The People’s Librarians
Occupy Wall Street Library, New York City
Occupy Wall Street Library Blog
Librarian, The People’s Library, Occupy Wall Street; Access Services Librarian, Roy O. West Library, DePauw University, Greencastle, IN
Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Simmons College, Boston, 2003
Sustainable Librarianship (ALA, 2013)
Librarian, The People’s Library, Occupy Wall Street; Poet
MLS, University of Maryland at College Park, 2004; MFA, Creative Writing, Brooklyn College, 2002
Librarian, The People’s Library, Occupy Wall Street; Graduate Student; Senior Technology Specialist, Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY)
MA (in progress), Department of Anthropology, Hunter College, CUNY
Henk/Fagin photos ©2012 Sean McGinty Photography, LLC; Oman-Reagan photo by Gary Catano; OWS photo by Nicole Aptekar
When anthropology grad student and artist Michael Oman-Reagan arrived at the Occupy Wall Street protest in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park on September 23, he spotted some books in cardboard boxes and started sorting them into categories:
Fiction and Nonfiction, then Sociology, Labor, Foreign Affairs…it went on. Later, he hand-wrote a sign: “The People’s Library.” Betsy Fagin (above, middle), a Brooklyn-based poet and former librarian, came on September 24. “I saw the makings of a library,” she said. “One sign listed library needs. It needed librarians. I was happy to answer the call.”
DePauw University librarian Mandy Henk arrived in early October, after driving from Indiana with her husband, dog, and two kids. It was raining, and books were wet. “I found someone from Finance and got permission to buy plastic bins,” she says. Oman-Reagan created a web site, an online catalog, and a process for receiving books. Henk and Fagin posted a call for librarians on October 5. Donations and help poured in.
So these three, and many other protesters, shaped the organic, nonhierarchical, donation-based People’s Library. Other library-builders included New York Public Library librarian Zachary Loeb, University of Pittsburgh associate English professor William Scott, art librarian Jaime Taylor, and artist and writer Steven Boyer (coeditor, The OWS Poetry Anthology), and student Sean C. Allingham (editor, OWS Review), to name a few. What started as a collection of “legal books to address occupiers’ needs,” Fagin says, “emerged to address the community’s interests and concerns—from economic justice and the history of resistance to poetry and nonviolent communication.”
The People’s Library provided a space for readings, lectures, and teach-ins. Popular reads included those by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Allen Ginsberg, Chris Hedges, and Herman Melville (his Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street). A core working group began developing library policy by consensus. The lending rules were simple: “Take whatever you’d like and return it if you can, or pass it on. Just make sure it’s being used.”
Henk brought collection management skills and library connections to the endeavor, while anthropologist Oman-Reagan saw meticulous cataloging as historically important. Good spirit was paramount. “It’s as relevant that I’m a poet as it is that I can code,” says Fagin. “As important that I can read tarot cards—a big draw to the library early on—as it is that I have a background in bookbinding.”
The library had over 5500 books and documents sheltered under tarps when Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the protest cleared on November 15. The materials were taken by the New York Department of Sanitation. Librarians got back only 1300 of them, 500 of which were irreparably damaged. They’re filing suit, represented by civil rights attorney Norman Siegel.
Fagin maintains that the eviction only “gave us the opportunity to regroup and become stronger.” By January 10, the collection had swelled to almost 9000 volumes (see current numbers at www.librarything.com/catalog/OWSLibrary), temporarily housed in a storage area of the United Federation of Teachers building near Zuccotti Park. The group is deploying “mobile libraries” to protests, churches, farms, and other places where protesters are staying, says Fagin, carrying books in shopping carts or backpacks if needed. A search is on for a permanent library space, and organizers are working toward partnerships with bookstores and a consortium of Occupy libraries. Eight libraries were on board in early January.
“No matter the weather, the eviction threats, the trashing of our library by the Bloomberg administration—we continue,” says Oman-Reagan. “And the library continues.”