Advocacy & Activism

HackLibSchool on Occupy Wall Street: How Do Libraries Fit In?

68 thoughts on “HackLibSchool on Occupy Wall Street: How Do Libraries Fit In?

  1. I am so proud to be a HLSer now–excellent post synthesizing what’s going on all over the country to LIS education.

    I’ve been thinking lately about the “death” of the library (as we all fear) and took this as a microexample: if we really think our communities will let libraries close down and be run by non-professionals, then we really don’t see the value in ourselves. I say, as our budgets get chipped, lets cut programs, lets reduce our collections–people will get mad and our value will be evident! I realize that wasn’t the case with OWS library, but people who had never even been there were outraged. People love their libraries and go to lengths to save them, nothing shows that more than the OWS library.

    Thanks, y’all!


  2. I love this perspective, that if we think our communities don’t care then we are blind to our own value. I know that a lot of people are passionate about libraries (nearly everyone you talk to says they love libraries) but I feel like that doesn’t often translate into action until they feel the library is threatened. Just like most things, we tend to take stuff for granted or not see the value in spending our own money to support it until it becomes a crisis.


  3. This is a great post! Like Rebecca, after I read this I thought about the value of libraries. If OWS was a microcosm, and the people there felt it was necessary to have a library for their community, what does that say about the importance of libraries in general? All I can think is that when our society feels that as a culture we have nothing left to value, then museums and libraries won’t have a purpose anymore. I think that’s counter intuitive to how humans see themselves, but like Bryce mentioned, I’m getting tired of hearing people tell me that libraries aren’t important anymore.


  4. Nicole–your point about the importance of documenting this movement is spot on. All the criticism being leveled at the protesters for being un-focused in their position and demands will be mitigated with well curated digital archives. The idea that educating the people furthers democracy and contributes to enlightened political engagement originated with Jefferson and the Occupy libraries are playing an important (Jeffersonian) role by providing resources to protesters. I think that the dismantling of the library at OWS (although I’ve read that its back up) is unfortunate, but on the plus side, it has sparked a very public conversation about the importance of libraries in our communities.


  5. One of my takeaways about the Occupy libraries is how much the books are used, as well as the “honor system” they operate under. What can libraries learn and take from this? I’m sure the libraries are used so often not only because the library is located right within the site but there are low barriers to borrowing.


    • I imagine you’re right–it also strikes me that there seems to be little issue with people returning materials (from what I understand at least). It seems like a good nudge for larger libraries to look at how we can modify practices to reduce barriers to borrowing.


      • Turner, I received your email but not until this AM. I’ll post something about Occupy Portland’s Library below.

        But in response to your comment, it seems important to me to remind people that most public library systems (especially the one I work for – MCL) are faith-based (no scare quotes required). Overdue fines and patron-paid replacement costs represent a miniscule fraction of our operating budget. We offer all kinds of second (and third and fourth, etc.) chances to patrons experiencing hardship and complication. Some may say we’re damn lucky (and yeah, we are) but I’d suggest that this is what all libraries (it’s not a library any longer if fees are required to access materials) might instantiate as a foundational/base level of operation.

        And this, I might add, is why Occupy is so crucial to 2011. Not just because they have camp libraries, but because we believe that libraries and other basic social necessities should be guaranteed. Not negotiated for or over.


    • I agree with your comment. Putting up high barriers to borrowing makes absolutely no sense and I think, clashes with the public library’s message.

      However should and can the same honor system be applied to Ipads, Kindles, Nooks, etc? I’m from small-town Vermont, have lived in Boston and now reside in NYC and I think that depending on the audience such an option might be feasible. But what about in a major metropolitan area? These devices represent an important investment by the library and an important resource for the community. Yet if they are stolen or broken, what then? I know that even in Vermont this is a problem and I’m curious as to what people’s thoughts are on reaching a balanced approach.

