"The US Social Forum and Librarians: A Report-Back" in Library Manifesto

I have a piece about our work at the 2010 U.S. Social Forum in the latest Library Manifesto. I met the editor, Natalie Pantoja, a few years ago when she came to some Books Through Bars sessions -- now she's an LIS student in NYC, and this is one of her projects!

The article is on page 3 of the PDF (direct link to issue 3) and reprinted below:

The US Social Forum and Librarians: A Report-Back

by Melissa Morrone

The second US Social Forum (USSF) was held in Detroit, Mich., this past June. The concept of the "social forum" has been developed since the first World Social Forum (WSF) took place in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. It refers to a dynamic process -- not just an event -- where progressive organizations and individuals come together to connect and strategize about ways to fight against neoliberal ideas of globalization and other oppressions. (For a number of readings, both practical and theoretical on the WSF in the context of libraries and information, see the Winter 2006-7 issue of Information for Social Change.) I've never been to the WSF, but I attended both the 2007 USSF (held in Atlanta, Ga.) and the one this summer.

The social forums are overwhelming events. The 2010 USSF was five days long, packed with time slots that offered over 100 workshops each. People's Movement Assemblies -- 50 in all -- were special sessions for analysis and action plans related to topics ranging from prison to gender to the environment. How to choose what to focus on? For a few librarians, it was activities that would allow us to incorporate our training and interests.

Back in 2007, members of Radical Reference and the Progressive Librarians Guild participated on multiple levels as librarians. (My write-up is here.) This time, we wanted to have a strong radical librarian contingent, but unfortunately only three of us were able to go in the end -- me, Jenna Freedman, and Alycia Sellie. As it happened, we are all New Yorkers who are members of the NYC collective of Radical Reference and also have ties to the radical techie crew that formed the technological backbone of the USSF.

Alycia got caught up in helping with registration and other tech issues, so it was mainly Jenna and I involved in the People's Media Center. As with all aspects of the USSF, the PMC took shape through (relatively) horizontal collective participation both before and during the forum -- it became what we all made of it. In fact, there were no special "press passes" for journalists who wanted to cover the USSF; every attendee had the potential to be a media maker, so the only requirement for entry into the PMC was the standard bracelet that indicated you had registered for the forum.

Jenna and I had been on PMC planning conference calls in the weeks leading up to the USSF, and once in Detroit we helped set up the physical space and contributed to the wiki. We also spent a lot of time at the Info Desk to help answer questions -- though most media-makers simply needed space (and electricity, and Internet access) in which they could create. One morning we conducted a fact-checking workshop for a couple of people. A few photos of the PMC are here.

Radical Reference was also invited by Team Colors, a "militant research" collective, to be on their panel "Research for the Revolution: Radical Research Strategies for Movement Building." Jenna, Alycia and I spoke about how we use our library expertise to work with social justice activists and independent journalists. Fellow panelist Cindy Milstein, an anarchist organizer and educator, was especially awesome, questioning even the use of the academically-fraught term "research" -- why not "inquiry"? Why separate "thought" from organizing? Milstein and some members of the audience brought up issues of class and race (the entire panel was white, for one) and criticized narrow definitions of media and materials worthy of research -- why shouldn't, for example, a play be a valid media product? In Milstein's words, we need to be decommodifying knowledge and reappropriating imagination.

As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Andrej Grubacic say in the preface to the recently-published Team Colors collection Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States, "[there is a] perceived desperate need of current radical movements for processes of inquiry, that is, investigations into the strengths of contemporary organizing and processes that involve dialogue and communications in relation to the realities and experiences of oppressed peoples" (p. xv). And whether or not we consider ourselves "militant researchers," the work of librarians is indeed connected with inquiry, investigation, and communication.

So: so what?

At least 15,000 people attended the 2010 USSF. One of my personal USSF regrets is not making more of an effort to learn about the host city, despite the great quantity of Detroit-specific workshops and talks. (Alycia, however, has a wonderful write-up of a talk with legendary local activist Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein.) Media equipment from the PMC and other resources were left in Detroit for the benefit of grassroots organizations in that struggling but inspiring city.

And in the rest of society, the mainstream media naturally took little notice of this massive pan-Left event. According to an investigation by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a Tea Party convention in February got 1500 times as many mentions, per participant, as did the USSF. Something to keep in mind when we consider that elusive "professional neutrality," in journalism as well as in our own field.