Last week there was a lot of excitement in the library world as the books of the so-called “People’s Library” at the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York were confiscated and partly destroyed by the police.
Besides the propaganda, the ALA also issued a press release: ALA alarmed at seizure of Occupy Wall Street library, loss of irreplaceable material. The title makes it sound like some precious archive was destroyed, instead of a bunch of ordinary books.
If the People’s Library really included “irreplaceable records and material related to the occupation movement and the temporary community that it represented” as claimed, then the people running the library should have done more to protect them than leaving them in a park. No real library would do that.
The ALA’s rationale is their “longstanding policy”:
The American Library Association deplores the destruction of libraries, library collections and property, and the disruption of the educational purpose by that act, whether it be done by individuals or groups of individuals and whether it be in the name of honest dissent, the desire to control or limit thought or ideas, or for any other purpose.
Normally, we would think the ALA statement refers to public, academic, school, and special libraries, the kind of places people mean when they say things like, “I’m going to the library.” Or else it means public libraries exclusively, as in many other ALA statements.
In fact, one of the reasons given by various ALA Councilors when they refused to consider resolutions about Cuban dissidents jailed for running libraries from their homes several years ago was that they weren’t really libraries and the people running them weren’t really librarians. (More on this in a moment, but take a look at the Friends of Cuban Libraries site to get some idea of what was going on in 2006).
The current ALA President made a curious statement: “The dissolution of a library is unacceptable. Libraries serve as the cornerstone of our democracy and must be safeguarded. An informed public constitutes the very foundation of a democracy, and libraries ensure that everyone has free access to information.”
It’s not curious that she made a statement like this, but that she made the statement in reference to the OWS library. Whatever its purpose or usefulness, the OWS library wasn’t a public library and it wasn’t a cornerstone of democracy and it wasn’t necessary to ensure that everyone has access to free information.
A collection of books in boxes in a park called a “People’s Library” is hardly the same thing as a public library. The “People’s Library” was stocked and managed by volunteers. It belonged to no one and suffered the tragedy of the commons. If public libraries managed their collections the way this one was managed, they would be grossly irresponsible.
A response from Safe Libraries Guy about this gets it partly right and partly wrong. His reading of the American Libraries article focused on this sentence about one of the volunteers: “He was also quick to point out that, while he had helped to build and maintain the collection knowing full well that the park would probably be cleared eventually, the manner in which it was done hit him hard.”
Everyone knew it would eventually be cleared. It wasn’t a library in any public sense of the word. It was a collection of books in a park to entertain or inform a group of transient protesters. There was never a plan for preservation or permanence. Even the circulation policy encouraged the dissolution of the library.
On the other hand, he also brings up the comparison between the ALA treatment of the OWS library and the way they ignored the situation in Cuba. I’m willing to believe that a handful of radical librarians sympathetic to Cuban communism would ignore evidence of repression because they like Cuban communism more than intellectual freedom, but the fact remains that unless the collection of books is at Guantanamo, libraries in Cuba aren’t American libraries either.
The response to the dissolution of the OWS library is no business of the ALA, because that library isn’t really an “American library.” There’s a draft of a potential ALA resolution being discussed on the ALA Council listserv that basically repeats the ALA press release implying the OWS library was a cornerstone of democracy necessary for free access to information.
Unless every collection of books in the country can be considered an “American library” within the purview of the ALA, then the ALA should either shut up about this collection of books or change their rationale for responding.
Right now, the ALA response makes it sound like the “People’s Library” is a public library, a cornerstone of democracy necessary for information access. Poppycock.
This isn’t to say that I approve of the “People’s Library” being confiscated and partly destroyed. Regardless of what one thinks about the sometimes vague protests of the OWS movement, some of the police actions around the country have a whiff of fascism about them. Police in riot gear beating, shoving, and pepper-spraying non-violent protesters doesn’t bode well for democracy.
Storming in and throwing away books or claiming that garbage bags protecting books from the rain are illegal “tarps” make the police look like ignorant thugs, but that’s a different issue. The “People’s Library” is symbolic, but not real or necessary as a library.
There are plenty of actual public libraries in New York that are cornerstones of democracy. If the ALA should be defending libraries in NYC, those are the libraries to defend, not some temporary, transient library destined for destruction.
The right to peacefully assemble to petition the government is a cornerstone of democracy. Public libraries provide access to information to citizens of a democratic society. A bunch of books in a park is a bunch of books in a park. Destroying them might be symbolic of the sort of society we are becoming, but to equate it to the destruction of actual public libraries is ridiculous.