      Personally, I think that each patron that uses these tools should have to sign a waver stating that they take all responsibility for the device while it’s in their care. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances, but they should be evaluated on a case by case basis. Of course the other approach would be to not allow the devices outside the library, but then why have them?


  6. First, I guess I should come clean and say that by and large I do not support OWS. OB, OP, or any other occupy group. I can agree with the ideas they are espousing, but disagree with their methodology. I am apparently part of the 99% and just disagree with OWS.

    That aside, I fully support the librarians and archivists that are participating in the Occupy Library system. Whatever my personal feelings are, I love libraries and strongly believe that they are an important community resource that should be available to all people. They provide intellectual and spiritual enrichment, and most importantly, a sense of community.

    What I find most interesting is the differences between the Occupy Portland Library and the Occupy Wall Street. In Occupy Portland they had an emergency plan in place. With OWS this does not seem to be the case. As we are told in class after class, it’s always important to have a disaster relief plan and I believe that the evictions aptly qualify as disasters. OWS should have planned better and while the treatment of the donated materials is lamentable, they should have seen it coming. Luckily it seems they will be able to recover part of their library, and will hopefully receive more donations (I will be donating some books as well). How is it that there was no disaster plan in place? Did they really think they could camp out on private property indefinitely? What about snow storms? It just seems to me that although the police probably utilized excessive enthusiasm, OWS Library should have seen it coming.

    Again, this is my opinion and while I look forward to reading and responding to other points of view, please stay respectful.


    • I agree, respectful conversation is key. Whether or not any of us have the same feelings about OWS, we still have a lot to agree on, learn from each other, and talk about! I’ve wondered about the disaster plans too–does anyone know if other Occupy libraries have disaster plans?
      I would agree with you that evictions qualify as disasters, I wonder if the OWS library will implement a plan after this (I plan to donate books too). I think this opens up another line of discussion–what are some good things to include in such a plan? How do we protect materials if we aren’t allowed out of the park during an eviction?


      • At the library at Occupy Boston we have been in the process of creating an emergency plan for a few weeks. In light of what happened at OWS, we have prioritized it as a talking point at our weekly meeting. I believe, once it is finalized in some form, it will be available on our wiki for the public to see and know about.


      • I would think that any emergency plan would at least address problems associated with weather, crowded conditions, fire, etc.

        Given the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the OWS Library I would think that a key component would be creating a modular system. If you take into account that any eviction will likely provide a 20-45 minute window for evacuation than you have something to work with. First you have to examine your circumstances. If you are not able to bring certain materials out of the park than how can you protect them? Enclosed plastic bins with locking mechanisms are a cheap solution. Not only do they have handles for easier transportation, but they are also wind proof, water proof, cheap, and quite cheap. Using this kind of tool modularizes the process and allows for a quicker evacuation. If you do not have to collect the materials than you’ve already done half the work.

        Another important point is to acknowledge that some materials will be lost. The important thing is to save or preserve as much as possible. In this case the OWS library does not have a physical structure to save, just books. In this case the emergency plan should really focus upon making the process as streamlined as possible. Do not keep the books loose, or in unorganized piles. Imposing a classification system in a temporary situation is less important than making the materials available. Thus modularizing the organization with plastic bins should not hinder the library’s mission.


    • Thank you so much for your thoughts, Librarianmaybe. I was thinking last night when I was writing up my bit that there are probably many librarians who do not share or support the beliefs or the methods of the Occupy movement, but would be opposed to the destruction and dismantling of the library. I think this really speaks to the ability of librarians to stand for access and freedom of thought, separate from standing for the ideas themselves. This may be one of the most important skills an ISer must develop as a professional? I know it was a big part of my development in library school, and one of the hardest things to learn.


      • I’d make it even more general than that specific commitment to information access for all and freedom of thought. As a professional LSer I have a professional obligation, not just a commitment, towards advancing these goals. My personal feelings should not and do not change my commitment to open access for all people. After all, if we blocked every person who disagreed with us from accessing information than life would be pretty boring.

