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Amateur Librarian - A Course in Critical Pedagogy

Marcell Mars,
Tomislav Medak,

A proposal for a curriculum in amateur librarianship, developed through the activities and exigencies of the Public Library project. Drawing from a historical 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 was originally written for the Mondothèque, a wiki and a notebook of experiments with the legacy of the universalist and documentalist Paul Otlet, edited by Constant.

Public library, a political genealogy

Public libraries were historically won 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 the 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.

Library as an institution of public access and popular literacy, however, did not develop before a series of transformations and social upheavals unfolded during the course of the 18th and 19th century. These developments brought about a flood of books and political demands pushing the library to become embedded in an egalitarian, free and democratizing political horizon. The historical 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 that 5 million volumes of manuscripts, in the 18th century only the output of printing presses exploded to 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 upheavals would start to change that. First was was the decision of the French revolutionary National Assembly from 2 November 1789 to seize all book collections from the Church and aristocracy. Million of volumes were transferred to the Bibliothèque Nationale and local libraries across France. In parallel, particularly in England, capitalism was on the rise. It massively displaced the impoverished rural population into growing urban centers, propelled the development of industrial production and, by the mid-19th century, introduced the steam-powered rotary press into the book business. As books became more easily, and 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 attempts to introduce universal suffrage and end the system of political representation based on property entitlements in 1830s and 1840s, the English Chartist movement started to open reading rooms and cooperative lending libraries that would quickly become a popular hotbed of social exchanges between the lower classes. In the aftermath of the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, the fearful ruling classes heeded the demand for tax-financed public libraries, hoping that the access to literature and edification would ultimately hegemonize the working class for the benefits of capitalism's culture of self-interest and competition.2

Really useful knowledge3

It's no surprise that the Chartists, reeling from a political defeat of the Reform Act of 1832, have 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 either of a pious moral edification serving political pacification or of an inculcation of the skills and knowledge useful to the factory owner. Even the seemingly noble efforts of Society for the Diffusion of the Useful Knowledge, a Whig organization aimed at brining 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 meager resources and time of the working class, lacking developed in the informal setting of household, neighborhood and workplace, but also through radical press and communal reading and discussion groups.5

The demand for a 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 public library. A historic 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 the mass education become accessible only under the condition of high fees, student debt and adjunct peonage, but the useful knowledge that the labor market and reproduction of the neoliberal capitalism demands has become one and only rationale for the education.

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

The project Public Library was initiated with the counter-action 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 Calibre7 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 amateur librarians’ practice of sharing books/catalogs as a relevant challenge against the convergence of that crisis, deadlock and copyright regime.

To understand and to further develop the political and technological assumptions and strategies that lie behind the counter-actions of amateur librarians, we propose a curriculum that is indebted to a tradition of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is a productive and theoretical practice that rejects 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

No industry in the present demonstrates more the asymmetries of control over the conditions for the production of knowledge than the academic publishing. The denial of access to outrageously expensive academic publications to the Global South stands in stark contrast to the super-profits a small number of commercial publishers draws from the free labor of scientists that goes into writing, reviewing and editing 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

This initial curriculum proposal in amateur librarianship is an open one: both open to educational process and contributions by others. We welcome comments, derivations and developments.

MODULE 1: Book scanning & book sharing workflow**

1. digitizing books on a book scanner

2. managing own e-library in Calibre

  • adding books, adding metadata, transfer of files to an e-book reader, managing sub-libraries

  • serving books in a local network

  • p2p sharing of books with [let's share books] plugin

3. finding e-books and scientific articles online:

  • curated repositories: Aaaaarg, Ubuweb, Monoskop

  • non-curated repositories: LibGen, SciHub

4. syncing Calibre and e-book readers (Kindle, tablets, etc.)

  • removing DRM and file format conversion

5. annotation in an e-book reader

  • creating, extracting and managing highlights and annotations in Zotero

6. creating a scholarly bibliography in Zotero

  • creating bibliographies and creating collections of bibliographic data

  • attaching books to bibliographic entries

  • extracting annotations from an e-book reader

  • outputting citations and bibliography to your scientific article

MODULE 2: From collection to activation (MayDay Rooms, Anthony Iles & Sean Dockray)**

1. intro to copyright

  • what is copyright

  • emergence of copyright from technology of print and capitalism

  • copyright between labor and market power

  • emergence of peer review from censorship

  • intellectual property in the digital realm: a false metaphor

  • technological protection measures/digital rights management

2. academic publishing

  • oligopoly of academic publishers

  • dysfunction of copyright

  • allocation of academic reputation

  • citation indexes

  • open access as an emancipatory strategy and how it fails

  • development gap

3. custodianship

  • Elsevier v SciHub

  • Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto

  • shadow libraries & how they work

  • seizing the means of production

4. Moving beyond illegality

  • piracy as a guerrilla strategy and how it fails

  • uneven and combined development

  • researching the piracy

  • from legal to political, from illegal to legitimate

MODULE 4: Counter-education, self-institution & critical pedagogy

(MayDay Rooms)**

MODULE 5: Media theory applied**

1. Print book to e-book

  • interface: screen and page

  • textuality and affordance: margin, line break, page number

  • digitization: format shifting and the decisions we take

  • annotating the text

2. E-book from image, e-book from file

  • e-book formats: fixed v reflowable

  • optical character recognition

  • creating an epub

3. Collections: Library v Database

  • finding: browsing v searching

  • representing collection: cover - spine, shelf - directory, catalog


  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, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Society_for_the_Diffusion_of_Useful_Knowledge&oldid=668644340.

  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.

  7. http://calibre-ebook.com/

  8. https://www.memoryoftheworld.org/blog/2014/10/28/calibre-lets-share-books/

  9. Henry A. Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), 5.