Book ‘Em! Occupy Wall Street Decries the Fate of Its Library

Protesting Librarians Claim Thousands of Volumes Missing; Mayor's Office Vague

The library as it once was. (Photo: David Shankbone)

“Oh, my god, look at those books,” said a bespectacled, gray-haired Occupy Wall Street sympathizer. “Oh, my god,” she repeated. “This is vile.”

Squeezing into a crowded Midtown conference room, the woman joined other Occupy Wall Street volunteers and reporters for a crowded press conference hosted by civil rights attorney Norman Siegel. A small hill of books was piled on a table, presided over by the peeved librarians of Occupy Wall Street. They gathered to demand explanations: for the sorry state of their collection, for the destruction of four library laptops and for more than 2,500 books they say are still missing.

Of the books recovered many of them were in “shapes I never thought a book could take,” as one volunteer described it. A copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas looked as if it had been steeped in a puddle. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road had acquired an accordion fold down its middle. And there, as if it were a prop, was a roughed-up copy of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

For Mayor Bloomberg, all this did not look good at all. The Bloomberg administration seemed to sense it had touched a nerve early on, when his office hastily posted on Twitter an assurance that the city had stored the books safely following the abrupt, predawn raid at the park on Nov. 15. According to the message, the books could be picked up the next morning at the sanitation garage on West 57th Street, and there was an accompanying photo, showing stacks of intact volumes.

But when Occupy Wall Street’s librarians, whose ranks include graduate students studying library science, working librarians and professors on sabbatical, went to pick up the confiscated books, they found only a fraction of their library intact.

“What the mayor’s office was putting out was that the books are safely stored,” said Michele Hardesty, an English professor at Hampshire College who has been volunteering at the library while on sabbatical this year. “But those books were just pulled out of a trash pile. There’s no possibility that it can be spun that what they were doing was confiscating and storing property.”

“All the books, as well as other items, were transported from the park directly to the sanitation garage, where they were unloaded and sorted,” wrote Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for the mayor, in an email. “Anyone who wasn’t able to find any item, or found an item that was damaged, was given a claim form to file with the comptroller’s office, for potential reimbursement.”

The Occupy Wall Street library, also known as the People’s Library, was one of the earliest fixtures in the makeshift village that sprang up in Zuccotti. It began humbly, as a pile of law books under a tarp.

Books retrieved from the sanitation garage.

“There was a pile of books and a sign that said ‘library,’” said Betsy Fagin, whose most recent job was as a librarian at the National Art Library in London. “I looked around and I asked around and nobody seemed to be in charge of it and I thought, ‘I should be in charge of it, because I’m a librarian.’ And that’s how it got rolling.”

Ms. Fagin and other volunteers proposed a library working group at the General Assembly, and soon book donations started coming in.

“It would get bigger and bigger almost every day,” said Hristo Voynov, who volunteered at the library. “At first we had cardboard boxes and then bins. Cardboard boxes, they didn’t really work out well in the rain since whenever we used tarps to cover the books the police would tear them off when it was raining. It was their way of bullying us.” After transferring the books to donated plastic bins, they were soon kept under a tent Mr. Voynov said was a gift from Patti Smith.

According to the statistics cited at the press conference, the library eventually received more than 5,000 donated books, the full catalog of which is still available online at Library Thing. Books were entered into the library catalog by ISBN number, and checkout operated on the honor system.

“There was no checkout process of any kind at all; the only books we asked people not to take were books in our reference section,” said William Scott, a professor on sabbatical from the University of Pittsburgh and a library volunteer. He said the reference section also included more valuable books, such as a book of poems signed by poet laureate Philip Levine. “There were signed copies by authors and none of that collection has been recovered. There has been maybe one or two titles but all of those books are gone,” said Mr. Scott.

Librarians estimate there were some 4,000 books in its boxes on the night of the raid, but the city has suggested protestors were given time to remove the books.

“The protestors were given the opportunity take their possessions with them,” wrote Ms. Wood in an email. “Many took their possessions with them, others chose to leave items.”

Speaking at the press conference, one librarian who was present that night, Stephen Boyer, countered that protesters never had a chance.

“I was there when the raid happened,” said Mr. Boyer, who lived in the library for one and a half months. “It was sprung on us in such a crazy way that I pretty much grabbed the poetry anthologies, which are very one-of-a-kind, and my personal stuff.” He said he was under the impression that he would be able to come back for a second load. “I took my stuff to my friend’s house around the corner and I tried to get back to get more stuff because I can only carry so much on me and the police officers wouldn’t let us back into the park to get anything else.”

Since the raid the librarians have taken to bringing mobile carts to marches and demonstrations, and storing extra books at the United Federation of Teachers building when they are not at the park.

“We’re pretty determined and we’re not going anywhere,” said Mr. Voynov.

Mandy Henk, a librarian at DePauw university who has driven from Indiana to visit the occupation during school breaks, said what the librarians would like most from Mr. Bloomberg is an explanation of what happened to the books, replacement of the full library catalog and a space in which to revive the People’s Library as a stationary entity.

“Our collection was curated by the movement,” she said, “so it’s pretty special.”


Book ‘Em! Occupy Wall Street Decries the Fate of Its Library