Within recent years, growing attention has been paid to “alternative libraries” as sites that collect materials not often acquired (comprehensively) in academic, public, or special libraries. These spaces are typically independent or operate as a part of a larger institution with a specific mission in mind. Alternative libraries range from functioning out of a garage or warehouse space with friends, in the park, or as part of an independent organization (for instance a gallery, political group, or personal archive). Whatever the case may be, it seems that the common thread is to provide access to materials that are under represented in the larger schema of conventional libraries. Multiple blogs have been created in an attempt to document the contemporary phenomenon, as many of these alternative libraries are not readily visible to the greater community though they serve as great resources for specific areas of knowledge. In this post, I would like to explore how conventional notions of the library as housing collections of objective accounts and authoritative knowledge are challenged by the existence of alternative libraries and contextual these spaces within Donna Haraway’s theory of situated knowledges.
Perhaps a definition of alternative libraries is called for here. In my research, I have found that alternative libraries often develop in conversation with, or in resistance to, conventional library structures. Rather than being in direct opposition with one another, alternative libraries represent the space and functions of conventional libraries while simultaneously challenging their approaches. Alternative libraries and librarians instead provide information in different contexts, facilitating multiple ways of knowing for different communities and areas of interest. In response to traditional library settings, alternative spaces developed as a means to provide access to materials that have cultural significance but are not heavily collected in academic or public libraries. People were in search for content that reflected their information interests and a shared space with a community of individuals with similar ideas. Essentially, the development of alternative libraries draw attention to the limits of conventional libraries and focus on collecting content that provide counter-narratives and represent varied and specific interests.
I feel that Haraway’s situated knowledges theory is useful here as she aims to deconstruct binaries and monolithic truth claims that have governed how knowledge is produced and organized. Haraway employs a metaphor of vision to unpack the ways in which a myth has been perpetuated about knower and known. She claims, “The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity...to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power”. In this sense, academic and public libraries can be identified as the eyes of the knower. Alternative libraries are located in dialogue with such conventional libraries whose collections have traditionally been constructed as authoritative and objective ways of knowing. Haraway goes on to interrogate objectivity and argues, “...objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility. The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision.” I find that the partiality and specific perspectives presented in alternative library collections align with Haraway’s form of objectivity.
Collections such as the LGBT history materials at the ONE Archives at USC; the homoerotic art and literature at Tom of Finland Foundation library, archives, and gallery; and the personal histories collected at People’s Library are contemporary examples of libraries and archives whose collections reflect the situated, embodied knowledges of their users. The collections are reflective of the lived experiences of individuals whose “view from a body” is not comprehensively represented in conventional public and academic library collections.
Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14:3 (Fall 1998): 581.
Alana Kumbier, “Inventing History: The Watermelon Woman and Archive Activism,” in Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism ed. Lyz Bly and Kelly Wooten (Los Angeles: Litwin Books, LLC, 2012): 98.