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.