Category Archives: Scholarship

Neil Smith, NYC Occupy History and the Political Geography of Revolt

I’ve wanted to mark the recent sudden and tragic death of radical geographer Neil Smith, but wasn’t sure quite how. Just now, as I was re-reading his book “The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City” I realized that I could do this in two ways. First by sharing some passages from the first chapter, which contains an account of the eviction of the Tompkins Square Park occupation in 1988 (and again in 1991) echoing the eviction from Liberty Plaza of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, and second by sharing a link to the entire book in PDF form, which is available free online from the National Technical University (NTUA) in Athens.

Neil Smith’s account of the occupation and eviction, as well as his analysis of urban class struggle are vital texts for occupiers to understand the history of resistance in the city. For those who haven’t read them, or aren’t familiar with the occupation of Tompkins Square, they will be eye-opening:

On the evening of August 6, 1988, a riot erupted along the edges of  Tompkins Square Park, a small green in New York City’s Lower East Side. It raged through the night with police on one side and a diverse mix of anti-gentrification protesters, punks, housing activists, park inhabitants, artists, Saturday night revelers and Lower East Side residents on the other. The battle followed the city’s attempt to enforce a 1:00 A.M. curfew in the Park on the pretext of clearing out the growing numbers of homeless people living or sleeping there, kids playing boom boxes late into the night, buyers and sellers of drugs using it for business. But many local residents and park users saw the action differently. The City was seeking to tame and domesticate the park to facilitate the already rampant gentrification on the Lower East Side . . .”Whose fucking park? It’s our fucking park,” became the recurrent slogan . . .

. . . In fact it was a police riot that ignited the park on August 6, 1988. Clad in space-alien riot gear and concealing their badge numbers, the police forcibly evicted everyone from the park before midnight, then mounted repeated baton charges and “Cossacklike” rampages against demonstrators and locals along the park’s edge:

‘The cops seemed bizarrely out of control, levitating with some hatred I didn’t understand. They’d taken a relatively small protest and fanned it out over the neighborhood, inflaming hundreds of people who’d never gone near the park to begin with. They’d called in a chopper. And they would eventually call 450 officers… The policemen were radiating hysteria . . .’ (Carr 1988:10)

. . .In the days following the riot, the protesters quickly adopted a much more ambitious political geography of revolt. Their slogan became “Tompkins Square everywhere” as they taunted the police and celebrated their liberation of the park. Mayor Edward Koch, meanwhile, took to describing Tompkins Square Park as a “cesspool” and blamed the riot on “anarchists.” Defending his police clients, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association enthusiastically elaborated: “social parasites, druggies, skinheads and communists” –an “insipid conglomeration of human misfits” –were the cause of the riot, he said. . .

Smith, N. 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. Routledge.

First photo from Ángel Franco of The New York Times. Additional images are from Q. Sakamaki‘s book Tompkins Square Park.

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Discuss:

A small plot on the community link farm, this is passed along from one of my library school classmates. Sure sounds like what we’ve been up to, huh?

Hack Library School: New Librarianship

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Occupy the OccuPAST: Echoes of Dissidence in the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection (pt. 4 of 4)

Today we have the final installment of Laurie Charnigo’s essay Occupy the OccuPAST: Echoes of Dissidence in the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection. Previous sections are posted here, here and here.

Unlike the literature of Occupy Wall Street, the publishers of these newspapers did not have the benefits of digitization and the Internet to preserve and disseminate their information. Many of these papers would have been lost to history if not for the leaders of the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) who had the foresight to preserve as many of them as possible. In 1970, Tom Forcade, Head of UPS at the time, formed a deal with the Bell & Howell Company to film the underground papers. This was an ongoing project that continued until 1985. The UPS partnered with the Bell & Howell Company to microfilm hundreds of underground newspapers and newsletters. The result is the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection which, according to a catalog record in WorldCat, is currently housed in 110 (primarily academic) libraries. There have been some efforts to digitize select underground newspapers. For example, Georgia State University has recently digitized all issues of the Great Speckled Bird and made them freely accessible on the Georgia State University Library Digital Collections Web site. Likewise, Liberation News Service is in the process of making LNS packets available from the Liberation News Service Archive. The It’s About Time: Black Panther Party Legacy & Alumni Web site also provides an archive of the Black Panther Party Intercommunal News Service. All issues of The Realist, a satirical newspaper, founded by Paul Krassner, are available from The Realist Archive Project. Although, some consider the Los Angles Free Press to be the first counterculture paper, many include The Realist which predates them all, having been founded in 1958. The Ann Arbor District Library has digitized all issues of the Ann Arbor Sun, from 1967-1976, on their Free John Sinclair Web site. The Sun was founded by John Sinclair. Also available on this Web site are some really cool photos and audio recordings.

On February 28th at 6:30 p.m. at 20 Cooper Square, N.Y.U.’s Program in Museum Studies and Fales Library and Special Collections at Bobst Library will be sponsoring an exhibit on the East Village Other titled “It’s Happening: “Blowing Minds” a Celebration of the East Village Other. Although not freely available, libraries should consider purchasing the CD-ROM digital re-creation of The San Francisco Oracle which provides access to all twelve issues published. Although the Oracle is included in the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection on microfilm, the CD-ROM version provides access to the paper in color. Viewing the Oracle in black and white is like looking at a rainbow without color. Many terrific books have been written about the underground press. Click here for a “Free Handout” which provides a bibliography on such books, including authors cited in this essay, as well as two excellent recently-published titles; Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America by John McMillian and Sean Stewart’s On the Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S.

An interesting thought to end this entry on the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection is that, while scholars today are able to access many articles and newspapers online through databases and on the Web, the hundreds of papers which are not there still exist and only exist because of Thomas King Forcade’s efforts to have them microfilmed. Vendors, aggregated databases, and giant publishing conglomerates dictate what scholars and students are able to instantly access today. Because there is not enough demand for the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection (don’t confuse this with Alt-Press Watch) the vendor which holds the rights to the resource does not currently have any plans to digitize this Collection. Strangely, the very principles the underground press fought adamantly against, commercialization and allowing themselves to be co-opted, are the very reasons it has not entered the digital world. The powers that be just don’t consider the collection to have monetary potential. Perhaps it is up to us, the people, to protect and promote this collection. From their moldy, yellowed, microfilm tombs, it’s time to bring the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection back to life. Promote it. Use it. Demand it. Digitize it?

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Protest History: Underground Press Syndicate pt. 3 (of 4)

Continuing Laurie Charnigo’s essay on Protest History, here is part 3 of 4 from Occupy the OccuPAST: Echoes of Dissidence in the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection.

Although newspapers, as shown in the previous examples, varied on issues so widely that any attempt to include them all would be impossible for this piece, they all bonded loosely as a movement through their unified opposition to the war in Vietnam. Many of the issues most widely shared focused on American imperialism, ecological awareness, dismantling the military industrial complex, and the erosion of constitutional rights such as free speech, expression and the right to peacefully protest. Corporate greed, growing commercialism, inequality, distrust of mass media and “The Establishment” were issues all papers had in common. The writings in this collection are echoes of concerns people are now raising in OWS.

Despite their differences, nearly all underground newspapers became the target of censorship and police harassment. We have the Patriot Act. They had J. Edgar Hoover and the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). In “Dirty Tricks on the Underground Press,” Geoffrey Rips cites a report from the UPS which indicated that at least 60% of their members experienced “interference” from the authorities. (47) According to Rips, this “interference” included “prosecutions in the courts, official interruption of distribution, bomb threats and bombs by groups with links to the authorities, harassment of customers and printers, wiretaps, and infiltration by police agents.” Trying to publish an underground paper in a place like Jackson, Mississippi left David Doggett, editor of the Kudzu, financially and psychologically crushed. Rips also reports on how the Black Panther Party (BPP), considered to be a terrorist organization by the FBI, was a constant target of harassment. According to Rips, in a particularly absurd memorandum to the FBI, authorities in Newark suggested spraying bundles of the BPP newspaper with a “chemical known as Skatole” which “disburses a most offensive odor on the object sprayed.” (Rips, 48). The object was to spray as many papers with this stinky substance in order to disrupt distribution of the paper. Authorities also harassed underground newspapers by arresting street vendors for such things as “vagrancy” or distributing obscenity. Streitmatter wrote that:

“On the very day that Richard Nixon was elected President, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to his offices coast to coast. The subject of the communiqué was a plan Hoover had developed to halt what his lieutenants were characterizing, with considerable panic, as the ‘vast growth’ of counterculture papers.” (Steitmatter, 214).

It is unnerving to realize that surveillance and erosion of free speech continues under the Patriot Act.

Lest I be accused of over-romanticizing the Sixties Era underground press, I would be remiss not to point out some of its flaws…and there are many. The sixties counterculture papers are often dismissed by scholars as unprofessional, naïve, “hippie,” drivel. It’s certainly true that a forage through the underground papers does turn up its fair share of poorly written news filled with typos, bad artwork, and misinformation. And, heck yeah, there’s a lot of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. So what? One might even argue that liberating sex and legitimizing rock n’ roll were monumental feats in our cultural history.

Even though many of the issues expressed by the counterculture movement were extremely serious there is an ever-present element of humor which runs throughout the underground press. That zany mixture of silliness and seriousness is what is also fun and charming about the writers and artists of the underground press. As Harvey Wasserman (Liberation News Service) wrote in Sean Stewart’s recently-published book On the Ground: an Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U. S., “we were not only political activists but comedians…”(Stewart, 180).

All silliness aside, one should not forget that the underground newspaper collection also documents one of the greatest youth movements in U.S. history. The papers are filled with serious and thoughtful discourse concerning the Vietnam War, civil rights, ecology, to the evils of over-consumerism. With gusto and cleverness, articles of sheer brilliance and beauty were published in the underground press. It’s also important to remember that the underground press often broke news on issues before it was deemed appropriate or fitting for mainstream papers. As Rodger Streitmatter suggests in Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America, the underground press was the first to bring forth the truth about what was really happening in Vietnam and why our involvement in it was doomed. Prior to the Tet Offfensive in 1968, Streitmatter reports that all major newspapers supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam, even claiming that the U.S. had almost won. Following the Tet Offensive, mainstream news sentiment quickly flip-flopped to opposition against continued military action. (Streitmatter, 197). Photographs and stories began to expose the extent of the horrors of Vietnam. In their news coverage of the conflict in Vietnam, the newspaper giants were years behind the underground newspapers. (Streitmatter, 199).

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“Modern civilization is a dangerous, insane process– destructive of man’s natural potential, murderous to other species of life, symbol addicted, anti-life. Drop out of the social game.”

Protest History: Underground Press Syndicate pt. 2 (of 4)
Continuing from last week’s installment, here is part two of Laurie Charnigo’s essay, Occupy the OccuPAST: Echoes of Dissidence in the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection.

While the underground newspapers of the sixties and early seventies were united in their opposition to the Vietnam War, their content and purpose was by no means uniform. Some of the papers focused on hippie “drop out” culture, such as the short-lived but beautifully- illustrated San Francisco Oracle published from 1966 to 1968. The Oracle captured the pinnacle of the “Summer of Love” in Haight-Ashbury, covering such subjects as expanding consciousness, experimentation with Eastern spirituality, and human be-ins. Contributors to the Oracle included writers, poets, thinkers, and artists such as Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, Ken Kesey, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Bowen, and Allen Cohen. Revolution, as espoused in the Oracle, is an expansion and change of consciousness which occurs within an individual. As Timothy Leary proclaimed in the first issue of the Oracle, “Drop out! Modern civilization is a dangerous, insane process– destructive of man’s natural potential, murderous to other species of life, symbol addicted, anti-life. Drop out of the social game.” Perhaps no other paper in the underground newspaper collection achieved the Oracle’s sophistication in artistic expression. The paper is just as interesting to look at, with its beautiful psychedelic imagery, as it is to read. Allen Cohen, the paper’s editor, wrote that the idea for the Oracle came to him in a “rainbow newspaper” dream. The Oracle, however, only represented one spectrum of the rainbow of underground papers. On the other end of the spectrum were papers which were opposed to flowers, peace, and mind expansion as a central means to obtain social and political justice.

Music may have been the most powerful and unifying expression of the counter-cultural movement. In Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America, Rodger Streitmatter writes “Despite rock ‘n’ Roll’s evolution into a potent cultural force, the established media largely ignored it.” (211). Streitmatter goes on to assert that underground newspapers helped “legitimize” rock n’ roll by providing the first serious reviews and analysis of records. One of the most beautiful counterculture essays is “Liberation Music” written by John Sinclair, former White Panther Party member, while he was serving time in Marquette Prison in July 1970. In “Liberation Music” which was published in Creem Magazine, Sinclair warns about the commercialization of music and how it is was being co-opted by big corporate interests. In this piece, Sinclair writes about the origins of the counterculture movement “Our culture started to develop about five years ago [1965] as a real alternative to the death culture of the straight world. We started from where we were then, which was almost nowhere, and we built up our culture from the ground.” Sinclair found parallels between what was happening in the rock and roll world and society as a whole, writing:

“…if we study the way the pig has infiltrated and taken over and manipulated our culture, we can not only discover how to put an end to this exploitation but we can also see how monopoly capitalism and imperialism works in the larger society as well. What we have to realize, finally, is that everything that happens in the macrocosm of the American consumer culture can be seen in detail at work in the microcosm of the rock and roll world, and if we can combat the consumer mentality in our culture then we can combat it in the mother country culture too, and save ourselves and eventually all the people of the earth from destruction at the hands of the greed creeps and “owners” who are causing all of us all this grief.”

While underground papers served as the journalistic voice of the counterculture movement, rock n’ roll was the greatest and most lasting expression of the movement.

While sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll surface frequently in the underground newspapers, hundreds of others focused solely on serious social and political issues. New Left Notes, the official paper of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), for example, focused on New Left ideology. The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service (BPINS) was the voice of the Black Panther Party and addressed Black Power and African American issues. Papers in the south, such at The Great Speckled Bird in Atlanta, the Kudzu in Jackson, Mississippi, T-Town’s High Gauge (roll tide, crimson hippies!) and NOLA Express in New Orleans spent a great deal of time reporting on civil rights issues. Although hippies and college-educated New Left did not exactly fit in with the working class, Rising up Angry addressed workers rights in Chicago. Free Palestine (Washington, D.C.) took up the issue of Palestinian rights and ran from 1969-1971. In the January 1969 issue of Free Palestine, Justin Harris urged Americans to become more informed about the IsraeliPalestinian conflict writing:

“One can make a fine start towards the goal of wider understanding by reading the message of the Palestinian resistance as presented by Free Palestine, and then continue with additional study of the historical roots of the problem and the present-day ramifications. Careful consideration should be given to this movement’s revolutionary contribution to the Arab world; its political impact on American society and its spiritual significance to all the oppressed people of the world.”

Dine’ Baa Hani gives readers a glimpse into the social issues surrounding the Navajo during 1970 to 1973. Modern Utopia provided information about communal living and compiled lists and addresses of social organizations. Gay Sunshine was one of the first papers to focus on gay and Lesbian rights following the Stonewall Riots in 1969. G.I. Press Service was an example of the many underground newspapers created by soldiers who opposed the War in Vietnam. Perhaps G.I. papers, more than any other paper, would have been considered “underground.”

Women’s rights were the central focus of Rat (New York), It’ Aint Me Babe (Berkeley), and Ain’t I a Woman (Iowa). In 1970, the women who worked at Rat staged a coup and took over the entire paper, opening up “LiberRATion” from their alleged sexist- male coworkers whom they believed had relegated them to secretarial or non-important positions in the paper. In her exposé, “Goodbye to All That,” printed in Rat’s “take over” edition, Robin Morgan wrote:

“Goodbye, goodbye forever, counterfeit Left, counterleft, male-dominated cracked-glass mirror reflection of the Amerikan Nightmare. Women are the real Left. We are rising, powerful in our unclean bodies; bright glowing mad in our inferior brains; wild hair flying, wild eyes staring, wild voices keening…We are rising with a fury older and potentially greater than any force in history, and this time we will be free or no one will survive. Power to the people or to none. All the way down this time.”

Morgan’s “Goodbye to All That” was widely reprinted and considered one of the best underground newspaper essays on the role of women in the counterculture movement.

Numerous papers were centered around or started as college newspapers. These papers tended to create a counterculture environment on or around campuses, with many forming SDS chapters. In September 1969, NOLO Express (New Orleans) put out a special “Student Handbook” in which they exposed the big corporate affiliations of the LSU at New Orleans Board of Supervisors in “Freshman Orientation 101: Introduction to LSU Board of Supervisors”. The editors proceeded to lambaste the monopoly of the campus bookstore and the outrageous prices of textbooks in “Book Store Code Exposed.” Other pieces in the “Student Handbook” included “Busting the Ban on SDS “ (the University felt the organization was too radical for LSUNO), disgruntlement at the high prices of coffee and the “cardboard hamburgers” in the University Cafeteria, a “Freshman Orientation Quiz” with a section on maps titled “Know your Empire,” and a piece bemoaning the increase in student fees. On the cover of the handbook is a cartoon by R. Cobb of Satan tempting a hippie- looking Adam and Eve couple with the caption “Besides…Just how far do you think you can get in today’s world without a good education?”

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Protest History: Underground Press Syndicate

We are lucky enough to have a series of guest blog posts from Laurie Charnigo, a Reference Librarian at the Houston Cole Library at Jacksonville State University. One of the gems of their collection is the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) Underground Newspaper Collection– more than 500 underground newspapers and newsletters from the 1960′s now preserved on microfilm. Enjoy the first of four posts from Laurie about the collection.

Occupy the OccuPAST: Echoes of Dissidence in the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection

…we had been so wiped out by our visions of love and universal truth that we were blinded to the real nature of the death culture and we just couldn’t believe it when Babylon refused to melt away in the face of the colossal wave of good feeling we had let loose on Amerika. …This wasn’t quite what we expected, and it knocked most of us right off our feet, and we still haven’t recovered from the shock of finding out that the world wasn’t going to change just because that was the best thing for it. ~ John Sinclair, “Liberation Music,” June-July 1970.

In the introduction to Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, Danny Schechter writes, “All movements need their poets to set the tone, to raise the questions and express the sensibility.” 1 Just as a distinctive literature may emerge from Occupy Wall Street (OWS), the protest movement of the Vietnam era had its own literature in the form of hundreds of underground newspapers published during the sixties and early seventies. Luckily, most of these papers were preserved in the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection. Unfortunately, this collection sits in over 100 libraries throughout the United States gathering cobwebs in moldy, yellowing boxes of microfilm, largely overlooked and forgotten by scholars and unknown by students today. Now, more than ever, it’s time for this collection to be rediscovered and brought back to life. The voices of dissidence, captured in the sixties counterculture papers, in many ways, parallels and echoes the concerns of OWS.

The counterculture newspapers in the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection, published mostly on shoestring budgets and with small circulations, facilitated the anti-war movement while also documenting its history. In 1966, a loose coalition of editors from five papers, including the East Village Other (New York), Los Angeles Free Press, Berkeley Barb, Fifth Estate (Detroit) and The Paper (Michigan State University) founded the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS). Membership into the UPS increased rapidly over the next six years. For a membership fee of ten dollars, newspapers were required to send all issues of their papers to UPS, in addition to all other members of the Syndicate. In exchange for the small fee and swapping papers, all members were allowed to reprint each other’s work with nothing more than a credit line.

The underground press dropped all pretense to objectivity, which many claimed was a myth anyhow. The goal of these papers was to rouse their readers to action, to serve as both spokespieces and active participants in the movement. As John Wilcock, former editor of the East Village Other and Other Scenes, recalls “we underground publishers thought we were making history!” Because the newspapers included information on cultural, social, and political events (e.g., protest gatherings, rock concerts, human be-ins, notices about crimes against the people by the “Establishment”) which were not reported by mainstream news sources, the UPS was essential for the rapid spread of counterculture information in a pre-Internet age. An extremely important member of UPS was Liberation News Service (LNS) founded by Raymond Mungo and Marshall Bloom in 1967. LNS served as a sort of Associated Press or a United Press International service on foreign and political affairs worldwide. LNS had correspondents in places such as Southeast Asia, South America, and throughout the United States. For a fee, LNS sent news bulletin packets to interested underground newspapers. This service allowed newspapers to add international and political news, often not reported by “Establishment” newspapers. LNS enabled small local underground papers, such as the Kudzu in Jackson Mississippi, to enrich their own local news with an international flair. In addition, through membership to the UPS, the Kudzu would have rights to reprint articles written by key members of the counterculture who may have written for some of the larger underground papers, such as the East Village Other or Los Angeles Free Press. The services of both UPS and LNS were essential factors in the rapid growth and expansion of underground newspapers in cities all across the United States.

Soon after the UPS was established, counterculture newspapers began to “spread like weed,” as Thomas King Forcade, legendary leader of UPS and founder of High Times Magazine, once described their rapid growth in a 1973 issue of the UPS Directory. In the ’73 Directory, Forcade traced the first “true” underground newspaper back to the Los Angeles Free Press which was founded by Art Kunkin in 1964 with an estimated readership of 20,000. By 1972, Forcade reported that the number of underground newspapers had risen to 300 with an estimated readership of twenty million! The counterculture papers of the sixties were such an integral voice of the youth movement in cities across the United States that at a UPS Media Conference in Boulder, Colorado in 1973, paper editors unanimously decided to change the name of the Underground Press Syndicate to the Alternative Press Syndicate. As Forcade wrote in the July/ August issue of the Underground Press Revue, “Though we are the only press uniquely equipped to go underground at a moment’s notice, what we are really about is viable, social alternatives.” The life of Tom Forcade and his passion for the underground press is an interesting story, in itself. Through a series of video interviews, Steven Hager reveals an interesting and rare glimpse into the life of Forcade and his role in the UPS in “The Tom Forcade Story.”

1 Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, http://peopleslibrary.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/ows-poetry-anthology2.pdf

The essay continues: part two, part three, part four.

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People’s Library presentation at ALA Midwinter

Following is the text presented at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference Saturday January 21, 8:30 am at the Dallas Convention Center Theater by Occupy Wall Street Librarians Daniel Norton, Mandy Henk, Betsy Fagin, Jaime Taylor and Zachary Loeb.

[Danny]

Good Morning ALA Midwinter 2012 Dallas! My name is Daniel Norton, I am a student of Library Science, and I am both proud and honored to introduce to you a group of professionals who have not only impacted me in very meaningful ways as a future professional, but who have an inspiring and interesting story to share with you today…

[Mandy]

On September 17th of last year a group of committed activists, activists diverse in age, race, and social class, taking their inspiration from the Arab Spring, “occupied” a public space in New York City’s financial district. They rejected the legitimacy of the existing authorities and engaged in direct action to build a new and better world. A world based on old principles. Principles embedded deep in the American psyche, but lately forgotten. Solidarity. Mutual aid. Equality. Autonomy. Democracy—real democracy based on consensual, non-hierarchical self-governance. The activists of Occupy Wall Street built a People’s Kitchen so that no one need know hunger. They built a Comfort station so that no one need suffer the cold. Medical care, Arts and Culture, a Spirituality Space, even a phone charging station . . . .all of the necessities of life—including a library. Occupy Wall Street is about creating a new and better world ourselves. As a free people united for justice.

Occupiers have faced repeated police brutality—peaceful Occupiers have been arrested, maced, gassed, attacked with police scooters and sound canons. On November 15th, our occupation and our library were destroyed in a brutal early morning raid. Our colleagues and comrades were arrested, our collection tossed into a dumpster, our tent cut apart with a chainsaw. But we are here, we are strong, and we are committed to the fight for justice. We are the Librarians of Occupy Wall Street and we are committed to using the tools of our profession–books, literacy, bibliographic control, reference and readers advisory in that fight. As librarians we understand the vital role libraries play in society and in a healthy democracy and our library stands as our living commitment to that fulfilling that role.

We’re each going to give a brief reflection and then we’ll have a presentation on our library and time for questions.

[Betsy]

One of the unique characteristics of Occupy is how it is a very local expression of a group of people in any particular place, but the impulse to build a library, to share knowledge and resources is universal.

In November there was a brief article in the Guardian with a slide show of other Occupy Libraries in Washington DC, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Toronto and London that gave us one of our first glimpses of how Occupy libraries were multiplying.

The Biblioteca Acampada Sol in Madrid that grew out of the M15 movement has been a particular inspiration to us & I want to read some of a letter they sent to us in early October as it mirrors our own experience at Occupy Wall Street and expresses some of how we are bound together whether we know it or not:

Hi Peoples Library!

Cheers from the public library of the Spanish revolution occupation at Madrid!

We are the Acampada Sol Library, The library that was formed during the occupation of the Puerta del Sol Square here in Madrid- Spain last May. We have been following OWS from the very first day and let’s say we are glad to see that you found the way out to organise you up almost in the same way we did while we were camping at the city hall square in Madrid at Puerta del Sol.

What we saw [in] the pics of OWS was quite impressive, but you couldn’t imagine how surprised we were when we realized that OWS has also a library. It may sound stupid but when we knew that, we celebrated it as the born of a new one in the family.

Why? well, it´s difficult to explain but during the nearly seven weeks we lived there hearing the rain fall over the piece of plastic that barely covered our books (not us) we had a lot of time to think about what we were going trough. The media described us as bums, the government as the most dangerous kind of terrorists (the pacifist’s kind) and we slept always waiting for the final police riot that would throw everything down. We had time for joy and also for despair. We never knew what we were doing, we only knew that it was right. People said it was useless to demand a U-turn in local politics in a country with a globalized economy. We replied if so, that we expected to make our demands go global then, they said it was a childish dream and they laughed…

We only want to thank all of you to be there, because maybe you don’t realize it, but you’re making our dream come true… Obviously to do the right thing, far from being a utopia or related to culture is a matter of common sense.

We should say that none of us decided to open up a library during our occupation, it appeared by itself. People who came to support us wanted us to have some of their books, they wanted us to read and to take care of them. We started out only with forty titles. People came up to rest from the everyday routines, trying to find a shelter in the written words under our blue tent, poets showed up to read them their works and free thinkers their essays…The manager of one major corporate library in town gave us book-carts and everything we needed. “Just don’t tell anyone” he asked. One donation come after another and in a few weeks we reached nearly four thousands titles at our outdoor library. A funny heritage to save considering that we were waiting to be bludgeoned and evicted from one minute to other…

We love to hear from you to know how all of you guys are going and we hope you’ll find inspiration in our little story to realise that you are not alone in this.

Thank You!

Pd[sic]: Sorry for our lousy English.

Bibliosol – Biblioteca de Acampada Sol

During the time we held the park, we were so busy organizing and running the library, arranging events, talking to people & trying to evade arrest that we didn’t have much opportunity to reach out beyond Zuccotti Park. Since the raid, connecting Occupy libraries together has become one of our primary aims.

We are still in the early stages of forming a consortium of Occupy libraries (& if anyone would like to get involved, please get in touch with me), but have already been in touch with libraries that are still active despite many of the camps being shut down. As of today, we’ve had enthusiastic response from about a dozen libraries and we are beginning to share our experiences and resources to strategize future steps and clarify the roles of libraries within the Occupy Movement. One particularly exciting development has been the role our library can play assisting educators. Many college professors have begun teaching courses on Occupy and who better to help them find accurate, timely information than the libraries and librarians who have been there.

[Jaime]

I want to make it very clear that the People’s Library is not like most other libraries. Most libraries, at least those in places like the United States, have walls and roofs and doors and shelves. They have regular electricity, bathrooms, call numbers, hours of operation. They don’t have, for the most part, rain and snow inside them, or giant papier mâché bulls on Sunday afternoons, or constant police presence and the threat of arrest or violence that comes with it. Your library has probably never had anything to do with a tent, nor is anyone living in it, and while some of you have had the occasional visit from the authorities, your disaster plans don’t stipulate what to do when hundreds of cops come calling, tear down the whole thing, and arrest anyone inside. Let me also be clear that none of this is hyperbole.

One aspect I particularly want to touch on is the decision-making process we use. The Library Working Group works on consensus. When I was in library school, we talked about horizontal structures and consensus as a cutting edge way of organizing library work and staff. Please throw that all out the window. Please. The meaning of ‘consensus’ used in my library school classroom and the meaning of it at the Occupation and in radical politics generally are not the same. For us, consensus requires that nearly everyone support a decision. If there are people with serious concerns about a proposal, what we call a ‘block,’ we need at least 90% those present to be in support of it. Degreed librarians have no more weight in making decisions than an 18-year-old college student, an underemployed actress, or a crusty traveling kid. At the same time, individual librarians are empowered to act autonomously to a large extent; if a librarian had a good idea, and an action wouldn’t greatly affect the library as a whole, that person was welcome to make it happen, barring serious concerns from others, without seeking permission as such. The flip side of that autonomy is that an individual librarian need not involve themself with a library project they don’t like or agree with, that in Occupation terms they ‘stand aside’ from. This is in severe contrast to even the flatter organizational structures in normal libraries, which are remain hierarchies and for which we might say about consensus, ‘you keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.’

When formulating policies and procedures for the Library, we considered not only library best practices, but also the ideological nature of our existence, and the unique practical realities of our operations.

There are some aspects of the Occupy Wall Street Library that are easily recognizable: we have an OPAC of sorts on LibraryThing; we have master’s degree holding librarians doing library work, as well as what could be termed paraprofessionals, techies, and friends of the library; we have books and -had- computers.

Our OPAC, as I’ve said, is on LibraryThing. We already had several hundred books when the catalog began, and so we retroactively cataloged everything in the collection at that point, and then cataloged new arrivals as they came in. Some books were added through barcode scanning, but most were done by searching the ISBN. Chapbooks, older books, and other items without ISBNs were cataloged by hand. We’d then mark the books as having been received and cataloged. At times when we didn’t have available internet–which is often– we’d write down ISBNs and enter them into LibraryThing when internet was again available.

For most of the library’s existence, we didn’t have actual shelves. The first volumes were placed on a stone bench at the northeast corner of the park. Then they were put is cardboard boxes. Which melted in the rain. Then they were covered by tarps and put in plastic bins. Sometimes the bins could be on the bench and the ledge above it, sometimes the cops told us they couldn’t be. Very often– especially when it was raining– we were told we couldn’t cover them with tarps. You know, because we might be hiding bombs under there. Or something. So we got clear plastic sheeting instead. Which was acceptable slightly more often than the opaque tarps. But, back to shelving…

Our books don’t have call numbers, and therefore don’t have exact locations. They were broadly sorted in to categories and topics — fiction and non-fiction, non-print, history, economics, poetry, education, women, queer, people of color, non-English, etc. We performed what I liked to call “directly democratic shelving.” That is, whoever was sorting books was empowered to put items where they thought they best belonged. And then if someone found a book in a certain place, but they thought it might be better elsewhere, they were welcome to move it. Personally, and as I would suggest to anyone who asked for advice on shelving, I tried to keep the principle of use in mind. If I was of more than one mind about where a book might belong, I’d consider where our readers might think to look for it, if they wanted that particular book. Or, I’d think about what section they’d be delighted to find it under. Use says that it goes where it will be most and most happily read.

The LibraryThing catalog is a record of the books that have ever been a part of the collection. It does not reflect what might be actually available in the library at any given moment. Circulation is one of the places where ideology and practically met harmoniously. Given that our library in Zuccotti Park had no building, no call numbers, and no library cards, we did not track circulation. Like maintaining a strict shelving order, it would have been nearly impossible to do, and certainly beyond the person-power at our disposal. There was never a formal method of borrowing and returning books. The only method was to find a book you wanted to read, pick it up, and walk off with it. We asked only that the reference collection, which included traditional reference materials such as dictionaries as well as copies of our most popular books– Howard Zinn’s People’s History, for example, not leave the library. Returns are most welcome, but not required. Readers are welcome to pass books along to friends, take them to other Occupations, or hold on to them. We suggest that somehow, though, the book continue to be used.

This method, aside from being practical, given our resources, was ideologically sound. First in mind is that we are the People’s Library. The librarians are caretakers and facilitators. Also, the library was created in a climate of surveillance and a growing police state. Many libraries are very careful about how they keep records and who has access to those records; we circumvented the point by never keeping any. The only way anyone might ever know who read what book would be to see them doing it.

Lastly, there is no collecting policy. Or, rather, there is, and it only has two points: everything we have was donated to us, and we accept everything. We buy supplies, but we never buy books. Every single volume is in the library because some person thought it should be. And we though many of us have disdain for some authors or viewpoints, or the quality of some literature– and being readers as well as librarians, it’s our movement, too, after all, are welcome to say so– we never recycled a book on account of its content. This means that not only was the Library for the people, but, as they are responsible for its creation, that it is of the people.

[Zachary]

The People’s Library represents a collection of thousands upon thousands of books, it ranges across all genres, publication dates, and target audiences. To date over 9,000 books have been cataloged in our group’s LibraryThing – and this is a number which is probably several thousand books lower than the true number of books that have come through the library. While the number of books is impressive in terms of quantity and variety, what makes it truly remarkable is that it is a collection built almost entirely by the library’s patrons (we received some generous donations from publishers).

Books would get placed in the donation box and we would process them: mark them OWSL (or stamp them, back when we had the stamp), write down the ISBN number, sticker them so we knew the volume was “processed,” and shelve them. When we were asked “how does this work?” (Which we were asked constantly), we replied: “it’s a library. Take a book, read it, bring it back, or lend it to a friend, so that the library keeps spreading.”

In the library we were commonly asked “what books do you need?” To which we typically responded: “what do you think we need?” or “what book changed your life?” or “Whatever you want to give.” Although, at a certain point we added to the third response, “but we don’t really need more fiction.” True, the library was built by a steady flow of fiction (popular and classics), but the library sections most heavily perused and borrowed from were: politics, history, biographies, philosophy, ecology, and spirituality. It is a, shall we say, diverse collection. Our collection was as varied as the library’s patrons, who – after all – built the collection. We have Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes. We have Ayn Rand and George Orwell. We have Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and Ann Coulter. We have Howard Zinn, Frances Fox Piven, Naomi Klein, and Noam Chomsky. We also have Stephen King, William Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss, and a book by the library’s star patron Michael Bloomberg. We built a reference collection of books that were highly demanded (based largely on request) and F.A. Hayek was in there right next to Karl Marx…though we probably should have known better than to ask people not to remove the reference copy of “Steal this book.”

Due to the ever changing nature of the collection, it could be quite the challenge to help patrons find books, but in the process it provided a real look into what brought people to the occupation. Working in the library involved: searching for books to fit a lot of bizarre requests, listening to a lot of life stories, getting to know the regulars and their book tastes, being yelled at for random things, tidying, processing a ton of books, doing data entry, it was a lot like…working in a library.

[Danny]

Disregarding personal opinion on the matter, Occupy Wall Street, as well as other occupations worldwide, are happening, and they’re inspiring discourse, debate, interest in political spheres and a renewed sense of the power that knowledge holds. The unifying theme of the occupy movement is dissatisfaction, and the result of people gathering to take part in the democratic process of their nation is a rekindling of interest in the early ideas and protections afforded us by our forefathers. This is America, and we The People are our own government. With the ubiquity of information access via the Internet, and the perception that people have the power to access knowledge that suits their needs, what is it that a library affords a populace? A place of community, sharing, conversation and insight. Libraries unite through educational outreach and conservation of those aspects of ourselves and society that represent our culture. What the People’s Library has afforded her patrons is a place to engage with what’s happening in our country, a means to contribute their own sentiments through the donation of materials, and the literacy to see other view points, perhaps form one of their own, and to express criticisms in an effective way. I’ve heard vicious and unapologetically ignorant statements made about the work being done here, even from members of this professional community, and it needs to be recognized that not everyone has the luxury of camping out in Liberty Plaza in order to take a stand, not everyone agrees with the tactics of the Occupy movement, but far more people than is represented are dissatisfied, feeling victimized or are otherwise feeling unfulfilled by the present state of our world, and they’ve chosen the library as a place of solace, and as a means of joining the conversation. The People moved to create a central place of collaboration and equal representation, and (of all things) they built a library as a symbol of such legitimacy.

What does this mean for librarianship? I believe that there is much to be learned from an organizational structure that eschews traditional approaches to educating and informing. I believe that there is insight to partnership in information-seeking in a scenario where there is no circulation desk creating a physical barrier between “librarians” and information seekers. There is an obvious wisdom to be gleaned from the concept of bringing the information to the field as opposed to idly standing by and waiting for the opportunity to field queries from a position far removed from the place in which information is most needed. Our archival team is archiving history in real-time, instead of trying to piece it back together in preservation of retrospect. The precedence here is that librarianship is now this dynamic and engaging vocation that is changing even faster than current professionals believe. The people we serve are redefining us and demanding that we assume our roles as beacons of intellectual freedom and the physical embodiment of American democracy that our education tells us we are. Pertinent to the people in this room, something proven to be most confronting, and a prime example of the ways in which The People’s Library is challenging present structures, is that their resident pre-professional, who is the designated student outreach appointee speaking as a guest at library schools nation wide, is not enrolled in a Master’s program at all, he’s an undergraduate obtaining his bachelor of science in information and library services through a degree offering at the University of Maine at Augusta; a statement whose reception I’ve had run the gamut from an unanticipated hug, to even further unanticipated outright hostility.

What I’m trying to say is that this is such an exciting time to be involved in librarianship. We are existing in a generational instance laden with economic turmoil, burdened with recession and depression, yet people have risen to say that they love their books, they love their right to know, they love their librarians and (most importantly), they love their libraries and that’s on us.. The moral of the story is that we shouldn’t –we can’t– let them down.

[Mandy]

It was Jesse Shera, one of the foremost American library theoreticians of his or any generation, writing almost 50 years ago, who said, “The aim of librarianship, at whatever intellectual level it may operate, is to maximize the social utility of the graphic records, whether the patron served is an unlettered child absorbed in his first picture book or the most advanced scholar engaged in some esoteric inquiry.” He goes on to say, “The storage and retrieval of information, of facts, however expertly done, are valueless if those facts are not used for the betterment of mankind.”

At Occupy Wall Street, the People’s Library evolved, as did the Biblioteca Acampada Sol in Madrid  and the other Occupy libraries, because libraries are necessary to the betterment of humankind. As a profession, librarianship has had a long history as a liberating force in society. Going at least as far back as the working class Chartist movement in England, people seeking their own freedom have built libraries. Libraries offer universal access to recorded knowledge, they offer access to truth, they offer the intellectual means to liberation. That a library should sit at the center of a movement for American liberation, for a revolution in American politics and values is perfectly natural. Libraries, after all, are one of the few sites in American society where that uneasy, yet revolutionary, alliance between the working class and the intellectual class finds common ground.

Still though, why today, why now? Why has a collection of some 7,000 books managed to create such a stir. How have we come to a place where the sharing of books, the gathering and disseminating of knowledge, has come to be such a revolutionary act? One that brought the full force of the militarized  New York police department down upon it.  I think the reason is that today we see an all out assault on exactly what libraries stand for and what they do. Libraries are struggling today, not because our services and collections are no longer relevant, are no longer needed, (there is more than ample evidence proving the opposite) but because the very thing we stand for, the very thing we represent, is itself under assault. The idea of a common, of shared resources, of equal access–access not mediated by a market, but granted as a fundamental right, a right that all human beings share by the virtue of being a member of the human family– is under assault.

Libraries are valuable to society and promote the betterment of humankind because they serve as an intellectual and physical common, a shared collection and shared space that allows people to gather and educate themselves–to debate, discuss, and through the joint exercises of reading and conversation devise for themselves the kind of world they want to build and the way they want to build it.

In times like these, times when economics has been converted to a religion and leaders promote the doctrine of the free market as a panacea, librarianship is a radical profession. Unavoidably, our, profession is political, is radical. It’s political because we stand at the juncture of people and knowledge, and knowledge is power. It is radical because people with access to knowledge and the means to understand it are a powerful people, they are a people who have the means to liberate themselves and to fight for their own freedom.

photo: Frances Mercanti-Anthony

I see librarianship at a crossroads, we face a choice: do we continue down the road of unfettered markets constructing our relationships and communities or do we step back from that false vision and its unfulfilled promises of a golden future and fight for a different future, one based on our fundamental principles, on the idea that all people have value–that all people have inherent worth and dignity? Our country is facing multiple existential challenges–income inequality, climate change, economic catastrophe. We are living in a time when the future looks bleaker everyday.

But we have a choice. We can decide to shun cynicism and hopelessness. We can choose instead to look to our roots, to our radical role as supporters of equality and democracy, and work together within our institutions and cities and profession to carry our libraries into the future, not the techno-utopia often held out as the future, but a real future where we tackle our social problems through the provision of knowledge to all and by fiercely defending the common that we and those who came before us have worked so hard to build.

I joined the People’s Library, I slept out at Zuccotti, in a fort built of boxes of books–of ideas, of stories, of hope, watched over by police wielding clubs and guns, to defend that common and for the opportunity to build a collection and a library based on the principles that I hold dear. I joined because building a library in times like these is an act of resistance and protest and hope and love.


[Jaime]

On Monday, November 14, I went to Zuccotti after work to spend a few hours in the library, as I’d been doing almost every day since October 2– it was, basically, a second full-time job. That day I was there until 9 or 10 at night, and then went home to Brooklyn. At 11:30 I went to bed, looking forward to be getting almost enough sleep that night. Sleep is in chronic short supply at the Occupation.

At 12:53 am on the 15th, an hour and a half later, I got a text message from one of the half dozen live-in librarians, just saying, “Police are here.” Unable to get back in touch with him or any other librarians on site, I called a friend from the jail support team who works overnights and I therefore knew would be awake. By ten after 1 he’d confirmed that it was for real this time. I rolled out of bed, put on my boots, and started calling and texting the other librarians while grabbing the day’s necessities. I got on a train, and got to the financial district at 2 am.

Even making it in that quickly, I couldn’t get within two or three blocks of the park. There were barricades and cops– whom Mayor Bloomberg has since called his “own army”– on every street. As we quickly learned, there was a general media blackout. Reporters were not allowed within sight or hearing of the park, supposedly for their ‘safety,’ which is belied by the fact that news helicopters were also grounded.

It hardly mattered what our emergency plan had been. Of the five librarians who were inside the park that night, two elected to stay, and the three others were only able to remove what they could carry in one trip; once they left the park they could not return to retrieve either personal possessions or library materials. Given that restriction, they carried out our emergency plan, which we’d devised after the city’s previous attempt to remove us, admirably.

The two librarians who stayed ended up being beaten, pepper sprayed, and arrested with more than 150 other Occupiers. Those who were by computers at the time could see them retreat to the Kitchen, which was at the center of the park, as the livestreams and other social media stayed up as long as they could. Within a couple hours, the library, along with the rest of the camp, and been torn down, loaded into city Sanitation dump trucks, and carted away. In video from that night you can see tents being taken down with chainsaws.

As the sun came up, those of us still free gathered in Foley Square. Breakfast appeared from somewhere, the medics continued to clean people up, and working groups and friends tried to figure out who was missing. Around 8 am we heard that the park was cleared and we could go in. A couple of us walked back down, where we met up with a handful of other librarians. We put the books we had on our person back on the bench where the library been just a few hours earlier and declared the People’s Library open once again. We were there only a half hour or so before the cops completely barricaded the place off and kicked us all out. For the rest of the day, the park was closed off like that, the mayor and the police department directly ignoring a court order to allow the people access to the park.

When we finally were allowed back, under heavy security, we set up the library over and over. Those actions have resulted in additional confiscation of books and threats of further arrests. The rules under which police and security have allowed us to operate shift constantly. Aside from the library as place, we’ve taken it mobile, for our own actions as well as in support of other groups’ actions.

During the days after the Occupation’s eviction, Library recovered what we could from the city. That amounted to very little, as Zachary will tell you. We demanded restitution and apologies from the city, which were not forthcoming. We are now pursuing legal action, which will take time, and we will certainly keep the library community up to date with as things happen. Our librarians who were arrested that night have just had their first court appearances, but this, too, will take time. In the meantime, we are doing our best to continue providing library services in support of the movement.

[Zachary]

Shortly after the raid the Mayor’s office sent out a picture via twitter of some books on a table, saying that the People’s library was safe, and that we would be able to go recover it. It was a small picture, hardly panoramic, but it was obvious that the books in the picture were far less than what was taken. Still, we were hopeful that there were just more books off camera. When they finally let out information about recovering materials members of the work group rushed to get back the books. Librarians went to the specified sanitation garage with a print out of the catalog, ready to recover everything that was lost. What was lost? Our tent, our shelves, tables, chairs, bins, archival materials, laptops, miscellaneous office supplies, oh, and around 4,000 books.

What was waiting at sanitation was…a few broken bins filled with books, a severely broken chair, and a folding table. The materials were taken back to a safe storage location, and then I began to sort them. I’m a librarian, but my focus in library school was actually archiving. I’ve done preservation assessments before, and before I went to storage I looked over my notes on conducting such assessments. I went in ready to triage 4,000 books. There weren’t 4,000 books.

There were 1,275 books. I divided these into three categories. Fine, the books that were not damaged, or just lightly so – these were books that could easily be circulated. Damaged but reusable, for books that had taken a beating but which could still be re-read, this was the qualifier for books that had ripped covers, heavy spine damage, light water damage, or some other malady that nevertheless did not keep them from being readable. And then there were the destroyed, books ripped in half, books that had been warped beyond readability, and books that were more mud than book. The break down of this was 579 were fine, 389 were damaged but reusable, and 308 were destroyed. But that’s not where this story ends. Earlier, when I discussed the collection I mentioned that we would mark all of the books so that we knew they were ours…and I was coming across a lot of books that weren’t marked. I also found a lot of journals…and a broken kindle. Sanitation, it seems, didn’t just give us the library books. They gave us every book they found. And thus I re-sorted and re-ran the numbers. It turned out that 272 of the books we got back were not actually library books. Meaning we got back 1,003 library books – about a fourth of what was taken the break down of those books was that 504 were fine, 298 were damaged but reusable, and 201 are destroyed.

Personally, I hope that Mayor Bloomberg just wanted to do a lot of reading– as all but two books from the reference collection vanished– he certainly got an interesting selection. But, I kind of doubt that’s the case.

[Betsy]

One of the primary characteristics of our library is its fluidity. Every day we re-invent ourselves. What we’re doing right now at the People’s Library is streamlining our mobile library project and finding interim physical space for the collection. We are building alliances across the Occupy movement, with educational institutions, and strengthening our ties with allies in public and academic libraries. Books are being published about the Occupy movement, professors are teaching courses on it, and students are studying what we have already done. We mean to be an integral part of these conversations.

What I see in the future is another physical occupation, re-establishing the commons. Over the winter we’re strengthening our roots. We are empowering the decentralized network of people and institutions who are committed to realizing social and economic justice, addressing climate reality and confronting the host of other issues we’ve gathered to address. Together we are willing and able to take our power and insist on necessary, revolutionary change. Join us.

[Zachary]

Despite “the protester” being named the person of the year by Time Magazine (and the article containing a reference to the people’s library), the People’s Library found itself ranked quite differently by another publication. The Village Voice put together a list of the 100 most powerless New Yorkers – yes, powerless. “The Librarians of the Occupy Wall Street “People’s Library”” came in 34th. Here’s what the voice had to say about us “One of the most fun aspects of Zuccotti Park this fall was the “People’s Library” a wide selection of books that sparked free-wheeling discussions. Volunteer librarians (like Bill Scott [who was on the cover]) guarded it with professional care. Although they protected it from Mayor Bloomberg’s first threatened raid on the park (by taking the books away via Zipcar to an “undisclosed location”), the librarians were rendered utterly powerless after the city launched its surprise raid and returned the collection looking like shit.”

It’s always an odd feeling to see yourself called one of the 100 most powerless people, just as it’s odd to see a magazine like Time declare the protestor to be the person of the year. But what’s really odd, isn’t that the People’s Library came in 34th (though it’s worth noting that “The Occupy Wall Street Crust Punks” came in 40th [and if you’ve ever listened to crust punk music you know that calling a crust punk powerless is like calling a chainsaw a feather duster, but I digress]), it’s who came in 13th. Any guesses? The 13th most powerless person/institution in NYC: “The NYPL’s Librarians,” of whom the Voice said:

Perhaps the only people less powerful in the library system than the homeless patrons are the librarians themselves. Gone are the days when a master’s degree in library science and a job in the nations largest public-library system meant that you would spend your days helping writers to research and mesmerizing people with your encyclopedic knowledge of the Dewey decimal system. Today’s NYPL librarian needs to be a social worker, a specialist at dealing with the homeless and the severely mentally ill, a computer tech wiz at solving people’s Wi-Fi problems and a job (and suicide-prevention) counselor helping people look for jobs that simply don’t exist.Even those librarians at the flagship Fifth Avenue main branch (who have been inoculated to some degree form the shit storm of the branch libraries) are preparing for it. As a recent article in the Nation reported, the 3 millions books beneath the Rose Reading Room will soon be shipped off to a storage facility in New Jersey and replaced by seven floors of computer terminals. As a former NYPL librarian said of the branch across the street and the main branch’s future: “That place is utter chaos. And it will all come here – the noise, the teenage problems, the circulating DVDs.

Zounds.

It seems like the Village Voice wants to give the impression that being a librarian in NYC is to consign yourself to being powerless.

Luckily this is only relevant to NYC. Right? Surely, nobody could say this of librarians in Chicago? Or, California? What about in Michigan? How about Missouri? It’s getting tough out there for librarians. Powerless? It certainly seems that way. But even as librarians have fought, and rallied, they have still seen library hours reduced, budgets cut, and so forth. And it doesn’t look like those attacks are stopping, no matter how many hours our read-ins last, or no matter how many people we get to hug the library. Heck, the “library” section on The Huffington Post is actually called “Libraries in Crisis.
After the raid on the park, we heard from many people who were horrified by what had happened. And, honestly, it was pretty horrifying. But let’s be honest, libraries were under attack by Mayors before the People’s Library, and they will be after. Bloomberg was cutting the New York library budget’s before, and he’ll probably do it again in his coming budget. Rahm Emanuel in Chicago…the same. The discussion around libraries these days seems to be about cuts, and about whether or not libraries are relevant in today’s world. Librarians – who frequently find themselves in the ranks of those evil “public service workers” – are regularly under assault, and thus it is understandable if a feeling of powerlessness can begin to sink in.

