Punk Rock Lessons for Libraries?

Michael Stephens links to an interesting guest post on The Nowhere in the Middle, in which Teen Librarian Justin Hoenke discusses how librarians can save themselves with “the principles that gave rise to punk rock“. Those lessons?

  1. Do It Yourself
  2. Channel Passion: Look to the Clash
  3. Avoid Energy Black Holes

Now, I’m a big, big Clash fan so I’m naturally drawn to these ideas. And I’m right with Justin on the first two. (He sensibly adds “You don’t really do it yourself. You give the initial push, but ultimately it is the community you surround yourself with that gets the work done. Nothing great is ever accomplished alone.”). There’s no need to feel powerless or alone when you can build a network (e.g. via Twitter) and get support and knowledge from them).

On Justin’s second point, he points to the passion of the Clash, but also the way in which they broke boundaries both musically and culturally (drawing from reggae, dub and hiphop) by reaching out to people. I’m not so sure I understand the third point, at least from the examples posted, though the advice seems sound enough.

I’m quite intrigued by the use of punk as an inspiration: on the one hand, the DIY ethos was a key part of punk, and quite important culturally as part of a movement away from fans being consumers to fans being producers. And if we look at punk as a broad movement, it showed an ability to resurrect the best of the past (think the Ramones reviving the Beach Boys and Ronettes), create something new in itself, reach out to other genres (the Clash and the Slits with their reggae influences), and to gradually grow and evolve (look at Joy Division evolving from punkish beginnings into post-punk and then into the early house of New Order, or Howard Deveto moving from the Buzzcocks to Magazine). That’s definitely something we should all aspire to – taking the best from the past and from what’s around us, but being willing to move on and evolve into the future.

Then there’s the lack of star-power: the idea that anyone could talk to anyone as an equal [1] – think of the way Twitter or blogs allow us to be non-hierarchical and talk to whoever we want.

On the other hand: punk was basically dead by the early 80s – UK punk anyway, I guess some of the American hardcore bands lasted longer. And it’s something that was intensely of its moment. To be looking backwards nostalgically to that time seems like the exact opposite of what punk was about. Much as I love the music, I’d rather be looking around and finding something now that spoke to our current world, our current cultures. (Times change: the Clash wrote Guns of Brixton about the riots and police brutality that took place a few hundred metres from where I’m writing now, in a much more settled environment[2]).

Another thought is that punk was, in a lot of ways, inauthentic: it was supposedly a working-class movement, but Joe Strummer was the son of a diplomat. When Strummer broke a string on tour, he wouldn’t replace it (because obviously he “couldn’t afford” to have spares. But he had several other guitars backstage). Then there was the violence [3] and the nihilism [4], and it’s clear that punk’s lessons aren’t 100% positive.

But there’s certainly enough there that I find Justin’s points interesting, and inspirational. I wonder what we could learn from other grassroots creative movements? Hiphop? There’s DIY: “Let’s make our own movies like Spike Lee”[5] and cross-pollination [6]. Electronica? Again, the same sense of independence, bedroom artists making sounds because they like them, not bound by record company imposed rules (and again, the sense of community and participation found in rave culture).  There’s a lot of places we can look for inspiration…

[1] See Stiff Little Fingers: Nobody’s Hero.
[2] I was trying to get at the idea that Brixton isn’t really represented by the Clash anymore, but by Alabama 3 (see Exile on Coldharbour Lane) or Basement Jaxx maybe. But since writing that I’ve walked into the Prince Albert on Coldharbour Lane, and seen the Clash lyrics written above the bar…so maybe I was wrong…
[3] See Beverly, Simon (aka Sid Vicious)
[4] See, among others, Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Blank Generation
[5] Public Enemy: Burn Hollywood Burn
[6] See Public Enemy with Anthrax: Bring The Noise; Run DMC with Aerosmith: Walk This Way for some pioneering examples.

Justin also has an interesting post on TameTheWeb about ways in which library directors (or anyone, really) can be more transparent to their staff/patrons.

About simonchamberlain

New Zealand librarian and music fan, living in London.
This entry was posted in libraries, music. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Punk Rock Lessons for Libraries?

  1. Thanks for the post dude. It was awesome to read and you bring up quite a few things I didn’t really know about punk (“Joe Strummer was the son of a diplomat”).

    I just really love honesty and I feel like The Clash were the most honest band out there once they got up on stage and just belted out their tunes. It was like this beautiful little army unit or something that took the crowd by storm. I feel like Twitter/blogging allows us to do that in their own way!

    Have a great day!

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