        I do wish this commitment had been made more explicit at Simmons GSLIS (I graduated in May 2011).


    • You’re castigating the OWS Library for not having a contingency plan in place? (And are you so certain they didn’t?)

      And giving the state violence visited upon the camp (and library) a passing mention?

      I was one of those evacuating the OP Library and yes, we had a contingency plan in place. We also had the Quakers reaching out to and working with us – and most critically, offering us a safe storage space. But how long can they safely hang on to our materials? What if there’s no further stable occupation space? This is a larger issue than contingency plans.

      And do not forget that Occupy Portland was on public land. Public. As in a commons. Like a public library. There are conceptual and material connective tissues throughout.


      • I might have misunderstood the intention of other posters, or have not carefully worded my own post, but I don’t think the intention of anyone here is to say that OWS Library deserved to be dismantled for not having a contingency plan, or that the violence protesters have experienced is acceptable (as a pacifist, I argue that it’s never a good approach). Having a number of friends who have been in the midst of evictions (our Occupy here has been delightfully low key) I have been following along very closely and have been hurt by what has happened even though I haven’t experienced it personally.
        I remember being told that you had a storage space provided by local Friends–that is incredibly important and very kind of them to share their space, but I agree, contingency plans can’t account for everything.
        I like that you connect the public space that Occupy groups inhabit with libraries as well. If you feel comfortable sharing it, I would be interested to know more about your experiences with OP’s library–even though planning only goes so far, sharing advice and experiences might be helpful for other Occupy library folk who wonder how libraries deal with an eviction.


        • I completely agree. I don’t want it to seem like I’m a fan of the OWS Library being dismantled or spread across the city in such a fashion or that I support violence on either side.

          Rather I want to point out

          a) a different perspective
          b) my professional viewpoint
          c) attempt to make it clear that my personal feelings towards OWS do not affect my desire for the library component to succeed.


      • I have no idea whether or not OWS Library had a contingency plan. It would certainly seem based upon their own wordpress account, twitter feed that they either did not have a plan or were not able to execute it properly.

        From a purely professional view, I don’t quite understand how nobody planned for this contingency. Based upon their wordpress account they had at least an hours notice.

        I pointed out the OP Library as an example of how to execute a contingency plan. What is done in the long term is, as you said, a larger issue to be decided by the larger OP movement. Permanence or temporary should determine what direction future planning takes.

        Regarding your final paragraph, I would also point out that OWS was on private land. As such having a contingency plan should have been even more important. It was only a matter of time before the NYPD cleared them out. Whether or not this is morally correct is not the issue. Legally speaking it’s the fact. This is the primary difference between OP and OWS, in this regard.

        Thank you for your comment as it’s really made me think through my own conclusions.


        • Having experience as a former Anti Corporate Globalization Movement activist fighting against NAFTA and the FTAA, I personally know that you can have the best intentions and well-laid plans, but they can be so hard to see through. Being a grass-roots organization fighting against a monolithic state-supported system like our current financial system is difficult enough, often forcing you into situations where you are reacting to what is happening around you and to you.

          I agree, from the OWS library social media, it did not seem to have a plan, but their is a very good chance that they did, but for any number of reasons it was not carried out. I’m guessing that they are going to come back from this stronger, more organized and better than ever.


    • According to a recent update on the OWSLibrary blog, an emergency plan had been discussed and further training had been scheduled for this week (see

      I can say from having spent some time there that OWS Library was indeed implementing a modular system like the one suggested above – books were sorted by subject into plastic bins with locking tops. If there had been any warning of eviction, I have no doubt that the library certainly could have been transported safely out of the park. The Library was also equipped to protect its collections in case of weather emergencies. Any photos you have seen of books sitting around in piles are images of the post-raid People’s Library, not of the Library under normal conditions.

