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Oct 15
OccupyWallStreet protest movement calls on librarians to help build the People's Library

By Michael Kelley Oct 5, 2011

As the OccupyWallStreet protest movement has held firm and spread since its inception September 17, the northeast corner of Zuccotti Park (renamed Liberty Plaza by the protesters) in lower Manhattan has become the home for the budding revolution's People's Library.

The library already has a website, which proclaims that "information is liberation," and this morning, October 5, a "call for librarians" went out.

"We need help building our catalog and writing our history. Our readers are enthusiastic and some of them need help finding the right book," the post reads. "The right book for the right reader is fundamental to successful librarianship, so we need public services folks to come out and conduct reference interviews with people and help them find 'their' book."

One librarian who responded even before the call went out is Mandy Henk, an access services librarian and assistant professor at the Roy O. West Library at DePauw University in Indiana. She made the 12-hour drive to New York last week to volunteer after seeing a posterboard sign with a list of things the library needed, including librarians.

"If these brave young people (and not so young people) were asking for members of my profession to come and help build and maintain a library, how could I refuse?" Henk said. "If my professional skills could do some good for people sleeping outside in the cold and rain to affect the kind of change I want to see, why wouldn't I go? What excuse did I have?" she said.

Protesters happy to see a library
The library is run by volunteers like Henk and stocked through donations which are arriving at the clip of about 30-50 books a day, according to Michael Oman-Reagan, another volunteer who built the library's website and is an anthropology graduate student and a CUNY employee. He said people were thankful for and excited about the library.

"Everyone who visits for the first time is thrilled to see we have a library, they walk up with a big smile and say "this is so cool!" Oman-Reagan said. "Sometimes folks think we're selling the books, and then I explain that anyone is welcome to check out books, and that it's an honor system, and they often seem amazed," he said.

The library's website has had nearly 3000 hits since it went live Sunday.

library2(SideBox)
A patron browses at the People's Library.

The first occupywallstreet librarian was Betsy Fagin, who began the process of organizing the collection, which was originally housed in cardboard boxes under a tarp (Fagin was an ALA Spectrum Scholar at the University of Maryland where she received an MLS in 2004). But the recent rainy weather in New York quickly made clear that a better system was needed for outdoor storage. There are now about 15 plastic boxes which each hold about 30 books. There are also several boxes of graphic novels, two boxes of zines and pamphlets, some DVDs, and a box of magazines.

The books are divided into fiction and non-fiction, with the latter organized into categories such as labor, economics, anthropology, ecology, international relations, religion, and music.

"It is split pretty evenly between fiction and non-fiction. The fiction section is solid, with authors such as Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Dickens, and Douglas Adams," said Jaime Taylor, an art librarian from Brooklyn. "Non-fiction is all over the board, but very strong in politics, economics and labor, and history, and the women's studies section has a whole crate. Poetry is also very popular, which is not something many public libraries can say," she said.

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is popular
The library staff has to handle a wide variety of questions from patrons.

"People were asking reference questions, browsing for books, offering to help," Henk said. "The atmosphere was exciting and intellectually lively. I've never worked in a library with so many enthusiastic readers," she said.

"A lot of people ask for directions and are looking for particular materials, information on what to do if arrested, copies of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, or a copy of the Occupy Wall Street Journal. I also get a lot of questions about what the purpose of the protest is," Oman-Reagan said.

Zinn's book is the most popular item, according to the website, and difficult to keep in stock since so many people want to read it.

"Offering people the opportunity to explore the world themselves through the written word is why I became a librarian," Henk said. "Connecting readers to writers is what I do."

Patrons can sign out a book or they can keep a book if they choose, but they are strongly encouraged to return them. If a book is marked "processed," meaning it is in the incipient catalog, and the patron intends to keep it, they are asked to write the book's title, author, and ISBN number on the "Signed Out Forever" sheet so it can be removed from the catalog.

Books can be traded but are not for sale. There is a "library ground practices" sheet for staff to consult.

"The collection is fairly permeable, as people bring things, borrow things, and return them or don't return them," Taylor said.

A working group of about 15 people make decisions, by consensus, about how best to organize, develop, and promote the library. In addition to working on a catalog, the staff is archiving Occupy Wall Street ephemera, such as publications like the "General Assembly Guide."

"There is a library here because we are here, and knowledge is necessary for survival," Sophia Marisa wrote on the website.

Donations can be sent to:
The UPS Store
Re: Occupy Wall Street/Library Committee
118A Fulton St. #205
New York, NY 10038

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