Bag of onions: Growing bulbs of intellectual freedom from academic libraries

Reblogged from

Growing bulbs of intellectual freedom from academic libraries

As many of us are increasingly aware, data pertaining to our online behaviour- when and where we have been, what we did whilst occupying that space, etc.- have become increasingly valuable to a range of stakeholders and bad actors, including unethical hackers, commercial organisations, and the state. The weaknesses inherent across various web infrastructures, their deployment, and their ubiquitous, multipurpose uses are routinely exploited to capture the private data and information of individuals and entire communities.

For many librarians, this technological and cultural problem has been increasingly acknowledged as part of a wider political concern that is directly relevant to our professional requirement to protect the right to intellectual privacy (Fister, 2015; Smith, 2018).

Through both my professional and voluntary labour with the Library Freedom Project and the Radical Librarians Collective, I have been trying to directly offer support for individuals in their attempt to protect their privacy through their behaviours and the digital tools they choose to make use of. However, consistently weaving intellectual privacy throughout my professional praxis is a significant challenge.

Peeling back the layers of libraries and the scholarly commons

I am currently employed as the Research Support Manager for Library Services at the University of West London (UWL). A significant aspect of my role is to manage and administrate the UWL Repository, which is the institution’s repository of research outputs. The repository makes these outputs discoverable and accessible through what is known as green open access.

The collection, storage, management, and sharing of information demonstrated in the administration of a repository are all core elements of library work. However, this specific aspect of library work directly contributes towards the development and maintenance of the scholarly commons as an accessible body of work that “admit[s] the curious, rather than [only] the orthodox, to the alchemist’s vault” (Illich, 1973), and to allow people to re-use the research for their own purposes.

In all areas of library work, ensuring that the personal data and information of our user communities is stored securely is very important for the preservation of intellectual privacy. However, in the contemporary environment, libraries’ digital connections to external sources and services can make this challenging. Libraries are reliant on services that are served externally, and as such libraries lack the ability to control how these services share data required for the use of these services.

As the University have control over the repository through an agreement with a hosting service, it has been easy enough to enable some security enhancements. As such, from January 2018, the UWL Repository has been wrapped in HTTPS to respect our user communities’ information security by ensuring that all connections to it are encrypted.

Unfortunately, the scholarly commons is only as accessible as it is permitted to be on the clear-net, as there are many powerful stakeholders that have the ability to suppress access and thus censor scholars and other publics from accessing the published results of academic research and scholarship.

Onions don’t grow on trees; environmental ethics and the scholarly commons

Some popular online services and networks for scholars, such as Sci-Hub, ResearchGate,, also offer users the option to share their scholarly and research outputs gratis. The latter two are capital venture funded, commercial services. Part of their business operations include providing data around research that can, it is claimed, offer insights into its ‘impact’. However, these services do not take responsibility for the frequent breaches of licences that help to calcify the commodification of scholarly knowledge (Lawson et al., 2015,). Many of these services also have vested interests in the data stored and created through the use of their services.

For the scholarly commons, publishing via open access (through both gold open access publishers and via institutional and subject repositories) and making use of appropriate Creative Commons licences is a significantly more effective and ethical way to share and access research and scholarly outputs. Institutional repositories are commonly sustained by institutional funding (i.e. they serve not-for-profit functions), for instance, and they also commonly run on free (libre) and open source software such as EPrints software, which is licensed under GPL v3.0.

Here, we can see that libraries actively support a libre approach to free, online access to scholarly information.

Layering up for intellectual privacy, access, and the scholarly commons

As referred to above, various fields of informational labour hold a broad consensus view around users’ right and need for intellectual privacy (Richards, 2015). In this context, ensuring that the research and scholarly outputs are accessible in ways that allow users to retain their privacy seems essential.

As such, I have made the UWL Repository accessible from within the Tor network as an onion service.

I briefly consulted Library Services’ director, Andrew Preater, prior to undertaking this work, but I was able to make use of Enterprise Onion Toolkit (EOTK) to create a proxy of the repository without requiring root access to the webserver of the clear-net site, and without having to make copies of the files held on that server. As a proof-of-concept, it is now accessible via https://6dtdxvvrug3v6g6d.onion, but may be moved to a more permanent .onion address in the future, subject to institutional support. (Please note that an exception has to be granted to access the onion service due to some of the complexities of HTTPS over onion services. This is something that I would hope to resolve with institutional support. Please see Murray’s post for further details).

