Libraries and the Occupy Movement

Throughout the month of October there has been a steady increase in protests inspired by Occupy Wall Street.  In my neck of the woods, OccupyMN has been going strong, providing a steady presence in the “People’s Plaza” in front of the Hennepin County Government Center since October 7th.  Along with the usual signs and informational tables we expect to see in these scenes is something quite unique: libraries.

Libraries are popping up all around America as part of the Occupy movement.  The creation of libraries spontaneously in conjunction with protests or encampments is known as guerrilla librarianship; this concept is embodied by the Occupy libraries.  Guerrilla libraries usually provide much of what a normal library does: information, usually in the form of books, for the education and entertainment of its patronage.    They serve the people and uphold democracy by informing the citizenship.  Free and open education for all is a common value.  However, guerrilla libraries add something extra to these basic library principles.  They offer knowledge and education outside of traditional spaces of learning which are bound primarily to institutions.  They are underground.  They provide a common, collaborative space for the benefit of all involved.  They empower people to provide for their own needs.  They bring the library to the people on their own terms.  They reject hierarchy and support community involvement.

While guerrilla librarianship obviously differs from its mainstream counterpart, it is in line with the writings one of a foundational library scientist, S. R. Ranganathan, who penned the five laws of library science:

  1. Books are for use.  In the case of guerrilla libraries, books are brought to the readers rather than the other way around, facilitating greater use.  Though this often puts books in greater physical danger than usual (e.g. rain, dirt, extreme wear and tear), the assertion is that, without use, books are worthless; use should always trump preservation.  In addition, many of the Occupy libraries give the reader the option to return a book after reading it, or to keep it indefinitely, whichever they deem will put the book to the best use.
  2. Every reader his book.  All people are entitled to find and use the information they need.  By bringing the library to the Occupiers, information is found by those who might not normally have the means or the proclivity to go to a library.  By the nature of its integration within the greater Occupy movement, library materials can include materials that are often underrepresented by normal libraries, such as zines, erotica, politically radical materials, handwritten poetry, personal manifestos, etc.  The interaction of readers in the process of building a library ensures greater representation of needs and diversity of those readers.
  3. Every book its reader.  This principle is closely related to the second.  It is based on the idea that, for every book, there exists a person for whom it is the right book.  By providing a wide variety of materials and bringing the library to those who might not be regular library patrons, Occupy libraries have a greater chance of matching the right book to the right reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.  This principle holds that the ability to efficiently serve the needs of readers is a cornerstone of good library practice.  This is one of the outcomes of bringing the library to the readers: it saves the readers’ time and makes it possible to interact with readers on their own terms, much like the bookmobiles of mainstream librarianship.
  5. The library is a growing organism.  The library will not only grow in terms of size, but it should be subject to change with the culture it is a part of.  Guerrilla libraries epitomize this principle; they change a little with the support of each librarian or library volunteer, they accept donations and integrate them into their collections, their holdings are borrowed, returned or not, and reintegrated or replaced by something else.  In short, they are constantly changing, organic collections impacted by their creators and users freely and continuously.

The five laws underpin the workings of most modern libraries.  Personally, I think the easy translation of these laws to both guerrilla and mainstream libraries points to the collaborative, democratic and empowering nature of the concept of libraries in general.

Enough about guerrilla libraries in general, though.  What about the Occupy libraries and the librarians who run them?  Recently a statement was released as part of the “Voices from Zuccotti” project.   The speaker is Steve Syrek; though not a trained librarian, Syrek has been volunteering his time at the People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street.  In the following video he reflects on the necessity of the library to the movement, the interaction between librarians around the country and the People’s Library, and how the library plays an important part in the ideals and mission of the protesters.

One of the more striking passages of this well-spoken man’s reflection on the library’s existence and place within the Occupy Wall Street movement is his reflection on why libraries and books have so naturally become a part of the movement:

“Libraries are there to provide you the means in order to articulate your rationale.  We think through books, we think through the ideas of others.  We don’t exist in isolation.  We need to communicate and correspond and experience the intersubjective exchange of information and ideas in order to know where we stand.  […] Books are the synthesis of humanity’s collective wisdom, and we have to pick and choose very carefully what it is we want to subscribe to.” Steve Syrek

Syrek’s words reflect that books have never been simple conveyers of information and ideas.  They are complex, beautiful and, most importantly, social objects that link us to each other through time and across national and cultural boundaries.  Reading is not and has never been an anti-social act: it is necessarily an interaction with something outside of oneself.  Reading invites us to integrate the ideas of another into our own.  It motivates us to consider those ideas in terms of our own world views and those of others’.  These processes are a fundamental necessity for the Occupiers if the movement is to continue to evolve, be active and maintain its momentum.

Perhaps the most important function of libraries within the Occupy movement is this: it binds the Occupiers together (pun intended) by letting them share in books and in the act of reading even if they don’t share in ideology.    The importance of these libraries is to build community.  A lot has been written in the past few weeks about the lack of a cohesive ideology in the Occupy protests; indeed, though brought together by a few points about corporate greed and inequality, many of the fine points touched upon by the individuals that make up the movement are extremely diverse.  In this environment, a library becomes not only a means of informing a public, but a means to unite them.  It lets them demonstrate that they can create and care for something communally and cohesively, while also being comprised of many distinct voices.  The library is a metaphor for the movement itself.

Whether you agree or disagree with the Occupy movements that are springing up around the United States, it seems clear that the free sharing of books and information associated with these movements is a common and wholly American good.  The community these libraries build is valuable, and their focus on participation and discourse is admirable.  Some might even say that mainstream libraries could learn a thing or two from their guerrilla brethren.

For further reading, check out this post by Michael Kelley giving some basics about the OWS Library, or this one by Barbara Fister about the functions of the OWS Library, both on the Library Journal’s website, .  I also highly recommend checking out the OWS Library‘s blog.  Lastly, you can see photos from Occupy libraries around the country at the “Occupy” libraries Flikr page.

[EDIT (Nov. 15): The OWS library has been destroyed by the NYPD; garbage trucks in tow, they tear gassed the protesters and cleared the square, throwing everything away.  Including the library.  The OWS Poetry Anthology was saved, everything else has been lost.  You can read one librarian’s account of the raid here.  “The beautiful library is gone. Our collection of 5,000 books is gone. Our tent that was donated is gone. All the work we’ve put into making it is gone.” ]

About Zee

Taxidermist, street outreach worker, witchy, trans, tarot student, writer, fiber artist, and naturalist in Minnesota.
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