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“I Wanted Something Productive to Do": Creating Space for Books and Learning at Occupy Wall Street

Education is at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement, from the student loan bubble to the library and teach-ins at the center of the park.

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Still, it couldn’t be more appropriate for Occupy Wall Street, with its long, open-air meetings, its invited speakers and experts, its visiting authors, its constant debates and arguments, that feeling when you’re there that you can talk to anyone.

Like the best of library systems, it’s a Self-Education U., or perhaps a modern version of the Chautauqua adult education movement.  Your goal, it seems, is to educate yourselves and then the rest of us in the realities and inequities of twenty-first century American life.

Still, for the advanced guard of your electronic generation to commit itself so publicly to actual books, ones you can pick up, leaf through, hand to someone else -- that took me by surprise.  Those books, all donations, are flowing in from publishers (including Metropolitan Books, where I work, and Haymarket Books, which publishes me), private bookstores, authors, and well, just about anyone.  As I stood talking with some of you, the librarians of Zuccotti Park, I watched people arriving, unzipping backpacks, and handing over books.

Of the thousands of volumes you now have, some, as in any library, are indeed taken out and returned, but some not. As Bill Scott, a librarian sitting in front of a makeshift “reference table” in muffler and jacket told me, “The books are donated to us and we donate them to others.” 

A youthful-looking 42, Scott, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, is spending his sabbatical semester camped out in the park.  His book, Troublemakers, is just about to be published and he’s bubbling with enthusiasm.  He’s ordered a couple of copies to donate himself.  “It’s my first book ever.  I’ve never even held it in my hands.  To shelve the first copy in the People’s Library, it’s like all the strands of my life coming together!"

Think of it: Yes, your peers in the park were texting and tweeting and streaming up a video storm.  They were social networking circles around the 1%, the mayor, the police, and whoever else got in their way.  Still, there you all were pushing a technology already relegated by many to the trash bin of cultural history.  You were betting your bottom dollar on the value to your movement of real books, the very things that kept me alive as a kid, that I’ve been editing, publishing, and even writing for more than three decades.

“I Wanted Something Productive to Do”

That library -- in fact, those libraries at Occupy Boston, Occupy Washington, Occupy San Francisco, and other encampments -- may be the least commented upon part of your movement.  And yet, you set your library up not as an afterthought or a sideline, but almost as soon as you began imagining a society worth living in, a little world of your own.  You didn’t forget the books, which means you didn’t forget about education.  I mean, a real education.

This was both generous of you and, quite simply, inspiring.  Who would have expected that the old-fashioned, retro book would be at the heart of this country’s great protest movement of a tarnished new century?

When asked how the library began, librarian “Scales” (aka Sam Smith), an unemployed, 20-year-old blond dancer still in shorts on a chilly fall day, responded, “Nobody knows exactly who started it. It was like an immaculate conception.  It was just here.”  If the movement itself were a book, that might stand as its epigraph.  Even if Occupy Wall Street indeed did start somewhere (as did its library), the way it has exploded globally in a historical nanosecond, does give it exactly the feeling Scales described.

 
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