This provision allows global access to the UWL Repository and its accessible content in a form that allows users to protect their right to intellectual privacy; neither their ISP nor UWL, as a service provider, will be able to identify their personal use of UWL Repository when using https://6dtdxvvrug3v6g6d.onion/.

Having repositories available as onion services is of significant benefit for those accessing the material from, for instance, oppressive geopolitical contexts. Onion services offer not only enhanced privacy for users, but also help to circumvent censorship. Some governments and regimes routinely deny access to clear-net websites deemed obscene or a threat to national security. Providing an onion service of the repository not only protects those that may suffer enhanced digital surveillance for challenging social constructs or social relations (which can have a severely chilling effect on intellectual freedom), but also on entire geographical areas that are locked out of accessing publicly accessible content on the clear-net.

The expansion of intellectual privacy for the scholarly commons is bringing tears to my eyes

Although this is a small step for the scholarly commons, it is an important one. In our politically fragile world, marginalised communities often suffer disproportionate risks, and taking this simple step helps to reinstate some safety into this digital space (Barron et al., 2017). As Ganghadharan (2012) notes, “[u]ntil policy–makers begin a frank discussion of how to account for benefits and harms of experiencing online worlds and to confront the need to protect collective and individual privacy online, oppressive practices will continue”.

I hope that other library and information workers, repository administrators, open access publishers, and their associated indexing services will take inspiration from the step that I have taken and help us to lead a collective charge that places intellectual privacy at the centre of both the scholarly commons and digital library services.


I would like to thank Murray Royston-Ward and Simon Barron for their technical support (if you do not have access to a server, Murray has written a guide to trialling a Tor mirror of services via Google’s Cloud Engine), Alec Muffett for his development of EOTK, Alison Macrina and the Library Freedom Project for their advocacy of digital rights within libraries, the Radical Librarians Collective for providing spaces to support my professional development and practical skills, and to all those involved in the Tor Project that support and provide tools that allow us to make good on our right to digital privacy.


Barron, S., Regnault, C., and Sanders, K. (2017). Library privacy. Carnegie UK. [Retrieved from:]

Fister, B. (2015). Big Data or Big Brother? Data, ethics, and academic libraries. Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators. [Retrieved from:]

Gangadharan, S. P. (2012). Digital inclusion and data profiling. First Monday, 17(5)

Illich, I. (1973). Tools for conviviality. [Retrieved from:]

Lawson, S., Sanders, K., and Smith, L. (2015). Commodification of the information profession: A critique of higher education under neoliberalism. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 3 (1). [Retrieved from:]

Richards, N. (2015). Intellectual privacy: Rethinking civil liberties in the digital age. Oxford University Press, USA

Smith, L. (2018). Surveillance, privacy, and the ethics of librarianship. Cambridge Libraries Conference, 11/01,2018. [Retrieved from:

This is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Licence

Follow-up to “Barriers to Engagement”

Following the 2016 RLC national gathering in Brighton, a “Barriers to Engagement” document was created on our RLC Sandstorm site. It was advertised via email and Facebook, and was the pinned tweet for @RadicalLibs until February 2017. The aim of the document was to facilitate positive feedback that would help RLC improve its behaviours and practices.

This blog post is an attempt by the admin committee to create clear action points from the document. In the spirit of openness, the document is still available so you can see how we have tried to create an action point for each suggestion. These are only the ideas of four people and are not expected to be concrete rules for RLC; instead they are intended to form a basis for further discussion and additional suggestions. It is expected that these action points will change over time, as we become aware of other barriers.

This blog post will be discussed at the 2017 RLC national gathering in Glasgow to ensure that RLC is actively attempting to mitigate barriers to engagement within the group. Through this, we hope to encourage greater diversity among those participating in RLC activities and committees.

Special thanks to Katherine Quinn, who was prompted by one of the suggestions to contact other organisations and discover what they were doing in that area. Her full report can be seen at the end of the shared document.

Action points:

Organisation of RLC

1) Clearer information about the admin committee has been put on the website (‘Who is RLC’), which includes inviting volunteers to be part of the committee and also information about RLC’s history.

2) A glossary of terms and suggested reading have been created to provide pointers for those who feel that they need a better understanding of radical theory in order to participate in discussions:

Glossary of terms

Suggested reading list

3) A manifesto has been created, but this has not really been added to. Maybe this could be one of the points for discussion at the 2017 national meet-up?


