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Self Help, Mutual Aid, Reference Services – A Sideways Glance

Imagine that you are busily working away when you find yourself approached by an individual with a demanding inquiry. The question may not seem particularly interesting to you or it may invigorate you. The experience of being asked may make you feel inconvenienced or make you feel somewhat flattered at having been approached. The moment you process the question you may instantly know the answer, or where to look for the answer, or have only a faint idea as to the answer. Maybe you are amused by the question, maybe you recognize that you need to ask your own questions in order to determine what type of answer is actually being sought, and perhaps you know that you need to ask somebody else to help you answer the question.

It is not that uncommon for people to find themselves on the receiving end of queries from strangers, but the questions that strangers generally bounce off one another typically have to do with time, directions, or something rather simple. Being on the receiving end of a complex question, or open-ended question; however, is less common. Yet there are several roles an individual may wind up assuming in which answering seemingly random questions becomes unavoidable – and indeed becomes invested with a certain odd ethical obligation.

Two of these roles are activist and librarian.

Librarians, particularly reference librarians, are accustomed to being asked lengthy and complex questions by strangers. Granted, answering random questions is a central responsibility of many librarians – and even those sequestered in corners of austere academic institutions may still find themselves periodically asked for information about pterodactyls or if they know how to fix the photocopier. If one of the central tasks of librarianship includes connecting people with the information they seek, than answering questions is an essential task. It is an obligation that is part and parcel to the role.

Activists, particularly those engaged in public protest, are also accustomed to being asked lengthy and complex questions by strangers. Though in the case of an activist the questions are more likely to be of the “what are you doing/what’s this all about” variety than genuinely random inquiries (most protests do not include photocopiers that need to be fixed). If one of the central goals of many activist projects is to raise awareness about a certain issue, than answering questions is an essential task. However, many activists wind up developing a certain distrust of those asking too many questions, seeing them as potential interlopers (or worse). Nevertheless, most activists know that to a certain extent they are obliged to explain their aims.

Being on the receiving end of questions can be an odd experience – even if one does it in a “professional” context. Likewise giving answers to questions, or simply trying to answer questions, can be challenging, thankless, and potentially risky as one can never be certain that the answer given will be the one that was hoped for by the questioner. For a librarian, answering questions is often literally part of their job description. And though many activists may not necessarily think in these terms, there may be something to be said for activists thinking of one of their roles as being reference librarians. Too often, or so it seems, activists are hesitant to consider one of their tasks to be disseminating information, which is particularly a shame as most activists know of a host of resources to which they could direct a curious questioner.

This may seem a somewhat odd suggestion, but it may well be that there are elements in the ethos of librarianship that align quite neatly with features commonly found in activist practice. Though it is uncommon to hear a library school program put it in such terms, much of what librarians engage in could be easily put under headings familiar to many activists: “self-help” and “mutual aid.” The writer Colin Ward, commented upon the activist pedigree of these obligations thusly:

“our ancestors were kept alive only by a combination of self-help and mutual aid, and this was the dominant characteristic of the emerging working-class organizations of the nineteenth century, whether we are thinking of the co-operative movement, the trade union movement, the friendly society movement or the adult education movement.” (Ward, 110)

Though one term prominently features the term “self” and the other foregrounds “mutual” the two function in a complex web of interconnections which simultaneously recognizes the importance and vitality of the individual in society (“self”) while still noting that every individual acts within a larger social context of others (“mutual”). Ward’s quote demonstrates that in past organizing both features needed to be successfully and consciously mingled, but at times it seems that one of the two acts as a barrier to accessing the other.

It is in this space that libraries can be found – places where a community pools some of its funds in order to provide a trove of informational resources for all to access. While the larger societal group communally contributes towards the maintenance (“mutual”) the resources are there to be used as individuals (“self”) see fit. In this context librarians often come to play a particular role as they stand at the point of further helping individuals who come bearing questions. In some ways librarians even come to stand in as representatives for the “mutual” (insofar as they represent the library) assisting the various “selves.” The librarians’ role in this context consists not merely in answering, but in truly providing aid, though it is important to recognize that the help provided by a librarian is usually to direct the questioner towards a source for answers as opposed to simply providing a total answer. In other words, oftentimes librarianship consists of performing mutual aid in order for an individual to be able to better answer their own question. True, this is not quite the same as Ward’s historic allusion to “our ancestors” yet it retains an important emphasis on the point of intersection between self-help and mutual aid.

Activists often see their actions as direct manifestations of the principle of mutual aid, and it is likewise common to hear activists exhorting the importance of people engaging in self-help for purposes such as education (“self educate”). Yet, what might it mean for more activists to borrow some of the ethos of librarianship and to begin to think of disseminating information as a task of genuine import for all engaged in activist endeavors? Certainly, many activists already engage in this to varying degrees (with activist media serving as a dramatic case in point), but the point is that this should be viewed as a core responsibility, not something that can be left solely to those whose activism is purposefully linked to creating and distributing information. When a person calls upon others to “self educate” or practice “self help” this call needs to be bolstered by assisting others in finding the proper tools (informational or otherwise). In a comment primarily about housing and squatting Colin Ward noted that:

“the habit of self-help and mutual aid have been deliberately repressed” (Ward, 114)

As such if these are values that some would like to see reinvigorated with a deliberate effort to put people back in “the habit of self-help and mutual aid” – than it is important to view them as being as much a goal as anything else. If activists (or others) are looking for a model of how to continually practice such tasks librarianship can serve as a compelling model. It is important to march, to chant, and to engage in various forms of creative protest, but long-term success necessitates re-building sustainable networks, which can distribute information through a group and to those outside of the group who are curious. When we engage with the issues of the world, we should be willing to engage with the questions that others may pose – even if the questions may seem odd, or may pull us away from other tasks.

After all, there are times when simply being willing to answer somebody’s questions can be an extremely radical act.

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What I Wish I Had Learned in Library School (Part 1)

What I Wish I Had Learned in Library School (Part 2)

What I Wish I Had Learned in Library School (Part 3)

Works Cited

Ward, Colin. Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility – The Colin Ward Reader. AK Press, 2011.

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“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

7 comments on “Self Help, Mutual Aid, Reference Services – A Sideways Glance

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This entry was posted on February 18, 2014 by in Activism, Archives, Education, Ethics, Librarianship, Libraries, Society, The Commons and tagged , , , .

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