October 31, 2011

Why the “Occupy” library is important


One of the more wide-spread stories concerning the occupy movement concerns its libraries. Whether Oakland, Boston or Wall St, many of these “tent cities” have well-organized and carefully curated libraries that are often tended to by actual librarians. The story is popular because it is a classic human interest story amidst a much larger narrative of revolution. It’s tidy, friendly, and in many ways confusing for those outside the “Occupy” movement.

With winter approaching and many “Occupy” locations in need of winterizing, why set up a library first thing? Seems like a luxury amidst many necessities, right?

Well . . . no. Libraries are fundamentally about something quite different. It seems natural to me that a social movement that springs up locally and without any centralized organizing body or criteria for membership would create a library. This is an impulse so ingrained in the idea of books that people are creating tiny lending libraries to put in public places as signals that sharing books is an important act, something that creates community.

That’s Barbara Fister of Minnesota’s Gustavus Adolphus College writing for Library Journal. In her piece, titled “Why the Occupy Wall Street Movement Has Libraries”, Fister explains that the usefulness of the library is a factor in their creation almost as much as their symbolic importance. Using the motto of the Occupy Wall Street library, Fister explains the symbolic and philosophic importance of the library to the movement:

These books belong to everyone. There’s enormous trust embodied in that statement, and it’s the kind of trust that at times is betrayed by rules designed around the assumption that people will act selfishly if allowed to govern themselves. As David Carnevale wrote in his article on “organizational trust” in the Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration, “bureaucracy is a monument to mistrust.” Luckily, it’s not the only option: he points out that “governance systems can be crafted that take advantage of people’s best, not their worst, tendencies.”

The self-preserving power of bureaucracy is important to keep in mind for a movement like “Occupy”, especially if one considers the complex paper chimera Rahm Emanuel has loosed upon Chicago’s protestors. Emanuel is a consummate bureaucrat and has set up a masterful shell game that forces the occupation to play along, less they come off as belligerent. Permits are sold, rescinded and curfews are set and ignored in an alternating and unknowable manner, which leaves protest leadership in a lurch when it comes to balancing efficacy and public opinion. With such a game in mind, the purpose of an “Occupy” library are clearly many and important. Emanuel will realize this soon enough when hundreds of librarians and library users march in protest this week against his proposed library cuts. Two protests are harder to stop than one, even for a operator like Rahm.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.