Interview with Elaine Harger, PLG co-founder

In the past couple of years, social justice issues in librarianship have come to the fore, led by the #critlib conversations on Twitter. I have felt that much of this new discussion could benefit from greater awareness of work that has gone on in the past in relation to social justice and libraries, and continuing efforts of some of these older groups and older generations. Specifically, I think The Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG) and ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) deserve greater recognition in the conversations that are happening now, and I think it is worth discussing their contributions, as well as some of the differences with newer formations. I think this discussion could potentially give food for thought to activist librarians of all generations, in light of changing political priorities, strategies, and social and political contexts. As a way to start this discussion, I am interviewing one of the founders of the Progressive Librarians Guild, Elaine Harger.

Elaine Harger is the librarian at Washington Middle School in Seattle, and is the author of a book recently published by McFarland & Company entitled Which Side Are You On? Seven Social Responsibility Debates in American Librarianship, 1990-2015. She is one of the co-founders of the Progressive Librarians Guild, the managing editor of its journal Progressive Librarian, and had been very active in the American Library Association until 2009, when she gave up air travel to reduce her personal CO2 footprint. As a librarian she has served a wide range of library users, from kindergarten through graduate school. She’s been a union activist, and worked her way into librarianship after a series of library jobs as a student, clerical worker, and paraprofessional.

Elaine, thanks for agreeing to do this interview.

I’m happy to have the invitation Rory. Now more than ever we need librarians concerned about social justice to come together.

I’d like to start by asking you to talk a bit about what was going on when you founded PLG, why you felt it was needed, and why it took the form that it did?

At the 1989 annual American Library Association (ALA) conference in Dallas, Texas, Mark Rosenzweig and I, both recent graduates of Columbia School of Library Services, attended a meeting of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) where a discussion was held regarding SRRT’s seeming inability to address some of the big issues then confronting the profession. SRRT members Sandy Berman and Elliott Shore presented a statement urging SRRT to consider expanding its focus beyond the work of individual task forces in order to challenge the growing use of business models in library administration, privatization, and concerns that new information technologies threatened to lead to deskilling and deprofessionalization of the work of librarians.

After returning to New York City from the conference, Mark and I continued to think and talk about what we’d learned, and thought it would be a good idea to bring together librarians in the northeast for further conversation. The full story of PLG can be found in Al Kagan’s excellent book Progressive Library Organizations: A Worldwide History (McFarland, 2015), and five years ago I published an article on PLG in issue 34/35 of Progressive Librarian (p.58-71) that readers might find of interest for details about our history.

In a nutshell, however, PLG was needed because no other group in librarianship was taking a critical and activist stance toward “big picture” issues. SRRT task forces were doing excellent work, but they all focused on single issues — human rights, library unions, LGBT, feminism, peace, and others. Members of PLG believed, as Mark stated in a 1997 letter in the SRRT Newsletter that librarianship needed “a global vision of social librarianship and cultural democracy” something SRRT did not provide at the time.

As for the form PLG took, we became an affiliate of SRRT in order to operate both within and outside ALA. This allowed PLG to have a presence at ALA midwinter meetings and annual conferences by holding meetings, sponsoring programs, having a presence on the exhibit floor, but also gave us freedom from ALA’s heavy bureaucracy to issue statements, publish an independent journal, participate in conferences of leftist organizations, march in rallies. This was the best of both worlds — affiliation and independence.

As for organizational structure, it evolved out of the hum-drum of managing memberships and subscriptions and also out of a political sensibility (maybe with anarchist tinges) opposed to the bureaucratic trappings of bylaws, officers, elections, and cumbersome relationships with the Internal Revenue Service. We needed a bank account and a tax ID number, both easily available to small club-like groups. PLG is run solely by volunteers. Membership dues pay for the publication of the journal. We have always operated at a deficit (except for a period in which the Alternatives Library in Ithaca NY printed the journal) with editors of the journal sometimes helping to pay for printing and mailing costs, and various members (most recently David Lesniaski of St. Catherine’s LIS in Minnesota) taking on the tasks of maintaining membership lists, handling finances, and mailing the journal.

The PLG Coordinating Committee was established in 2002 to bring more people into decision-making for the organization. Previously all the work had fallen to editors of the journal, an arrangement that was neither sustainable nor organizationally healthy.

Well, thanks for that outline of PLG and its history. You’ve reminded me of why I got involved in PLG in the late 90s and was so inspired by it. Two things strike me about this in the current context. The first is that the issues that PLG has been concerned with are not prominent issues in the current discussion in the #critlib community, and I think this reflects differences in the younger generation’s politics more broadly. I realize this is oversimplifying, but PLG’s priorities could be described as socialist, and the concerns of #critlib are more related to the politics of identity. There is plenty of overlap; in #critlib there is often reference to neoliberalism, and plenty of reference to Paolo Freire, who was a marxist. But the priorities are different, and the theoretical background that people refer to in the group is different. And #critlib is more concerned with theory in general it seems, as there is often discussion about poststructuralist critical theory. So there is that difference in terms of the priorities and focus. The other thing that strikes me is that at that time, in the early 90s, you felt that the natural thing to do was to start an organization, and it came out of a context of being involved with another organization. I understand what you say about the ethos being anti-bureaucratic. At the time that you founded PLG, the logical way to network with people was to form some kind of organization, but that is no longer true. People participating in #critlib generally don’t feel the need to have a formal organization at all, especially not one that collects dues. I think many younger people today would question what the point is of being involved in an organization at all. Given all of that, I wonder what you would like to say to younger people, to speak to the importance of the work that PLG is doing or has done, and the mode of organization for doing it. I’d also like to ask if in retrospect, PLG could have been more open to being reshaped and redirected by younger people who had different politics?

I’m quite interested in how you’ve described the differences between these two generations of social justice-minded librarians. Not being a theoretician, rather a practicing librarian who uses theory to inform my practice and my activism, I don’t feel I can say too much except in a general fashion. You mention a few differences between the thinking and politics of librarians who identify with either PLG or #critlib. I’ve been meeting with several #critlib-identified librarians here in Seattle this past year and find that there aren’t many substantial philosophical or political differences, but I do think there is something accurate in your assessment. Let me take one point at a time and then add what I believe is a very important difference that PLG has been missing, and which addresses your final question.

First, I’d like to share a quote from a document considered foundational to the concepts of identity politics and intersectionality — the Combahee River Collective Statement of April 1977. The Combahee River Collective was a group of radical, black, lesbian feminists.

We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation…. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.

…In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society.

Although this document played no role in the establishment of PLG, I believe it describes what I consider the political spirit of PLG. Yes, PLG is (loosely speaking) socialist, and we also from the very beginning recognized that the goal of socialism could never be reached without being informed by the knowledge and experience of people who had often been “invisible” to earlier socialist theorists. Because of our place on the timeline of history and our identification with various strands of leftist politics, we knew that efforts toward liberation had to be informed by women, people of color, LGBT members, and others who were oppressed on several fronts. That was a given.

We chose to call our group of radical, leftist, anti-establishment librarians “progressive” because the term embraced a broad spectrum of political strands. We weren’t Maoist or Trotskyist or anarchist or communist or liberation theologists, and although members might identify personally as such none of those groupings could describe all of us. The word “progressive” also hearkened back in history to the progressive movement of the early 20th century (not to say that the Progressive Era was free of oppressive elements).

As far as theoretical differences are concerned, it’s important to point out that theories evolve and have roots in the work of earlier thinkers. The term intersectionality, for instance, was coined in 1989 when PLG was first getting started. I know I had never heard, much less used, that term back then, but the underlying concept was quite familiar as noted above. Another example, in Progressive Librarian we’ve published several articles critical of post-modernism. I don’t know what #critlib librarians think of post-modernism, perhaps it is so “old school” as to receive no attention from the younger generation, but we saw that post-modern theory was very negatively impacting thinking in the profession and so felt critiques must be made.

Regarding the politics of PLG and #critlib, I’d say that the main difference might be in what constitutes the ultimate goal of those politics. Is the goal primarily to develop one’s practice as a librarian or to change unjust social structures, or both? Developing one’s practice might not require organization, but the task of changing social structures cannot happen without organization. Yes, protest might be triggered via Twitter, but as we’ve seen with the various outcomes of Arab Spring, lasting change requires a level of organization and action well beyond street activism.

The social, political, economic, cultural structures that maintain oppression are powerfully organized. And all successful movements for social change have been powerfully organized. So I don’t see how social justice-minded librarians can impact our profession and communities without also being organized.

As for dues, while it is true that no one has to pay dues to participate in #critlib, there are costs involved — either individuals or institutions pay for access to the internet, and if workshops or un/conferences are held either donations or volunteer time or in-kind contributions are solicited. PLG requires membership dues to pay for the printing and mailing of Progressive Librarian. Some have argued that the journal should just be published electronically in order to do away with the necessity of dues. Editors of the journal have discussed this several times, always deciding that we want to maintain a print publication. The payment of membership dues is an act of solidarity whether tithing to one’s spiritual community, joining a political party, club, union, professional association. Paying $25 per year to PLG is a message that says, “I value what PLG is and does and want to make a contribution to the cause from my hard earned income.” Many people who don’t pay dues benefit from the work of an organization, but those who do pay are actual contributors — and that act of solidarity is powerful in many ways.

