Intellectual Affairs

Guerrilla Librarians in Our Midst

Their slogan is "Literacy, Legitimacy, and Moral Authority." Scott McLemee hears from the book people of Occupy Wall Street.

November 2, 2011

When thinking about the future of Occupy Wall Street, there is something to say for meteorological determinism. An open-ended protest movement may grow when the weather permits, but an Arctic blast means shrinkage. OWS may bloom again in the spring, perhaps on a scale to dwarf anything that's happened so far. But when you ask people involved in the movement about what to expect in the meantime, the response can be rather evasive, and it sometimes comes with a look that says, “Have you ever tried to do anything by consensus, let alone long-term planning? Seriously, quit asking me that.”

But one segment of the movement has been thinking about the cold months ahead, and even beyond that. They are the “guerrilla librarians" -- the people organizing and distributing books and periodicals to keep the demonstrators informed and entertained. A library was established in Zuccotti Park at the very start of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, and it has received a good deal of attention. Several more sprang up as the protests spread. With the occupation movement, decentralized improvisation is the name of the game, so it’s impossible to tell just how many libraries have sprung up. But they exist in Boston and Philadelphia, in Portland, Ore. and Halifax, Nova Scotia, among other places. They are staffed by a mixture of professional librarians and activist volunteers, with "stacks" created through donations from publishers, bookstores, and individuals.

Just keeping their collections running has been plenty demanding. But that's where a slowdown in activity during the cold months could help the libraries consolidate themselves while also establishing contacts with one another. The blog of the flagship OWS library now serves as an unofficial journal providing information and advice for the whole milieu. A stronger network is likely to come out of the American Library Association meeting in Dallas in January, where an informal working group of library and information-science professionals who supporting the occupation movement will get together to compare notes.

Mandy Henk, a librarian at DePauw University, will be attending the session in Dallas. Being on fall break gave her the chance to work with the Occupy Wall Street library in early October. When we spoke by phone, she was back in Indiana but planning to return to Zuccotti Park within a few days.

“A lot of academics have volunteered,” she said, “mostly grad students or professors from the New York area.” Her description of the work required to keep the collection running covers all the basic functions performed by the staff of a more traditional collection: acquisitions, cataloging, building and maintaining a reserves collection, and working the circulation desk where patrons can check books out. “We also have a Friday night poetry slam,” she says, “and events where authors discuss their work with the public.”

I asked how meet-the-author events were organized. This, with hindsight, was a pretty silly question. As with everything else in OWS, the voluntarism sustaining the library follows its own rhythm. Authors just show up. Librarians work when they can and leave when they must. Flux is part of the ambience: a feature, not a bug.

“People are enjoying having a space where they are surrounded by books and ideas,” Henk says. “The great thing about Zuccotti is that constant political and economic debates take place that people might otherwise shy away from.” (Not that the library provides only fodder for argument. Plenty of fiction also circulates.)

Steven Syrek, a graduate student in English at Rutgers University, has been working at the OWS library since about the third week of the demonstration. “People talk about this movement like it’s a ragtag bunch of hippies,” he told me when we spoke by phone, “but the work we do is extremely well-organized.” The central commitment, Syrek says, is to create “a genuine clearinghouse for books and information.” Volunteers have adopted a slogan summing up what the library brings to the movement: “Literacy, Legitimacy, and Moral Authority.”

The hours he spends at the OWS library are, admittedly, cutting into the time Syrek has for his dissertation. Figuring out how to “strike a better balance” between research and public service is an priority. But adding to the mass of secondary literature on Shakespeare feels less urgent than the work to be done in Zuccotti Park. (And besides, short of a massive improvement of the job market in literary studies, devoting energy to open-air scholarship might make more sense now than the narrower sort of professionalization that once prevailed.)

As with the “book bloc” that formed during protests against education cuts in Italy and elsewhere some month back, the occupation libraries seem like a new development. And a welcome one, after too many years of demonstrations where the cultural tone was set by giant papier-mâché puppets engaged in mirthless satire. (I used to feel guilty for wanting to see them consumed in flames, but eventually realized that this was a pretty common desire.)

But the libraries at the anti-Wall Street protests are not quite as novel as they first appear. They have a tradition going back the better part of two centuries. In a recent article, Matthew Battles, the author of Libraries: An Unquiet History (Norton, 2004), noted the similarity to the reading rooms that served the egalitarian Chartist movement in Britain. For that matter, the Chartists also anticipated the occupation strategy as well. Battles, who is working on a forthcoming book on the history of the written word, discusses the OWS-Chartism connection in a short video:





Immanuel Ness, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and editor of The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, 1500 to the Present, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), points out that libraries emerged as part of the sit-down strikes that unionized the American auto industry in the 1930s. Over the past 20 years, scores of workers' centers providing training and legal help for low-income people have been established around the United States. “All of them have libraries as essential components of the process of educating workers,” says Ness by email. (His most recent book, Our to Master and to Own, co-edited with Dario Azzellini and published by Haymarket, is in great demand at occupation libraries, I'm told.)

So the OWS library and its spin-offs have a venerable ancestry. But what distinguishes them is that the collections are drawing in people with a deep background in library work – who, aside from their feelings about the economic situation itself, are sometimes frustrated by the state of their profession.

“I’ve worked in libraries since 1998,” Henk told me, “and throughout that period we’ve lost more and more control over budgets and collections. The information sources that people need are controlled by corporations, while we keep getting hit by the push for austerity.”

The issue here isn't just the impact on the librarians' own standard of living. Their professional ethos is defined by a commitment to making information available to the public. They are very serious about that obligation, or at least the good ones are, and they are having a hard time meeting it. If knowledge is power, then expensive databases, fewer books, and shorter library hours add up to growing intellectual disenfranchisement. Extreme economic inequality reinforces inequality of access to information, and vice versa. 

It is an exceptionally vicious circle. Joining the occupation movement is a way for librarians “to begin taking power back,” Henk says, “the power to create collections and to define what a library is for.” It is, in effect, a battle for the soul of the library as an institution.

The get-together at the American Library Association meeting in Dallas early next year will be an important chance to work out the next stage of that campaign. In the meantime, the occupation-movement librarians -- professional and otherwise -- have to figure out how to meet more pressing demands. “We’re going into a very cold winter,” Henk says. “It’s important to get our people through 16 weeks of that while also preparing for the longer term." At OWS, they are working out plans for fund-raising, storage, and, in due course, expansion.

The poet and rock performer Patti Smith has donated a tent that the organizers could use to protect the collection.  But putting it up would risk a crackdown by police, since tents in parks are prohibited by city law. It’s against the law in Washington too, though the Occupy DC library in McPherson Square has one up anyway. The image of cops destroying a library, even an informal one, would go around the world in about two minutes. That’s not to say it won’t happen, though. Beyond a certain point, strategy and tactics replace cataloging and collection management as core concerns.

In any case, Henk sees the occupation-movement libraries as the shape of things to come. "We have to keep serving the information needs of the protesters," she said, "and of other communities being hit by the economy. This work needs to continue."


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