I don’t agree with the Village Voice’s placement of the people’s library at 34. Were we technically powerless to stop Bloomberg’s “private army” from tossing the books in the dumpster; yes. But the library is much more than that, the movement is much more than that, and in the end they’re the ones powerless to stop it.

Powerlessness is what happens when you sit behind your desk and do nothing. Powerlessness is signing an online petition, or commenting on an article, or forwarding an e-mail. Powerlessness is doing nothing. And I can honestly say that the moment’s in my professional life when I feel the least powerless, occur when I’m doing OWS library work.

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Filed under 11/15 Eviction, Betsy, Danny, Jaime, Mandy, NYPL, OccupyLibraries, Scholarship, Zach

A People’s Digital Library and Prefigurative Politics

This is part 2 of a 2 part series.  Part 1 is here.

The Occupy movement, and the People’s Library, are, in part, prefigurative movements. That is, they are attempts to create and embody the kind of society we want to see.  For many of us, doing business with companies that are so closely tied to the status quo, companies whose structure and management reflect the exact opposite of the world we want to see, is anathema.  We can’t change the world, rebuild it into a place of justice and equity, if we can’t reflect the values we support in our internal dynamics and operations.  That doesn’t mean that any of us want to see the employees of these corporations suffer or that we want to see the products themselves lost.  Rather, we would like to see a new kind of structure supporting the tremendous amount of work involved in creating and maintaining these products.  A new structure that, rather than acting as funnel to send wealth to the few, provided material support to those involved in building them, including authors, while still creating the kinds of high quality indexing and access that the information revolution has allowed.  While some of us are certainly Luddites, we’re Luddites in the true meaning of the word.  The Luddites hated the looms not because they were opposed to making cloth with a machine, but because they hated the economic and social consequences of that transition.

It’s worth exploring, briefly, the mechanisms that have allowed these companies to act as wealth concentrators and that have transformed them from genuine partners in the information system into a virtual information cartel run for the benefit of the few.  The first way this has happened is through the copyright law.  The idea that intellectual fruits deserve special protection under the law is an old one, and a good one.  However, like so many of our society’s laws, it has been come corrupted through money.  First, authors, especially scholarly authors who often make no money from their publications, are required to sign over their copyrights to the publisher of their work.  These contracts almost always serve the needs of the corporation to the detriment of the author.  Because scholarly authors require publication to get tenure and continue in their academic positions, they have very little ability to walk away from these contracts and even less to alter them.  It’s also worth recognizing that few authors have legal departments working on their behalf to write contracts to ensure their rights are protected.  Most are on their own when it comes to wading through these contracts.  There has been a strong and growing movement toward open access publishing, but it is being both co-opted and opposed by the corporations themselves.

On the other side of the transaction is the library.  Libraries have no choice but to do their best to provide access to the materials that their readers need, and often their readers are the very same authors who have provided the material to the publishers in the first place.  The publishers know that libraries are in a weak position and have acted repeatedly to raise prices far beyond what can be sustained by library budgets.  They have also made the decision to make information available largely through the so-called “big deal.”  The big deal offers libraries many different titles bundled together.  These “deals” cut into library budgets and make traditional collection development impossible.  Instead, it transfers that role to publishers who can add and remove titles at will.  The big deal also means that as the price increases, libraries are left with little choice but to cut other places, often the book budget.  This model, known as the “access model “, also damages libraries because rather than actually owning a title, libraries are merely renting them. So that when libraries do need to cancel a title or a database, often the entire run is lost.  In the old days, when libraries purchased actual physical volumes, a title could be cancelled, but the journals themselves still sat on the shelves, available for use.

The access model also creates problems for libraries when applied to ebooks.  Ebooks are a great idea and they certainly have a role to play in the information environment, but because of the tremendous power imbalance libraries are at the mercy of publishers when providing these to our patrons.  The legal doctrine that protects the primary activity of libraries, lending books and other materials, is called First Sale.   Under the First Sale doctrine when an entity purchases an item they are free to use it as they wish.  They can lend it, destroy it, or sell it.  The item is theirs in a very real sense.  Digital information, because of its very nature, has no such protection; instead digital items are controlled by private contracts, contracts that determine what can and cannot be done with the item.  That is why ebooks can be deleted after purchase and why publishers can place limits on how many readers a library can allow to borrow an ebook.  Since these corporations have both more money and more power than libraries, the contracts strongly favor publishers.

The digital environment also poses another serious problem: environmental damage.  The materials and energy needed to run the infrastructure pose a significant threat to the natural world.  Rare earth mining, disposal of technological waste, and carbon emissions are massive externalities.  Companies motivated by profit have no incentive to mitigate these threats and even less so move quickly and decisively to eliminate them.  Industrial capitalism, and for a while state socialism, have had two hundred years to reduce environmental damage and have consistently failed to do so.  The planet is now dying.  The climate is in chaos, the ocean is turning to acid, and we are losing species at an alarming rate.  It is time to give another system a chance to do better.  Can a high tech industrial civilization exist on this planet without destroying the very systems that make the planet a habitable place for humans?  The question is a good one and it one that is not settled.  Can industrial capitalism create that civilization?  No.  It has had a long time to prove otherwise and has failed spectacularly.

A better world is possible.  Occupy is about creating that better world.  A world that is just and fair.  A world where everyone has equal access to information and to literature.  A world of literacy that is guided by strong and universal moral principles—care for the aged, young and sick, care for the natural environment, care for those who have been marginalized.  A world that values democracy and nonhierarchical organization.  A world that understands that destroying the planet for our own wealth is insane and immoral.  We are building new systems in the shell of the old.  That new world needs Literature Criticism Online, it needs Business Source Premier, it needs Lexis-Nexis and WestLaw.  It also needs a healthy publishing sector.  Publishers and libraries are partners and each need the other thrive.  But we need a new structure to support these tools and this industry.  One that protects the employees, the authors, the library, the reader, and the natural world.  One that doesn’t exist to funnel wealth to the few at the cost of the well-being of the many.

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A People’s Digital Library and Prefigurative Politics

This is part one of a two part series.

As a People’s Library librarian one question I get asked over and over again is why we don’t offer a digital library for our readers.  It’s a good question and one I think is worth exploring in some detail.

To start, we have to address the question of what a digital library is— is it an institutional repository or archive?  Is it a search engine for curated links?  Or is it a virtual library?  It’s an open question and one that I think different people can reasonably answer in radically different, but still valid, ways.  A digital library can be and is all of those things.

And if by digital library you mean archive, there is one, and probably there are plenty more I don’t know about.   OWS also has its own Archives group working to preserve the ephemera and other documents of the movement.  So, in that sense, there is a digital library for Occupy Wall Street.  But that doesn’t answer the question about bringing content to our readers.

The next question then is what the People’s Library takes as its mission.  As a leaderless library, the question of mission is tough to answer; the mission is fluid depending on who is asking and who is answering.  The simplest answer is that the People’s Library and the other occupation libraries exist to support both the full-time activists who live at the various occupations and the Occupy movement as a whole.  We also exist to serve the local communities surrounding the occupations, whether in lower Manhattan, LA, or Washington, DC.  Given that, a digital library seems a perfectly legitimate undertaking, especially after the raid and seizure of the books.

So, why don’t we have one?

The first barrier is time.  We could offer a list of useful links to our Occupiers and our online community.  With an all volunteer staff through, finding time to gather relevant links and then present them with annotations and so on is tough.  This kind of digital library also requires quite a bit of maintenance, links need to be added and removed regularly and annotations need updating as content evolves.   Searchable or categorized lists of links are also the most basic kind of digital library.  They certainly have their place, but what they don’t do is offer content that would otherwise not be available.  Instead, they make free content easier to find.  A worthy task, but one that takes many many hours of work.

Most libraries these days, both public and academic, offer access to databases that contain articles and books not legally available on the open web.  This is the virtual library that has evolved as more and more content is born digital and made available not through the codex or traditional journal, but rather through  databases like JSTOR, Gale’s InfoTrac, Ebsco’s Academic Search Premier and so on.

(Hey, wait a minute, those links don’t work for me!  It says I need a password!  Yep.  I know . . . read on.  If they did work, it’s because of your local librarians.  You should thank them.)

Those databases and others like them serve two main functions.  First, they provide an important infrastructure so that each library doesn’t need to gather and maintain servers, indexers, and so on.  This is valuable work, work that few libraries have either the expertise or funds to carry out themselves.  It is also work that has a pretty clear counterpart in the print world—remember that dusty old Readers Guide to Periodical Literature or the New York Times Index  In many ways, databases are the same thing, just with bits and bytes instead of pages and volumes.  The second function is that of gatekeeper.  This is a new function for the digital world.  Almost everything behind those pay walls you just ran into is copyrighted.  That means that the rights to the content are owned by someone and the database companies ensure that those rights are protected.

This second function, protecting the rights of the copyright holders, makes providing a virtual library for Occupy pretty much impossible.  What database company would (or even could given their contracts with rightsholders) want to offer access to the 99%?  These databases aren’t cheap.  Like the banks, the publishing industry–the companies who control the databases, has seen consolidation into the hands of a relatively few players.  More important than that even, the publishing industry has transformed into one dominated by multinational conglomerates.  Projects like JSTOR and Project MUSE are bright exceptions to this rule, ones that deserve our support, but they are exceptions.  So, let’s look for a moment at who owns our scholarly heritage and who the People’s Library would need to do business with to provide a virtual library for the 99%.

The market for large databases includes relatively few players offering a small number of comparable, but not identical, products.  The products fall into two main categories, single publisher databases and aggregated databases.  A good public library is able to offer access to both types.   ScienceDirect is an example of a single publisher database—you want access to an article published by Elsevier?  ScienceDirect is your go-to database.  Wiley more your speed?  Wiley Online Library is your one stop shopping spot.  Interested in a wider range of materials from multiple publishers?  Proquest Central, Ebsco’s Academic Search Premier, and Gale’s InfoTrac have got your back.   Or would, if you had the cash.  Which, unless you’re a 1%er, you don’t.   That’s one of the beautiful things about your library card, your local library may allow you access to some of these databases.  Or it might not.