      In the case of New York, the problem was that there was truly no opportunity to implement solutions. Occupiers were not even given the time and wherewithal to gather and transport personal belongings, let alone nearly 6,000 volumes in heavy plastic bins.


      • I also just quickly want to add two things:

        Yes, increased police presence was noticed about an hour before the raid, and there was some discussion (e.g. this exchange on Twitter: but police themselves indicated that it was “just a drill.” There was not in fact an hour’s time between announcement of the eviction and the forceful clearing of the park.

        Additionally, reinforcements were called to Zuccotti Park (I received the text at 1:04am and arrived less than an hour later) but we were prevented by police from getting near the park — so it was impossible for outside supporters to remove the books to safety. I’m very happy for the OccupyPDX Library that they were able to be safely removed, but the situation in NYC was really not comparable.


  7. It’s hard for me to describe my initial feelings about the Occupy movement beacuse it was an emotion that resonated through me more than an intellectual recognition. I felt a surge of pride, hope, and empowerment when I heard about the library on site and the passion, sense of community, and knowledge it brought to the protestors. I identified with it and recognized that feeling as my same reaction when I try to explain a good book to someone or get excited about a new idea. I’ve been reading everything I can since I first heard about them and have been offering support through correspondance and posting articles on my facebook page. I am a SLIS student in KY and just started the program. I just turned in a research paper on the OWSL and the history of activism in librarianship. Thankfully my professor was also excited about the topic and didn’t mind that I changed my topic last minute and used OWSL blogs as primary sources. Like Nicole, I was really impressed that the Occupiers were archiving the movement and that they were recording history as it happens. I was devastated to hear about the seizure of the books and just read the update that most things were damaged. I’m glad that they are rebuilding.


    • Debbie, I’m writing my thesis on the history of activism in librarianship and would love to take a peek at your bibliography. Let me know if you’re willing for me to pick your brain a bit!


      • Do you know about the journals “Revolting Librarian” and “Booklegger”? A little difficult to find, but a primary source! Articles on activism by the activist librarians themselves. These libs were doing things like organizing unconferences in the 1960s to raise money for the UFW during ALA Annual.


      • Of course, send me your email and I will share! It was just a short term paper (9 pgs) but I’m going to continue following the progress of the movement so I can develop the paper further for my portfolio. There were I few books I’ve tagged for further reading that aren’t included on my list so if you have some suggestions for me I would be grateful.


  8. One of things that I think is a critical part of the OWS discussion and how libraries fit in, is that it ties directly back to the biggest idea behind libraries, which is access to information for anyone who needs it. Most people will say that they get into libraries because they love books (or archives because they love “old things”). But the truth is here in America we are privileged to be able to love books. We have them at our disposal because people fought for them to be there for everyone. Anyone going into this profession should understand that behind that oft-quoted love of books is a mission to provide access to information. That is a form of activism in and of itself. When you go into this profession, you’re holding up that sword.

    I will agree with Bryce that there are problems with sexism and soft racial bigotry within the Occupy groups and even the Occupy libraries that I’ve unfortunately experienced firsthand as a volunteer. But I think that’s what makes the OWS libraries even more important, and having them staffed by actual librarians & archivists. We have the opportunity to not just give access here, but to teach and share knowledge through experiences.

    The Occupy libraries, seem to me, to be the best example of nonviolent direct action. An informed public is a democratic public, and by providing access to this information, we’re arming our public with the tools they need to fight their battles against the 1% or whoever else.


    • Stacie, I’m glad you reiterated this–I’ve heard a lot of people raise concerns about sexism and bigotry within the movement. I feel fortunate to have watched the Occupy Tallahassee movement evolve, even though there is no Occupy library here and the occupation is not 24/7 yet, people are very active and involved. My favorite thing about our occupy is that you meet up with people from all races, genders, backgrounds, and walks of life, and from what I can see people are connecting and getting along. I’m sure there is still inequality present, but it seems like there is way less here than it sounds like there has been elsewhere. You bring up an awesome point for why our role as librarians is so useful here though–we have the chance to help people become informed and (hopefully) recognize that inequality and seek to change it. This raises another question for me–should we as librarians organize ‘library programming’ too? Are we doing this?


