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'Books Are Speech': Why the OWS Library's Destruction Is So Upsetting

For Occupy Wall Street supporters, crushing a library felt like crushing the collective imagination.

I heard the noise as soon as I stepped from the train onto the subway platform at the Chambers Street stop Thursday—first muffled, then deafening: “We are the 99 percent!” Behind a row of police, some in riot gear, an estimated 32,000 protesters spilled toward Foley Square and the Brooklyn Bridge. Taking in the immense crowd, I had a thought: So much for finding the People’s Library in this melee.

A week ago, a visit to the 5,000-volume library established by Occupy Wall Street required simply showing up at Zuccotti Park and finding the neat, well-organized tent (donated by Patti Smith) labeled “Library.” Mandy Henk, a 32-year-old librarian who works for DePauw University and volunteered for the Occupy Wall Street library, describes the People’s Library as “a friendly and welcoming community space” that “provided both intellectual stimulation and entertainment for the people in Liberty Plaza.” Occupiers built the library entirely by donations, created an online catalog for ease of use, started a blog, and updated users through a Twitter feed. Then, early Tuesday morning, the librarians watched their hard work disappear, as New York police razed the occupation, throwing thousands of books (along with a handful of computers kept by the library) into what looked like dump trucks.

Amid the general outrage at Mayor Bloomberg for ordering a surprise raid under the cover of darkness, the anger over the books was particularly acute. Few things symbolize the repression of free speech like the destruction of books, and the mental image of cops tossing piles of books into what appeared to be dumpsters called into question Bloomberg’s assertion that he was merely interested in a clean park. Late Tuesday afternoon, the mayor’s office apparently realized that the image of Bloomberg-as-book-destroyer wouldn’t go over well, so his staff tweeted a picture showing some of the Occupy Wall Street books in a sanitation storage unit, safe and ready to be retrieved by librarians. Unfortunately, librarians are reporting that thousands of books are still missing, and that the library’s computers were destroyed.

Meanwhile, many media outlets were closely covering the library’s destruction. Salman Rushdie denounced the mayor for the move, and the American Library Association came out in support of the People’s Library. John Hodgman broke character on The Rachel Maddow Show to say that dumping the library made his heart hurt. A Twitter hashtag, #BloombergBibliocide, was created to protest on behalf of the library.

To some, such intense interest in a library seems overblown. The library is a small fraction of the movement, and it may seem callous to worry so much about replaceable items when live people are being arrested and roughed up by the police. But the truth is that books matter. “No book ever pushed a cop," says writer and journalist Jeff Sharlet, who started a group called Occupy Writers to support the movement. "Books are speech. Bloomberg has, in effect, stumbled his way into a war on books. So far in history, nobody's ever won that war for good.”

Sharlet says that a library contains a magic known to every bookworm who gets excited at the smell of bound paper. Libraries contain “[t]he world, the universe, the physical embodiment of a collective imagination even bigger than your own. That's a lot more exciting than the Tobin Tax.” In other words, crushing a library feels like crushing our collective imagination, a particularly poignant symbol for a protest mourning the American dream.

A couple weeks before the eviction, I lugged a canvas bag full of books to Zuccotti Park and donated them in response to a call on liberal social networks for more feminist discourse at Occupy Wall Street. I had more tomes on feminism than I could reliably store in a Brooklyn apartment anyway, so I handed over a radical feminist reader, a review of feminist literature, a copy of my own latest book, and books by feminists like Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Ellen Willis, and Stephanie Coontz. Picturing these books I had read and enjoyed—and one I wrote!—being tossed in a heap like apple peels and rusted cans caused me pain. I showed up on Tuesday night and redonated the one book I had multiple copies of: my own. Unsurprisingly, many other people had a similar idea—the Occupy Wall Street librarians were sitting on a bench next to a growing pile of newly donated books, furiously adding the ISBNs to the digital library with an iPhone.

I did manage to find the People’s Library in Foley Square two nights later; like proper stewards of knowledge, the librarians had set themselves apart from the crowd so they could be found easily. Because of their nomad status, the librarians had only as many books as they could carry, piled into laundry carts decorated with handmade signs that said “The People’s Library.” Librarian Jaime Taylor explained to me how the remains of the library were scattered across the city—some stashed in protesters’ homes and workplaces, some sitting in a general storage area. The librarians take turns wheeling around small piles of books, which serve as a reminder of what happened to the library, as well as the power of ideas. The arched tent welcoming the bored and the knowledge-seekers no longer exists in the real world. Fittingly, its memory will persist primarily through the written word.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user hukdunshur.

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