You state that PLG’s concerns are not “prominent issues” within #critlib. Because PLG’s journal covers such a wide variety of issues, I’m not sure which are not of interest to #critlib, but my guess if that you might be referring to our ongoing critiques of information technologies — the ubiquitous gadgets of 21st century existence. For the moment, I’d encourage readers to consider the following:

1. Take a look at this 8-minute video and ask “What does this mean in terms of librarianship today?”
2. Consider that wars are fought over who controls the coltan mines in the Congo, and ask what sort of privilege benefits from the misery of that region.
3. Are there any negative impacts of technology in the library workplace? In your own job? In the job you wish you had? Ever experience “speed up”? Doing the work of two or three people?
4. What is your personal relationship with technological devices? Does digital addiction enter into that relationship?
5. Are 3-D printers really important in libraries, or have they just been successfully marketed by an industry that, having saturated the market with regular printers, simply needs something new to produce and sell and profit from?

There is so much critical work librarians could be doing regarding information technologies.

Lastly, I have noticed an element in #critlib gatherings that has largely been missing from PLG — a manner of relating to one another that is more open, more welcoming, and more respectful of differences. It seems to me to be a sensitivity to the establishment of relationships and a communication style that is informed by an understanding of white (and other) privilege. The #critlib guys actually listen attentively when others speak, they are not the experts who suck all the airtime (and spirit) out of the room. There seems to be a level of humility and recognition that other voices are needed and must be considered, and that differences in communication styles require different needs. Time is given to everyone, a quiet moment is allowed to give a speaker time to gather their thoughts, speakers are not “pounced on” by those with louder voices, sarcasm is understood to be NOT universal and so not used, conscious efforts are made to make everyone comfortable in gatherings and conversations. No one voice is prominent. That is something PLG has learned from the younger generation, and this is no small matter. It must be said, however, that ardent, confrontational, critically informed communication styles have their place too. To quote Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand” and demands usually require forcefulness. The important thing is to know when a particular style is useful and when it isn’t.

Elaine, thanks for that explanation of what PLG is about. I think it is very enlightening, and it shows a seriousness about political action that many perhaps do not realize is a part of PLG. I have a follow-up question. The first is to elaborate on an earlier question. You talked about something that I observed at PLG meetings as well, which was a certain macho attitude and lack of openness to younger people or people who came in with a different set of assumptions about what PLG should be doing, resulting in people being “shut down.” I think that explains how PLG could have been more open to new people at an affective level. But I want to ask about that issue in terms of the structure of PLG as well, and the way PLG decided, at least from the start, to be a structureless organization, and the structure it chose to have once the guidelines were created. I want to ask this in reference to Jo Freeman’s famous piece, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” I always felt that the reason new people were not replacing the original founders of PLG and taking it in new directions was as much because the structure prevented it as it was because people were less welcoming than they might have been. For the first twelve years, as an organization it was equivalent to a small, informal group doing the work and making the decisions, and dues paying members existing to offer their tacit support. When the guidelines were created, a structure was introduced that allowed for people to be voted onto the coordinating committee. But a near majority of the possible seats on the coordinating committee would be held by the members of the editorial board of the journal, which was roughly equivalent to the original small informal group, which all but guaranteed that they would stay in control. My question about this is, first, is any of that incorrect in your view, and secondly do you think it prevented PLG from being open to new people coming in to take it in new directions?

Before answering these questions, I want to clarify something. PLG has never made, or even attempted, a statement describing an organizational political ideology, and we’ve never affiliated with any political groups. The most overtly political thing we ever did was invite native activist Winona LaDuke to speak at ALA when she was vice presidential candidate for the Green Party. PLG’s politics are expressed via the work we do within librarianship, within the contexts in which individual PLG members are active, and in the statements and actions taken under the banner of PLG. Again, readers are referred to Al Kagan’s book for details.

In regard to your two questions concerning the affective environment of PLG meetings and our structure, and the impact of both in attracting the new generation of librarians, I think this discussion can be made constructive by recognizing that the dynamic is not so simple as you describe it.

First, PLG meetings on a national level take place at the midwinter and annual ALA conferences. I have only attended 3 of these meetings in the last five years, so can’t speak to the dynamics of meetings in recent years. That said, my observations, concerns, and attempts to change those dynamics in the past has led me to conclude that interpersonal behavior was only one component of the problem. Limitations of time, plus an agenda that usually covered both PLG business and ALA activities (program planning and resolutions mainly), and the nature of ALA conferences with many attendees on tight schedules, did not foster an environment that was welcoming to anyone new to either PLG or ALA. There was a period of time, however, when two PLG members (Georgie Donovan and Lauren Ray) had the idea to facilitate a discussion about an issue of interest for the first half of the meetings as a means to get everyone who attended involved in conversation. Those were my favorite meetings and the practice was used for a couple years.

