Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Anarchists @ Your Library

A couple of weeks ago I commented on the poorly thought out criticism of libraries in Oakland by “the Boss.” I thought that while Oakland libraries might lose the financial battle, they wouldn’t lost the intellectual one.

After reading about the pro-library protests in Oakland by an “anti-capitalist initiative” called Bay of Rage, I’m not so sure. Anarchists protesting in the streets won’t save libraries, because anarchists annoy people. It’s enraged folly like this that has nitwits claiming public libraries amount to socialism.

As anti-capitalists in the West tend to be, they are very upset, and would prefer that Oakland cut cops before cutting libraries. Considering the crime in Oakland, maybe there could be some compromise.

However, they do like libraries, because libraries are anti-capitalist, or so it would seem. Andrew Carnegie would be turning in his grave. Maybe he is, for all I know.

In an article comparing libraries to banks, Bay of Rage grabs the reader immediately with this: “Banks and libraries: they both borrow, and they both lend. A bank is like a library for money! And yet in many ways they are exactly opposed.” Huh. I’ve never thought about it that way before. This clears it all up for me. Thank you, anarchists!

Yes, in many ways they are exactly opposed, except they’re not. If libraries were like banks, when you borrowed eight books, you’d have to bring nine back. They’re not exactly opposed because they’re not comparable in the first place.

Besides, the anarchists act like the banks are exploiting the poor, but banks don’t have anything to do with the poor. It’s the check-cashing places and pawn shops that exploit the poor. You have to be at least lower middle class before the banks start exploiting you.

The twopointopians probably wouldn’t like it that the anarchists think “There is something old-fashioned about the library,” but that oldfashionedness has nothing to do with books, and everything to do with “sharing,” since the public library “is a remnant from a time when the economy could support a few pockets of sharing. Neither capital nor its robber barons can afford such old-fashioned nonsense now.”

I’m not quite sure this makes sense, since capital and its robber barons aren’t the main users of public libraries and never were. The first quasi-public libraries in what became the the United States actually were about sharing. The Library Company of Philadelphia, for example, started when Ben Franklin and a bunch of his chums donated their own books to form the company, and shared them amongst themselves.

Others could join by subscription, and such subscription libraries were not too uncommon in the early US, especially in New England. People could still do this.

For all their good, most public libraries are not examples of sharing in that sense. They’re social institutions, like police or sanitation, that serve a public good that can’t be met efficiently through the market.

The anarchists believe “there is something about a library that is also an image from the future, when the community, the city, the world is a collective enterprise.” Since most public libraries aren’t a collective enterprise in this sense, then good luck with that.

In Anarchy in the Library, the anarchists claim that “Knowledge and information should be accessible to all, for free, and that ideas are not the private property of the elite or even those who created the idea.” That sounds good to me, and libraries among other institutions try to make this somewhat possible.

However, the principle breaks down when it’s expanded, when it becomes confused with a “principle that Anarchists wish to develop in all areas of social life.”

They claim they “want to make more parts of society governed under similar principles as the library.  The necessities of life, like food and shelter, are not the private property of the few but the products of the labors of society as a whole. They belong to no one; they belong to everyone.” which is why they “desire the public libraries to remain open and for their principles to expand beyond information sharing and into other parts of social life. There indeed is Anarchy in the Library.”

Though I hate to through a wrench into the anarchists’ anarchical works, the principle that everything belongs to everyone as a whole has never been the principle of public libraries, at least not in the U.S. People tax themselves to provide books. If people taxed themselves to provide everything, there wouldn’t be any taxes to collect.

I know the anarchists didn’t say that everything belongs to everyone, though they implied it, but that the necessities of life belong to everyone. But what does this mean in practice?

In practice, it’s impossible to define what these would. be. Let’s say that food, shelter, clothing, and information/education or necessities of life. Homeless shelters, food kitchens, and public schools are like libraries for the necessities of life. Would setting up more of these be enough for the anarchists?

