Radical Collections: How books, manuscripts and information are being organised and what is the impact of information professionals’ decisions?

This is a guest post by Tundun Folami, Graduate Trainee Library Assistant in the Institute of Historical Research Library, who live-tweeted a panel at the Radical Collections conference on the 3rd of March. Here is her review of the papers delivered in the second panel of the day.

On 3 March 2017, Senate House Library, the Institute of English Studies and the Institute for Historical Research hosted a one-day conference examining the themes and issues facing the sector today. Across four panels, the topics tackled included, who works in libraries and who uses libraries, what is in collections and how collections are being developed, how books and information are organised, and the current events in librarianship and with libraries.

The second panel of the conference was titled, “How? How books, manuscripts and information being organised and what is the impact of information professionals’ decisions?” Starting out, Julio Cazzasa from Senate House Library explored the practicalities of cataloguing radical material and also spoke about the problems faced by Senate House Library’s collection. For example, the Heisler collection of over 50,000 items is both a library and archive collection; this in itself presents a major challenge. Other collections given as examples included the Pelling Collection, which contains over 800 British left-wing political pamphlets, and the Latin America Political Pamphlets Collection, which consists of around 4000 titles in 140 boxes. Cazzasa noted how special collections can complement each other but can be very different in nature and require different cataloguing methods.

Next up was Alycia Sellie (CUNY), who began by name-checking writer, poet, playwright and social critic, James Baldwin; which was an apt start considering her section concerned race and librarianship. Sellie used the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Newspapers and Periodicals Collection as a case study to raise the question of the whiteness of librarianship and how collection practices should strive to be radical. The Wisconsin Historical Society holds the second largest collection of serials in the United States (right after the Library of Congress), Sellie remarked that describing the materials in the collection was “as difficult as describing America”. She also maintained that it is not just collections, but also collecting practices that need to be radical: diversity can be a way of protecting whiteness in librarianship and the presence of diverse materials in collections does not necessarily ensure their agency. Sellie ended her talk by saying that librarians need to reframe collections through discussion and critique of the unspoken whiteness that has built libraries as institutions so far.

The final talk of the panel came from Gregory Toth from Senate House Library, who spoke on challenging library classifications to make them less discriminative. One notable example given by Toth was the fact that it took the Library of Congress 18 years to dismiss the subject heading, “Yellow Peril”. With a slide featuring Alison Bechdel, Toth mentioned how catalogue users should be able to “find themselves on the first try”, and that they should be able to locate material without being confused, misled or offended. Along with the discriminative nature of library classifications, Toth also spoke on the need for a focus on critical theory in LIS studies.

Radical Voices can be tracked on Storify for much more insight and information on the rest of the panels of the conference.