HackLibSchool on Occupy Wall Street: How Do Libraries Fit In?
16/11/2011 § 68 Comments
“I learned that the most important thing about teaching is not what you do in the classroom but what you do outside the classroom. You go outside the classroom yourself, bring your students outside, or have them bring you outside the classroom, because very often they do it first and you say, ‘I can’t hang back. I’m their teacher. I have to be there with them.’ And you learn that the best kind of teaching makes this connection between social action and book learning.” Howard Zinn
The goal of this post is to start a conversation about LIS students and Occupy Wall Street. Several OWS libraries have popped up in different cities, and LIS students and librarians have heeded the call for reference workers, book donations, and more. In a lot of ways, libraries as a part of activism are related to our discussions of advocacy as professionals. A few HLS folk and others, are going to share our thoughts here, but what we really want is to open up a discussion with readers about how we fit into OWS as students and future info pros. There are info pros who agree and disagree with OWS itself, but all of us have important perspectives to add to the conversation. One caveat: no disrespectful/unkind/abusive/etc. comments. Our readers are generally pretty agreeable folks so this is pretty unlikely to become a problem, but we want to make sure the conversation is productive. With that, here are some thoughts from HLSers–please add your own!
Initially, we had planned this post to go up a bit later, but after the OWS library was dismantled Monday night/early Tuesday morning, it seemed to us that getting this post up and generating discussion was important. The library itself was destroyed and all of the donated books (about 5,000) were thrown away. The reaction on social media sites was one of sadness and disbelief: all day Tuesday many of the posts about the library were ones of support for the library’s work and ones of anger toward those who took it apart. Some people said books are a symbol of democracy, some said that people have a right to access information, and others simply said they were hurt or unhappy. This seems as good an indication of any as to the place libraries have in many of our hearts and of the value people place upon a library (even a smaller or more informal one). This sudden turn of events makes us wonder what the future of the OWS library (and others like it) is, and how the librarians involved will approach this and the other unique challenges that face this type of library. If you want to stay updated on the OWS library happenings, follow them on Facebook, on Twitter, and on their website.
Update : A Twitter post from the NYC Mayor’s office says that the Occupy Wall Street Library’s books are being stored at the NY Department of Sanitation and can be picked up on Wednesday.
I have been really excited about the Occupy movement because I see in it many of the things that drew me to LIS: a sense of community, concern for others, etc. I have also been pleased to see a couple things in particular: first, that there is consensus rather than a hierarchical leadership structure, and second that OWS has libraries!! While the consensus-based approach is something far removed from what most of us will experience as professionals, it is similar to the way I’ve tried to structure meetings and such with groups I’m involved with. It allows for different viewpoints to be heard and concerns to be addressed, which can help avoid misunderstandings later. Even though we’ll all be working in institutions with a more clearly-defined chain of command, I think one of the important take-aways for info pros here is to consider adopting this approach whenever possible. It has the potential to make our libraries stronger by encouraging every employee and volunteer to be an active and engaged participant in shaping that library, which means they are more likely to enjoy working there and will want to do a great job (although for the vast majority of library employees I know this is already the case).
Second, OWS libraries! I saw the news about the library in New York and thought “this is the best proof we have that people love their libraries.” More importantly, it’s proof that people see libraries as a vital part of a community and important resources. Everyone I’ve spoken to about OWS libraries indicates that the materials are heavily used and that there is always a need for more materials and reference staff. Most of all, people care very deeply about the library, sending out urgent messages on social media whenever there is a library that might be closed down, donating materials, etc. This makes me think of our public libraries–so many people rely on them, but they may not always have the resources they need (especially right now). I wonder how our brick and mortar libraries can take inspiration from OWS libraries–so many people love their libraries, but how do we encourage the same outspoken advocacy for them? Do we need to take our materials to the patrons rather than having them come to us? Other ideas? I know for me, OWS ties into LIS because it provides another way to advocate for all people to have access to what they need, whether that be an education and information, employment, or shelter. Even if not everyone agrees with OWS, it’s an opportunity to start a conversation and find common ground, and that to me is the most important part.
My name is Bryce Kieren Healy. I’m 28 years old, originally from Florida. I’m currently a GSLIS student at Simmons College. I work part-time at the French Library of Boston (I’m as surprised as you are that my B.A. in French Language & Literature, from New College of Florida, came in handy!), & am co-chair of the Simmons chapter of the Progressive Librarians Guild. I hope to eventually work in an urban public library, & am especially interested in library adult literacy/ESL programs.
I’ve been loosely involved with the Boston Radical Reference Collective for the past year now. There’s a fair amount of collaboration between Rad Ref & PLG. I got involved in the Audre Lorde – Howard Zinn Library (A-Z Library) through Rad Ref. They called a general meeting shortly after the establishment of the Occupy Wall Street Library, with the intent of doing the same for Occupy Boston. Separately, around this time, John Ford arrived at Dewey Square & set up shop. So it became an initiative spearheaded by all three parties. My personal impetus to become involved was largely due to my political orientation (radical socialist, if you’re interested.) I would have become involved with Occupy Boston in any case, but the library has definitely given me a venue to do so in a focused manner.
