Why libraries matter, cont’d: The library is the weapon of the people

The website of the People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street has a roundup of media coverage of the library’s destruction by the police on November 15. The sharpest and pithiest of the commentaries must surely be Salman Rushdie’s scathing remarks on Twitter. In an op-ed for Al Jazeera (worth reading in full), Mark LeVine expands on the central role — both in symbolic and practical terms — of the protest library:

The “People’s Library” was at the heart of the OWS encampment at Zuccotti Park, and has played a similar role in other large occupations, such as Los Angeles. It is the necessary complement to the actual physical occupation of urban space represented by the OWS movement. Many people might wonder why it’s so important for protesters permanently to camp when the reality, especially as the weather turns bad, is that few people are actually doing anything at night besides sleeping.

But the point of the occupation is precisely to reconquer space that has been taken over, either by the state or by private interests — a kind of “eminent domain” of, by and for the people – and create a permanent presence that can engender and nourish the kind of community and solidarity that have so disappeared in the United States in the last forty years. By permanently occupying Zuccotti and other parks, the OWS movement created a space where people could gather, create libraries, share books and ideas, and even meals. Where they could plan for another world that isn’t merely possible anymore, but the only hope for the survival of humanity as a civilisation.

The library, which took weeks to establish, reflected the uniqueness and power of the still young 99 per cent movement. “From the very beginning [says friend and radio producer Alan Minsky], the OWS encampments were not just gestures of protest thinly focused on making statements about the ills of society, but were efforts to build community where people were knowledgeable and participated in informed dialogue. The libraries, at least in Zuccotti and in Los Angeles, have been central. Here in LA a graduate student made her entire personal library available to occupiers. These libraries have contemporary theory, classical literature, incisive analyses, and all sorts of books that have been marginalised from the mainstream media and culture. But when the history of this period will be written, these are the books that will be remembered.”

So much did the “people’s library” idea resonate that the OWS library couldn’t keep up with all the donations they’ve received and encouraging people to take books out. The website lists some of the newest arrivals in the days before the raid: Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, by Savo Heleta, Nuclear Nebraska, by Susan Cragin, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, From the Heat of the Day, by Roy A.K. Heath, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and innumerable other books that were opening the minds of all who passed through OWS and the many peoples’ libraries it has fostered across the country.

Minsky continued, “This open philosophy stands in stark opposition to the world of corporate culture. Trashing the library was symbolic of what the combined forces of Bloomberg and the NYPD feel about learning and the society in which we live.” (Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg, who claimed full responsibility for the raid’s execution, had to know about the library. Yet his “minutely planned raid” — as the New York Times described it — shovelled thousands of books into garbage trucks to be carted away to the nearest sanitation facility).

In contrast to those who now argue that OWS must grow beyond the goal of occupying physical space, LeVine argues that taking up space — with bodies and with books, in a very real, present, and visible way — is one of the most powerful weapons that the Occupy movement has in its arsenal. And here, again, the need for a real-space library is key:

As soon as he heard about the library, [Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni’s] thoughts turned to Heinrich Heine, the great 19th century German poet and critic, who exclaimed in his Almansor the famous words: “Where they burn books, they’ll ultimately burn people too”.

Of course, New York City isn’t burning books, but for Aloni, carting them away in garbage trucks is not that far removed. “When they disrespect books, they disrespect humankind, and when they destroy books, they destroy the spirit of humanity. The library was great because people gave more than they took. OWS was not just a place for activism, but also a place for education and rethinking; not for just blathering on when you don’t know, but being humble and willing to learn. By taking out the library, they’ve tried to stop that crucial process.” […]

And this is precisely why, despite arguments by some that it’s time for OWS to “declare victory and go inside” for the winter, it is crucial that the movement has identifiable permanent locations where people can publicly meet, read, discuss and debate the crucial issues raised by activists. […]

It turns out that in the 21st century, seizing and holding territory — both the public square and the public sphere — are inextricably bound together. As Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street continue their battle for the soul of American society into the winter and then an election year, the flood of knowledge represented by the OWS People’s Library is one of the best weapons protesters have to hold their ground against their much better financed, and armed, adversaries. If municipalities and their corporate sponsors are able to push OWS out of public sight, it will be a lot harder to ensure it doesn’t fall out of mind for the millions of Americans who have just begun to feel safe imagining that through direct action, they too can change a system that has never seemed more stacked against them.

The good news is that the people aren’t giving up the library without a fight. Christian Zabriskie gives an account of how, hours after the eviction from Zuccotti Park, the People’s Library is rising from the ashes:

Protesters were allowed back into Zuccotti Park less than 24 hours after they were cleared out, following a variety of legal decisions. The library was immediately restarted with a half a dozen paperbacks. Within two hours the collection was up to over 100 volumes and the library was fully functioning — cataloging, lending, and providing reference services. “The library is still open” was repeated like a mantra. “This is why I became a librarian, this is why I went to library school,” Library Working Group member Zachary Loeb said of the rebuilding. […]

Zuccotti Park looks very different now. The various stations for food, information, comfort, first aid, and the like had created a village atmosphere. Now all of that has been cleared away, the park is practically just another sterile stretch of stone in the city. “You can clear the tents but you cannot clear the people” has become a new OWS slogan. Within hours of the park reopening, and despite strict access and security protocols, more than 1,000 people were there for the first General Assembly and their claps and shouts echoed off the skyscrapers around the site.

Amidst it all, there was also a functioning library, a small one under fire, but a library just the same. While the future of the Wall Street occupation is unclear, these protesters still believe in what libraries offer everyone. For these activists “The library is open” has become a battle cry.

And it’s open in more ways than one. As a response to the destruction of the first library, OWS has launched a new website, Occupy Educated, to provide recommendations for essential books, articles, and films exploring the relevant issues.

Long live the People’s Library.

(Image via GalleyCat)


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One response to “Why libraries matter, cont’d: The library is the weapon of the people

  1. Pingback: Sgt. Shamar Thomas Introduces OccupyEducated.org – A New Online Library that Can’t Be Destroyed | Occupy Cyberspace – American Autumn

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