Amateur Librarian - A Course in Critical Pedagogy

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Tomislav Medak & Marcell Mars (Public Library project)

A proposal for a curriculum in amateur librarianship, developed through the activities and exigencies of the Public Library project. Drawing from a historic genealogy of public library as the institution of access to knowledge, the proletarian tradition of really useful knowledge and the amateur agency driven by technological development, the curriculum covers a range of segments from immediately applicable workflows for scanning, sharing and using e-books, over politics and tactics around custodianship of online libraries, to applied media theory implicit in the practices of amateur librarianship. The proposal is made with further development, complexification and testing in mind during the future activities of the Public Library and affiliated organizations.

Public library, a political genealogy

Public libraries have historically achieved as an institutional space of exemption from the commodification and privatization of knowledge. A space where works of literature and science are housed and made accessible for the education of every member of society regardless of their social or economic status. If, as a liberal narrative has it, education is a prerequisite for full participation in a body politic, it is in this narrow institutional space that citizenship finds an important material base for its universal realization.

The library as an institution of public access and popular literacy, however, did not develop before a series of transformations and social upheavals unfolded in the course of 18th and 19th century. These developments brought about a flood of books and political demands pushing the library to become embedded in an egalitarian and democratizing political horizon. The historic backdrop for these developments was the rapid ascendancy of the book as a mass commodity and the growing importance of the reading culture in the aftermath of the invention of the movable type print. Having emerged almost in parallel with capitalism, by the early 18th century the trade in books was rapidly expanding. While in the 15th century the libraries around the monasteries, courts and universities of Western Europe contained no more than 5 million manuscripts, the output of printing presses in the 18th century alone exploded to formidable 700 million volumes.[1] And while this provided a vector for the emergence of a bourgeois reading public and an unprecedented expansion of modern science, the culture of reading and Enlightenment remained largely a privilege of the few.

Two social upheavals would start to change that. On 2 November 1789 the French revolutionary National Assembly passed a decision to seize all library holdings from the Church and aristocracy. Millions of volumes were transferred to the Bibliothèque Nationale and local libraries across France. At the same time capitalism was on the rise, particularly in England. It massively displaced the impoverished rural population into growing urban centres, propelled the development of industrial production and, by the mid-19th century, introduced the steam-powered rotary press into the commercial production of books.
The decisions about who, to which sections and under which conditions is to be admitted are informed by a mix of copyright laws, corporate agendas, management hierarchies, and national security issues. Various sets of these conditions that are at work in a particular library, also redefine the notion of publishing and of the publication, and in turn the notion of public.

Puisqu'il était de plus en plus facile de produire des livres en masse, les bibliothèques privées payantes, au service des catégories privilégiées de la société, ont commencé à se répandre. Ce phénomène a mis en relief la question de la classe dans la demande naissante pour un accès public aux livres.

As books became more easily mass-produced, the commercial subscription libraries catering to the better-off parts of society blossomed. This brought the class aspect of the nascent demand for public access to books to the fore.

After the failed attempt to introduce universal suffrage and end the system of political representation based on property entitlements through the Reform Act of 1832, the English Chartist movement started to open reading rooms and cooperative lending libraries that would quickly become a popular hotbed of social exchange between the lower classes. In the aftermath of the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, the fearful ruling classes finally consented to the demand for tax-financed public libraries, hoping that the access to literature and edification would after all help educate skilled workers that were increasingly in demand and ultimately hegemonize the working class for the benefits of capitalism's culture of self-interest and competition.[2]

Really useful knowledge


It's no surprise that the Chartists, reeling from a political defeat, had started to open reading rooms and cooperative lending libraries. The education provided to the proletariat and the poor by the ruling classes of that time consisted, indeed, either of a pious moral edification serving political pacification or of an inculcation of skills and knowledge useful to the factory owner. Even the seemingly noble efforts of the Society for the Diffusion of the Useful Knowledge, a Whig organization aimed at bringing high-brow learning to the middle and working classes in the form of simplified and inexpensive publications, were aimed at dulling the edge of radicalism of popular movements.[4]