Knowing how anarchists think, they would argue that such minimal fare is unfair when the rich get so much more, but wealth and the excesses it brings are not necessities of life.

Outside of a few very expensive urban areas, the necessities of life are quite affordable. Thanks to third world sweatshops, clothing is cheap! Food is pretty cheap, too, until you start buying name brand packaged food, which usually isn’t very good for you anyway. Live somewhere you can grow your own food or participate in a produce co-op, and it’s even cheaper. Apartments are cheap, especially with roommates.

The anarchists would say you have to have a job first. But there are plenty of jobs around. They don’t pay much, but you don’t need to make much for the necessities of life.

Give up the cable TV, the iPhone, the big house, the most expensive car you can afford, and anything you buy because it’s a fashionable brand you’ve just got to have, and living is actually quite affordable. One might even give up martinis and jazz, though I consider this a step too far.

Then the anarchists would start complaining about relative poverty, since the goal is to eliminate free markets rather than to make sure people are fed and housed, and that’s when anarchism starts to break down. Outside of some kind of enforced equality and the prevention of capitalist acts between consenting adults, anarchism doesn’t work because almost nobody wants it. A handful of radicals and a few college students are hardly representative of the masses.

And so we have the battling extremes in Oakland: “The Boss,” with his naive faith in pure free markets and his belief that any public goods are always the result of a corrupt government rather than an attempt to provide public goods the market can’t provide; and Bay of Rage, with their naive faith that without markets and banks the world would become a collective and everyone would live in a land of plenty.

These kinds of arguments are soooo 1930s. Maybe we’ll need another depression where social services are nonexistent and shantytowns spring up around major cities for people like the “Boss” to wake up, or maybe we’ll need yet another collective and oppressive state to spring up to convince the anarchists that you can’t have one without the other.

Meanwhile, maybe reasonable heads will prevail, and the Oakland middle class can have some leisure reading and videos while providing at least the opportunity for those who really can’t afford books to have access to them.



  1. ElderLibrarian says:

    It’s so sweet and charming that our local tea partiers/free market fans/ Ayn Rand fans are using our libraries as a meeting place and to find their favorite political authors. It seems that “The Boss” types and the anarchists have somehow merged and have mutated. It’s good to be loved by so many in the community.

  2. First, those people are NOT anarchists. Not in the slightest. Their ignorance shows not only in their poor word choice (communist or socialist- if they concede that the state is made up of the people and the people, as a whole, would own the means of production.

    It really bothers me that this is they use this and people just go along with it thinking this is what anarchy is.

    Also @elder, I don’t think this has anything to to with tea partiers/free market fans/ Ayn Rand fans. This has to do with stupid people who think that libraries could/would exist in the absence of State and private wealth. They don’t even think about the creators of the objects in the library.

  3. ” They’re social institutions, like police or sanitation, that serve a public good that can’t be met efficiently through the market.”

    I have to completely disagree with this statement. What is it that public libraries do that can’t be met efficiently through the market? You don’t think this is one of the reasons libraries are in trouble?

    As for public libraries being socialism- no, by definition this is not so. However, it is undoubtedly collectivist. The whole pays for the entertainment/education (HA!) of the few. Granted, this is typically hyperlocal, which I’m cool with, it is still a way to force someone to pay for someone else’s access to facebook/Alex Cross/Puppet Show.

  4. Bay of Rage isn’t an anarchist organization. “Anarchist” was the label applied to them by the media. But their website describes them as “anticapitalist,” not anarchist.

    Some *members* of the group may be anarchists, to varying degrees of success, but the statement that the group itself is is a factual error.

  5. Should have added—I’m an Oakland librarian, and attended their rally after the library closed.

  6. Annoyed Librarian says:

    “What is it that public libraries do that can’t be met efficiently through the market?”

    Providing poor children with an ample selection of books? Providing the poor in general with Internet access they possibly can’t afford, but need to look for jobs? Continuing education resources? There are all sorts of things libraries do that can’t be met efficiently through pure free markets alone.

  7. Way Barra says:

    “There are all sorts of things libraries do that can’t be met efficiently through pure free markets alone.”

    Sorry, AL, but any so-called “failures” of the Free Market are entirely due to the Market not being Free enough. Under the correct conditions, the Free Market will usher in an unprecedented golden age of peace and prosperity. The fact that those conditions have never even come close to existing anywhere on Earth throughout recorded history is irrelevant.

  8. Annoyed Librarian says:

    Ha! That’s very amusing, Way Barra. I’m assuming you’re joking, of course, since you’re claiming that something you admit has never existed would lead to something else unlikely and unprovable. Acts of faith are sometimes beautiful things, but always irrational beliefs. Thanks for making the point so well.

  9. Way Barra says:

    Ain’t it grand? If my theory works, great! If not, it’s because you didn’t follow it well enough. Anarcho-capitalism means never having to say you’re sorry.

  10. Tolstoy's daughter says:

    Lol, u mad?

    Everybody in Oakland loves the anarchists. (Well, except the cops, politicians, reporters and rich people, but most of them don’t actually live in Oakland.) Everywhere they go the anarchists are greeted with cheers and hugs. They serve free food and hook people up with free housing. They’ll give you their last dollar, they’ll fix your bike, they plant gardens in vacant lots, and they make the best vegan desserts ever. Anarchists fight for the people!

    Their political analysis is beautiful in it’s simplicity: Stop destroying the Earth. Stop killing, oppressing, and exploiting people. Share everything with everybody. Never compromise.

    Once, at an Oscar Grant protest, a reporter asked a young man from East Oakland what he thought of them. His response: “I never heard of no anarchist killing black folks!”

  11. SuziLibrarian says:

    “But there are plenty of jobs around.”

    Really, AL? Why are there so many people clogging up the public computers looking for a job–any job–at the library where I work?

    “They don’t pay much, but you don’t need to make much for the necessities of life…Give up the cable TV, the iPhone, the big house, the most expensive car you can afford, and anything you buy because it’s a fashionable brand you’ve just got to have, and living is actually quite affordable.”

    Really, AL? Have you done the math on that one? Minimum wage won’t cover half a month at a $600/month roach infested apartment complex around here if you also want luxuries like electricity and food.

    Brrr…sure is cold in your world.

  12. I see. But what is your agenda, exactly, angry librarian? Besides snark? We all have an agenda, and its probably a good thing that some of us are honest (or self aware) enough to admit it. Should we maintain the status quo for as long as possible? Let the middle class lead a “leisurely” life in Oakland? Until they can’t, I suppose. Ignore the fact that current events (the current crisis) is fairly hard evidence that “managing” capitalism may not be an option for much longer? And where do you think all of that crime comes from?

  13. It sounds like your library doesn’t stock any books on anarchism. Or banks. You shouldn’t presume to “know what anarchists think,” or what they might say- particularly in an article where you suggest personal beliefs that education is a necessity of life, participating in co-ops provides you with cheap, healthy food and that communal living environments are a positive thing- your beliefs may not be as far from the folks you’re making fun of as you think.

    It’s also troubling you seem to think anarchists want to force equality through taxation. Do yourself a favor and learn to distinguish between ideologies, cultures, and bumper stickers.

  14. Lapu Lapu says:

    The article is riddled with over presumptuous and over simplified statements like “Anarchists protesting in the streets won’t save libraries, because anarchists annoy people. ” Anarchists never claimed that protesting would save libraries. It just a means to an end. Sitting passively in city hall won’t save the libraries either, nor will writing half baked analysis critiquing one of the only community groups organizing around the issue just because they are anarchists. The authors argument is a nicely dressed ad hominem. The section that states “Though I hate to through a wrench into the anarchists’ anarchical works, the principle that everything belongs to everyone as a whole has never been the principle of public libraries” That seems obvious enough, but it doesn’t take much time or sophistication to advance the level of abstraction from the PRINCIPLES of the public library as an institution for sharing knowledge in the form of books, to the principles of sharing other socially necessary items like food, shelter etc. the reasons that these necessary goods are not available to the general public is because they have become the private property of a small section of society. The oversimplification of the authors argument is necessary in creating a straw man in which to pull apart arguments that are contrived on behalf of her opponent, namely anarchists.

