Radical Reference: Taking Information to the Street
ShinJoung Yeo

The practice of journalism is firmly rooted in community. The late James Carey, professor of journalism at Columbia University, in his article, 'A Short History of Journalism for Journalists'[1] stated, 'The principle task and consequence of journalism is to form and sustain particular communities.' In this symbiotic relationship, journalism forms and informs the community, and the community forms and informs journalism. In order for alternative journalism and alternative journalists to flourish, community support is crucial and necessary.

Unlike many mainstream journalists who work for large media organizations, journalists in alternative journalism outlets usually do not enjoy the luxury of many editors, personal researchers, fact checkers, lawyers, funding, and so forth. To paraphrase Blanche Dubois[2], independent journalists have to rely on the kindness of strangers and personal networks. I like to think of Radical Reference as one stranger among many ready and willing to assist in this process.

For that reason, I'd like to talk about Radical Reference: who we are and what we do to support alternative journalism.

The role of Radical Reference

Radical Reference (RR) was launched in early 2004 to assist and support the activists and activist organizations in protest at the 2004 Republican National Convention (RNC) in New York city. As you remember, a half million people came out on the street to protest the Bush administration, its many destructive policies, and the Iraq war. This weekend of mass mobilization was due to the energies, commitment, and collaboration of many grassroots organizations across the political spectrum, including RR.

Before the RNC, RR volunteers attended many meetings of various local activist organizations and participated in local events to find out ways that we could help. One thing that we noticed was that many activist organizations and individuals needed quality information for much of their work. However, few had access to reliable and diverse information resources or the time and skill sets to obtain that information. So, by identifying this information need, RR was officially formed, and the recruitment of volunteers began. By the beginning of the RNC, RR counted twenty-five to thirty volunteers.

RR consists of librarians, library support staff, and library science students who are professionally trained and bring with them a large variety of backgrounds, interests, and professional skill sets. There are children's librarians, government document librarians, law librarians, zine librarians etc. We were able to use our expertise to assist groups in the buildup to the RNC.

For instance, at the request of media activists in NYC, RR began providing research and fact-checking workshops to teach activists how to locate, analyze, and verify information sources. RR helped fact-check the 'The people's guide to the Republican National Convention,' a tourist map of sorts with more than six hundred points of interest, RNC events, protest sites, and information on war profiteers. During the RNC, RR went out to the streets and provided 'street reference' to out-of-towners, journalists, and anyone with a question. 'Street Reffies' prepared and were armed with in-depth reference kits of maps, emergency health and legal information, restaurant guides, lists of places to access free wi-fi, and more. In addition, teams of home support volunteers were on call for questions that could not be readily answered with the information on hand. Home support volunteers also acted as a virtual affinity group by monitoring local mainstream and alternative media to keep Street Reffies informed about various events and police activities.

Originally, we thought that RR would only be active during the RNC. However, we soon realized that the need filled by RR continued beyond the convention. RR has become known and recognized in activist communities for the critical role that information professionals play in the movement for social justice. In light of this, RR has expanded its services to include online question submissions, fact-checking, and FOIA workshops and skill-sharing sessions on infoshops, alternative library resources etc. Today, we have a vibrant website, and more than three hundred volunteers across the United States with a variety of professional backgrounds and the ability to provide information services in ten languages.

Models for success

I think there are three factors that have led to the group's success: recognition of community needs, collaboration, and implementation of open-source technologies to facilitate the group's work.

First, the actual Radical Reference idea - well, other than the alliteration - was formed by communities not by us. We knew that we wanted to apply our skills in some way to further the cause of social justice, but we didn't know exactly how or what we could offer. However, as a result of direct interaction with grassroots communities we were able to identify their needs. This led to the provision of services that are responsive and reactive to these communities.

Second, one of RR's strengths was and is its commitment to collaboration. From the beginning, RR has worked closely with other organizations involved in the planning for the RNC convergence and has continued to seek out opportunities to work with other groups. For instance, RR has formed a close relationship with the NYC Independent Media Center, giving workshops and fact-checking special issues of the Indypendent.

There is also much collaboration among the three hundred volunteers. RR's reference system is designed specifically to tap into this collective knowledge base by allowing for various avenues of input by multiple volunteers in order to provide a wide range of resources to questioners.

Finally, RR services and collaboration could not happen without the creative use of internet technologies. RR has consciously decided to utilize open source and/or non-commercial software and web hosting. We believe open source is crucial - philosophically, technologically, and economically - to any organization that deals with information. The philosophy behind open-source is the free and open sharing of information, and this is the same pillar on which librarians build their profession. There is a common belief that technology is value-free, but many social and political activists are challenging this notion by creating and employing technologies that are imbued with their value system of justice, equality, and community.

RR's website content is managed by Drupal, software developed and maintained by a large and diverse community and distributed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). In addition, during political events, Txtmob, a free web-based cell phone text messaging service, is used to provide synchronous communication between street librarians, home support and the greater communications network connecting many other affinity groups together. RR relies on their community as well. For example, web hosting and technology support is provided gratis by Interactivist, a non-profit organization that supports groups working for social justice.

In the name of convenience, we often overlook the underlying philosophy and principles of the technologies we employ. RR provides a good example of how an organization can infuse its technologies with its organizational philosophy.


As I said in the beginning, RR is just one example of how communities can support alternative journalism. Let's think about journalism in ecological terms. In any healthy ecological system, every organism feeds into and is connected with each other and supports the system as a whole. A healthy ecology is necessarily diverse; monoculture on the other hand, brings on the destruction of the entire ecological system. Like mountain pine beetles currently destroying much of Colorado's high country pine forests, a journalistic monoculture will mean the death of our democracy.

The system is the community of which RR and alterative journalists are interconnected parts. RR and journalists feed the community by supporting each other and eventually this leads to creating a community where diverse voices are promoted and journalism of all stripes flourishes. Creating and sustaining a healthy media ecology is not an easy task, but it's not an option; rather it's our obligation. I hope that RR will continue to challenge the media monoculture and help cultivate a healthy media landscape.

[1] James Carey, 'A Short History of Journalism for Journalists: A Proposal and Essay,' Press/Politics, 12(1), 3-16.
[2] The main protagonist in Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire.