Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
When most people think of the People’s Library (from Occupy Wall Street) the image they conjure up is of the library in its heyday: those two months in the Fall of 2011 when the library (OWSL) was in Zuccotti Park.
In that period the scrappy (if savvy) members of the library working group labored tirelessly to process new donations, help patrons find what they were looking for, and to keep the library up and running in the face of the elements and the police. During those months being involved in the library was wonderful, and though it was stressful at times, there was nevertheless something thrilling about doing tasks as mundane as shelving books or cataloging.
When Zuccotti Park was raided on November 15, 2011 (and the library was tossed in the dumpsters [with many of the books never being recovered]) many people were treated to a final image of the library: the library as rubble. Yet the image of the People’s Library that most individuals recall is of the library pre-destruction, and it is by recalling the library in that period that many are able to remember it so fondly. In the two-plus years since the raid it has been common (and justified) for people to heap criticisms upon Occupy Wall Street (it failed to seriously engage with issues involving race, gender, colonialism) – and yet when people discuss the aspects that they remember positively it is common to hear them mention the kitchen, the medics, and the library.
It is as though one of the major positive takeaways is that mutual aid in action works.
I too remember the days of the library in the park fondly. I recognize that it sounds naïve but there really was something invigorating about jotting down ISBN numbers and marking books “OWSL.” Frankly, working in the People’s Library was one of the moments where I genuinely felt like I understood why libraries matter, and why I had wanted to become a librarian in the first place. Yet for all of this, for all of the positive memories I have of the library, if I’m being truthful when I think about the People’s Library these days I really do not think about the park, I do not even think of it so much in terms of Occupy Wall Street.
I think about storage units.
Storage units, narrow staircases, crowded hallways, hot days, slow processes, bridges, uneven sidewalks, and an enduring feeling that even though I had finished reading the book that I just could not quite return it. Months after I had last joined in to the shout of “The People’s Library is Open” I still found myself (along with other members of the working group) trying to find places open to taking the remnants of the People’s Library. Which proved much more difficult than one would think.
The People’s Library was in Zuccotti Park for approximately two months (with scattered intermittent appearances afterwards and with pop up moments at various other events); however, beyond those months and other visible outings the People’s Library persisted in a strange and often unseen way. And in a way that endured (indeed, endures) as of this writing. After all, some members of the People’s Library working group still (still!) have boxes of books and boxes of recovered archival materials in their cramped abodes; whilst those who have followed the ongoing tale of the library likely know that it was only in January (of 2014) that the working group finally wrapped up the task of distributing the funds from the settlement.
Things take time, and when nobody has time, things take longer.
When One of the Librarians (a cunning nom de plume) and I wrote the chapter “Librarian is My Occupation: A History of the People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street” (included in the book Informed Agitation) we were partially propelled by a sense of obligation. As active members of the People’s Library working group we had wanted to tell the story of the People’s Library from our own perspectives, and while I am pleased by the final form the chapter took – when I read over it now it strikes me as incomplete, as though something is missing. In wanting to tell the story of the People’s Library in terms of its heyday, it seems to me now as though the chapter misses out on much of the story. What story? Well, the point at which the library ceased being much of a library but at which point the members of the working group (in ever dwindling numbers) kept working. It took a lot of work to keep the People’s Library up and running while it was in Zuccotti and it took a lot of work in the days after Zuccotti to ensure that the library was not abandoned.
When I think about the People’s Library now the first image that always comes to mind is a storage unit in lower Manhattan stuffed from floor to ceiling with boxes of books. Boxes that we had to first to get to that space (which we were paying for out of pocket) and then boxes that we had to get from that space to one temporary home, after another temporary home, into some of our homes, to other temporary homes, to – well – some boxes still in some of our homes; moves that involved desperately phoning friends in search of vehicles and in search of people available to help out with moving heavy boxes.
After the People’s Library was “closed” down in Zuccotti the working group members ceased being simply librarians and became caretakers, pushing the collection from one location to another in a way that evokes Sisyphus more than anything else. Even as we shuttled the books from one location to another we pushed forward with the lawsuit, and once that was settled another whole chapter of work opened up as we tried to distribute the funds (a process that involved much more time and work than some of us anticipated would be required). Even now, with most of the books safely ensconced in new homes and the settlement funds distributed there are still aspects of the People’s Library that linger.
There are many funny and frustrating tales from the post-park history of the People’s Library – and while these moments are not a part of the “well-known narrative” of the People’s Library they are still part of the library’s history. It is always heartening to hear people fondly remember the People’s Library from its days in the park, but for me the legacy of the library has as much to do with what the working group did after the park as what we did in the park. We kept (and keep) struggling to keep the spirit of the library alive – and I think this desire was (and is) an expression (for many of us) of wanting to not let down those who remember the library so fondly.
That question, more than a happy memory of the park, is what I think about when I think about the People’s Library.
And I still think about it every single day.
In love and solidarity – with bread, roses and books.