The Librarians of Occupy Wall Street

January 21, 2012

Five librarians associated with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement’s People’s Library offered their views on democracy, protest, and the difficulties of providing reader’s services under radically different circumstances at “A Library Occupies Wall Street,” Saturday morning as part of the ALA Midwinter Meeting Masters Series.

All five spoke of their personal experiences as part of a working group to support a viable library in New York City’s Zuccotti Park from September 17 through November 15, 2011, when police evicted the Occupy Wall Street protesters and confiscated the library’s books, tents, and computers. The incident was covered in a November 16 American Libraries news story.

Jaime Taylor, art librarian for an auction house in Manhattan, pointed out that the People’s Library was not like most other libraries that have walls, shelving, regular electricity, and hours of operation: “Most library disaster plans do not stipulate what to do when hundreds of cops come in to tear everything down and arrest people.” She emphasized that the library working group is built upon consensus, though “the meaning of consensus in my library school classes and the meaning used by the Occupy movement is not the same. For us, consensus requires that nearly everyone (90%) supports a decision.” Librarians have no greater weight in decision-making than others, although they are empowered to act on decisions.

Zachary Loeb, a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Information, said he conducted a preservation assessment on the books that were recovered from the New York Department of Sanitation warehouse about one week after the raid. From an estimated 5,000 books on site, only 1,275 were returned; of these, 504 were in fine shape, 298 were damaged but reusable, 201 were completely destroyed, and 272 books were not identifiable as part of the OWS library because they lacked the appropriate markings. All the books in the OWS library were donated, some by prominent authors who signed their work; none were sought out or purchased.

Mandy Henk, an access services librarian at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, said the purpose of the People’s Library was to “engage in direct action to build a new and better world, one based on old principles embedded deeply in the American psyche but lately forgotten.” She described all libraries as being under assault because of what they represent: “The idea of a Commons, of shared resources, of equal access­—access mediated not by a market, but granted as a fundamental right that all people share by virtue of being part of the human family.”

Daniel Norton, a library student in a bachelor’s program at the University of Maine at Augusta, explained that the “unifying theme of the Occupy movement is dissatisfaction with the status quo and the result is people gathering to take part in the democratic process.” The OWS Library was a “place of solace and the means of joining the conversation” for people who felt victimized, dissatisfied, and otherwise unfulfilled.

Betsy Fagin, an ALA Spectrum Scholar who received her MLS from the University of Maryland in 2004, offered her thoughts on the future of the People’s Library. “One of the primary characteristics of our library is its fluidity,” she said. “Every day we reinvent ourselves.” The library is currently streamlining its mobile project, dividing the collection into relevant sets of materials that can be moved from one point to another. She added that the OWS library was building alliances with libraries at other protest points, strengthening ties with public and academic libraries, working with authors of books on the Occupy movement, and providing information to professors teaching courses on the topic.

Those interested in the People’s Library can follow its future activities on the Occupy Wall Street Library blog, where some of the participants’ presentations will be posted. American Libraries interviewed the five librarians after the program; video from the interview will be posted on the ALA YouTube channel.

UPDATE: A full transcript of their ALA Midwinter presentation can be found here.