  15. Randal Powell says:

    I think AL is right that what public libraries do can’t be met efficiently through the market. I’m also one of those people who tend to think that government is more or less corrupt. So I guess, when it comes to public libraries, I have to accept that the situation is permanently imperfect.

    I was going to write that people living near colleges and universities with paid membership options could receive very good library service at a reasonable cost. But on further reflection, this option only works on a large level for clean-looking adults. Children, childish adults seeking entertainment, rough looking folks, and communities with no colleges or universities (or stuck up ones that don’t have paid membership options) need public libraries. At the very least, the children need to read and the schools…well, never mind.

    Perhaps, just over the horizon, there is a Utopian Technocracy with flying cars and an amazing virtual library where people can purchase unlimited access to all of the world’s knowledge for a few bucks a year. When that day comes, I will be having too much fun to care about public libraries.

  16. former OPL employee says:

    This article makes the Bay of Rage statement about libraries sound like a longer and more misguided document than it is. Follow the link: it’s only three paragraphs long and Annoyed Librarian quotes virtually every word. It is also a willful misunderstanding of the short screed’s purpose and content, i.e. that comment about robber barons referred to them not as visitors to but as financial backers of public libraries.

    Annoyed Librarian actually agrees with many of the points made in “Anarchy in the Library” and that appears to freak her out and provoke her nitpicking. Annoyed Librarian thinks that anarchists annoy everybody so they’re not the allies she wants public libraries to have during the austerity cuts. This reaction is very typical and usually indicates that the person can’t admit that their job/social position is slipping across the line from “safely middle class professional” to “increasingly precarious because audaciously not market-driven/oriented.” Talk to some adjunct university professors and roving nurses. Actually, better idea, talk to the various activists organizing to defend _your_ library, learn from each other, and come up with a way to work together.

    I am sympathetic that AL does not want public libraries to become the next issue around which both the far right and far left take extreme and intractable positions. It also appears that crankypants just wants to be left alone. But I could take as much issue with the three paragraphs of over-privileged “let them give up martinis” nonsense plonked into the middle of her statement as she takes with Bay of Rage. But I don’t expect rants to provide lucid in-depth analysis on every point. I suggest that AL actually engage with all the library’s allies because the library needs them. What the anarchists have admitted that she hasn’t is that many public library systems are under attack and somebody needs to “stand up, fight back.”

  17. “I suggest that AL actually engage with all the library’s allies because the library needs them.”


  18. I believe that job finding resources and internet and book access have been and can be met by the market and people with charitable intentions. Also, I don’t think that providing these at little to NO cost for those that use them is actually a public service or a public good. On some level, I think it might be harmful.

    That being said, public schools and junior colleges, not to mention work force commissions and unemployment offices, meet most of these needs already. If a void was created by removing the libraries, I think that the market could easily fill them with charitable endeavors or even low cost, for profit enterprises.

    Now, what “need” isn’t filled is that of extremely low cost wrestling… oh wait, it is! ON TELEVISION FUNDED BY ADS. So, the need would be on demand, selective entertainment? As long as we’re up front about it. (Also, I’m more than cool with that on a local level, but let’s not fool ourselves).

  19. Jeez Spencer, you really can’t think of any good reason for libraries, can you? You’re like a vegan who works at Burger King.

  20. @Fat Guy,

    Pretty much.


    I think there are uses for libraries. I just think we need to take a realistic look at what they are, how to best provide them, and how to fund/write policy accordingly. Also, I see great uses for academic/school libraries. I see great uses for special libraries. I think library of congress is great- I like archives, too.

    I just see failure, sentimentality and job justification as opposed to true service and honesty.

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