On Sept. 17th a brave group of souls called for a revolution. They called for radicals and dreamers to gather in lower Manhattan, near Wall Street, and stay put. Taking their inspiration from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the idea was to deploy a new tactic in the fight for a better world: the people swarm. Rather than plead with our leaders and experience recurrent disappointment at the ballot box the idea was to stay put, hold firm, and use their bodies to demand change.
I read about the call and was sympathetic, but skeptical. I had recently been arrested in front of the White House as part of the Tar Sands Action and was impressed, to say the least, with the power of the government to control its territory. I figured they’d have a few days camping and be cleared out. Another noble attempt, another victory by the powers that be.
But then it didn’t happen. The movement grew. More people joined, they started having marches and making news. A young girl got maced by a dirty cop. And I realized that if they weren’t successful, it would be because people like me, people who understand the failures of our system and have the means to contribute to a movement, didn’t. But I was still hesitant. I have two kids and husband, a full time job, a dog. Occupying Wall Street was a complicated proposition.
But then I saw the picture. It was a picture of a posterboard sign with a list of things the library needed. Apparently, they needed librarians. And all of the absurdity of the plan fell away. If these brave young people (and not so young people) were asking for members of my profession to come and help build and maintain a library, how could I refuse? If my professional skills could do some good for people sleeping outside in the cold and rain to affect the kind of change I want to see, why wouldn’t I go? What excuse did I have?
We packed the kids and dog into our car on a Friday night and made the 12 hour drive to Grandma’s house to drop off the kids and dog. From there, on no sleep, we drove to Staten Island, parked our car, and took the ferry to lower Manhattan. While we’ve lived in cities before, we’ve spent the past five years in Greencastle, IN, population 10,000. I was once at a meeting where the fact that my phone number had a different exchange was a hot topic of conversation. Manhattan was a bit overwhelming. As we approached Library Square, we could feel the energy.
We walked around for a while and were impressed with the organization. They have medical care, food, a media center. It was like a small city within the City. It had been raining and I almost missed the library because it was covered with tarps. But I found it and removed the tarps to discover wet books. They did need librarians. I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon sorting out how to protect the collection and organizing it. I was given money for supplies and people just kept showing up to volunteer, including the first #occupywallstreet librarian, Betsy Fagin. We went through each box and removed the wet books to dry, sorted by topic, and then filled the new plastic bins.
As the collection started to recover and come together as a library, readers started appearing. People were asking reference questions, browsing for books, offering to help. The atmosphere was exciting and intellectually lively. I’ve never worked in a library with so many enthusiastic readers. At one point, I was trying to find books on education for one patron while another was trying to explain to me his need for books on the courts. A busy reference desk is a happy reference desk and as the sprinkles started again, I was disappointed to bring the tarps back down.
Information is liberation. Offering people the opportunity to explore the world themselves through the written word is why I became a librarian. Connecting readers to writers is what I do. Doing that in the heart of what is rapidly growing into the strongest mass social movement since the 1960’s is an experience I will always treasure.
I had to go home late Saturday night to make my 9:00 am Monday BI session. I’ll be back for fall break though and I’ll be joining the folks at #occupyindianapolis in the meantime. A better world isn’t something to wait for, it’s something to build ourselves. #occupywallstreet is the way to build it.