I’ve been reading a lot of reactions to the way the Occupy Wall Street library was removed from Zuccotti Park when the Occupy Wall Street encampment was broken up. It’s a situation charged with symbolic meaning. The initial reports that the library’s 5,000 plus books had been destroyed by the police was countered by a chirpy tweet from the mayor’s office with a picture of books safe and sound in a sanitation department garage. Many tweets later, it turned out that around half the library was missing and much of what was salvaged was damaged. Other accoutrements of the library – laptops, chairs, a tent – were gone or broken beyond repair. One person – I can’t recall where I saw this – suggested that to avoid this happening again, the library could be dispersed among protestors, with each one carrying two or three books that they could trade off. It’s an intriguing image, one that brings to mind that final scene of Fahrenheit 451, as people mingle, reciting the books that have been destroyed and can only be passed on orally. But it would be hard library to browse. Instead, the books are being kept in the kind of wheeled carts that people use to carry laundry. A bookmobile is born!
A while ago I reflected on the way the People’s Library reflected core library vales and why we share books that belong to everyone. It's not about information access. There’s plenty of information for the protests online, and plenty of people sharing their experiences digitally, just as they did in Tunisia and Egypt. But sharing books had a different meaning - and so does destroying books.
I’m pleased that the American Library Association has come out with a statement of concern, deploring the destruction of libraries of all kinds. The president of the association said:
“Libraries serve as the cornerstone of our democracy and must be safeguarded. An informed public constitutes the very foundation of a democracy, and libraries ensure that everyone has free access to information.
“The very existence of the People’s Library demonstrates that libraries are an organic part of all communities. Libraries serve the needs of community members and preserve the record of community history. In the case of the People’s Library, this included irreplaceable records and material related to the occupation movement and the temporary community that it represented.
“We support the librarians and volunteers of the Library Working Group as they re-establish the People’s Library.”
But I keep thinking about the long-term things we’re so willing to give up now that so many of us prefer to have books digitally delivered, even if we lose things that are foundational to the idea of libraries: equal access, privacy, and protection against censorship. Libraries can’t provide those things when we license content that remains under the control of its intellectual property owners. Another thing we lose is that tangible sense of community. Yes, it’s inconvenient to travel from your home or office to another building on campus, but when our purpose is only to pay for access to materials, community is defined as a group of individual users for whom access has been authorized through payment by the library. It's defined by a contract and an annual invoice.
Academic libraries can’t avoid this new definition of a library. Most of our money goes there already – but academics could avoid it if they took open access seriously. There is nothing requiring that we give our research to corporations. It’s a choice scholars make. There are other choices available.
When it comes to culture at large, things are more complicated. We don’t have a way of communally supporting creative people who are currently rewarded through publishing contracts and royalties on sales. But if we follow the new digital regime – in which publishers can refuse to license their books to libraries, in which control of texts remains in the hands of their corporate owners – then we are giving up privacy and the ability to resist censorship. We’re giving up the right to share and preserve our own culture.
We've forgotten that delicious irony that Kindle owners became aware of the fact that they don’t own the books they buy when their copies of George Orwell’s 1984 disappeared. It was an unauthorized copy; Amazon didn’t have the right to sell it in the first place. Still, it was a powerful image: copies of a book about totalitarianism being yanked out of people's hands all at once.
The image of police destroying books as they break up a demonstration is a powerful one. But when we choose to trade our rights for personal convenience, well ... one day we may not be able to embody community by sharing our books. We will not have libraries as we know them. Then who will we blame?