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Modeling a Different World – The Library and PreFigurative Activism

From Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to Turkey’s Gezi Park to Occupy encampments across the USA and Canada to Egypt’s Tahrir Square to Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in Kiev – libraries have become recurring features in the wave of protests of recent years. These are different movements, in different locations, with different goals, and facing different challenges – but despite this libraries appeared. In places that were anything but quiet.

The role of the libraries in these locations are of varying levels of importance to the grand narrative arc of the movements, and thus the history of the libraries play different roles in the after-lives of these movements. For example, amidst the violent repression of the protestors in Gezi Park the fate of the library was another sad incident, whilst the destruction of the People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street was treated by some as a particularly egregious moment in the smashing of the Occupy movement in the US.

Within the context of the Occupy encampments the legacy of the libraries takes on a particularly interesting form. Now that more years have passed than months were spent occupying Zuccotti Park (in Manhattan) the gaze cast backwards on Occupy primarily finds faults – and certainly there are many faults to be found. The (valid) criticisms that Occupy failed to address issues of race, gender, colonialism, and classism have become a major part of the ongoing discussion as the talk has turned from “how do we re-occupy” to “why did Occupy fail?” Yet, amidst the heated debates about the failure of “consensus” (and what “consensus” meant), about the questions of horizontalism, around the issue of demands, and about the dysfunction of the lengthy general assemblies – there nevertheless remain certain aspects which people remember fondly: the kitchens, the medics, and the libraries. AK Press’s We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation holds up an extremely critical gaze to the various permutations of Occupy – and yet, from those within the movement, aspects like the libraries seem to be recalled as aspects of the occupations that worked.

Perhaps this is because the libraries (along with the kitchens and medics) were removed from the acrimony of debates in the general assemblies or accusations of misrepresenting the movement in the media and emerged as examples of mutual aid in action. In the midst of a pre-figurative movement – an attempt to build an example of a better world within the confines of the current one – elements like the library seem to stand out in people’s memories as successes. Such examples demonstrate – as Lewis Mumford put it in discussing dreams of utopias that:

“We need not abandon the real world in order to enter these realizable worlds; for it is out of the first that the second are always coming.” (Mumford, 29)

Visitors to the People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street (the example with which this author is intimately familiar) were greeted with a fully functioning library containing thousands of donated books (which had been carefully cataloged and categorized) that patrons were free to browse and “indefinitely” borrow. It may have seemed to many as though the General Assembly was a noisy waste of time; however the food in their stomach and the book in their backpack were testament that certain things functioned remarkably well.

This is not to say that the kitchen and library were not criticized by some (or that all meetings of the working groups were harmonious or conflict free) but such aspects seemed to demonstrate to those who saw them what mutual aid in action could look like. What many of these people were able to feel was a sentiment evoked by Ivan Illich, that:

“At its best the library is the prototype of a convivial tool.” (Illich, 65)

Within the context of activist movements the renegade library that crops up may not always represent the library “at its best” but they certainly represent the aim of modeling a “convivial tool.” Or perhaps it is by hearkening to the most basic library values (free and equal sharing of information) that these activist libraries truly are able to get to the basic functions that define the library “at its best.”

The question of tools is not an idle one when considering activism occurrences such as Occupy – particularly as there have been many who have tried to emphasize the role that communication technologies and social networks played in these movements. This tension was captured eloquently by Manuel Castells, thusly (italics his):

“The movement was born on the Internet, diffused by the Internet, and maintained its presence on the Internet, as most occupations set up their own websites, as well as their specific groups and other social networks. Yet, at the same time, the movement’s material form of existence was the occupation of public space. A space where the protestors could come together and form a community beyond their differences. A space of conviviality.” (Castells, 168)

Even the most committed critic of technology would be forced to recognize that Castells is not off point – after all, the Internet did play a major role in Occupy (and similar movements).

The Internet and social networks served as important nodes for disseminating information and such tools gave activists powerful means for getting out and amplifying messages. Yet – as Castells also captures – such technological outreach was still reliant upon what was happening “on the ground.” Castells evokes “a space for conviviality” which thusly returns us to the matter of the libraries, kitchens, and other aspects that helped construct the physical infrastructure that made these spaces “convivial.” For the “conviviality” encountered in the parks was reliant upon more than just an assemblage of individuals. The encampments were not just masses of people, they were functional (albeit temporary and flawed) communities – what people found in the encampments (at their best) was real examples of people taking care of one another.

The tools which activists make use of impact their aims in many different ways – although paramount amongst these may be the ways in which the means interact with the ends. When a political movement is built upon notions of pre-figurative politics it seems to follow that the means themselves say something about the ends. Therefore the technological means (such as social networks) used by activists may have proved useful but also wind up reflecting oddly back on the movement as many of these social media platforms were (and are) the result of massive multi-national corporations with questionable environmental and labor practices (who are often closely entwined with the very financial and political power systems the protests were arrayed against). While the usage of such communications tools was an important way of disseminating messages about the movement – at moments the usage of those tools seemed to almost overshadow the aims of the movements (as reflected in the media chatter calling these “twitter revolutions” or “Facebook revolts”). As a counter to these social media platforms protest libraries (and kitchens) emerged as means to ends which could simultaneously function as demonstrative ends in and of themselves.

While the various protest libraries may have used social media (Twitter, Blogs, LibraryThing) to promote themselves, the work itself remained part and parcel of the pre-figurative project. Therefore these libraries displayed a mixture of important functions – they at once fulfilled the basic librarianship function (connecting patrons with information) while simultaneously acting as demonstrations of an alternative structure in which individuals can come together on a local level to meet the informational needs of a community. While the various protest libraries may have appeared as distinct from the large “public libraries” in their same cities, they were in many ways simply taking the books out of the stacks and putting them into the streets and parks where people were gathering. This was not in opposition to the public libraries, it was a continuation of their spirit – if a library is to serve the “human community” and that community is assembling in a public park, what is to keep the library from going there?

That libraries have cropped up with such frequency at protest sites and that these libraries should be met with such affection demonstrates the ease with which the core values of librarianship mesh with pre-figurative politics, and indeed simply with politics. It is not exceptional that libraries appear as part of protest movements and become part of the mutual aid in action found in those locations. Rather, it is in the very nature of libraries.

In discussing the challenges of struggling for a better world, Grace Lee Boggs writes:

“activism can be the journey rather than the arrival; that struggle doesn’t always have to be confrontational but can take the form of reaching out to find common ground with the many ‘others’ in our society who are also seeking ways out from alienation, isolation, privatization, and dehumanization by corporate governance.” (Boggs, 48)

Libraries are a demonstration that “activism can be the journey” and also “the arrival.”

The tools we carry with us on a journey are the tools we will have at hand to build a new world.

Works Cited

Grace Lee Boggs. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2012.

Manuel Castells. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Ivan Illich. Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1973.

Lewis Mumford. The Story of Utopias. New York: BiblioBaaar, 2008.

[Note – the above text served as the basis for some of this writer’s comments delivered at Left Forum 2014 as part of the panel Informed Agitators]

Related Content

Librarian is My Occupation – A History of the People’s Library

Librarian is (still) My Occupation – Another Epilogue

Make Your Library the Protest

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Library

Google Glass in Libraries – Disruption or just Disruptive?



About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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