  9. This is such a great post… and I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. I have the following to say….
    Ever since I saw heard about the forming of the Occupy Wall Street Library (OWSL), I had an interest to go and see the library for myself. So, last week on a Monday, I hopped on the subway and made my way to The People’s Library, otherwise known as the Occupy Wall Street Library. Circumventing my way down Trinity place, to Zuccotti Park, past the tents, past the spectators and protestors, past the various cameras, I found the library. There were rows of plastic bins filled with books. A bookshelf overflowed with books and binders containing photocopied poems, some famous and others written by protestors. The emerging librarian in me was bewildered at the organization of the books, there was no clear cataloging system for these books, the boxes were marked Fiction, Religion, Classics, History, but having reading the post ( ) by one of the occupy librarians put my concerns to rest. Cataloging of books isn’t the priority, rather it’s the USE of the books. That I can testify to, while there I saw people come by the library and browse, some protestors sat and read, a bulletin board announced authors who would be visiting the library later in the day. OWSL provided protestors a forum to gather, share their ideas, and served as any local library does, to give people information. Which is at the very heart of what I believe is the role of a library.
    What’s most thrilling to me is how protestors have used technology in their favor to relay information to the outside world. Check out this inaugural article ( ) on the role of technology in the Occupy movement, from the Atlantic. Following in the steps of the Arab Spring uprisings and the demonstrator’s use of web tools, demonstrators from the Occupy movement with their cameras, cell phones, videos,blogs, tweets, posts, etc., have given me and those who aren’t camping out in tents the ability to feel as if we are right there with them IN REAL TIME. That’s something that’s never occurred with any movement until now. The amount of information that’s being unleashed onto the web is enormous, and to think that before this to see images, footage, or personal accounts from protests one would have to wait until it was covered by the media or printed in a newspaper.


    • Thanks for sharing these resources, Teresa. I’m writing a paper right now on how we could study the Arab Spring and Occupy’s social media using different Information Studies paradigms, and that Atlantic piece will be a great resource!


  10. Well, most of the things I’ve wanted to say have already been covered, but I just thought that I would like to add that while I have increasingly conflicted feelings about the Occupy movemant as a whole (in part because it is so modular and community based that the groups in different cities seem to me likely to end up working at cross purposes to one another)…the existance of activist libraries on this basis was inspiring to me. While I can see things from the perspective of the authorities (while nonetheless thinking they’re obviously wrong), frankly the takedown on the library – and the general strategy behind what appear to be nationally coordianted mass evictions – is just enraging.

    I don’t know if this movement will actually get anywhere, and I’m inclined to cynicism usually, but the willingness of people to recognize the importance of building informational foundations for all kind of activities gives me hope anyway.


    • I believe that the Occupy libraries have helped re-position the argument for libraries and the value of truly public libraries.
      In 6 short months, Multnomah County Library will hopefully be asking county taxpayers to fund an independent library district to allow us to continue to provide long-term access at our current levels (we are one of the most utilized systems in the nation – second only to NYPL in total circulation).

      3 months ago, the debate over funding public libraries seemed to be limited by the language of neo-liberal economic calculations (“Does it pay for itself?”) Occupy has shifted the frame of this argument and has a lot of passionate people demanding public services rather than begging for them. Obviously, the state continues to ignore these demands. But we’re barely a month in. This will take time but I’m far more optimistic than I am pessimistic.


