Remember The People’s Library

The news coverage about the Occupy Wall Street movement made it easy to have arguments about the rightness or wrongness of the occupiers cause. But in the middle of all of the convoluted arguments about the crimes of financial insiders, the struggles of regular people, and endless snark about the protestors idealism was a truly inspiring tale. Agree or disagree with the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement, you can’t help but have respect for the People’s Library.

The People’s Library was a completely free lending library set up by members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. At its peak, the Zucotti Park based outdoor library housed more than 5,500 volumes, had full-time volunteer librarians and a rather well-organized and extensive catalog.

Early in the morning of November 15, 2011, Mayor Bloomburg ordered the New York Police Department into Zucotti Park, the home of the Occupy Wall Street movement, with  instructions to remove the occupiers and clear out their encampment. With less than a 15 minute warning, there was little time for the librarians to organize an orderly break down of the collection. While Mayor Bloomburg announced that the entire library had been saved, it later became clear that he was either mis-informed, or lying. Most of the library was destroyed or rendered unreadable and numerous eyewitnesses reported seeing the New York Police deliberately destroying the collection.

On April 9th of this year it was announced that the city of New York agreed to pay $366, 700 in damages to various Occupy groups for the damages that resulted in the November 15th raid. The biggest award was to the People’s Library for damage to the books and for lawyer’s fees. There’s a downside to this happy ending. Not surprisingly the lawyers fees were higher than the award for damage to the physical books, computers and library equipment.

The People's Library at it's height. (Source: Businessinsider.com)
The People’s Library at it’s height. (Source: Businessinsider.com)

I’ve always maintained that you can determine the health of a community not by its retail base, public schools, houses of worship, or carefully maintained parks, but by the health of its public library. Is there one? Is prominent in the community? Is it well-funded and well maintained? Does it house a wide and varied collection? Is its mission to serve its community or be a bastion for the few who view reading as their own personal domain? Does it reach out to the community and welcome everyone? Does that outreach include both the well-heeled patron and the homeless person who sleeps in the park?

You can agree or disagree with the Occupy movement. The People’s Library represented the best of both volunteerism and the desire to spread reading to all. That is why I found their story so inspiring. The library still exists today and its volunteer librarians continue to bring crates of books to lend out around New York City. Hopefully this award will go towards advancing their mission.

Part of the library after the November 15 clear out. (Source: Village Voice)
Part of the library after the November 15 clear out. (Source: Village Voice)
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One Reply to “Remember The People’s Library”

  1. The settlement includes $47,000 for books and library equipment lost or damaged in the raid on Zuccotti Park, where the protesters, campaigning against economic inequality, had camped for nearly two months, setting up tents and a ramshackle library.

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