Envisioning the Radical Embedded Librarian

Zeynep Tufekci begins and ends her book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest with a striking Zapatista saying: “Preguntando caminamos,” or “we walk while asking questions.” The author learned of this phrase during time spent with the Zapatistas, an indigenous group of rebels in the southernmost state of Mexico, and she hears it echoed quite by accident years later when speaking to a Spanish activist who was a part of the Indignados Movement in Madrid.

In the library, where tradition often reigns, we don’t walk while asking questions. We sit while waiting for patrons to ask us questions.

Black and white photo. Two male librarians sit at the reference desk, shuffling papers
Sitting and waiting for patrons to ask us questions can take a while!

Librarians as Learners

This, of course, is not an entirely fair accusation- as we are learning about even just in this class, libraries are innovating in incredible ways around the world. But we have all heard the pushback when it comes to change in the library world, whether from coworkers or bosses or entire institutions, and this is precisely what Library 2.0 reacts to. As David Weinberger reminds us in The Hyperlinked Organization: “Your organization is becoming hyperlinked. Whether you like it or not. It’s bottom-up; it’s unstoppable.” What would it look like for us, then, to take the plunge and stop simply dipping our toes in the water? To not just use twitter for advertisement about an upcoming LEGO club, but to learn from the activists who often rely on social media as a more dynamic and responsive library than our brick and mortar branches?

Tufekci, herself present at the 2013 Gezi Park protests and chronicler of many antiauthoritarian political uprisings around the world, traces the link between such movements and the integration of social media, what she calls “networked protests.” Many of us have likely participated in a protest in the last few months. Even in my sleepy county in the San Joaquin Valley of California, a small yet dedicated faction has erupted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The central town of Kern, Bakersfield, saw protests lasting multiple days, and smaller mountain towns nearby represented in their towns, too. Much like the hyperlinked organization, this movement is grassroots and unstoppable. Through the power of social media, Tufekci tells us, we can now organize at lightning-speed.

A stop sign with a sign taped to it that reads "Black Lives Matter"
Photograph taken by me on one of my evening neighborhood walks.

Looking Ahead, Holding What’s Behind

But she also warns that the use of social media for organizing can cause what she calls a “tactical freeze,” in which movements are unable to pivot to enact lasting social change beyond showing up for a protest. This can often happen when movements are young and born of the moment. As a counter case study to modern, networked protests, Tufekci offers the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the 1963 March on Washington. These efforts took years of planning and internal struggles that forged a united front and strong tactical decisions. (It is worth pointing out, and Tufekci does, that these internal struggles were kept internal likely in large part due to the lack of social media, which necessitates transparency for better or worse.)

Tufekci’s book, published in 2017, touches on Black Lives Matter but begs a followup given today’s reality in the wake of recent protests against police violence. She refers to the movement as “young,” but with “great narrative capacity” that “has changed the public conversation” (Tufekci, p.209). She published “Do Protests Even Work?” in June of this year in the Atlantic, and the informative, short read not only looks optimistically at the future with Black Lives Matter protests and strategies in the foreground, but touches on and summarizes many key points in her book as well.

In response to Tufekci’s worries about young, networked movements reaching stalemates, journalist Jane Hu argues we have reached “The Second Act of Social Media Activism.” Activists, she says, are now more aware of limitations and can more deftly navigate the uses of social media in raising public consciousness. Black Lives Matter has itself pivoted from attempts to co-opt the movement, such as the misguided #8cantwait campaign as well as the #BlackoutTuesday faux pas that overloaded feeds with black pictures and misused the #blacklivesmatter hashtag which was meant for information and updates. Not only is the movement itself learning, educating and pivoting, but the greater public is proving teachable in these critical moments.

The Library is Leaving the Station

So where is the library in all of this? Why does this matter to our futures as librarians, and the future of libraries itself?

Because protesters around the globe, radically imagining a better future for the world and bravely showing up to make that future a reality, are creating their own libraries. Libraries “are among the first structures constructed by protesters and are subsequently defended with enthusiasm” (Tufekci, p. 87). If we don’t get out there, it’s not that libraries will go away. It’s that libraries will go on without us.

An image of Mr. Wordsworth from a Twilight Zone episode, librarian clutching a stack of books
“YOU are OBSOLETE!” -Twilight Zone episode, “The Obsolete Man”

Librarians: Roaming & Radical, or Out & Obsolete?

The main branch of my county library system closed early, the first day of protests in Bakersfield this past June. But it was not to join the protesters, armfuls of book donations in hand asking “how can we help?” (preguntando caminamos, walking, we ask questions). It was so they could avoid the protest entirely.

The world will not wait for us to wait for them to ask their questions. We must walk alongside, and ask of them what it is they need. The crowd is moving, and growing, and changing life as we know it. It’s past time for librarians and libraries as an institution to join the ranks before they pass us by.


Anti-austerity movement in Spain. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-austerity_movement_in_Spain

Gezi park protests. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gezi_Park_protests

Hu, J. (2020). The second act of social-media activism. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-second-act-of-social-media-activism?fbclid=IwAR1ucy2imXbwfFQpzcZjjjIadS9AzlrLAD30fgZ3ld0VCdZ1kFhsBwUz2hQ

Saxon, S. (2020). What went wrong with the #8cantwait police reform initiative? Retrieved from https://www.colorlines.com/articles/what-went-wrong-8cantwait-police-reform-initiative

Smirnoff, N. (2020). Photo gallery: Local protesters take to Tehachapi streets. Retrieved from https://www.tehachapinews.com/news/photo-gallery-local-demonstrators-take-to-tehachapi-streets/article_dddf8722-a5c0-11ea-a88e-e7ac833f1d70.html

Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and tear gas: The power and fragility of networked protest. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tufekci, Z. (2020). Do protests even work? Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/06/why-protests-work/613420/?fbclid=IwAR1ucy2imXbwfFQpzcZjjjIadS9AzlrLAD30fgZ3ld0VCdZ1kFhsBwUz2hQ

Visser, J. (2011). DOK delft, inspirational library concepts. Retrieved from http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2011/01/22/dok-delft-inspirational-library-concepts/

Wienberger, D. (2001). The hyperlinked organization. Retrieved from https://www.cluetrain.com/book/hyperorg.html

Westfall, A. (2020). Protesters gather in northwest Bakersfield on day 8 of demonstrations. Retrieved from https://www.turnto23.com/news/local-news/protesters-gather-in-northwest-bakersfield-on-day-8-of-demonstrations

Willingham, A. (2020). Why posting a black image with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ hashtag could be doing more harm than good. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/02/us/blackout-tuesday-black-lives-matter-instagram-trnd/index.html

Zapatista Army of National Liberation. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapatista_Army_of_National_Liberation