These efforts to pacify the downtrodden masses pushed them to seek ways of self-organized education that would provide them with literacy and really useful knowledge – not applied, but critical knowledge that would allow them to see through their own political and economic subjection, develop radical politics and innovate shadow social institutions of their own. The radical education, reliant on meagre resources and time of the working class, developed in the informal setting of household, neighbourhood and workplace, but also through radical press and communal reading and discussion groups.[5]

The demand for really useful knowledge encompassed a critique of “all forms of ‘provided’ education” and of the liberal conception “that ‘national education’ was a necessary condition for the granting of universal suffrage.” Development of radical “curricula and pedagogies” formed a part of the arsenal of “political strategy as a means of changing the world.”[6]

Critical pedagogy

This is the context of the emergence of the public library. A historical compromise between a push for radical pedagogy and a response to dull its edge. And yet with the age of digitization, where one would think that the opportunities for access to knowledge have expanded immensely, public libraries find themselves increasingly limited in their ability to acquire and lend both digital and paper editions. It is a sign of our radically unequal times that the political emancipation finds itself on a defensive fighting again for this material base of pedagogy against the rising forces of privatization. Not only has mass education become accessible only under the condition of high fees, student debt and adjunct peonage, but the useful knowledge that the labour market and reproduction of the neoliberal capitalism demands has become the one and only rationale for education.

No wonder that over the last 6-7 years we have seen self-education, shadow libraries and amateur librarians emerge again to counteract the contraction of spaces of exemption that have been shrunk by austerity and commodity.

The project Public Library was initiated with the counteraction in mind. To help everyone learn to use simple tools to be able to act as an Amateur Librarian – to digitize, to collect, to share, to preserve books and articles that were unaffordable, unavailable, undesirable in the troubled corners of the Earth we hail from.

Amateur Librarian played an important role in the narrative of Public Library. And it seems it was successful. People easily join the project by 'becoming' a librarian using Calibre[7] and [let’s share books].[8] Other aspects of the Public Library narrative add a political articulation to that simple yet disobedient act. Public Library detects an institutional crisis in education, an economic deadlock of austerity and a domination of commodity logic in the form of copyright. It conjures up the amateur librarians’ practice of sharing books/catalogues as a relevant challenge against the convergence of that crisis, deadlock and copyright regime.

To understand the political and technological assumptions and further develop the strategies that lie behind the counteractions of amateur librarians, we propose a curriculum that is indebted to a tradition of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is a productive and theoretical practice rejecting an understanding of educational process that reduces it to a technique of imparting knowledge and a neutral mode of knowledge acquisition. Rather, it sees the pedagogy as a broader “struggle over knowledge, desire, values, social relations, and, most important, modes of political agency”, “drawing attention to questions regarding who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge.”[9]

Actuellement, aucune industrie ne montre plus d'asymétries au niveau du contrôle des conditions de production de la connaissance que celle de la publication académique. Refuser l'accès à des publications académiques excessivement chères pour beaucoup d'universités, en particulier dans l'hémisphère sud, contraste ostensiblement avec les profits énormes qu'un petit nombre d'éditeurs commerciaux tirent du travail bénévole de scientifiques qui écrivent, révisent et éditent des contributions et avec les prix exorbitants des souscriptions que les bibliothèques institutionnelles doivent payer.

FS: Hoe gaan jullie om met boeken en publicaties die al vanaf het begin digitaal zijn? DM: We kopen e-books en e-tijdschriften en maken die beschikbaar voor onderzoekers. Maar dat zijn hele andere omgevingen, omdat die content niet fysiek binnen onze muren komt. We kopen toegang tot servers van uitgevers of de aggregator. Die content komt nooit bij ons, die blijft op hun machines staan. We kunnen daar dus eigenlijk niet zoveel mee doen, behalve verwijzen en zorgen dat het evengoed vindbaar is als de print.

