I spent my first day as a librarian yesterday. Like Michael, I have no experience in the proper science of cataloging and managing portals of information. But I do like: being in the company of books, organizing things, and even more so, watching other people relish in their own pursuits of textual knowledge (or textual healing, as I cheekily like to call it). So I went in with a strong sense that this is a wonderful way for me to contribute. I’d been otherwise uncertain as to how I should involve myself, and was so relieved to have this opportunity.
While I want to get down to talking about all of the wonderful books that were donated, I’m instead trying to think now about how this felt– to really illustrate the experience I had, as a non-camper, as a volunteer librarian, joining over two weeks into this protest. I’d been following it since day one online, negotiating my thoughts and the strong feelings of resonance I immediately felt with the group, against the misguided reports by the mainstream media (even from outlets I normally trust) that came little and late. It’s been a constant muddle of exhilaration, concern and really, heartache, and as time passed, I grew more and more impassioned and embarrassed. I knew that I had to help somehow, even if I was not prepared to drop my jobs and stop attending classes to camp out and occupy.
So yesterday, as I walked up Broadway, and passed the barricaded bull, I had butterflies.. allover my body. I was itchy with a mix of emotions, and I was trying my hardest to stay alert for any trouble, because part of me was actually very nervous. It was as though the word DISSENT was emblazoned across my forehead, and the cops and any politically indifferent or compliant civilians I passed knew where I was headed.
Upon my arrival, the camp was quiet but onlookers were beginning to creep up around the park. I wondered how many people there, just outside the park walls, were feeling like I had. I imagined that many of them were too nervous to enter the park, but somehow eager to secure an ambiguous state of alignment without crossing any threshold. Or else some of them may have sensed that their inability or reluctance to commit to sleeping in the park constituted some physical and perhaps ideological boundary between them and the “real” protesters. For my own part, I can’t say that the assumption wasn’t made, as I walked through the park and asked where the library was located, that I was a reporter, or a hapless spectator. After all, I did not have that weary look of having slept for several days in a makeshift sleeping bag, under a tarp, periodically disturbed by the threat of real or imagined danger. But I was there to help, to show my solidarity, and to offer my time, so any inference that my intention was located elsewhere, or at least irresolute, was a bit disheartening, albeit completely understandable.
I finally made it to the library where Betsy was cataloging titles by hand, and another volunteer, Eric, was tidying up our area. Nearby, a face-painting station had been set up, with the purpose of giving “Corporate Zombie Makeovers”.
Betsy, Michael and Mandy, and multitude of eager volunteers have done wonderful work of creating a library system to keep the books accessible and safe. So I first busied myself with something that hadn’t been done–sorting through our sprawling collection of zines, photocopied excerpts and flyers. Eric helped me make the duplicates accessible to the passing public while I archived designated OWSL copies of each.
Later on, an impromptu jam session started on the steps by the library which drew more and more people in. Many of them knew about the People’s Library, came with books in hand, and were happy to stay for the show. Many of them happened upon the library after they were drawn in by the enchanting banjo player, and poured over the library bins, oohing and aahing. It made me pretty happy to see such displays of bibliophilia in the millieu of a web-based and web-run initiative. Of course the ubiquitous use of the digital platform to disseminate information has by now seriously elevated the book as a precious object, but in this rare, democratic space, the book was not elitist, because it ceased to be rarified and could not be purchased.
All of these people were rife with questions. About the books. About the library’s policies. And several about the movement. In general, I tried to answer them all. But most of the time felt powerless to. Not because I’m confused or naive or because I’m a bored, unmotivated neo-hippy. I felt powerless because we all have the answers to these questions, collectively, and the very act of isolating one person to obtain some sort of personalized answer undermines the whole initiative. The language we’re speaking is a collective one, and there is no way to sum up a poly-vocal sentiment with one voice. The media has been taking this approach ever since they began covering the events of Occupy Wall Street, and the results are demeaning.
As for the library, the way I see it, these books are donations, and we are figuring this out as we go along, not in the sense that there is no order, or underlying principle, but with a sense of purpose to and awareness of the fact that there is simply a need for this library. It has a very critical place in the economy of the Occupation. So the librarians are making the choices we feel are right and that make sense for everyone involved as best we can. We offer and take suggestions. We are built on suggestions. We want more volunteers.
Here is a sense of my experience at the reference desk:
Q “How much do they cost?”
A “These books are donations to the movement, so that we can all exchange the information they contain and bring to mind. They are not for sale and they are not free**. They are for SHARE. If you find a book you’d like to keep as an exercise in sharing, we welcome a donations of your choice in kind, in ideas, in spirit or in currency.”
** (I don’t like the word free, because everything comes from a lineage of somewheres and somebodies, and unless we can contact all those peoples and places and ask them for consensus on the free-ness of said object at hand, we are operating on selective history. Needless to say this is dangerous.)
Q “Are you the librarian?”
A “Yes, at the moment I am.”
Q “Ok. I borrowed a book a few days ago. Is it ok if I bring it back after I’ve finished it? In another few days?”
A “Of course. The library will be open for as long as we all need it to be.”
And the bigger questions that made me feel smaller:
Q “Excuse me. I just want to know this: what is the difference between Anarchism and Terrorism?”
A –silent stare– (I was trying to read her. what sort of inflammatory rhetorical trap was she cornering me into? Or was she sincere?)
Q “I just want to know what the difference is. I came down here to ask. When I was younger they would always say, so and so was assassinated by an anarchist. And now all we hear about are terrorists.”
A “Terrorism necessitates an act of violence.”
Q “And so anarchism can be different, like this?”
A “Sure. That is a really gross over-simplification, but I think you can get a lot of insightful answers from the other people here about that as well. You should walk around”
I didn’t get into it at the time because I had books to organize and because I still felt like she was mocking the initiative. Or perhaps what I was hearing in her voice was really fear. In any case, the rest of my thought was as follows: ‘And I think it’s important to remember that terrorists and anarchists are not the only ones who commit acts of violence. And the differences in the valences of power and influence between the perpetrator(s) of violence and the victim(s) of violence are predicated upon and contribute to the labels we are able to give acts of violence against those who are in power. This hierarchy is the very imbalance in this world that we are all here to bring to bear. In other words, “the state has a monopoly on violence”. (MaxWeber)’
At Occupy Wall Street, I think we aren’t interested in attempting to usurp that monopoly through force. I think we are interested in revealing its character and its uselessness, thereby attenuating it.
One of my least favorite questions, and one that was posed to Betsy by some reporters who said they were from NPR is, “WHY IS THERE A LIBRARY?”
To this I say, ‘Why is there a food station?’ These are basic necessities. The dreaded questions of ‘Why are you here?’ or ‘What do you want?’ can be corollaries to this library question.
THERE IS A LIBRARY BECAUSE WE ARE HERE AND KNOWLEDGE IS NECESSARY FOR SURVIVAL.