The People’s Library, 3.0: Mobile and in the Streets

Have Wheels, Will Travel: The People's Library 3.0

Before the November 15 raid of Liberty Square, the Occupy Wall Street library had an estimated 5,000 books on site, plus zines, periodicals and multimedia materials. During the eviction the library was defended by its dedicated librarians, one of whom had the backpack cut off their back before being violently arrested. The day after laptops, audio equipment and books were indiscriminately tossed into dumpsters by the NYPD, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he would release the contents of the library. However, only 1,275 books have been recovered, with only 578 books in readable condition. That means 79% of the original library is gone or destroyed.

The People's Library was taken to a sanitation garage after the November 15 eviction. Photo: @NYCMayorsOffice

When the park was re-opened by court order the next day, people immediately placed books on the granite benches that had been the library. But the new library – The People’s Library 2.0, if you will – only lasted until the following night. At 7:30 p.m. on November 16, about 15 police officers and sanitation workers from Brookfield Properties, which owns the public park, descended on Liberty Square and circled the 200+ new book donations that had come in since the raid. An officer announced the books would be confiscated if not immediately removed by librarians. Seconds later, officers seized the books and threw them into garbage bins. Again.

Around 1:00 a.m. on November 17, I showed up with a tote bag full of books. After all, a bag of books is personal property. I spent the morning in conversation with Brookfield’s security, who argued that an individual didn’t need more than one book. But eventually we agreed the books would be kept in carts and off the benches, as Brookfield insisted the benches remain open to the public.

Destroyed media equipment and books during the raid. Photo: Democracy Now

Around 8:00 a.m., representatives from Brookfield hauled the garbage bin of confiscated books back into the park and allowed me to retrieve some from the waste. They watched in horror as we wiped muck off the book covers. An hour later, librarians took the books out of the park and carted them up to Wall Street, where demonstrations were in full-swing, and The People’s Library 3.0 was born.

Representatives from Brookfield ensured us future access to the park, but when we came back a few hours later, they had been replaced by NYPD, who refused us re-entry. Over the next few days, Brookfield continually changed the park rules, making it impossible for the People’s Library to negotiate agreements or engage in meaningful dialogue with the company, and keeping books in the park became increasingly difficult.

The Zuccotti Park Rules: left, before September 17 and right, after November 15.

Until new space materializes, librarians are committed to carting collections of books to direct actions. A cart full of books was on the Brooklyn Bridge on November 17, when demonstrators rallied in Foley Square and marched across the bridge. Earlier in the day, mobile libraries sprung up in front of the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. On Sunday, November 20, a group of librarians took damaged and destroyed books to the New York Public Library to show the public what Bloomberg and his “private army” had destroyed. Later in the day, we set up an Upper East Side branch of the People’s Library a block from the Mayor’s townhouse on East 79th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues for occupiers who had recently moved into the neighborhood.

Before and After: Following the raid, police treated the library like a crime scene.

Norman Siegel, the renowned human rights activist and former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has taken up the library’s cause. He put together a press conference in his office on November 23. All the destroyed or damaged books were on display. Hawa Allan, a Fellow from the Columbia School of Law, and Gideon Oliver from the National Lawyers Guild also spoke, followed by seven librarians who delivered emotional testimonies. The press conference provided a platform for the library’s demands:

1. Replace every missing/damaged book.

2. Acknowledge that a wrong was committed and that this can never happen again.

3. The People’s Library demands a public space be provided to recreate the library.

When we returned to Liberty Square that evening, red tape reading “DANGER DO NOT REMOVE” had been put up, blocking public access to the library’s bench. So we set our mobile unit up on a different bench. That Sunday, the head of Brookfield’s security came into the park at daybreak and told one of our librarians, “There can’t be a library in the park” and threatened to arrest Charlie, the librarian on duty that night, if Charlie didn’t leave with the books. Charlie left. At the following Library Working Group meeting, Charlie explained that librarians would be risking arrest if they brought books into the park. We learned, however, that Brookfield’s security and the NYPD changed their story and park regulations on a day to day basis – some days the library held the space, and other days books were confiscated with threats of arrests made.

A man reads opposite The People's Library 1.0, October 2011. Photo: Jennifer Sacks

During December and January, librarians worked tirelessly to get mobile library units to as many actions as possible. We were at Duarte Square on D.17, eager to set up a library with the new occucpation; we were in Zuccotti Park on New Year’s Eve and passed out over a hundred books. Since then we’ve worked to get handfuls of books into the park and to Spokes Council meetings.

On January 11, we set up a library in the SoHo nightclub W.i.P. (Work in Progress). The party was billed as a book party and promoted to everyone in the Occupy network, but the club employed a strict dress code, leaving a hundred occupiers in the cold. We tried for an hour to negotiate with the nightclub but it proved fruitless, so we packed up the library and fled the club. Fortunately a Village Voice reporter was on hand and delivered a great account of this ruthless discrimination.

The librarians of The People's Library. Photo: The People's Library

But we’ve licked our wounds and are striving to get more books to more actions, and to continually support occupiers in their quest for knowledge as they demonstrate against the horrors facing our society. As an act of solidarity, The People’s Library hopes that branches will pop up at every occupation. We suggest that people place free collections of books in front of corporate bookstores everywhere. The Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology is online and open for submissions. Feel free to print it out and add it to your occupation’s library.

Imagine if free books were available in front of every corporate bookstore, and free food in front of every corporate grocery store, and free clothes in front of every clothing store? Free yourself. Free everything. Out of complacency! Into the streets!


 Stephen Boyer has been a librarian at The People’s Library since September 2011.