Category Archives: Scholarship

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