Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
For many librarians the experience of reminding patrons to “please, return the books when you’re finished with them” is fairly common. After all, the idea of a person returning a book once they have finished with it so that other people can use it is pretty integral to the logic by which most libraries operate. Thus, there was always a certain heretical glee in telling visitors to the People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street that when they were done with a book they did not have to return it, that they were welcome to pass it along to somebody else, or to simply keep it on their own shelf. A common answer that members of the working group gave when shocked patrons asked “I don’t have to return it?” was to say that the People’s Library was wherever there was a book with “OWSL” emblazoned on it.
Granted, this playful retort took on a rather different spirit once the library no longer had a physical site to which books could be returned. This response went from being an idealistic joke of sorts to a defiant statement – one that declared that even if the library had been destroyed, that it still lived on. That thousands of books were carted off by the city and never seen again was tragic; however, there were thousands of books that were distributed to library visitors, thousands of books which now make their homes on thousands of bookshelves and that is wonderful. It may seem a bit naïve to make this claim – but I still feel that the People’s Library is out there alive and raising hell as long as people have books on their shelves labeled OWSL. Here I should confess that I have quite a few books that bear the mark (the marker?) of those four letters, though in most cases those books are not actually on any of my bookshelves…but I’ll return to that in a moment.
In the aftermath of the library’s forcible eviction from the park, members of the library’s working group recovered all that they could from the sanitation garage. It was in this recovery process that we came to realize just how much had been destroyed, and just how much had vanished. And yet, not everything was gone. We were able to recover slightly more than a thousand books – of which many were damaged beyond repair – but of which the majority were still usable. Over the months that followed, members of the library ‘s working group would set up makeshift libraries at various events, but it quickly became evident that a more permanent solution was needed. Thus, the bulk of the books were donated to appropriate groups – a Freedom School in Brooklyn, Occupy Sandy recovery efforts, various community spaces that wanted to set up libraries, and so forth. The working group figured that these books were better being used than they were sitting in a storage space in lower Manhattan. Though it should be noted – that when the books were moved out of the storage space, the new “storage spaces” (meant to be temporary staging points) often became the homes of working group members. Which brings us back to the end of the previous paragraph.
I still have a box of OWSL books. It is a very full box.
It spends most of its time sitting underneath a chair in the corner of my apartment, and on top of that chair is an overflowing crate containing archival material from OWS that I have slowly (slowly) been processing. These books are bound for The Well – a community space that will be opening in Astoria, Queens (hopefully in the not too distant future). The Well will have a library, and within this library will be books marked “OWSL.” I will not lie; I’m looking forward to getting that box of books out of my apartment. Not because it takes up a huge amount of space (the archival material on the other hand…but, I digress), but because these books should be used, and right now they are just sitting in a box. Nevertheless, in the spirit of honesty, I should also admit that once this box is gone – my shelves will still contain a few items marked OWSL.
Like most individuals who were involved in Occupy, I will admit that my feelings about it are – shall we say – complicated. Being a member of the library’s working group was also varied – it had some fantastic high points and some truly wretched low points – but when I remember the library it never ceases to make me smile. Even if it is a smile tainted by sadness.
So, here is a confession: throughout the days when Occupy Wall Street was in the park, I had a complex system for determining which books to personally borrow.
I was always concerned that my place as a member of the library’s working group gave me an unfair advantage when it came to the contents of the library. After all, as one of the people sorting, marking, and cataloging the books I often knew what materials were entering the library before they actually made their way onto the shelves. But I felt that I had to use this power responsibly, and thus I refrained from taking things right away. Instead I operated under a rule whereby a book would have to be sitting publicly on the shelves/bins for five days before I could borrow it. I figured that if nobody wanted a given book after this amount of time than I could not be accused of skimming the best. I should also admit that as a result of this system many books that I was eager to borrow passed only briefly through my hands before they wound up being borrowed by others. Granted, it’s also easy to argue that this was simply a plan devised to prevent me from bringing home a mountain of books each day – though given the final fate of many of the library’s books, I often wish that I had been less restrained in borrowing books.
That being said – and still in the spirit of honesty – I should confess to two main exceptions.