4) It is acknowledged that training is available, which could help RLC to reflect on itself and our aims – for example, Making use of this training would only be possible at a national meet-up, but we would then still have the problem of effectively excluding those who were unable to attend the event. Maybe this could be one of the points for discussion at the 2017 national meet-up?


As far as we are aware, there are no longer any regular regional meetings. The following points are things to be considered should regional meetings start up again, or for the next national meet-up in July 2017. A document has been created and put on the website, the contents of which set out the things that should be taken into consideration when organising RLC events. It is possible to add to this document, so please send any suggestions to or tweet us @RadicalLibs.

5) Venue accessibility should always be the main factor to consider when arranging venues for events and meetings – for example, try to avoid organising events in pubs or bars so that this does not make people feel excluded on the ground of religious beliefs, and when organising London events at LARC, try to book the downstairs room for mobility reasons.

6) Communications accessibility should always be the main factor to consider when facilitating discussions – for example, using colour communication badges There are various existing source of information on this topic, for example:

7) Encourage a child-friendly atmosphere and/or try to establish crèches alongside meetings as required. For the 2017 national gathering in Glasgow, Jess Haigh has volunteered to lead with this and is on the organising committee who are going to be asking “if you would require childcare in order to attend the meeting, what would your needs be?” to best plan for this.

8) When determining the date on which to hold a meeting, use date-picker software like Doodle, Loomio, or Sandstorm’s Framadate to select the date that is best for the majority of people.

9) There are some tools that can be used to encourage participant involvement and enable people to get the most out of an event. However, it is essential to be aware that these may directly conflict with certain other steps taken towards ensuring the accessibility of communications (for example in the case of red badge wearers under the colour communication badge system).

KQ to look into proposing a session in Glasgow that enables collaborative feedback discussion about questions such as “why do I want to be in RLC?” “if RLC didn’t exist as it is, what would I want in its place?”  and “do I feel part of what I have described?”

Examples of facilitation tools are available from e.g.

Other points

10) We obtained contributions to a document of recommended actions and practices of radical behaviour, which was used to create a blog post.

11) It was suggested that we could have a specific, journal-based chat on Twitter – i.e. #radjc – to look at articles relating to radical librarianship. This would provide both for theoretical discussions and for conversations around more practical topics, utilising both #radjc and #radlibchat. Although this would be affiliated with- and promoted by RLC, people should not feel obliged to participate if they do not want to, or if they cannot spare the time. In order to do this, we would need volunteer(s) to organise #radjc.


Radical Librarianship in Daily Practice

It can be taken for granted that individuals involved with Radical Librarians Collective want to implement radical practices into our working lives. However, we may often find it difficult to do so, for example, if employers and colleagues have alternative (maybe even anti-radical) attitudes. In order to help, various radical librarians have made suggestions for ways to introduce radicalism in practice even in potentially hostile environments.

1) Connect with other radicals.
RLC is one radical community but there are many others all over the world. Building relationships with other radically-minded individuals and organisations can be very rewarding. They can be sources of solidarity, collaboration, and inspiration. They can help to give you the courage to make the changes that you want to see in your workplace – if someone else was able to achieve something, then why not you? Trade unions can also be excellent organisations to participate in, both in terms of meeting other radicals and also contributing to a group that can work towards making changes to your working environment.

2) Talk about radical topics.
Help to raise awareness of radicalism within your profession, for example talking with colleagues about an event that you attended, or encouraging those who are sympathetic to join the RLC mailing list. If you work with Open Access, think about how you can promote it as a political/social movement rather than just a bureaucratic procedure and requirement. Digital privacy and security are increasingly important, so raise your users’ (and colleagues’) awareness of the issues and tools that are out there.

3) Contribute to a culture that embraces change.
There are lots of ways you can start to chip away at working environments where the established status quo at first seems unassailable. For example, you can point out entrenched mistakes, oversights, and bad practices – embarrass your employer into making positive changes and thereby improving both the quality of the service. If you are invited to speak at an event, check out who else is speaking and – if you find that they are mostly white/male – then raise this as an issue with the event organisers.

