To reimagine who we are, to understand who have become, is a group activity. It requires public truth-telling and personal reflection. For this to be a fair process, a just process, an inclusive process, we need to ensure that each and every citizen has access to that discussion and the facts that inform it. That’s why there is a library at OWS.
Libraries serve as an equalizer, reducing information-asymmetry so that all citizens can debate on a level playing field. They offer access to all ideas not because all ideas are equally good or true, but because all ideas deserve their chance to be heard and because nothing becomes more enticing than an idea censored or hidden.
“Information is liberation” is a truth that can be hard to grasp from a position of privilege. If you work for a university or live in a large city with a strong library system, information is like oxygen: always there, always (apparently) free. For the many millions who don’t work for a university and who don’t live in a large city with a well funded public library, information is scarce and often expensive.
It should go without saying, but we cannot be free as a people if we do not all have access to high quality information, including information that comes through stories and poetry. Without information and stories we can’t examine narratives put forth by the powerful and judge them from a position of information-equality. [...]
Healing ourselves, redeeming our politics and our culture, requires a new understanding of who we have become as a people. It requires a reimagining of what it means to be an American, how we treat one another, and how we behave in the world. Democracy is only possible if we have political equality and political equality is only possible when each and every citizen has both a strong education and ongoing access to the stream of scholarly and cultural conversation.
Libraries are more important than ever in these times. They guard the right of the public to know and to seek answers, they provide all citizens with access to facts, to the cultural narratives that aren’t approved by the dominant power structure, and most of all they contribute to the creation of political equality between citizens by reducing the impacts of economic inequality.
The People’s Library at OWS, and all of the other occupation libraries, are an expression of these roles. They stand in the midst of the protest as a living embodiment of the vision of a just and democratic society we all hold so dearly. The creation of the libraries is an act of protest that says, “We are all one and together we will build the society we have all imagined.”
Books have been doing this kind of work for a long time. In the middle of the nineteenth century, England’s Chartist movement — its energies strikingly similar to those of the Occupy movement, its intent similarly misunderstood by the powerful — established reading rooms throughout Britain. This was an era when public libraries were not widespread; most lending libraries charged subscription fees. The free Chartist libraries were enormously popular — and for the elite, enormously unsettling. A commentator in Blackwood’s magazine argued that “Whenever the lower order of any state have obtained a smattering of knowledge they have generally used it to produce national ruin.” Utilitarian reformers sought public funding for libraries where, they argued the intellectual appetites of working class-readers could safely be turned to productive ends.
Battles also links to a fascinating post by Jo Guldi, who argues for the significance of the act of occupying itself — the assertion of the right to take up space and proclaim ourselves an integral part of the infinite city:
The right to the city — to inhabit it, to participate in its governance, to reshape it — is a right that has to be continually renewed. Over the last four decades we have sat upon the accomplishments of the 60s, the settlements bequeathed from lunch-counter sit-ins and free-speech protests. But those rights are now in question. Through the extension of private ownership the vry parks in which Occupy Wall Street protestors now sit are privately-held parcels opened to the public at the pleasure of a private corporation. Our right to the village green has become so tenuous.
An occupation by the people is a taking up of space by the people. It takes up the vacant concrete spaces slid through by glanceless men in peacoats and umbrellas. It takes up the concrete corridors clogged by heavy-moving SUVs. It takes up the visual space crowded by advertisements featuring half-naked women in perfume. It replaces all of that open, lifeless city with another city, a human city of faces, of voices, arguing, debating.
And this is something that libraries are a vital part of, as well. A free library is a public space — a physical gathering place for people, books, arguments, and ideas — in an era when such spaces, and the ideal of community and citizenship that they represent, are increasingly dwindling and increasingly necessary. Matthew Battles again:
[T]here’s something especially forcible about occupying, about taking up space. This is doubly true now, in a time when the virtual has grown so magically, richly figured, while the texture of public space becomes ever more inhospitable to the all-but-forgotten kinesthetic dimension of the public sphere. That is what’s palpable even on a rainy morning when people energized by ideas and stories come together in a sodden tent filled with books. The medium doesn’t matter so much, of course; it’s the people, the ideas, the stories, the charge that count. Perhaps the best word for it after all is utopia — ephemeral, tactile, tactical.
Information is power, and power belongs to the people. And the People’s Library — like all public libraries — makes its invitation clear: “Come down and get some power.”