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Report Back: “Libraries in the History of Print Culture"

Submitted by alycia on Thu, 09/23/2010 - 16:12

The Library History Seminar XII: “Libraries in the History of Print Culture” Conference of the Center for the History of Print Culture was truly one of the most enjoyable conferences that I have ever attended. I may be a bit biased because presenting at this conference was a dream of mine, and perhaps also because I utterly adore the field of print culture. I think it also helped that the event was held at my alma mater, and I got the chance to chat with many library colleagues and heroes who I just don't get to see often enough (and just how often do you get met with a great big hug directly after your presentation?!--thanks Tracy!).

I was also tremendously lucky to receive a scholarship to attend the conference through the Library History Roundtable of the ALA, so I will be writing a short piece about the conference in their newsletter, but what follows are a few of my notes and observations from the conference, which really only touch bits and pieces of the overall experience.

The first panel that I attended on Friday was "Providing Information, Main Street Public Libraries, 1900‐1950." I enjoyed these talks, which were largely based upon Wayne Wiegand's Main Street data collected from Midwestern library acquisition records. I found Joanne Passet's work particularly intriguing; looking at the invisibility and "complicit overlooking" of LGBT titles, both by trained librarians and library staff.

The second panel that I attended was my own, titled "Revolting Librarians in Action," where I presented with Alistair Black and Jessa Lingel. James Danky was the moderator for our session, which lent a really nice element to the panel; I used to work both with Jim as my supervisor at the Wisconsin Historical Society and later I supervised Jessa at Pratt Institute. It was nice to be among friends. I liked Jessa's exploration of libraries as playful, mischievous places that can be inhabited by trickster librarians, and I am excited to read more of her work in this area.

I also attended the "Broadcasting in Print" panel where I found the work being done in the study of reading communities by DeNel Rehberg Sedo to be intriguing; she was looking at everything from Oprah's book club to twitter reading groups, but with an international scope.

The highlight of Friday, the conference, and more was hearing Janice A. Radway speak at the plenary on "Can the Underground be Saved?: Girl Zines, the Librarians Who Love Them, and the Reconfiguration of the Literary Sphere." Although my interest in zines is not limited to any particular group, and certainly I am not only interested in zines made by women, I was so very excited to hear this presentation. I knew Radway's work from library school first, where many of my classmates read and adored Reading the Romance. Then last semester in my American Studies class we read a bit of her work about the field of American Studies, which I found to be amazingly insightful, inspiring and brave. Her explorations of power and language captivated me. Thus, I knew I was in for a treat to have this chance to hear this presentation. I don't think I can do justice to Radway's full talk here, but a few notes follow.

Radway's presentation was phenomenal; better than I could have hoped and then some. As someone who has read a good deal of scholarship related to zines, I found Radway's work to be everything that new scholarship should be; her perspective is unique, she's done her homework, and she's looking at new aspects that remain unexplored. I appreciate that she began her talk speaking about James Danky, Wayne Wiegand and the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America, because for me this is where my own history in print culture began, and Wiegand and Danky's work always remains as a reminder. And yet Radway is departing from a study of zines as a material artifact and is instead interested in studying the networks of relationships and community that these materials pass through; what they represent as they move throughout different spaces and between people. She also is rejecting the idea that zines--and especially girl zines--are inherently underground; that there is a pure, authentic underground, or "actively dissenting agents," and that there even is an above/below dichotomy (and especially the power relationships in zines created by white, middle class girls and shared among other white, middle-class girls).

Radway is also interested in libraries as one nexus in the world of a zine. She is interested in their circulation and reception as points in a larger map of power, position, perspective and location. And this is where it gets complicated for me--because much of what Radway would like to do (as her work is continuing) is talk to people who enter into the life of a zine. I am one of the folks whom she feels play a study-able role in that life as someone who advocates for their inclusion in library collections. She is also interested in other more prominent (girl) zine librarians, like Jenna Freedman, Kelly Wooten and a few others. She is also looking to see how these zines are preserved and used according to each person's own perspectives of feminism. Radway has some really amazing thoughts about the varying milieu that these objects move through; and the communities that circle around them. This is really original, enticing work that I am excited to see explored further!