The first being a copy of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s autobiography The Rebel Girl which I began reading in the park on a slow/rainy day (I do not remember exactly which it was) and which I wound up taking home with me so that I could finish reading it. It was not the first copy of Flynn’s autobiography (nor the last) to come through the library, but it is a copy that continues to sit on my bookshelf today. In the midst of the positive rush of energy in the park it just seemed exciting to read about radical history whilst in the tumult of – what at least seemed like – a new explosion of radical activity. The Rebel Girl was the book that made me feel the continuity of the struggle for justice – a struggle which I knew would continue (and which continues) long after Occupy. But if The Rebel Girl was the book I read at the height of my optimism (which is not actually terribly high) than the second book was testament to a much lower place.
For, the second book was a perfectly pocket sized copy of Towards a New Manifesto which, a transcription of a conversation between Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. I came across Towards a New Manifesto whilst triaging the books we had recovered from sanitation, and there was something about the woebegone aphorisms punctuating the exchanges in the book which made me smile even as I stood sorting through the debris of the library. It was while thumbing through that book that I came across what has become my favorite quote, and it is a line that those who know me have certainly heard me repeat (with varying degrees of accuracy) time and time again:
“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Horkheimer (45)
For me that line came as a kind of epitaph for Occupy Wall Street, and for the People’s Library as well. After sorting through hundreds of destroyed books and coming to terms with how much was missing, my confidence that things might “turn out well” was decidedly tarnished; however, that there were still books labeled OWSL and that I knew that these books were sitting on hundreds of shelves reminded me of the “decisive importance” that things still “might” work out. Or, to point to another line that made me laugh at the time and which still makes me smile now:
“The only thing that goes against my pessimism is the fact that we still carry on thinking today.” – Horkheimer (39)
We still carry on thinking, and we still carry the books that provoke us to think in new ways.
Beyond these two books I often think about a third book – one which I routinely wish that I had taken – but which I did not. This is a fact that haunts me all the worse because it was a book that I know for certain was in the library on November 16, 2011, but which was nowhere to be found amongst the recovered books. Frankly, I do not actually remember the title of the book. What I remember, though, is what it was: a handbook for performing magic tricks written in French. I do not speak French, nor for that matter am I even an amateur magician. But I loved that book, and I loved the absurdity of it being in the People’s Library. Of all of the books for the library to have in French, why on Earth would it be a manual on performing magic tricks? I would routinely pick the book up and flip through it while wondering “who the heck donated this thing?” I suppose I never borrowed that book as it seemed that it would be odd to do so – perhaps a French speaking illusionist would wander into the library and who was I to deprive that individual of such a serendipitous find? At least, I suppose that was what my logic must have been, but in truth I simply wish I had taken that book.
Thus, my personal shelves still carry three powerful mementos of the People’s Library – two actual books, and a metaphorical empty space where that third one should have gone. When I started reading Flynn’s The Rebel Girl it was in the heyday of Occupy and there seemed something triumphant and exciting about reading the autobiography of a prominent labor leader in the midst of the park. But there was something that seemed equally fitting about reading Adorno and Horkheimer while sifting through the wreckage of that carnival of optimism. Both of these books are wonderful, and I highly recommend them to many people on a regular basis; however, for me both of them have separate meanings. As a librarian working in a “special collection” environment I am accustomed to encountering people who approach books with a certain reverence, as though they are fetishizing the book as object more than the book for the content it contains. I will fully admit that for me both of these books are about more than just the content they contain – they are about the experiences these books symbolize. It seems silly to say it, but when I look at the spine of The Rebel Girl on my bookshelf I still feel a rush of excitement, and when I see the spine of Towards a New Manifesto I still experience a wave of angry depression.
And when I look at the box of books marked OWSL, book that are waiting to join a new library, I know that the cover has not yet closed on the People’s Library. After all, if you will forgive me a terrible library pun: it is not that the books are overdue, it is that change still is.
[Note – this was written in response to another member of the library working group’s recent call for personal stories of “what has happened” to books from the People’s Library. If you have a story, I highly encourage you to contribute!]
Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max. Towards a New Manifesto. New York: Verso Books, 2011.