Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
It can be easy for librarians to take space for granted. After all, there are many issues with which libraries must contend, but generally the physical building itself can be relied on. Books, to state the obvious, take up space and housing a heck of a lot of books requires a heck of a lot of space. The steady influx of new materials to a library may necessitate a process wherein older items wind up in storage awaiting a “friends of the library sale,” but even as the content on the shelves changes the shelves themselves remain. Librarians cannot necessarily rely on a stable budget or sufficient staffing, but at least the space itself is usually not threatened. Yet, one of the primary things that those involved in creating libraries in activist settings must wrestle with is that space can never be taken for granted.
For the last two years I have been involved in an effort to open a community space in the area where I live. To be honest, I became involved in the project by a sort of odd coincidence. I was approached by some people I knew in passing through my past involvement in the People’s Library, from Occupy Wall Street. They told me that they were in the early stages of opening a community space and that they had several thousand books which had been donated to serve as the kernel of a library for that space. They asked if I wanted to help out – and seeing as I enjoy filling my time not working in a library with spending time working in other libraries – I said sure. It was a small space, it was a space that needed extensive work, it was a space filled with well over a hundred boxes packed with books:
but above all else there was one factor that made the space amazing: it was filled with activists who were excited about its potential.
Oh, and one other thing, the space was free.
The building in which the community space was to be located was owned by a likeminded individual, a person who was interested in seeing the space transformed for the community. And thus we set about transforming the space. We excitedly discussed our hopes for the space as we painted the walls, we imagined what the space would eventually look like as we installed shelves,
we cataloged books, we lugged chairs, we installed lights, we painted some more, we sweated in this un-air-conditioned space in the summer, and we shivered in the unheated space in the winter. It was a project, it took time, but even in the frustrating moments (and there were many of those) we sustained ourselves with images of how great it would be once the space was finally opened.It seemed that we were always just one or two projects away from being done and getting the space open, but as the spring of 2015 began it seemed like we were genuinely in the final stages. And then…well….you can guess what happened.
The space had been a possibility because it was free, and when the person who owned the space decided they no longer wanted to make it available to the group – two plus years of work came to a shuddering and saddening halt. Of course, being involved with activism often involves a certain level of disappointment, but it requires meeting these periodic stumbles without losing hold of the idealism that drives you. The energies that had been devoted to one project can be channeled in other worthwhile directions if that initial project goes awry – but it is easier to redirect energy than it is to redirect thousands of books. For one of the features of the space, that was meant to function as an anchor for it, was that it included a quite impressive library. We imagined hosting all kinds of programs and events in the space, but we knew that the library meant the space would always have something to offer visitors. But it seems that nobody will be taking books out of this library, rather we will be taking this library out of the space.
And thus it is, not without a note of sardonic laughter, that I wish to emphasize for any and all interested in setting up library’s in activist spaces that access to space really matters. This point is so obvious as to seem absurd, and yet it is easy to overlook in the excitement of the moment. An activist library is a thrilling and fulfilling place to be when it is thronged by people picking over the books, donating more books, and asking for suggestions – but when that same library is reduced to boxes of books sitting in a storage unit it is significantly less exciting. Alas, at least in my experience, the work of activist librarianship often involves a fair amount of moving boxes and boxes (and boxes) of books. In terms of this particular, now defunct, community space I only became involved after much of the initial box-of-books-moving had been completed (I had still been busy moving boxes of books from a previous project), but I have a suspicion that in the months ahead I will be returning to that task. This is a task that is certainly part of the work of activist librarianship, it is not the most enjoyable part of the work, but it is an inescapable aspect of it.
One of the wonderful things about books is that they are easy to share and distribute – but one of the challenging things about books is that it takes space to store thousands of them. The challenges that face librarians in an activist setting are rather different from the tribulations confronting librarians in more professional settings. Activist libraries often exist with so miniscule a budget as to make budgetary cuts unimportant, and as they are not able to pay staff in the first place activist libraries are accustomed to running by recruiting eager volunteers – but when an activist library loses access to space, be it in an “occupied” park or in a donated storefront, it must scramble to survive. Activist libraries can never take space for granted. For many people the idea of the library functions as an important place, but what activist libraries contend with is that in order to succeed in becoming such a place, it is important to have access to space. And when that space vanishes, but the books remain, the work of an activist librarian becomes the scrambling search for a new space.
There is a phrase that one periodically hears amongst activists , a line which at times is attributed to Paulo Freire, but seems to owe its origins to piece by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, which reads, in part:
Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
this translates into English as
Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing else;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
Walking makes the road,
This is a sentiment often encountered in activist settings – an idea that wonderfully evokes the way in which the work unfolds and the way in which one moves towards a better world by trying to actually walk in that direction. But unfortunately, sometimes one makes the road only to find that there is a boulder blocking the path forward. Walking, moving forward, can be difficult work, and it is certainly made the more challenging when one is trying to lug boxes and boxes of books. And yet one of the lessons that activist librarianship will teach you is that as long as you’re making the road by walking it, you might as well get used to carrying some boxes of books with you.
Machado, Antonio. Proverbios y cantares XXIX” [Proverbs and Songs 29], Campos de Castilla (1912); trans. Betty Jean Craige in Selected Poems of Antonio Machado (Louisiana State University Press, 1979)