Totally rad: an interview with Jenna Freedman, activist librarian

Pinned above Jenna Freedman’s desk is bright red sticker stamped with the words “Library Punk.” It’s a pretty apt description of Freedman, who is the zine librarian at Barnard College’s Lehman Library and seems to have zero qualms when it comes to shattering expectations and shaking up the status quo. She has blue and purple hair, for the most part refuses to read books by men, and spends her free time petitioning the Library of Congress to make its subject headings more accessible to the average user. Freedman, 47, is also the co-founder of Radical Reference, an association of activist library workers who refer to themselves as “radical librarians.”

Jenna Freedman, in front of Barnard's zine collection.

Jenna Freedman, in front of Barnard’s zine collection.

 BK: Your father was a librarian. As a kid, did you dream of following in his footsteps?

JF: No, I resisted. I worked in theater for a long time after undergrad, and at one point, I was like, “This is so stupid.” In theater, everything was urgent and nothing mattered. I felt like in librarianship, everything mattered, but nothing was urgent.

BK: What makes a radical librarian different from a regular librarian?

JF: It’s just who we’re serving, and maybe our own personal politics. Radical Reference recently conducted a workshop called “Know Your Dossier: FBI Files and FOIA Requests” in Brooklyn. There wasn’t anything inherently radical about it. The population we were serving were radicals, who have a certain expectation of privacy, and need to process why you would or should request your file in a different way than Joe Schmoe … or José Schmosé. Through the years, we’ve really become champions of two things: privacy and openness. Privacy for our patrons, but openness of information.

BK: Is that why Radical Reference’s first project involved handing out information to activists and journalists at the 2004 Republican National Convention?

JF: Yeah. We had what we called “Ready Reference Kits.” In the kit, we had a schedule of events, where all the delegates were staying, the jail phone number, information about the Patriot Act, and all sorts of stuff like that.

BK: Let’s say somebody wrote to you and said, “I’m an anti-gay marriage activist and I need help finding sources to support my position.” Would you help them?

JF: Generally, librarians really like to help, and we really like people to know that we know things. So it’s very hard for us not to respond to an information request. We would probably answer that in a way that involves some critical thinking. To answer a question like that, the sources might be some weird, not reality-based, Fox-newish kind of resources that I wouldn’t find particularly credible myself. It was important to all of us to deal with sources that were credible.

BK: You’re the zine librarian here at Barnard. What do you like about zines, and why do you think it’s important to preserve them in a library setting?

JF: Zines are the ultimate embodiment of the personal as political. I have learned so much about race, and gender, transgender, all sorts of things, through reading zines. I think it’s important to include zines in the library because for one, it’s people controlling their own content and style. In most libraries, you aren’t going to find the voices that are represented in our zine collection in anything but case studies, which is a completely different way of presenting a person. It’s also people with radical points of view. Zines come out of an anarcho-punk sensibility.

BK: Your Tumblr blog, The Lower East Side Librarian, contains plenty of zine and activist content, but you also post a lot of stuff about cats.

JF: Yeah, I know, I friggin’ love cats so much, and I love my cats so much. It’s just … There’s a certain kind of crazy cat lady that I’m happy to be, but people have started giving me cat socks, and cat mugs, and cat shirts, and I sort of feel like that’s not OK.

BK: Do you think cats are kind of similar to librarians, in that they’re smart, quiet, and really good at giving the stink eye?

JF: Ooooh, I like that. Although I think librarians are a lot more other-centric than cats. We’re probably much more like dogs, because we’ll chase after you with another book if we think you need it.

BK: You make your own zines, one of which is called Lower East Side Librarian and Friends Menstruating: Librarians and Archivists Keep the Information Flowing. Is the zine purely tongue and cheek, or does it explore a connection between women and librarianship?

JF: Oh, there’s no connection between librarianship and women. It was not an intellectual exercise. I just really like to talk about my period.

BK: Why is that?

JF: I don’t know! Don’t you find your cycle interesting?

BK: Yes?

