November 7, 2011

A Truly Public Library

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It started small. In the beginning, a man started collecting books in Zucotti Park. Then a woman  started helping him. She tagged the books, organized them, and kept them covered during rain. As the week wore on, books started showing up in droves. A working group was formed. At the end of the second week, the books were divided up into categories and labeled in cardboard boxes, which were replaced with plastic bins a day later. Cataloguing and archiving came next, as did more donations. And despite a partial evacuation and several encounters with the police, the Occupy Wall Street Library has survived.

The People’s Library, as it’s called, is located in the northeast corner of Zucotti Park. According to its website, the library provides “free, open and unrestricted access” to a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and books. Unlike more conventional libraries, the People’s Library doesn’t have a checkout process. You don’t have to sign the book out — or even return it. As the library states on its website, “these books belong to everyone, so we trust everyone to do what they think is most effective with them.”

As one of the new librarians noted on the website, the People’s Library is “possibly the least organized library ever.” It doesn’t use the Dewey Decimal system or any other classification system. Instead, the librarians try to arrange according to how their readers use the library. Since there’s no system in place, the books are arranged according to each librarian’s whim. Although the poster himself has a master’s degree in library science, he claims that his opinions are no more valid than anyone else’s. “We’ve democratized the work, direct-democratized it even, since to become a People’s Librarian you just show up and start sorting and cataloguing,” he wrote.

This democratic trend extends to the literature itself, which now includes The Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology. The anthology, which was edited by Stephen Boyer and Filip Marinovich, came out of the Friday-night poetry assemblies. Boyer decided to start writing the poems and performances down, and the anthology was born. In keeping with the library and movement’s democratic and non-hierarchical roots, the anthology is “open to all poets” and features famous poets alongside high school kids.

Although I disagree with many aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I find the library a a unique approach to the protest. In this library, people can engage in free cultural exchange where traditional rules of classification no longer apply. Although all libraries claim to promote this free cultural exchange, their classification systems often reveal underlying ideology. Not only do these systems lead us to certain books more often than others, but they also skew our understanding of the books. When we pick a book up from the Fantasy section, for example, our expectations are different than if we were to grab the latest book from Literary Fiction. In particular, these categories are especially dangerous when we separate so-called “minority” literature (i.e. African-American, Gay/Lesbian, Feminist, etc.) from the canon. These idealistic aspects aside, there is a logic to classification systems. If those classifications have an underlying ideology, that’s because those are the categories that are most efficient and practical for the people who carry out that ideology. It seems like it would be nearly impossible to find the books you’re looking for in the People’s Library.

The poetry anthology is also a refreshing idea that attempts to blur the boundaries between those in and out of the canon. By placing the casual poet alongside established authors, the anthology asks readers to question our core cultural and aesthetic values. It eliminates hierarchies based on background, education, or social class in a field where these can be determining factors for publication. No matter who you are, the anthology seems to claim, you can be a poet. However, I think an important distinction should be made. While perhaps everyone can be a poet, that doesn’t mean everyone is a poet. It also doesn’t mean that everything anyone writes down is poetry (Unconvinced? See The New York Times article that turns Craigslist Missed Connection from Occupy Wall Street into found poems).

What the library and the anthology do well is to grant access. That doesn’t mean the poetry or libraries that result will improve upon the old, but, then again, there’s nothing wrong with starting small.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg