In the midst of the singing, the chanting, the debating of Liberty Plaza, a library has bloomed.
Stocked with donations and staffed by volunteers, it sits ready and waiting to offer the printed word to all who can read.
Occupy Wall Street is a true grassroots uprising. Liberty Plaza and the occupations in other cities are places to begin healing our profoundly sick and downright broken society. They are places to speak truth to power and to each other. Most importantly, the occupations are places to will and to work our alternative vision into being.
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. A prominent librarian said in a recent op-ed decrying cuts to public library budgets, “The next Abraham Lincoln could be sitting in their library, teaching himself all he needs to know to save the country. “ Of course, he could be, but it reveals just how far our national discourse has degraded that she felt the need to invoke Abraham Lincoln. Even if there is no Lincoln in her library, or in any other, even if her only readers are the humblest citizens among us, a free and just society still requires a library.
Like in the middle-ages when priests controlled society by interpreting the Bible, so today the corporate power structure controls us by controlling what we know. They highlight the facts they wish us to understand, they downplay and ignore the stories they wish to obscure. Objective data and peer reviewed analysis is barricaded behind expensive pay walls and the public’s access to this knowledge is endangered through severe cuts in funding for public and even academic libraries.
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.”
Cross posted to Daily Kos.