And who are these companies anyway?  If the People’s Library had the funds, is sending them to these folks a good idea?  No.  Let’s start with the low hanging fruit—Gale.

Gale has an honorable history as library vendor.  But, like many fine companies, it has changed hands repeatedly throughout the years.  Started in 1956 with a single title, the venerable Encyclopedia of Associations, Gale was bought by Thompson in 1985.  You can learn more about the younger Thompson, the 2nd Baron Thompson of Fleet here.  His Lordship was the richest person in Canada in 2006.  It was in 2006 that Thompson spun off its Learning Division, and with it Gale, for  7.75 billion dollars.  The new owners, private equity groups Apax and OMERS (the Onterio Municipal Employees Retirement System) are a mixed bag.  OMERS is an institutional  investor working on behalf of the upstanding municipal workers of Canada.  It controls about $53 billion, but is struggling right now and cutting benefits to workers.  Apax is a private equity group.  This means that they invest in companies with the goal of bringing them to short or medium term profitability and then selling them off.  As the newly named Cengage, aka Thompson Learning, says in its annual report,” Investment funds associated with or designated by Apax control us.  Apax is able to appoint a majority of our board of directors and determine our corporate strategy, management and policies.  In addition, Apax has control over our decisions to enter into any corporate transaction and has the ability to prevent any transaction that requires the approval of shareholders regardless of whether we believe that any such transactions are in our best interests.”

Apax owns a lot of different companies.  They also claim a commitment to sustainability and good labor relations.  They’ve had a few issues in Israel, are working hard to bring the glories of for profit medical care to India, and they even owned my favorite anthropomorphic train.  Pity they haven’t lived up to their commitments—but then who could?  With 57 different “investments” across five sectors, Apax isn’t a business or even a corporation, it’s an empire.  And like any empire, it has an emperor, one whose salary at 502 times the median wage in Britain certainly befits his position.  And like any 1%er these days, Apax owns its share of politicians.

Other database companies suffer from the same problem: an extreme concentration of wealth and power into the hands of the few.  ProQuest is a bit old fashioned in that its parent company is family owned—a very rich family indeed the Synders are (you can tell by the board memberships, those don’t come cheap).  Ebsco, which recently merged with the beloved H. W. Wilson company, is a conglomerate of truly stupendous proportions.  Committed to Growth through Acquisitions, Ebsco seems to be run by good people.  But they are people who are caught up in a system that has run its course, a  system that has generated tremendous wealth for the few through the wonton destruction of the natural environment and human society.

Stay tuned for part 2 . . .

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I would prefer not to.

Last weekend I scored a tote bag from Melville House Books emblazoned with the words, “I would prefer not to,” the famous refrain from Melville’s 1853 story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall-Street.” I am loath to festoon myself with slogans, but I considered carrying that bag around the Zuccotti Park in lieu of a placard. I wouldn’t be the first: a week earlier, librarian Zach wore a t-shirt with that same phrase while guarding what remained—a table, a bulletin board, and one book—of the Occupy Wall Street Library. (Occupation librarians moved the books temporarily because of fears that Brookfield Properties’ planned cleaning of the park would lead to an eviction. They brought them back later that morning after Brookfield announced that they had postponed the cleaning indefinitely.)

(Zach the librarian, with a few boxes of books coming back into the park)

Of course, both the tote bag and the t-shirt function on one level as indicators of cultural with-it-ness to be recognized by others in the know. And for those who haven’t read Melville’s story—I imagine—the phrase might seem to signal a hip, ironic resistance; at the same time, the privileged idea that one’s refusal could be a “preference.”

A week later, another occupation librarian—Bill, a literature professor who is spending his sabbatical living in the park—read a selection from “Bartleby” as part of the new “Silent Readings” series at the OWS Library. Speaking into a microphone that broadcasted to a nearby crowd of headphone-wearing listeners, Bill recited the tale of the inscrutable Bartleby, who answers his employer’s almost every request with that same reply: “I would prefer not to.” When Bill finished reading, he remarked to me, “I forgot to say that the story is set on Wall Street.” Yes, I answered, and isn’t it such a fitting tale for this encampment!?

I knew the story, but to be honest I had paid intermittent attention to his reading. I was engaged in the task of entering ISBNs into the OWS Library’s online catalog—an endless task, considering the number of donations that come in each day—and so the lines of Melville’s story came and went in my consciousness, and I picked up only the most quotable lines. I “sparkled” (the silent approval gesture of consensus process) when Bill read the narrator’s (Bartleby’s employer’s) frustrated line, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” And that refrain—“I would prefer not to”—evoked, to my mind, something similar to the combination of exactitude and vagueness that has made the phrase “Occupy Wall Street” a catalyst for affiliation and critique.

Ultimately, however, “I would prefer not to” makes a poor slogan, as do most lines plucked from their context. (One might say that nothing so aggravates a literary scholar like myself as a quote taken out of context.) So, a few days later, I sat down and re-read the story in full. I came away from my reading more convinced that “Bartleby” is a powerful narrative for the moment, but not one that speaks in the language of pithy placards or in the constraints of the miniature life stories on “We Are the 99 Percent”—as truly powerful as those placards and stories may be. (And part of me would love to see the satirical “I am the 99 percent” tumblr post that features Bartleby. Maybe one already exists?) Neither does “Bartleby” offer precise historical knowledge about the inequities that Wall Street represented in the 1850s, though there are some choice passages made even more resonant by the story’s Wall Street setting, like the one in which the narrator describes himself as “one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds.” Lines like that make me want to give Melville a high-five. But what is most powerful about “Bartleby” is the way it challenges the assumptions that make possible the exercise of power.

The story is narrated by Bartleby’s employer, that “unambitious lawyer,” who has recently given up his private practice in exchange for the office of Master of Chancery (“It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative.”) Facing mounting paperwork, the narrator (whose name we never learn) hires Bartleby as an additional scrivener, or law-copyist. From the start, Bartleby works steadily and silently, unlike the other two scriveners, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers, whose drinking and indigestion affect their performance throughout the day. However, when the narrator asks Bartleby to check a document for errors—a routine, expected task—the latter makes his first refusal. In fact, any time his employer asks him to do something, he offers the same response: “I would prefer not to.” It is not that Bartleby doesn’t work; in fact, in the first part of the story he works at a steady pace, not even going out for lunch. He simply does not take direction.

Bartleby’s refusals overturn the hierarchy of the office, revealing it to be based upon assumptions of command and consent. The employer assumes that his commands will be executed, but Bartleby interrupts his “natural expectancy of instant compliance” not through open rebellion but through “passive resistance.” (“I burned to be rebelled against,” admits the employer.) Yet is not just the employer who holds assumptions about compliance. The other two scriveners also take for granted that they must do what they are told. Nippers, for example, constantly adjusts his desk, which never suits him properly, grumbles about Bartleby, and probably wants “to be rid of a scrivener’s table altogether.” Yet Nippers complies, carrying out each of his employer’s commands, thus upholding the office hierarchy. He and Turkey even reassure the employer when the latter starts to doubt his own sense of justice and reason regarding Bartleby:

 “Turkey,” said I, “what do you think of this? Am I not right?” 

“With submission, sir,” said Turkey, with his blandest tone, “I think that you are.” 

“Nippers,” said I, “what do you think of it?” 

“I think I should kick him out of the office.”

With their responses, Turkey and Nippers maintain the hierarchy by telling him what he wants to hear, but they fail to reassure the employer, who admits to being “unmanned” by Bartleby. Bartleby has shattered the hierarchy, or at least the idea that the hierarchy is truth and not a social fact constructed by belief and practice.

The employer’s first response to this upheaval is to appeal to Bartleby’s reason, but these overtures fail in the face of his “unprecedented and violently unreasonable” behavior. (One of the story’s most famous bits of dialogue is when Bartleby responds to the employer’s request to “be a little reasonable” and help to examine papers with the line, “At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable.”) Later, upon discovering that Bartleby had been sleeping in the office—making unexpectedly domestic use of the nondomestic space of Wall Street— the employer is moved to pity:

Upon more closely examining the place, I surmised that for an indefinite period Bartleby must have ate, dressed, and slept in my office, and that too without plate, mirror, or bed. […] Yet, thought I, it is evident enough that Bartleby has been making his home here, keeping bachelor’s hall all by himself. Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!

Suddenly Bartleby becomes an object of pity, not just because of his seeming poverty but also because of his lonely purview of the deserted Wall Street of Sunday afternoon (which, interestingly, the employer compares to ruins). If he can’t relate to Bartleby as an employee, he will relate to him in terms of his humanity. “The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy!”

Yet pity fails also, in part because the employer can’t quite imagine Bartleby as human (early in his acquaintance with Bartleby, the employer doubts that there is “any thing ordinarily human about him”), and also because his pity can’t seem to account for Bartleby’s “forlornness”:

My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not.

Bartleby is either too miserable or too inscrutable to be cared about or helped. When Bartleby stops working entirely (ostensibly because of eye trouble, but the cause is not quite clear), the employer endeavors to rid himself of this now-unproductive worker, to return him to his “native land” (a line which, among other moments in the story, opens up an anti-colonial reading) or at least get him out of the Chancery office. However, despite giving Bartleby instructions to vacate—and congratulating himself on his superb management skills—he finds him still at the office the next morning; in fact, Bartleby bars the employer’s own entry:

I was fumbling under the door mat for the key, which Bartleby was to have left there for me, when accidentally my knee knocked against a panel, producing a summoning sound, and in response a voice came to me from within—“Not yet; I am occupied.” 

It was Bartleby.

That’s right, Bartleby was inside, occupying the office.