Finally, it was really interesting to hear the questions that Radway was asked in the plenary. I think almost every one began, "I'm not interested in zines, but..." or "I'd never heard of a zine before, but..." She definitely persuaded and intrigued those in the room about zines and zine culture (hooray!)!

On Saturday morning, I went to the "Libraries as Space, Place and Time" panel, which I really enjoyed. Andrew L. Knighton read a very intoxicatingly beautiful paper on the architecture of libraries in postwar L.A. (and I was really glad for Danky's comments afterward, because despite the allure of examining these utopian visions at face value, I think there was a huuuuge racial/social subtext that needed to be explored further). Michael J. Paulus, Jr. presented about a project that students created for themselves within the Whitman College Library--an ongoing contest to see who could spend the most consecutive hours awake in one of the 24/7 reading rooms. I salute the students for this hilarious and ingenious idea, and also the mere fact that there is a log BOOK rather than a, ahem, facebook page. Finally, there was a presentation on the Grinell Black Library and the history of student involvement therein, which I think raised many questions that still may not be able to be answered.

In the afternoon, I also really enjoyed the "Classifying the Other" panel. Melissa Adler presented her research conducted on the Library of Congress' Keeper and Delta collections' records, which were segregated collections "protected" from the public (largely because of their sexual content--be it pornography or anything that strayed from standard hetero allusion). I found Adler's research to be fascinating, and have long wanted to do a study of why and what has ended up in these protected/caged collections at libraries. Adler also talked about LCSH headings, how her discovery of headings related to "paraphilias" inspired her project, and the automated changing/updating of headings in the catalog--fascinating commentary on how people, and librarians, feel about bisexuality, homosexuality, and sexuality overall.

Emily Drabinski talked about locating herself within the library. As Emily and I chatted throughout the weekend, she told me at one point that she really is "only interested in ideas." I thought a lot about this as Emily presented her paper, and how strong her own ideas are about classification systems and conceptual structures, as well as the human components and implications of these structures. Emily began her paper with Mo going to library school in Dykes to Watch out For, and ending with a discussion of the invisibility of classification systems in closed online search engines and the human bias inherent even in these systems (yes! amazing!). She also talked about classifying herself--as a lesbian, but also as more than that alone ("Like that, but different from that")--within LCSH and library systems. And how central finding yourself--as a lesbian--within the library is often a central coming-out experience (which was also mentioned over the weekend by Joanne Passet), and is integrated into the circular storytelling of the coming-out story. I find Emily's writing continually fascinating, and it was great to hear her present this work and to get the chance to talk with her about her ongoing interest in classification and language. Emily's talk was also reminiscent of Radway's in the sense that I felt both scholars were really located in the ideas surrounding the text and the concrete, pointing at language and power and all the scaffolding of what creates the larger institutions, structures and communities.

Finally, on Sunday, another panel that I found particularly interesting was "Censorship in the Midwest." I liked Emily Knox's work on the recent West Bend, WI library challenges because it was a contemporary case of library turmoil. Knox mentioned modern art as an analogy for libraries and reading culture; that in order to understand it, you need a background (in art history), which I thought was a really intriguing analogy to bring into the conversation. She also moved into a discussion of the religious aspects of the challenges, and that in the protestant tradition (from which the challengers were coming), reading is believing. I thought that this was a really important aspect of many library challenges since I think this concept--whether you are what you read/view/etc.--can be so divisive, and to think about these theocratic undertones and influence in American culture can be key.

Other than these sessions mentioned above, there were many, many other really wonderful presentations and discussions throughout the weekend. I had a chance to visit the SLIS Library for an evening, where I bought a Spotted Cow at the circulation desk, got to take a look at the continuing Library Workers Zine Collection, and bid on items related to the history of librarianship at the silent auction (and even went home with a few gems--a book about the history of the WHS, some works on censorship in libraries, and a copy of Unix in Libraries!) I also got to visit the Historical Society for a moment to see the newly renovated reading room, which was a real treat and so surprising (and colorful!) as compared to the WHS I was used to. I heard that over the weekend there was also a massive party at my old workplace, College Library, and I was sad that I didn't get a chance to take part in that, but I am really thankful for all of the time I got to spend in Madison, thinking and reflecting as I often had the opportunity to do when I lived there (when I wasn't navigating all those football games, frat boys and empties on the street), about the history of books, print, library activism, and where we're headed in the future.

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