So I recently returned from Atlanta, where I attended the first ever US Social Forum, along with a few other librarians. Here is my report back.
My impressions of Atlanta were that it was hot (I guess that goes without saying, but this was an especially enervating heat), there's almost no one walking on sidewalks in the part of downtown where the Civic Center is located, and I got asked for change more times in four days than I have in the past several months in NYC. The Atlantans I did speak to (including the guy working at the Kinko's below the Marriott and most of the people asking for money) were super friendly, though. While there were a few (overpriced, sorry) vendors set up on one of the streets bordering the Civic Center, there seemed to be only chips and candy for sale at a station inside the center itself, and given the packed schedule and lack of access to busier city streets, I was hungry most of the time.
So that's the setting. Here's what I did. I put in some hours at the info/reference desk in the Ida B. Wells Media Justice Center. This was a really great effort. Unfortunately, while it was located in the Civic Center (where the bulk of the tables and activities were), you had to go down some stairs, through some corridors, behind the stage and up some more stairs (yes, there was elevator access for those with disabilities, too) to get to it. So -- no random foot traffic discovering the media center, let's just say. It was a shame, because many people had put tons of work into setting up equipment, trainings, and other services there, and as far as I could tell, a lot of it went underused.
The media justice center was also a worthy endeavor because of the way that staff from POOR Magazine, who were involved in the set-up, sought to ensure that media making was approached from a philosophy of flattening the hierarchy between journalist and subject. They wanted it to be a place where the (often privileged and formally educated and trained) independent journalists could learn from the "poverty scholars" whose very life experience gave them legitimacy and a story to tell, and where there was a horizontal relationship between the reporter and those traditionally reported on (the poor, the homeless, people of color, etc.). People of all levels of experience and ability would collaborate with one another.
So -- since I'm not a media maker I couldn't say to what extent that spirit persisted (though I did attend one of the daily "community newsroom" gatherings and saw exciting connections and plans being made). Like the media justice center itself, I felt underused at the info/reference desk because of the lack of foot traffic.
On Friday, I was given a slot to conduct a "Research & Fact-Checking" training there. It was right after the community newsroom ended, so the hope was that people would go straight from that to the computers to start researching and writing their stories (and, on that Friday, go to my training), but the newsroom was instead being held in a different (easier to access) part of the building. So I had only three, eventually four, people attend. But I thought it was a good session, with everyone asking questions and appearing to learn some new things. Two attendees, a woman from Alaska who wanted to start a kind of scholarly zine about environmental and cultural issues there and a man working as a freelance and indie journalist out of Michigan, were especially interested in the concept of fact-checking. Here I must thank Emily Drabinski for having shared her extensive knowledge with me -- it really came in handy. Also, having read through The Fact Checker's Bible ahead of time was a big help. You can see my handout here.
"Librarians and the USSF" was the name of the session that Elaine Harger, Kathleen de la Peña McCook, Mikael Böök, and I (with the help of Dena Marger) held on Thursday morning. This program had been initiated by Elaine and Kathleen under the auspices of the Progressive Librarians Guild; Radical Reference was part of this librarian delegation. The purpose of this session was to lay out our activities at the USSF, solicit assistance, and hopefully connect with others in the library world. Kathleen also distributed a handout she had put together documenting support of immigrant rights in librarianship, including an article, "Librarians as Advocates for the Human Rights of Immigrants," from the Summer 2007 issue of Progressive Librarian.
We were lucky enough to be hosted by the historic African American Auburn Avenue Research Library -- and we got a tour (led by a former New Yorker who used to work at the Schomburg research library here) at the end of our thing. Mikael has some relevant blog entries here and here. Kathleen posted photos here. Besides the bunch of us, there were about half a dozen people who came, including a library school student, a local academic librarian (who later attended the Rad Ref/InterActivist workshop!), and a Pacifica journalist who afterward interviewed Dena, Elaine, and maybe someone else as well.
As the PLG/RR group, our raison d'être at the USSF was to collect materials from the social forum itself. This idea of a "library" from a social forum was begun in Nairobi during last year's World Social Forum documentation project. However, as Mikael told us, there were about 70 librarians collecting materials there, whereas we in Atlanta numbered at most six. So we picked up many flyers, handouts, and brochures at a few of the locations, but it was a losing battle. Personally, I didn't even a good job of annotating the materials I did obtain -- it was hard to stay organized and find the time to do it. Susie Husted from Boston Rad Ref is going to talk to organizers to get a list of the participating groups, at least, and audio and video from USSF sessions will be archived on other sites. The printed matter that we collected was sent over to the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, and I suppose we will work with them to ensure that the first ever USSF is appropriately documented...
Another activity we librarians engaged in was conducting a survey of non-librarian participants in the USSF. This was another area in which greater numbers would have vastly helped the endeavor. I have 18 completed surveys out of 150 or so that were distributed in some way.
I can't tell you how much paper -- heaps of it -- was all over the place, so I don't think that making large stacks of our survey and leaving it around would have helped. We were not able to plan for a good, clear space where people could drop off completed surveys. And I'm happy that some of the surveys were done in an interview, or at least in-person (handing a form to someone and waiting for him or her to finish) style, but, again, this method was not ideal in a crowded space with people wanting to look at literature on tables or rushing to their next destination. At any rate, the results of what I do have will be looked at so that Rad Ref can continue to develop helpful workshops, programs, and online content!
More satisfying was taking part in the talk "Radical Reference and the InterActivist Network -- Using Free Software to Enable Community Based Activism" on Saturday afternoon. Daniel Kahn Gillmore, Mark Libkuman, and I talked about open source and free software (Daniel), Radical Reference and how it works (me), and the tech team that maintained the USSF website and ensured that everything tech-related, from the registration process to the media justice center computers, worked smoothly (Mark). In the go-around at the beginning, it sounded like most people had come because they had a specific technology/software-related concern in their professional or personal life, so I was surprised how engaged they were during my portion of the talk. People asked questions about how Rad Ref operated, whether we would answer a question submitted (hypothetically) by Ann Coulter, and if Rad Reffers were involved in efforts to provide open access to scholarly periodicals (à la the Public Library of Science). At least a couple of people recorded this talk, and I'm hoping it will turn up online somewhere.
Apart from USSF stuff, I stayed in two lovely homes; enjoyed seeing parts of Decatur, Little Five Points, and Inman Park; ate at Mary Mac's Tea Room and a restaurant owned by one of the Indigo Girls (with only two out of almost a dozen options on the brunch menu being vegetarian -- what's up with that?!); met some other books-to-prisoners folks; and bought a bunch of great patches from the Beehive Design Collective. See you in 2010!