“Bartleby” is an imperfect analogy for Occupy Wall Street, but it nevertheless resonates because it is about how a refusal can open up new ways of seeing. Bartleby’s refusal—and his occupation of the Chancery office—punctures the “doctrine of assumptions” that naturalized the power relations governing the employer’s world. Suddenly, the employee is commanding the employer, and the space of the office has become a home. Likewise, today’s encampment has transformed Zuccotti Park into both a forum for employees rather than employers (though I am reticent to draw such hard-and-fast distinctions), as well as a domestic space that is home for scores of occupiers. But it is not only the occupiers of that park who have punctured our “doctrine of assumptions”; it also the supporters of this and other encampments. A Times magazine poll reporting widespread public approval of OWS; police in Albany defying the governor and mayor by refusing to arrest protestors; or the over 300,000 petition signatures in a single afternoon to protest the Brookfield “cleaning” of the park. There are still many assumptions—especially relating to racism, nationalism, and colonialism—that Occupy Wall Street has not quite punctured (or hasn’t even begun to puncture) with the force that it has punctured the market consensus. In fact, the slogan itself carries the danger of perpetuating a discourse of colonialism and military occupation, as many people have pointed out. Yet it is crucial not to lose sight of the new space of imagination that has been opened up by the discordant chorus of refusal.

I haven’t discussed the last part of “Bartleby,” and I leave you to read it, or re-read it—perhaps at the Occupy Wall Street Library—yourself. And I hope you give the story space to breathe—as I have said, it is evocative but not a perfect analogy for the present moment. As Hannah Gersen writes in her own essay on OWS and Bartleby, “If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has — to unsettle.” Such a rich story could never be a neat analogy—or supply brief slogans—and the strength of “Bartleby” lies in the way it escapes singular interpretations.

(Two copies of Melville House’s 2004 reprint of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” are currently [or, rather, probably] available at the Occupy Wall Street Library, along with a few other editions of Melville’s work. You can also read “Bartleby” online or download it for free here from the nonprofit Project Gutenberg Literary Archive, which has been digitizing copyright-free books since 1971.)

(Also, I discovered while writing this post that others have made lengthier connections between OWS and “Bartleby,” from Hannah Gersen’s impressionistic piece on themillions.com, to this dense but awesome Žižek-heavy piece from #occupytoronto, to Nina Martyris’ somewhat irksome TNR column in which she draws a close analogy between Bartleby and OWS.)

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Filed under Catalog, Literature, Michele, OccupyLibraries, Scholarship

Librarianing Theory

We all like theory around here, right?  That’s what draws many of us to the library — the dusty ideas in dustier books; considering Simone de Beauvoir  to be light reading (it wasn’t in the original French, ok?); spouting off lines of Ginsberg and then dressing down the privilege found in white, male Beat lives; quoting Hegel or Marx; fan-boying over Naomi Klein or Johanna Lawrenson or any of our other illustrious visitors.

Let me give you some library theory, then.

Maybe half of us in the working group are MLS-bearing librarians (that’s master’s degree in library science for the lay-folks) or are in library school.  Other folks can speak for themselves, but I’m probably not the only one who went into librarianing partially due to my intense need to organize stuff.  (I’m probably also not the only one who also did it as political praxis, either.)  I could catalogue all the live-long day, and some days I do, happily parked in front of our LibraryThing for hours on end.

That said, you may have noticed that the OWS Library is possibly the least organized library ever.  It lives in a bunch of plastic tubs, sorted by genre.  We do not use Dewey, Library of Congress, Cutter (you’ve heard of Cutter, right?), or any other call number classification system.  We don’t check books in or out in any formal way.  When asked if we have a specific title, the answer usually is, “I saw a copy a couple days ago,” and if asked where exactly a book might be, it’s, “Possibly over there in history, or maybe you could check the reference crates.”

Needless to say, since we’re in it for the organization, sometimes this drives certain librarians, present company included, around the bend a little.

Much of the disorganization arises from the specific issues facing the kind of library we run.  To quote a fellow librarian’s recent Facebook status, “To file under ‘problems I never imagined I’d have’: Trouble completing a make-shift tarp-shelter over an illegal outdoor library because Alec Baldwin kept getting in my way…”  We have an extremely limited amount of space, and we are outside at the mercy of the elements, deeply envious of Occupy Boston’s tents.  We have a very limited supply of power from generators and batteries, and a little bit of internet access.  The library is open from whenever people get up in the morning until it slows down in the evening and the live-in contingent of librarians set out their bedding for the night.  We have staff meetings to reach consensus on questions such as what to do if the cops forcibly evict the Occupation (answer: evacuate the archives, supplies, and electronics ahead of time, the books stay till the bitter end).

So then, to wend my way around to what I’m actually writing about today, what are any the guiding principles of the librarianing we do at the OWS Library?

Out in the normal library world, there are two basic elements of library work: cataloguing and reference.  Cataloguing, or arrangement and description for you archivist types, includes in-taking new materials, creating card or database catalogue entries, categorizing materials, assigning location identifiers, shelving, etc.  Reference work is connecting people and their needs to materials and information, answering questions, locating materials that are out there in the collection.  At the OWS Library, our work is a little different, but still falls into these two basic divisions — we intake books, catalogue them in LibraryThing, stamp or sticker or write on them to mark them as part of the collection, sort them out into genre and subject bins, resort things that have been returned, help people find the books they are looking for, make reading recommendations, answer endless questions about how the library works or when and where something is happening or, to mention two reference questions I’ve answered recently, find an out-of-towner the address of a benefit concert somewhere uptown and subway directions to it, and explain the meaning of “ecology” to a non-native English speaker.

The cataloging and sorting is not particularly intellectually taxing work, which means that we can explain the basics to new members of the working group in a couple minutes.  Since this is the People’s Library, we also allow more leeway in categorization than a traditional library would — librarians make autonomous decisions about where an item is shelved (or reshelved — in tidying up yesterday I found a Jean M. Auel novel in Kids & Young Adult and immediately moved it to general fiction; for those unfamiliar with her books, and if a survey of my friends is correct, they are pretty much every teenage girl’s first foray into erotica).

But, back to my question: how do we decide where things go, how do we arrange the books, how do we hold off the chaos?

My answer is always use.  Use, use, use, use.  How do our readers use the library?  If they were looking for a specific work, where might they think to look for it first?  Where might we put it that would make it easy to say, “ah, that’d be in the x section.”  If a reader is looking in a specific section, what books will they be delighted to find there?

This is why I’m mostly okay with the controlled chaos that characterizes the library most of the time.  Even though it grows every day, we have only about 3000 volumes in the park (the catalogue lists 3,344 at the moment, but some are out being read).  That sounds like a lot, and is vastly more than most people have in their own personal collections — I’m an unrepentant bibliophile, but my collection is only a third of that — but it’s not endless, and it doesn’t approach the holdings of most public libraries.  What I’m saying is that, sorted out into topics and genres as we have it now, and without specific call numbers and shelf locations, a person can still find what they want.  One can eyeball the whole of non-fiction in a few minutes.  There aren’t so many bins that if Religion is five feet away from where it was yesterday a reader or librarian won’t be able to find it.

A week or so ago, a young man asked me why all the non-English works were in the same bin.  My answer was that they all fit in the same bin.  Despite specifically asking for more material in a variety of languages, we still don’t have much.  Fiction and non-fiction, Spanish, French, Chinese — it’s all in the same bin.  The principle of use says that this currently works.  If a reader comes looking for book in a language other than English, we’ll always know where to direct them.  And then once they are at the bin, there are only twenty or thirty books in it, so that person will not need to spend much time at all looking through it for works in their language.  Especially because we have limited space, it doesn’t make sense to have mostly empty bins with only a few books in them, as would happen if we separated these books.  I assured my questioner that, when we’d gotten enough books to separate them into bins for fiction/non-fiction, or into different languages, we surely would separate them.  Because, again: use.  At that point ease of use would dictate that all the Spanish books go together, or all the fiction, so that we’d still be sending our readers to a single place for a single kind of book.

So, when an anxious, newly anointed People’s Librarian asks me where they might shelve a particular book, I shrug and tell them to put it where they think it might go, where they might expect to find it if they were looking for it.  Their opinion on the matter is as valid as mine; after all, you don’t need a master’s degree to be one of the People’s Librarians, and they are readers and users of the library just as much as I am.  We’ve democratized the work, direct-democratized it even, since to become a People’s Librarian you just show up and start sorting and cataloguing.

And, if one of the guiding principles that we can draw from the normal library world and repurpose for our own needs at the People’s Library is use, perhaps I should re-resort that Auel novel back into YA, since, as I said, it has an strong tradition of use among YA readers.

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Filed under Jaime, Process, Reference, Scholarship

#OccupyTheory

Dear Occupiers and supporters:

I am currently organizing a project to bring together articles from political philosophers, ethicists, and other related theorists into a book which will be printed and delivered directly to #Occupations nationwide. The working title is “#OccupyTheory,” and the book is motivated by the idea that we, in our professional expertise as philosophers, scholars, and theorists, have the ability to contribute in valuable ways to the conversations going on with #OWS and, through our contribution, help the movement. We want to get this book written, printed, and out in the streets as soon as possible, and ASAP is actually pretty soon, if we do this the right way.

Printing and distribution will be paid for through Kickstarter, unless we end up working with a large publisher who’ll ship a large number to #Occupations nationwide pro bono. No matter what, though, the book (1) will be available online for free in pdf and ereader formats, (2) a significant number will be provided for free in hard copy to some of the larger #Occupations, (3) the book will be available to be carried by bookstores, and (4) will be available on a Print-on-Demand basis through Amazon.

My question for you at this stage in the project:
As someone involved with or interested in #OWS, what do you think we, as political philosophers and related scholars, can best contribute to the movement? If you could have us write about any topic or on any question, what would it be?

We have our own agenda individually, just like everyone else involved in #OWS, and each of us will write what we think is important and what we think is the most valuable and helpful thing that we can contribute. So your answer to the above won’t determine what we write on, but I will use your responses to help write the Call for Papers that goes out, so if there’s something you want to hear from us, ask it, and there’s a good chance that a scholar somewhere will decide to write on it.

We’ll also be doing an online open peer review process, and would like to invite not only academics, but also anyone involved in #OWS to contribute to the review process. We’ll post information about how to participate in peer review here, when the time is right.

Please reply as a comment to this post. Thanks!

D.E. Wittkower
Department of Philosophy
Old Dominion University

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Filed under Announcements, Michael, Scholarship