4) Make meaningful changes where you can, no matter how “small”.
There may be some things that are beyond your ability to change, so don’t let these depress you and instead focus on the positive impact that you can effect. You might also be able to implement small changes yourself without needing to go through the chain of command, for example, promoting radical books in displays and website highlights, or organising events to celebrate things like Black History Month and LGBT Month. If you do training sessions, you might also be able to use radical themes as source material – for example, getting users to create letters to an Amnesty prisoner in a Microsoft Word training session. You can certainly foster critical thinking and good information literacy in your users through training sessions, and you can even conduct your training in a radical way through using open discussions rather than conventional lecture-style teaching.

5) Don’t allow your work to dominate your life.
In many organisations, it may be implicitly – or explicitly – expected that you will work longer and harder than the minimum required by your contract, for example, working through breaks, staying late, or taking work home with you. In an environment where this is the norm, then one of the most radical things you can do is to prioritise your non-work commitments. Make sure that you fulfil the minimum required of you, but refuse to do more than this. This requires you to decouple your sense of self-worth from your work, which may be an ongoing struggle. Ultimately, this can help you to focus on more important aspects of your life, like family or community, and to escape the structures of domination and rigid authority that many of us work within.

If you have other ideas, or specific examples that you’d like to share, then please share them with the RLC mailing list at!

RLC SE group: future meetings

At the RLC SE meeting in October, the main discussion point was the future of RLC SE. This discussion was held in the light of reduced attendence at meetings and limited responses to communications, which has been experienced consistently over the past months.

Following on from this meeting, an email was sent out at the end of October to ask everyone on the RLC SE mailing list whether they still wanted to be involved and whether a move to one-off meetings focused on special events would be better. The responses to this email suggested that people did want to be involved, but that a variety of factors meant that regular meetings were no longer an effective way of doing things.

As a result, we intend to cease regular monthly RLC SE meetings, instead focusing on the organisation of one-off events, like cryptoparties, talks and discussions, perhaps in conjunction with other groups. Dates for these one-off meetings will be determined by polling the RLC SE mailing list, and will be advertised via Twitter and email as usual.

The admin committee remains happy to organise events, but it is not within their remit to decide what events happen – suggestions for event ideas are therefore strongly encouraged from the rest of RLC SE.

Meanwhile, we will continue to improve the library space at LARC, so please let us know if you would like to help with this.

Contact RLC SE via email or Twitter.

/RLC SE admin committee

#radlib16 – The 2016 Gathering in Brighton


The fourth Radical Librarians Collective gathering is on Saturday 9th July at the Cowley Club in Brightonbook here.

Everyone who subscribes to the principles of the Radical Librarians Collective is welcome and encouraged to attend. To ensure that we remain free from sponsorship and any corporate influence, the gathering is free to attend with voluntary donations welcomed to cover the associated costs.

As with all gatherings of the Radical Librarians Collective, #radlib16 will adhere to the agreed safer spaces policy which you can read here. The safety and inclusion of everyone that attends is fundamental to the day. If you have any additional suggestions to ensure that the safer spaces policy reflects this, please do let us know.

We will be posting regular updates leading up to the gathering, on Twitter using the #radlib16 hashtag and here on the website – see the dedicated Brighton page.

If you have any questions, contact RLC via email or Twitter at @RadicalLibs.

#radlibchat – 12th April 2016

For the eighth #radlibchat at 20:00 (GMT+1/15:00 EST*) on Tuesday 12th April, we will be discussing whiteness in library and information science with specific reference to April Hathcock’s White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS.

As always, reading the article isn’t a pre-requisite for joining in, but we would very much encourage you to read April’s article.

The discussion will be hosted by @AprilHathcock in conjunction with @RadicalLibs on Twitter using the #radlibchat hashtag.

Questions for the chat (c/o April).

1. What kind of diversity initiatives do you have at your library? Are they effective? How can you tell?
2. In what ways do you see whiteness at work in your library?
3. Do you perform whiteness at work? Do you expect others to? How?
4. What can we do to dismantle whiteness in our profession?
4.5. What role can white people play in helping to dismantle whiteness?
5. How can we mentor/help others to navigate the whiteness in our profession?
* Please note, this originally stated 14:00EST…but due to poor time conversion skills, it turns out this was wrong. Apologies!

#radlibchat – 8th March 2016

For the seventh #radlibchat at 20.00 (GMT) on Tuesday 8th March, we will be discussing critical information literacy praxis, using Eamon Tewell’s open access article ‘A decade of critical information literacy: a review of the literature‘ as suggested background reading plus April Hathcock’s Decolonizing social justice work‘ blog post to shape questions about decolonizing critical information literacy.

