive” would better explain this to others.

On that note happy holidays. And to all the subversive librarians out there, I hope I haven’t offended you.  This isn’t a personal attack.  This is more an attempt to start a dialogue on the words we use to describe ourselves and our actions.

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