I’m uncertain what my involvement with the A-to-Z Library means to my education. It’s definitely allowed me the chance to put some of my intellectual training into action vis-à-vis library sciences & what-have-you. But it’s almost as though it’s running parallel to my education. I find the overall tone of the Simmons curriculum to be, if not corporatist in nature, definitely from the managerial perspective. The ideological perspective is that, if you’re becoming involved with librarianship, your ultimate aim is to be a library director, & the pedagogical approach seems to reflect that to a large extent. However, there are many students (myself included) who have absolutely no desire to be a library director; I’d much rather be on the ground, working directly with people. So, in a sense, the A-to-Z Library has echoed that desire. I think that the lessons I’m learning there will certainly be reflected in my future approach regardless of where I end up working. I wouldn’t have necessarily have thought that my perspective on libraries and librarianship could have been more radicalized prior to my involvement, but I’ve been wrong before (& will be in the future, assuredly.)
As regards the meaning of it all to me, as a librarian, I think that that’s rather difficult to isolate & define. I feel that it’s impossible to separate what it means to me as a librarian from what it means to me as a person (in the holistic sense.) It’s not as though I can compartmentalize myself & distinguish between “Bryce Kieren Healy, the librarian”, & “Bryce Kieren Healy, Francophone & Francophile”, or “Bryce Kieren Healy, arm-chair political loudmouth”, etc. All ranting & raving aside, it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. It reaffirms my belief in the importance of libraries (even though that’s a non-negotiable stance for me, believe it or not, it gets exceedingly tiring refuting the same stale arguments from assorted dingbats who’d claim that libraries are no longer relevant or necessary in the world), so it’s been a valuable experience. I suppose that in the end, I’m just happy that I can be involved in this. The Occupy movement isn’t perfect by any means (I’m really unhappy with the lack of focus on feminism/outright sexism being displayed in a lot of cities’ movements, and how it relates to classism within capitalist society, for example), but at the same time, I have to take my hat off to the people involved in this. It’s important what they’re doing, & it’s important that we, as librarians, support their efforts. That’s what the A-to-Z Library means to me in a nutshell, I suppose.
Like Bryce, I became involved with the Audre Lorde – Howard Zinn Library at Occupy Boston through my involvement in the Boston Radical Reference group. Until recently, I had attended Rad Ref meetings but had never really gotten involved. But this time, I knew I wanted to see how I could do more. I have been in absolute awe of the impact that the library at Occupy Boston seems to have on the community that is there. And that’s what it is, a community. And what I definitely learned throughout my studies was how vital libraries are to communities; how they can be the lifeline of a town, that people come to depend on them and the services they offer. From what I can tell, those down at Occupy Boston have come to depend on the library and have a deep respect for what it stands for and the librarians who volunteer to staff it. Despite what your opinions are on the Occupies, I would hope that as librarians, we can all see that these are communities that need serving, just like a public library. These are communities with people who have questions, requests, and are sometimes just looking for a quiet place to sit and think for a few moments. I feel really proud to be part of a profession where there are people who rush to offer this service, especially on a volunteer basis.
The other aspect of the libraries that I think is so important is the archival importance. Not being an archivist myself, I probably don’t have a full grasp of its importance but I would imagine that years from now, people will want to look back at this time and these movements and be curious to study the meeting notes, brochures, photos, signs, and on and on. There is already an Occupy Archive that is attempting to archive all of the Occupy locations and their documents. At the A-Z Library, there are several people who have done an incredible job already of making sure that everything is being saved, printed, hard-drived, and documented. I think this service, most of all, may be the most important one we can provide to make sure that however long these camps exist for, no one will forget what they stood for.
As a library student, I highly identify with the 99%, working three jobs as I try and build a professional career and worry about student loan payments that are going to start arriving sooner than I would like. While I have not been directly involved with the Occupy movement, I have been a supporter and cheerleader from the sidelines. I’ve been ocupying my twitter feed and facebook wall with #OWS updates and stories in an attempt to help spread the messages and victories of the movement. I even came up with an Occupy Reading List on my personal blog.
On Monday, November 14th, the occupied parks here in Portland, OR, were shut down by the city. There were about 50 arrests and one reported injury. Thankfully, the organizers of the Occupied Portland Library had a plan in place, and the collection (which had over 800 titles) was gathered by a group of local Quakers, who are holding it in safety until the next steps are decided for. Personally, I’m thankful that there was a plan and the Quakers were willing to help. It’s sad to think that the books could have been trashed or landed in the hands of the police. While I am sure the police would have handed them over, they feel more secure in the hands of activists.
I’m learning there are some overarching concepts that will always apply to the library you work in, whether it is a traditional institution or a grass roots, community-organized collection. Much like how you need to keep your community members in mind when developing a collection, you always need to consider how to save the collection in the face of an emergency – whether that emergency is a natural disaster or the upheaval caused by a police intervention.
As news about the breakdown of Occupy Wall Street bumped across my Twitter feed this morning, I started thinking about the importance of books in the development of political identity, and a political culture. I’ve mentioned several times that my decision to become a public librarian generated from my political beliefs– including a belief in agency and community, which is also key to the Occupy movements. And I first became politicized, as I imagine many have, through books. Putting aside the medium (which has dominated our profession lately), the focus is on the message: the role of books in conveying thought, and preserving the history of activism through text as a resource for the continued movement (in whatever way that manifests). Unfortunately, the result of this is that books and libraries are also one of the first targets in suppression of action and movement for social change. Preparing for a job interview recently, I thumbed through Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed; Freire was jailed for his work in teaching Brazilian peasants and laborers to read. I don’t think we can equate situations of oppression and suppression, but we can look at their repeated instance as an indicator of the power of access, information, literacy, and by extension, libraries and librarians in the progression towards social justice and equality. So as Occupy folk build and plan their future actions to continue to bring attention to disparity and injustice, the return and the rebuilding of the library is one tool to tie them into a long history of protest of the same.