Second, I hesitate to use the term “macho” to characterize the behavior that “shut down” any (and certainly not all) newcomers. Rather, an unbridled sense that one’s expertise is paramount, which is a culturally engrained attitude, often not subject to reflection, and a manifestation of white privilege. It pops up all the time even where one might least expect it. Recently, someone demanded on the SRRT listserv to know what qualified a published librarian to edit a book on gender studies and praxis. This is an example of behavior that can have a “chilling” effect on others. It has been present at PLG meetings, I imagine it’s made an occasional appearance at #critlib gatherings also. But, as I mentioned above, I have noticed an attentiveness to the problem among the new generation of librarians that hasn’t been as fully attended to within my own generation. That said, awareness can always be developed, behaviors can change — at any age!

As for the question of PLG’s structure, readers can take a look at the guidelines, adopted in 2002 and revised a couple times. They need further revision to reflect the fact that over the past several years, some of the editors of the journal have chosen not to also serve on the Coordinating Committee, so the determination of the size of the CC is no longer correct.

I’d not read Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” until you brought it to my attention, and have found it quite interesting and an accurate reflection of what I’ve experienced and observed about group dynamics over the years. Reading it brought to mind the recent vote by PLG members in Edmonton, Alberta, to disaffiliate with PLG. We’ve no idea if the decision was made by a small number (an elite?) who drafted the statement and voted, or if the vote represented the thinking of a large number of members (although I’ve no idea how many members the chapter had, could have been 5, 15, 50…). I use this example to make what I think is an important point, one that Freeman also makes when describing challenges to one informal structure/group/elite by another. She states, “[the group in charge] would have to become ‘public,’ and this possibility is fraught with many dangerous implications.” The “dangerous implications” being the revelation of exactly who is in charge — knowledge that threatens the power of informal elites.

It seems to me that what is most important in an organization is transparency. For whatever structural and governance problems PLG has, at least anyone who wants can easily find out who is on the Coordinating Committee. We are not anonymous. If someone wishes to complain about something done in the name of PLG, they know who to contact, and our guidelines do contain a process for rank-and-file member input. Can the guidelines be better? Probably, but at least we have a known structure and process.

While it is very easy to find fault in the details of any given organizational structure, what interests me most about the question is how, at this point in time, does the progressive, radical, critical, leftist library community work together to assist one another and our communities at a time of increasing political and climate crisis (which I personally think needs to be moved to the front of our agenda, along with racism). A couple days ago I received an email from Fred Stoss, a longtime PLG member who wrote:

It is hard to believe that the very first ALA program on climate change was at the 1995 Annual Meeting in Chicago at the very beginning of a massive heat wave that would go on to kill more than 1500 people in Chicago and Milwaukee (most old, respiratory-compromised, over weight poor people). Hundreds were buried in a mass grave, never having been identified, claimed or reported missing. Many died on Chicago’s South Side when the power went off due to voltage drains and they had no means to get out of their upper floor apartments (elevators were inoperable and they physically could not use the stairs), had no water and no means to keep themselves cool. Chicago passed an ordinance shortly after that require stores to remain open as harbors of refuge from the extreme heat.

Twenty-one years ago PLG and SRRT activists were working to bring climate change to the attention of ALA members. But knowledge, information, and education are no longer enough. Librarians need to be thinking of and working within our communities on action in regard to climate change. What Fred describes above is the future, plus floods, storms, fires, social tension.

Tomorrow night (July 21st) I’m joining other librarians for a Black Lives Matter demo here in Seattle. Temperatures and tempers are getting hotter, and there is work for librarians everywhere to provide harbors of refuge, spaces for dialogue. Librarians who recognize the political nature of our profession, who reject the notion of neutrality, are needed now more than ever — as individuals and as organizations. So, my question is: How can we unite in order to be strong with those we serve, as well as with one another?

Elaine, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about PLG. I think what you’ve said is very helpful in clarifying what PLG is about. I hope that it will attract new people into the organization.

I appreciate the opportunity, Rory. Your contributions to librarianship and to PLG have been considerable and I’ve no doubt will continue to be. Readers of your blog might not be aware that you and I have a longstanding, sometimes contentious, relationship. You put up PLG’s first website, got San Jose to sponsor the PLG listserv, you’ve been an editor of Progressive Librarian, a member of the Coordinating Committee, and we’ve spent countless hours at ALA dealing with all kinds of issues. Trust was broken, but now we are taking steps toward healing that break. Neither of us is perfect, neither of us has all the answers, both of us have the capacity to change. You keep an eye on my progress, and I’ll keep an eye on yours, okay? Let’s see where we are a year from now.