LIBERTY SQUARE — Howard Zinn is here. Dominick Dunne and Tom Wolfe, too. Ernest Hemingway and Barbara Ehrenreich and Dr. Who and Beowulf: All here, and all free. Barnes & Noble may be endangered and the Borders across the street closed months ago, but The People’s Library at Liberty Square is open for business and thriving.
That a lending library would spring up fully operational on day one of an occupation makes sense when you consider that the exchange of ideas is paramount here, at a new crossroads of the world. Just as occupiers young and old mingle with Africans, Jews, Algonquins and Latinas, de Tocqueville rubs elbows with Nicholas Evans and Noam Chomsky.
Mandy Henk, 32, saw Adbusters’ call to occupy Wall Street and drove in from Greencastle, Indiana, on her fall break to work in the library. A librarian at DePaul University, she’d been waiting for “an actual movement” for years when she saw a photo of the library and a poster beside it that read: “Things the library needs: Librarians.”
“And here I am,” she said cheerfully as she shelved books into clear plastic bins, dozens of which line the northeastern edge of Liberty Square. Henk isn’t surprised that a library was erected so quickly. “Anytime you have a movement like this, people are going to bring books to it. People are going to have information needs. And historically, the printed word has played an extraordinarily important role.”
Young readers can find a wealth of age-appropriate material too, like A.A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young,” “Oliver Twist” and “The Hobbit,” as well as more offbeat titles like “Tales For Little Rebels.”
Another volunteer librarian, Steve Syrek, 33, is earning his master’s degree in English at Rutgers University. He has commuted to Liberty Square from his Washington Heights apartment every day since October 7. A sign he made for the library was snapped up by the Smithsonian Institution: “Literacy, Legitimacy and Moral Authority: The People’s Library,” it read.
“More people arrived, more books appeared, and it’s just been growing ever since,” Syrek said. “And then everyone in New York City just has to clean out their basement,” he quipped, which would explain how inventory has ballooned to nearly 1,800. Authors like Naomi Klein, Eve Ensler and Katrina vanden Heuvel have donated signed editions, and vanden Heuvel has pledged hundreds of copies of The Nation, past and present.
As a result of the influx, the library has become something of a clearing house for books. “People are shipping us stuff from all over the country and we just give them out,” Syrek said. “We don’t need them to be returned.”
Volunteers log each book on LibraryThing, an online cataloging site, by scanning the ISBN number using an iPhone app. This just in: “Wicked,” “Eat Pray Love” and “Get Rich Cheating: The Crooked Path to Easy Street.” A blog and a Facebook page chronicle visits from literary luminaries and the formation of libraries at Occupy sites across the country.
On a recent Tuesday, a few people sat on the granite benches that face the bookshelves, so absorbed in their reading that they didn’t look up, despite the din around them. Henk, for one, appreciates the role of escapism, especially when you consider the weighty issues that drew everyone to Liberty Square.
“Stories are incredibly important for helping people to understand the world,” she said. “And so this is a place to come to understand the world.”