December 12, 2012

The portable Pacifist Library


Diptych of the Pacifist Library

A group of activists have been collecting used books and creating books from recycled materials in order to carry them around New York City on their backs.

This project is the Pacifist Library, and was inspired by the figure of Toma Sik, a “Hungarian-Israeli anarcho-pacifist, utopian socialist, anti-Zionist, vegan, world citizen and Esperantist” who is said to have had an extensive library of pacifist books.

The Pacifist Library has partnered with Queens Borough Public Library’s New Americans Program to bring books on the Berrigan brothers, Jiddu Krishnamuri, and other radical figures to the public to encourage a dialogue about pacifism. When the members of the Pacifist Library realized that political theorist Gene Sharp’s influential book From Dictatorship to Democracy was not available at any public library in New York, they decided to print and bind copies of the book themselves and donate them.

In a recent Waging Nonviolence post, Nathaniel Katz and Valentina Curandi explain the relationship between the Pacifist Library’s nomadic notion of space and the traditional library:

Most libraries are physical spaces defined by geography. When these fixed-space libraries have a system of lending books, they are called circulation libraries; it is understood that those who frequent lending libraries may not find the space of the library suitable for reading the books that they found on its shelves. A reference library contains a collection that is so valuable that it isn’t allowed to circulate; visitors to such libraries must do all of their reading and research in the library itself. But there are other kinds of libraries, too.

Ten years ago, one of us volunteered on a library bus in the Guatemalan highlands. The bus moved between villages on a weekly schedule, stopping for a few hours so that children (and sometimes adults) could come and use the library and search for books. The library had the physical space of the bus to define it, but the library was not defined by space—it was defined by time. The books became the event for which children from the village would congregate at a specific time to share the excitement. When a book becomes an event it is less likely to be read in solitude and isolation.

For the Pacifist Library, we carry the books on our backs. We modified two vintage aluminum external-frame backpacks into mobile library bookshelves with some PVC pipe and fabric. The library is nomadic in that it moves with us where we go. We circulate with our books, but the books don’t circulate. We carry with us a straw mat, a stool and a thermos with mint tea. With these simple objects we invite people to utilize the library wherever we happen to be—on the street, in a park, at a local library.



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.