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)

Dear Time Magazine: Really?

I came across this interesting digression in cover treatment while searching for candidates for my annual annual unscientific  “10 Best Covers” of the year post.

Let’s leave aside the politics of the cover selection. A series of politically oriented blogs have already addressed that. Frankly, in this instance I am inclined to read them, and agree with them.

Really? (Source: Time.com/time/magazine)

I get what the anxiety story is trying to say. It looks like an interesting article and it’s an important topic in today’s environment. But the real story around the world today is “revolution”. The “revolution” was caused by anxiety over the future and the way that governments (in the case of this article, the Egyptian government) and organizations that have power over you (like corporations) behave in the today’s world. So let’s be real: Treat the American public like adults, and trust them to respond appropriately to the cover.

This smacks of self censorship. I think we could have handled the cover.

Occupied Libraries

As a long time observer of our nation’s political  system and a sometime dabbler in elections (working on everything from Village Trustee to State Representative to Presidential), the rise of the Tea Party movement in last year’s election cycle and the rise, tenacity and success (at least in continuing to hold their place) in the Occupy Wall Street and the spin off Occupy Together movements this year don’t surprise me. People are never nearly as complacent as the pontificators, finger pointers, tub thumpers and mustache huffers of our Op Ed pages and cable news shows imply.

How will all of this will turn out? Well, this is a blog about magazines, books and print distribution, not politics, so I’ll leave it to your imagination. If you really want to know what I think, drop me an email or give me a call. We can kill a few a hours neither of us have.

What really struck me though, about the “kids” down in Zuccotti  Park was how quickly a print library popped up in their midst.

Within two weeks of the nascent movement starting, articles appeared marveling at their collection. As of this post, the collection contains more than 4400 volumes. Not bad for something totally volunteer, completely donated, free for all and less than two months old.

Hey, wait a minute! The Occupiers are mostly kids, right? Twenty something’s, college students and what Bosacks calls “Screenagers”. What they heck are they doing hanging out in the chill New York wind with a bunch of old moldy used books?

It’s not like this is a collection of Luddites marching in the streets, smashing their tablets, ripping the batteries from their smart phones and stomping on their routers. No, this movement is very connected with Twitter, Facebook, blogs and covering social media in all of it’s aspects.

Even the “People’s Library” has it’s own blog.

Source: peopleslibrary.wordpress.com/history

I think that Barbara Fister from  libraryjournal.com explained it best when she said,

It’s more a way to define the community through a culturally meaningful form of sharing, a physical impulse to pass books from one hand to another. It’s what you do when you come together: you pool your books so that they can be browsed and shared. Sharing books is communal nourishment, like breaking bread.

Are we at one of those wayside moments where we see the perfect intersection of digital and print? The Occupy movement needs digital to organize, attract followers through Facebook and Twitter. They use it deftly as only someone who feels technology as second nature can.

At the same time do people need to physically connect with something and feel some ownership in what they are working for? Is that what the library is for? That may be a part of what we see here.  There is pride in ownership. They’ve created a movement and it has a library. It gives them a place beyond the public spaces. While a library is public, it is a quiet and safe refuge.

Of course, you don’t “own” a library book. But there is something to be said, again, for being able to hold something solid that won’t die when the batteries run out  or the wifi  signal fades or network goes out.

For this generation, books, magazines, pamphlets and newspapers are still ubiquitous, familiar and easily accessible. If this movement popped up two generations from now? Who knows. It will depend on what happens to print over the next twenty to forty years. Maybe there would be some digital back lash movement where digital “magicians” and hackers create their own virtual space. Or maybe they will go all throwback and print their own literature.

Will you donate to the People’s Library? Do you think it’s worthwhile?