The People's Library of Occupy Wall Street Lives On
The People’s Library at Zuccotti Park—a collection of more than 5,000 donated books of every genre and subject, all free for the taking—was created not only to serve the Occupy Wall Street protesters; it was meant to provide knowledge and reading pleasure for the wider public as well, including residents of Lower Manhattan. It was also a library to the world at large, since many visitors to the park stopped by the library to browse our collection, to donate books of their own and to take books for themselves.
At about 2:30 am on November 15, the People’s Library was destroyed by the NYPD, acting on the authority of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With no advance notice, an army of police in riot gear raided the park, seized everything in it and threw it all into garbage trucks and dumpsters. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s Twitter promise that the library was safely stored and could be retrieved, only about 1,100 books were recovered, and some of those are in unreadable condition. Four library laptops were also destroyed, as well as all the bookshelves, storage bins, stamps and cataloging supplies and the large tent that housed the library.
For the past six weeks I have been living and working as a librarian in the People’s Library, camping out on the ground next to it. I’m an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and I’ve chosen to spend my sabbatical at Occupy Wall Street to participate in the movement and to build and maintain the collection of books at the People’s Library. I love books—reading them, writing in them, arranging them, holding them, even smelling them. I also love having access to books for free. I love libraries and everything they represent. To see an entire collection of donated books, including many titles I would have liked to read, thoughtlessly ransacked and destroyed by the forces of law and order was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life. My students in Pittsburgh struggle to afford to buy the books they need for their courses. Our extensive collection of scholarly books and journals alone would have sufficed to provide reading materials for dozens of college classrooms. With public libraries around the country fighting to survive in the face of budget cuts, layoffs and closings, the People’s Library has served as a model of what a public library can be: operated for the people and by the people.
During the raid, Stephen Boyer, a poet, friend and OWS librarian, read poems from the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology (see peopleslibrary.wordpress.com) aloud directly into the faces of riot police. As they pushed us away from the park with shields, fists, billy clubs and tear gas, I stood next to Stephen and watched while he yelled poetry at the top of his lungs into the oncoming army of riot police. Then, something incredible happened. Several of the police leaned in closer to hear the poetry. They lifted their helmet shields slightly to catch the words Stephen was shouting out to them, even while their fellow cops continued to stampede us. The next day, an officer who was guarding the entrance to Zuccotti Park told Stephen how touched he was by the poetry, how moved he was to see that we cared enough about words and books that we would risk violent treatment and arrest just to defend our love of books and the wisdom they contain.
At 6 pm on November 15, a group of writers and supporters of the People’s Library appeared at the reopened park carrying books, and within minutes we received around 200 donations. All night and into the next day folks stopped by to donate to and take from the collection. Because the new rules of the park forbid us from lying down or leaving anything there, Stephen and I stayed up all night to protect the books until other librarians came to take over for us. Frustrated and exhausted, but still exhilarated and eager to maintain the momentum of the movement, we kept the People’s Library open all day in the pouring rain, storing books in Ziploc baggies to keep them dry.
Then at 7:30 pm on November 16, the People’s Library was again raided and thrown in the trash—this time by a combination of police and Brookfield Properties’ sanitation team. The NYPD first barricaded the library by lining up in front of it, forming an impenetrable wall of cops. An officer then announced through a bullhorn that we should come and collect our books, or they would be confiscated and removed. Seconds later, they began dumping books into trash bins that they had wheeled into the park for that purpose. As they were throwing out the books, a fellow OWS librarian asked one of the NYPD patrolmen why they were doing this. His answer: “I don’t know.”
Five minutes after it started, the raid was over and the People’s Library’s collection was once again sitting in a pile of garbage. Yet just as the trash bins were being carted off, a man stepped out of the crowd with a book in his hand to donate to us: Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. We joyously accepted and cataloged it, placing it on display under a new sign for the library that we made right then on a blank sheet of paper. A true people’s library, after all, doesn’t depend on any particular number of books, since it’s ultimately about the way those books are collected and lent out to the public.
We’re still accepting donations and lending books just as we always have, but we’ve reorganized ourselves somewhat. We now have three mobile units staffed by OWS librarians, which we can take anywhere we want. For the November 17 Day of Action, we made sure the People’s Library was there to supply books to anyone who wanted them. All day long, OWS librarians walked among the crowds shouting, “The People’s Library 3.0, mobile and in the streets!” For me, it was easily the most rewarding day in the six weeks I’ve been with the movement. The people we met at our mobile units—Occupiers from New York and other states, friends of the People’s Library, tourists—went out of their way to express their joy that we were still here. They also struggled to articulate their feelings of loss, frustration, anger, disgust and outrage over the seizure and destruction of the library. All we could say in response was, “We’re here to stay! Please take a book! They belong to you!” A group of eight OWS librarians even started a new chant: “Whose books? Your books!” It quickly caught fire with the other marchers.
Libraries are where we learn about things that are new to us. Their books broaden our perspectives, change the way we see the world and, at the most basic level, provide us with free and open access to knowledge and information. Over the two months that the People’s Library has been in operation at Zuccotti Park, we librarians have come to see how vital this mission is to the enrichment of our broader society. What’s more, in the course of our day-to-day work there, we had—and are still having—the best time of our lives. The library provides a space of dialogue, creativity, intellectual and cultural exchange and personal growth. When freshmen and sophomores in college ask me, “What should I be reading to understand what this movement is all about?” I see it as an opening for a great conversation. And when they come back to the library to return the books they took, I love to hear about the new horizons that the books helped to open for them.
Although we often shout, “This is what democracy looks like!” on our marches, it’s also something we can say every day to those who pay a visit to the OWS library. In fact, it’s something that the People’s Library, by its very presence—in any location, in any form, with any number of books—is perfectly capable of saying for itself.
Image courtesy of David Shankbone