The discussion will be hosted by @RadicalLibs on Twitter using the #radlibchat hashtag.

You can suggest questions or points for discussion, or comment on the questions ahead of time using the #radlibchat etherpad – or comment on this blog post.


Citing the work of educator Paulo Freire, Tewell (p. 26) argues that:

Critical pedagogy is in essence a project that positions education as a catalyst for social justice…

Q1. How far do you consider critical pedagogy in #infolit to be a form of social justice work?

Definitions of ‘information literacy’ are contested and standards, codes and and frameworks abound in our professional organisations. Can we “hate the framework, love the frame” as Kevin Seeber suggests?

Q2. How do you reconcile critical #infolit approaches with standards such as the ACRL ‘Framework…’ or the SCONUL ‘Seven Pillars’?

We talk about praxis as a reciprocal combination of theory and practice, but it is not necessarily obvious how to put theory into practice in #infolit work. Jessimaka recently asked about practical examples of critical pedagogy, which resonated with me:

Q3. What does critical-informed #infolit look like to you, in practice? Practical examples from your work very welcome.

Previous #critlib chats on critical pedagogy and information literacy included discussion of practical problems using a critical approach in the neoliberal academy, especially when information literacy is set up as a “one shot” session.

Q4. Can we reconcile a critical #infolit approach with a ‘student satisfaction’ agenda, and marketized higher education?

Q5. What suggestions can you offer to include critical approaches in “one shot” #infolit, if this is all that is available?

April Hathcock (2016) problematizes the false dichotomy of theory vs. practice in a recent blog post, and calls instead for decolonizing of theory:

We’ve been framing the debate as theory vs practice or lived experience vs theory, but for those of us who critique critical theoretical work from within, we’re talking about something much more nuanced. We’re not saying theory has no place or lived experience can’t be theoretical. What we are saying is that much of the theory we see and hear from our colleagues remains largely colonized, that is, it is largely white, male, Western, cis-het, Judeo-Christian.

Q6. How can we move to decolonize our own critical #infolit practices?

Tewell’s closing paragraph (p. 37) emphasizes the importance of developing critical praxis in librarianship:

It is the writings, words, and work of others that helps us as a profession to achieve praxis via the reciprocity of theory, practice and action, and to thereby provide educational opportunities with emancipatory possibilities for both our students and ourselves.

Q7. How could we frame this approach with respect to the centrality of lived experience emphasized by Hathcock and others?

Q8. Finally, Tewell’s paper is a review. What recommended reading or further suggestions would you add to it about critical #infolit?


Hathcock, A. (2016) ‘Decolonizing social justice work’, At the Intersection, 2 March. Available at:

Tewell, E. (2015). ‘A decade of critical information literacy: a review of the literature’, Communications in Information Literacy, 9(1) [Online]. Available at:

#radlibchat – 9th February 2016

For the sixth radlibchat at 20.00 (GMT) on Tuesday 9th February to tie in with the libraries lobby, we will be discussing Unions in Public and Academic Libraries by Kathleen de la Peña McCook (OA article available here).

The discussion will be hosted by @RadicalLibs on Twitter using the #radlibchat hashtag.


  1. To what extent should associations focus on the rights of workers?
  2. Are trade unions more of less effective in defending library workers than associations?
  3. Can unions still be an effective mechanism to defend worker rights in a neoliberal, globalised environment?
  4. Are there overarching themes for advocacy or is it still very localized, as noted in the article?
  5. How may we effectively advocate for our professional selves?

#radlibchat – 12th January 2016

For the fifth radlibchat at 20.00 (GMT) on Tuesday 12th January, we thought we’d break from the chat around an Open Access article for a change (break into the new year gently and all that) and have a discussion about filtering in libraries. Following the great work conducted by those engaged with the Collective to reveal the state of filtering in public libraries, it seemed a good time to have a discussion around the implications and ramifications for both society and the profession of internet filtering.

The discussion will be hosted by @RadicalLibs on Twitter using the #radlibchat hashtag.

Potential questions for discussion*

  1. What ethical/professional issues does filtering raise?
  2. Are there good reasons for filtering? How do we balance our responsibilities?
  3. What could be done at policy level?
  4. What could be done in individual libraries?
  5. What can library workers do?
  6. What should next steps be for e.g. CILIP?

* All welcome to suggest alternative Qs for discussion…these are suggestions at this stage!