JF: I totally do.

BK: A group of former students recently filmed a feminist pornography in Columbia’s Butler Library. Should sex in libraries always be restricted to the pages of books, or can exceptions be made for activist projects?

JF: Well, I just really hope they cleaned up after themselves.  I think it’s really labor-hostile if they left all those eggs and stuff on the ground.

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Is a New York start-up bringing back the literary salon?

A recently launched start-up called Book the Writer is connecting notable authors with reading groups in Manhattan and Brooklyn, promising book clubbers a literary experience that is “truly special and utterly memorable.” The cost of Book the Writer’s services is pretty memorable too. Julie Bosman of the New York Times reports that a small Upper West Side book club recently shelled out $750 to entice Alexandra Styron (as in, the daughter of William Styron) to their group, where she spoke about her memoir, Reading My Father. More than sixty authors – including Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Cunningham and Sheri Fink – have agreed to participate in the venture. For each book club appearance, writers score $400 (the rest of the $750 goes to the venture), and an opportunity to promote their latest work among the city’s bibliophiles.

Now, there isn’t anything wrong with authors cashing in on publicity appearances. As Bosman mentions in her Times piece, publishing houses often make writers Skype into book clubs without compensating them for their time, which doesn’t seem particularly reasonable or fair. But there’s something slightly off-putting about Book the Writer, perhaps because it promotes a rather blatantly elitist version of the modern-day reading group. Should the venture take off, it may very well prove to be the start of an interesting, retrograde shift in the evolution of the book club.

Today’s book lovers have hundreds of reading groups at their fingertips, maybe even thousands, now that book clubs are starting to shift to online forums. While a lot of these clubs focus on relatively highbrow stuff — literary classics, award-winning novels, political biographies, what have you — there are just as many groups devoted to literature that will never see a Pulitzer Prize. Or any prize, for that matter. In Manhattan alone,  readers can get together and chat about chick lit, “smutty books” (chick lit, plus bondage), YA novels, and horror fiction. There are oodles of fantasy and sci-fi reading groups too, for those who are in the know about the goings-on of Middle-earth and Winterfell. Which is to say that book clubs have become wonderfully democratic institutions, catering to a wide range of interests and open to anyone with the ability to read and the inclination to discuss their favourite  genre.

But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1700s, before literacy began to permeate class boundaries, the literary “salon” was the exclusive purview of the social upper crust (and usually dominated by women). Discussion in these salons tended to concentrate on broad literary concepts rather than a single book, and notable intellectuals were invited to preside over the conversation in order to bolster the prestige of the gathering. Smaller reading groups that focused on specific works of literature began to crop up in the 19th century, and membership was often restricted to women of leisure who had inherited a spot in the group. The ancestor of the modern book club was, in other words, quite the marker of wealth and status.

Fast forward 200 years, and Book the Writer seems to be encouraging a return to the aristocratic reading group of the Victorian era; the venture offers wealthy New Yorkers the opportunity to host literary gatherings that are graced by the presence of well-known authors, whose company is acquired for a price that most readers can’t afford. And New York is the perfect place for this trend to take off; as Bosman puts it, the city “has a glut of … devoted readers, many of them with unusually deep pockets.” As for the rest of us … well, we can be grateful for our author-free book clubs, which at the very least are conducive to spirited reader discussion. After all, you can’t trash a book’s plot trajectory if its author is sitting within earshot, snacking on the same platter of cheese and crackers. And if you happen to have particularly strong feelings about Fifty Shades of Grey or A Game of Thrones, here are links to some of the groups that I refer to in this post:

Chick Lit Book Club: http://www.meetup.com/bookclub-1243/

Smutty Book Club: http://www.meetup.com/Smutty-Book-Club/

NYC Fantasy and Sci-Fi Book Club: http://www.meetup.com/fsfbookclub/

Forever Young Adult book club: http://foreveryoungadult.com/fya-book-club-locations

Arkham Horror Book Club: http://nerdnyc.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=54512

Happy Clubbing!