OWS Library Update

Back in November of 2011, an epic act of state occurred in New York City—the seizure and destruction of the OWS library. More seizures ensued. The library reappeared on the Brooklyn Bridge. Readers and writers all over the world spoke out against the so-called Bloomberg Bibliocide. What’s been happening with our favorite library? KtB recently caught up with People’s Librarian Betsy Fagin via email.

KtB: Hi Betsy. Thanks for chatting. What is the status of the OWS Library?

BF: As of January 2012, the library still exists, but most of the collection is currently in storage. Thanks to the generosity of many in the community we have received more books since the raid than were destroyed by the NYPD and Department of Sanitation back in November. (We have nearly 9,000 titles in the catalog here.)

The library working group meets regularly and we bring the books out to Occupy-related actions: marches, teach-ins etc. As Occupy spreads out, so does the library. We have mini Occupy Libraries set up at the Occupy farms and in the foreclosed home/s we’ve taken back, and we are trying to set up a program with the churches where Occupiers are sleeping. We are also hard at work building a consortium of Occupy libraries across the country and creating partnerships with local bookstores.

KtB: How many times has the library been confiscated/stolen/destroyed?

BF: I’ve stopped keeping track. Whenever librarians are available to be in the park, we bring books, fliers and signs and set up a little library, but the police and private security forces seem to have it in for us. It really depends who’s working and who’s bringing the books in how hostile the interaction is—sometimes they’ll let us set up without too much trouble, but only what we can carry in, and if we leave the books unattended they are thrown away. For a while we were using shopping carts and giving away free books around the city (outside Barnes & Noble was especially fun), but they don’t allow the carts into Liberty Park—it’s still surrounded by barricades, and you must pass through one of two checkpoints to enter.

KtB: Were you surprised by the great response to the Bibliocide?

BF: I was surprised that the destruction happened, but I wasn’t surprised by people’s response. There’s a word in Dutch, ‘fout,’ which means wrong. It was explained to me as something that is so horribly wrong, so egregious that it’s almost unbearable. To me that is what the destruction of a library is, it’s fout. It’s not just the destruction of the physical objects, but the destruction of the means of empowerment and enlightenment. Wiping out Liberty Park was Bloomberg clearing the commons, eliminating our ability to join together, to speak together, to learn together, and voice dissent.

KtB: What has the experience of being the OWS librarian been like for you? Do you have any stories or anecdotes to share? Could you describe the different types of work you do?

BF: It’s an amazing experience. I learn something every day and am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be doing this. Anecdotes? I haven’t had much time to reflect about it yet. Right now the work I’m doing is mostly trying to connect libraries together, trying to find a physical space to rebuild the library, and I’m getting more involved with the TechOps portion of Occupy, by becoming more active in online forums—tweeting and tagging data for RSS feeds. A few of us are heading to Dallas next week to present at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference, so I should be preparing for that.

KtB: How does the library work? Are there check-out slips or is it just a free exchange?

BF: The library is open and free, built entirely from donation—a gift from the community to itself. No check-out slips or forms required. We asked people to help themselves to books. If they could return the book that would be great, if they could hand it on to someone else when they were done, that was encouraged. If they felt the need in their heart to keep the book for themselves, also great.

KtB: Do you have any thoughts about the greater significance of the library in the movement? It seems to have galvanized a lot of writers and readers to the cause (myself included). I see a great spiritual, almost a religious theme here—after all, we talk about the “desecration” of books. Books and reading are holy to a lot of people—because of the knowledge and ideas they contain, and the miraculous process of transmitting knowledge on paper. Destroying a beautiful, well-tended and cultivated library is an incredibly ugly act of state. It’s not violent directly towards people, but it’s mental violence. A threat.

BF: I agree with that wholeheartedly. I’ve been called idealistic and naive more than once, but I do believe that the written word can serve as a path to enlightenment (everything can). Great stores of human knowledge and experience are held safe in books. Destroying that library was more than a threat, it was a violent act that came from a place of fear by people who think they have power. I may always mourn the loss of the library and the park, but what happened there was more reason to inform ourselves and get active to fight the forces of corporate greed. Destroying the commons is an attempt to eliminate dissent.

KtB: I was heartened by your response, especially since it was your work that was undone by the police. I like the idea that the library will just keep springing up in many forms—it’s so hopeful and joyous to me. I think of the phoenix and sand mandalas and the phases of the moon and all things that fall away and rise again. Are there any images that occur to you—I know you’re a poet as well as a librarian.

BF: All of those images are apt. For me I feel also that it’s not just a matter of building up and being torn down again and again, but of a kind of growth that can’t be stopped—like spring itself. Maybe because it’s January now, but everything feels so dire in the winter—barren and cold—spring is always miraculous. That life can break through a hard shell in the frozen earth against all odds, and it happens again and again and again. That’s more of the feeling of the library and Occupy to me; we’re the seed that’s going to crack through the pavements and rise up to flower in the spring.

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.