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.