The Occupy Wall Street Library: Librarians Display the Ruins


Mike Bloomberg has already come under fire for just about every aspect of the late-night raid that cleared Occupy Wall Street out of Zuccotti last week. From reports of police violence, to keeping members of the press from observing the action, to disregarding a restraining order reopening the park, to the apparent damage and destruction of personal property seized at the park, the mayor has faced a lot of questioning over his handling of the eviction.

But one of the strongest issues to arise from the raid is the treatment of the 5,000-volume People’s Library housed at the park. The Bloomberg administration originally claimed that the library was intact and ready to be reclaimed, but that assertion has unraveled, and it now appears that the self-proclaimed free-speech mayor is in the awkward position of having presided over the destruction of thousands of books.

Today, the volunteer librarians who presided over the collection — all of it donated, many by authors of the works themselves — held a press conference to display what remains of the library. It’s a pretty sorry picture.

For many, the People’s Library was one of the most remarkable institutions to arise from the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Its generous lending policy and catholic scope — George Orwell shared space with Ayn Rand and J.K. Rowling — made it one of the most tangible symbols of the sort of collaborative, open-source movement the occupiers were trying to build.

Only a third of the collection has been recovered from the city, and librarians and their lawyers assume the rest have been destroyed. Most of what has been recovered is damaged, about a third of them so badly that they’re unusable.

Many of these were on display on a conference table at the press conference, and the profusion of mildew, snapped bindings, and crumpled, filthy pages made it seem entirely plausible that the entire library had been treated like trash.

Norman Siegel, a lawyer working with the librarians, clearly knows a good visual when he sees one. Prominent in the mess were damaged holy books, brutalized Bibles sharing space with wrecked copies of the Bhagavad Gita.

Librarians, like the other occupiers, were given only 15 minutes notice before the eviction, and so didn’t have time to remove the library. At the press conference, they told of rebuilding their library with new donations after the eviction — only to have their new collection taken by police again, the books placed in the trash and smeared with old food.

The American Library Association has released a statement against the destruction of the library.

Like good librarians — many of them have or are pursuing degrees in library science — the volunteers maintained a thorough catalog of the collection, so they know exactly what they had and what’s missing.

Librarians declined to put a monetary value on the missing and destroyed books.

“So many people have had so many things to say about how our movement lacks focus or the people down here don’t really know how to say what it is they have to say or they’re making ridiculous demands,” said Daniel Norton, a library science student who has been volunteering at the People’s Library. “And I think what this represented and what we were affording people was the literacy to articulate their criticism. So to place a dollar value on the physical books themselves would completely undervalue what it was that the library was affording people.”

Instead of cash damages, the librarians are asking the city to replace books that have been lost or damaged. They’re also asking for a promise that this sort of destruction of a working library will never happen again. Thirdly, and perhaps the greatest stretch, they’re asking the city to provide a space for the library going forward.

And if the city doesn’t comply? Siegel declined to answer questions about whether a lawsuit was imminent, saying only, “Anyone in this room who knows myself or [National Lawyers Guild NYC Chapter Head] Gideon Oliver standing here, what’s Clint Eastwood’s favorite line? ‘Make my day.'”

Here are some more pictures of damaged books:


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