  11. Thank you all for sharing your stories and thoughts – very interesting and engaging (and of course fraught with great resources and tips). What I find so fantastic and fascinating about OWS generally, for better or worse, is all of the various points of view being voiced. OWSL seems to be highlighting at least the public’s need and desire for true public space and access to a diverse mix of information.
    We are all aware this struggle has been more quietly raging for some time. I wasn’t aware of how long a history and precedent for the library-as-conerstone-to-progressive-movement actually has until watching this great video by Matthew Battles (author of “Library: An Unquiet History”).

    Apparently we have the Chartists to thank for a great deal but I thought it was yet another interesting perspective on what we are seeing today.
    Keep fighting the good fight everyone!


    • Thanks for sharing this link, Joanna! I have been excited to see the OWS Library and other Occupy libraries in part because of these reasons. As someone who studies American library history, it doesn’t surprise me that a library would be constructed as a part of the movement or that librarians would be involved.
      When public libraries started becoming a part of our lives (late 19th-early 20th centuries) they were more focused on providing ‘good books’ to help shape people in specific ways–pleasure books were a no-no, and non-fiction, reference, self-improvement, etc. were pushed. That being said, they were also a part of the Progressive movement (like Battles says) and were seen as a way to help improve society. That continued through WWI (and if you want to know more about that era, I can go on for *hours*). Even though libraries did things we would disagree with now (i.e. censorship) they were still actively engaged in their communities and in the larger context of things by participating in the war effort. Once the Library Bill of Rights was adopted in the 1930s, libraries shifted from ‘just’ being vibrant community centers to championing free access and becoming more attuned to patrons’ needs and wants. Librarians and libraries have had a long tradition of engaging with important issues and making their buildings inclusive spaces–it’s one of the reasons I wanted to join this field and one of the reasons I love talking with LIS folk, even when we disagree we tend to be respectful and encouraging because we are accustomed to operating in spaces where that is the norm.
      Sorry for the ridiculously long rant, but library history gets me really excited! Thanks again for your comment!


      • Not a rant when you have such a sympathetic audience!
        Your passion for the subject is evident and like you I found LIS because of issues/events like this and the role of the field within them. (I might have teared up a little looking at pictures of the men bodily protecting the Egyptian National Museum).
        Your love of history is admirable and appreciated. I must confess that my eyes usually glaze over a little with traditional history (dates and places) but I love hearing stories well told and then seeing the tendrils of years past reaching to today.
        Maybe the police/government/powers-that-be should read some of the history (and fiction) books they are trashing from the People’s Library. They might realize that they are only fanning the flames of dissent and empowerment rather than putting them out. I mean, ask a librarian what the surest way to popularize a book is (esp with youth)? Showcase it as banned. Try to censor it.
        Sometimes (too often perhaps) isn’t until you actively try to take them away that people appreciate the things that are important to them.
        Oh, and completely agreed on seeing respectful dialogue. Even in the OWSL there was/is such a great diversity of material. At least people are talking!


  12. Hi Dan, Thanks for sharing the link to your post. You obviously have very strong opinions concerning the politics behind this movement, and ALA. As Julia noted in the text of the original post the purpose for us writing about this topic was not to deal with the political background or implications of the Occupy movement, but specifically to express our own “important perspectives to add to the conversation.” Advocacy for libraries and access to information are core principles behind librarianship, and learning to be articulate about them is foundational for the continued future of our profession. As students, and working librarians, we thought it important to take this opportunity to engage with these issues and the dissolution of the People’s Library offered a perfect platform for our discussion, which has been fruitful and enlightening as seen in the comments on this post.

    I’d say that some of us, myself especially, would agree with your proposal to #occupyALA. It is our responsibility to be advocates and fight for our ideas and beliefs concerning the good of the library for the local community, and doing so within or without our professional organization is laudable. While our methods may differ, I hope we can agree that change and adaptation is necessary (in society, our organization, library schools, the government, etc), and on that point we are all members of the Occupy movement.

    Thanks for the comment,

    Micah Vandegrift


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