Annoyed Librarian
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What is an American Library?

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.

The topic was covered in both the Library Journal and American Libraries, and though both accounts focus exclusively on the librarian perspective, the AL piece is as much propaganda as news.

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.



  1. I’m confused. What exactly is the definition of a library? I was under the impression it was a place that made books and other materials available to the public for reading and reference. If books aren’t properly catalogued, or if the library is “temporary, transient,” that makes it not a library?

    Also, you mentioned irreplaceable materials shouldn’t have been left in the park. The library was in the park. How else could those materials be made available to library users? Keeping them under glass somewhere would preserve them but also make them sort of useless.

    • I think it was a comment about just leaving the books there when the park was evacuated- not about NOT having them in the park in the first place.

      I might be wrong, but the point was if these materials were precious and important to the community, why were they abandoned instead of moved to a safe place.

    • As it so often does, the ALA has grabbed onto the coat tails of something truly important and used libraries as a trope to promote itself. This press release, like so many of its other materials, puts forth undefined and unsubstantiated claims. It does not define “irreplaceable materials” or list what they were. It also doesn’t even work as an advocacy piece because it does nothing to educate the public about the role of libraries (as contrasted with archives and museums) in preserving such materials.

      Reports & info I’ve seen about the OWS libraries (NYT – Occupying Boston and Beyond, With Tent Libraries for All, Tactical Utopia by Matthew Battles, for example) and the inventory on LibraryThing all refer to materials that are abundant and readily available.

  2. “The “People’s Library” is symbolic, but not real or necessary as a library.”

    I think you got to the source of all the hullabaloo over the OWS library with that sentence. The image of police coming in and clearing out a bunch of ratty paperbacks is like catnip for the OIF. Now they have an actual example of government censorship (as they define it, at least) they can point to instead of worrying about some high school out in Podunk U.S.A. removing Vonnegut from their curriculum.

    It’s a pity the ALA doesn’t get this worked up over the budget cuts and library closings in those NYPL libraries. The pervasive attitude that libraries are a convenient line item savings in the municipal budget will do more to destroy American libraries than anything the police did to the OWS “library.”

  3. The symbolism of this act is important. Many times in history an attack on a groups books and intellectual content is a precursor of violence directed on that group. This time it happened in conjunction. I know this is not a new phenomenon, but I thought it was worth mentioning. I also think it is interesting that in this age of distributed electronic information, the destruction of print materials still takes place. It seems the psychological need to destroy a groups information is as fresh as ever.

  4. personally, I still get annoyed when people refer to American government as a democracy. It is not. It is a republic. At best, you could call it a representative democracy (which it still isn’t). You’d think the current ALA president would know that….what with all the library information available to her…..

    • Personally, I get annoyed when people seem to think that republic and democracy are orthogonal and mutually exclusive. Our form of government is a democratic republic, one of several possible types of democracies, and one of several different types of republics. Try a dictionary; most libraries have ’em.

    • Actually, well… semantically, a democratic republic is not a type of democracy. It is a type of republic. Democratic is used as an adjective here. One would not call a pressed ham a type of press. That is because it is not. (ok, I’m joking.)

      I think the real point to be made is we are NOT a direct democracy. This is because direct democracy leads, almost immediately, to tyranny of the majority. We are a republic of laws and elected officials. We are a democratic republic because the people’s voice is heard through the people they elect to enact, enforce and defend these laws.

    • You sure wouldn’t want to allow tyranny by the majority – that ruins the perfectly good plutocracy we’ve going in the U. S. now.

    • Tyranny of the majority is what leads to institutionalized racism, sexism, and discrimination against any group that is small enough to be marginalized by the will of the 51%. Smokers, drinker, drug users, the tattooed, the obese, the gingers, the single mothers, the readers, etc. Whatever the minority is ruled by the mob in direct democracy.

    • Gotta love it when librarians start trying to re-write dictionaries in order to make a political statement.

    • According to the CIA World Factbook – a definitive source on this subject – the United States of America is a “Constitution-based federal republic; strong democratic tradition.” I would think you would know that, what with all the library information available to you.

    • democracy
      Webster’s New College Dictionary, 4th ed.
      A democracy is a form of government in which the people rule, either directly or through elected representatives. (noun). An example of democracy is the type of government in the United States.

      The CIA factbook is a political document not a dictionary. With the library information available to you, I’d think you would know that.

  5. Once again, the ALA has made a lemon out of lemonade.

    The public is finally coming to grips with the myriad stressors on basic freedom and opportunity in this country. We’re beginning the messy process of charting a better way through open assembly, free speech & understanding divergent needs & points of view. As the OWS movement (or some other) matures, it will help with the hard work of setting national priorities and I wouldn’t be surprised if this involves many of the principles our nation was founded upon.

    How I wish our libraries would have added value by foregrounding relevant information and hosting programs to bring people together for:
    * dialogue and fact-checking
    * making connections between the historic and contemporary context for this particular national dialogue
    * the juxtaposition of relevant national, state and local information around free speech and open assembly
    * and (perhaps most importantly) being with others in the community with different circumstances and viewpoints. For me, this is the transcendent value of the OWS movement and our libraries.

    This may have been happening, though it didn’t at ones my area and notice of this type of activity elsewhere did not come across my library surveillance radar. (If anyone knows of instances of participatory librarianship relative to OWS, please let me know.)

    And, if I was going to take the unfortunate step of using OWS to directly promote libraries, I certainly wouldn’t have zeroed in on the destruction of physical materials that are abundant and freely available on the internet, in libraries or for sale thru used booksellers for under a dollar. Instead, I might have noted how the occupiers chose to create 3-4 things to sustain themselves: tents for protection against the elements, kitchens to provide basic nutrition, and libraries to connect them with ideas, inspiration and comfort.

  6. Doesn’t library thing provide a record of what books were there and when? Are we afraid there are cribbed notes in the books that will provide greater insight?

    Also, there are no records to show which books were more popular, right? So that a copy of Atlas Shrugged might sit in it’s assigned bin while Motorcycle Diaries circulated hundreds of times? Wouldn’t this data provide a much better representation of what was (is?) going on?

  7. I think the “irreplaceable materials” were zines and such – so yes, they really can’t be replaced. On the other hand, I agree: why didn’t the library take steps to protect the few irreplaceable materials?

  8. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    Maybe the ALA is upset because they just lost a potential dues paying member.

  9. All the stories that I have read of OWS and the library destruction are blurring together so I’m not able to source it right now, but I know that I read an account of a librarian strapping what were felt to be important documents to her body before assisting some protesters that had been pepper sprayed. So from that account, no, the materials were not just abandoned.
    If you are going to Mid-Winter, perhaps you can ask them yourselves…

  10. Look what Larry Romans just wrote to the ALA Council distro:

    Some ALA members and councilors see the Occupy Wall Street folks as “good guys” and the Cuban “librarians” as “bad guys.” However, I don’t see how ALA can support a resolution decrying what happened to the Occupy “library” if we want to continue to oppose recognizing the Cuban “libraries.”

    When is a library a library? If our definition of a library includes the Occupy “library,” how does it not include the Cuban “libraries”? Unless we want to change our views on the Cuban “libraries,” I don’t think we can support the Occupy “library” resolution.

  11. While the ALA Council works on ways to support the OWS “library,” the Occupy Bangor trespassers encampment has finally been kicked off library property:

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