The Progressive Library Skillshare explores how librarians can promote social justice. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Progressive Library Skillshare explores how librarians can promote social justice.

The library is a seeming contradiction: While it's nearly subversive in eschewing consumerism in favor of sharing goods, it's also an environment with plenty of conservative traditions. Librarians can be wary folks, sometimes living up to the stereotype of the stodgy old shusher.

A growing contingent of library professionals, though, are quite in favor of making noise. One group of current and recent library-school students at the University of Pittsburgh has organized an "unconference" to "explore the relationship between library work and social justice."

The Progressive Library Skillshare, funded by Pitt's Graduate Student Organization and the student chapter of the American Library Association, will bring together two notable speakers and a series of workshops centered on information sharing on Fri., Sept. 7, and Sat., Sept. 8. The Sept. 7 program is held at Oakland's Kiva Han coffeehouse, and the Sept. 8 program is at the Union Project, in Highland Park.

Event organizers started by booking big-name (in the context of librarianship) speakers: Sanford Berman and Jenna Freedman. Berman is a well-known activist librarian, now retired, whose book Prejudices and Antipathies interrogates standard cataloging practices, which at the time of its writing, in 1971, included a great deal of language biased toward white, Christian male readers. Freedman, a contributor to the Web site Radical Reference, keeps the zine collection at Barnard College, in New York City.

The idea grew beyond the speakers, however. Inspired by similar events at other schools, the students planned what they call an "unconference" -- a term used with increasing frequency to describe an academic-style conference that eschews conventional practice and encourages sharing of information and skills amongst all participants, not just chosen speakers.

The skill-share portion of the event includes sessions on running an independent press and participating in a books-to-prisoners program, in addition to sessions on more directly library- and resource-related topics. An information fair will encourage information sharing among representatives of local independent and activist media groups. There's also a screening of a short documentary about the local books-for-prisoners program Book 'Em.

"The idea was to get not just people with ideas, but people thinking about progressive librarianship and activism," explains co-organizer Jude Vachon. "Ideas that complement the other information we're getting in library school." Library school, the organizers tend to agree, focuses a great deal on professional skills important to the field, and much less on the social issues inherent in librarianship.

Says co-organizer Vani Natarajan: "When people are looking for things that are important to their lives, things like subject headings mean a lot. But, for example, there's no subject heading for 'transgender'" in the Library of Congress classification system.

The students and librarians behind the Progressive Library Skillshare hope to examine precisely this sort of issue: how libraries and librarians handle and control information, and their role in shaping society. Alina del Pino, another of the event's organizers, puts it plainly: "We're trying to shift around the meaning of 'librarian.'"

Progressive Library Skillshare, Jenna Freedman and Book 'Em movie screening, 7-9:30 p.m. Fri., Sept. 7 (Kiva Han Cafe, 420 S. Craig St., Oakland) Sanford Berman, information fair and skill-shares, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat., Sept. 8 (Union Project, 801 N. Negley Ave., Highland Park). Free.

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