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From the Library: She Was A Booklegger: Remembering Celeste West

She Was A Booklegger: Remembering Celeste West is a collection of essays, excerpts, and photos that attempt to capture the spirit of Celeste West, a woman whose influence on feminist librarianship, publishing, journalism, and activism was monumental. After West passed away in 2008, a few friends and admirers (Toni Samek, Moyra Lang, and K.R. Roberto) decided to embark on a project that would honor West's work and life. This book, which acts as a comprehensive and compassionate obituary, was the result.

Celeste West was working as a librarian in the 1960s when she began to advocate for alternative press on library shelves. While alternative press was flourishing during the '60s, the voices of this counterculture were not often reflected in library collections. So in addition to lack of access to these materials, there was an excess of mainstream press in most libraries, and alternative and radical print was not being adequately preserved. While West was working at the Bay Area Reference Center in the late 1960s, she became the editor of Synergy, a monthly newsletter produced by BARC that informed its readers of noncommercial book publishers while also bringing attention to the fact that libraries were not as all-encompassing as they claimed. In an essay by Toni Samek that is featured in this book, she writes about the motivations behind the staff at Synergy:

Synergy's staff believed that because librarians were not sufficiently trained to create access to and/or learn about where to find many forms of information, they were unable to fulfill their professional mandate to present balanced/multiple points of view. The passive nature of library practice, grounded in the myth of "neutral" service, understated this information access problem. Synergy consistently included information about noteworthy topics that were largely ignored by the mainstream media, and by conventional librarians...Under West's direction, it called on librarians to become "pivotal agents to enforce" the Library Bill of Rights, to support a free press, and to develop a new professional attitude by shifting from "conserving and organizing" information to "generating or promoting it". Synergy defined an alternative library culture that worried less about the library as a keeper of the cultural record, and more about the library as an active agent for change.

West very much embodied this definition of Synergy; she was an active agent for change in libraries. West demanded that libraries and librarians step up to the plate and advocate not only for intellectual freedom, but also for social change. Federal funding for Synergy was eventually cut (another story in itself), but that didn't stop West from writing and publishing. She was prolific. In '72 (shortly before the funding for Synergy was cut), she formed a publishing house with Elizabeth Katz called Booklegger Press. Booklegger Press was the first woman-owned American library publisher. They published Revolting Librarians, a collection of essays that explored radical and alternative librarianship. In '73, West helped to publish Booklegger Magazine, which picked up where Synergy and Revolting Librarians left off. While promoting intellectual freedom, Booklegger Magazine also acted as a proponent of feminist efforts. The magazine featured information about the women's movement of the '70s, discussed gender imbalances within libraries, and filled the reader in on updates in feminist publishing.

In addition to writing about socially responsible librarianship, West wrote three books that explored lesbian relationships: Book of Lesbian Etiquette (1985); A Lesbian Love Advisor: The Sweet and Savory Arts of Lesbian Courtship (1989); and Lesbian Polyfidelity: A Pleasure Guide for the Woman Whose Heart is Open to Multiple Concurrent Sexual Loves, or How to Keep Non-Monogamy Safe, Sane, Honest, and Laughing, You Rogue! (1996).

Excerpts from many of West's books and publications are featured in She Was a Booklegger. Her writings covered a vast array of subjects and were always passionate. In addition to West's own writings, the book features academic essays about her work, obituaries from loved ones, and photographs of West throughout her life. She Was A Booklegger's editors write that "while [Celeste] is probably best represented in three dimensions instead of two, this anthology is an attempt to capture what she's left behind." This collection sure does convey the enthusiasm and compassion that Celeste West had for feminist librarianship, publishing, and activism. She Was a Booklegger pays tribute to a phenomenal woman whose life story should be shelved in every library, along with the alternative press that she promoted and created.

She Was A Booklegger is available through Library Juice Press, and if you're in Portland you can check it out from our library. If you own copies of any of Celeste West's books and would like to donate them to our library, you can contact me at library(at)b-word.org

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