No industry in the present demonstrates more the asymmetries of control over the conditions of production of knowledge than the academic publishing. The denial of access to outrageously expensive academic publications for many universities, particularly in the Global South, stands in stark contrast to the super-profits that a small number of commercial publishers draws from the free labour of scientists who write, review and edit contributions and the extortive prices their institutional libraries have to pay for subscriptions. It is thus here that the amateur librarianship attains its poignancy for a critical pedagogy, inviting us to closer formulate and unfold its practices in a shared process of discovery.

A curriculum

Public library is:

  • free access to books for every member of society,
  • library catalogue,
  • librarian.
The curriculum in amateur librarianship develops aspects and implications of this definition. Parts of this curriculum have evolved over a number of workshops and talks previously held within the Public Library project, parts of it are yet to evolve from a process of future research, exchange and knowledge production in the education process.
It is within and against this milieu that libraries such as the Internet Archive, Wikileaks, Aaaaarg, UbuWeb, Monoskop, Memory of the World, Nettime, TheNextLayer and others gain their political agency. Their counter-techniques for negotiating the publicness of publishing include self-archiving, open access, book liberation, leaking, whistle-blowing, open source search algorithms and so on.

Tout en restant schématique en allant de la pratique immédiate, à la stratégie, la tactique et au registre réflectif de la connaissance, il existe des personnes et pratiques - non citées ici - desquelles nous imaginons pouvoir apprendre.

While schematic, scaling from the immediately practical, over strategic and tactical, to reflexive registers of knowledge, there are actual – here unnamed – people and practices we imagine we could be learning from.

The first iteration of this curriculum could be either a summer academy rostered with our all-star team of librarians, designers, researchers and teachers, or a small workshop with a small group of students delving deeper into one particular aspect of the curriculum. In short it is an open curriculum: both open to educational process and contributions by others. We welcome comments, derivations and additions.

MODULE 1: Workflows

  • from book to e-book
    • digitizing a book on a book scanner
    • removing DRM and converting e-book formats
  • from clutter to catalogue
    • managing an e-book library with Calibre
    • finding e-books and articles on online libraries
  • from reference to bibliography
    • annotating in an e-book reader device or application
    • creating a scholarly bibliography in Zotero
  • from block device to network device
    • sharing your e-book library on a local network to a reading device
    • sharing your e-book library on the internet with [let’s share books]
  • from private to public IP space
    • using [let’s share books] &
    • using logan & jessica
    • using Science Hub
    • using Tor

MODULE 2: Politics/tactics

  • from developmental subordination to subaltern disobedience
    • uneven development & political strategies
    • strategies of the developed v strategies of the underdeveloped : open access v piracy
  • from property to commons
    • from property to commons
    • copyright, scientific publishing, open access
    • shadow libraries, piracy,
  • from collection to collective action
    • critical pedagogy & education
    • archive, activation & collective action

MODULE 3: Abstractions in action

  • from linear to computational
    • library & epistemology: catalogue, search, discovery, reference
    • print book v e-book: page, margin, spine
  • from central to distributed
    • deep librarianship & amateur librarians
    • network infrastructure(s)/topologies (ruling class studies)
  • from factual to fantastic
    • universe as library as universe

Reading List

For updates:

Last Revision: 1·08·2016
  1. For an economic history of the book in the Western Europe see Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten Van Zanden, “Charting the ‘Rise of the West’: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries,” The Journal of Economic History 69, No. 02 (June 2009): 409–45, doi:10.1017/S0022050709000837, particularly Tables 1-5.
  2. For the social history of public library see Matthew Battles, Library: An Unquiet History (Random House, 2014) chapter 5: “Books for all”.
  3. For this concept we remain indebted to the curatorial collective What, How and for Whom/WHW, who have presented the work of Public Library within the exhibition Really Useful Knowledge they organized at Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, October 29, 2014 – February 9, 2015.
  4. “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, June 25, 2015,
  5. Richard Johnson, “Really Useful Knowledge,” in CCCS Selected Working Papers: Volume 1, 1 edition, vol. 1 (London u.a.: Routledge, 2014), 755.
  6. Ibid., 752.
  9. Henry A. Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), 5.