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The OWS Library: What the Protesters are Reading

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Taking a step back and examining something as vibrant as the Occupy Wall Street protests is very difficult from a sociological or anthropological standpoint. It is like trying to pick up Jell-O with tweezers. The object of your interest is both amorphous and in a constant state of flux. This is made more challenging by the absence of concrete objectives in the movement itself. However, looking at the OWS library can provide some valuable insight into the movement and the motivation behind it.


(Occupy Wall Street Library)

What is the OWS Library?
The OWS library occupies a bench and some space along the top of a wall at the corner of Broadway and Liberty St. in Zuccotti Square. The library started as a modest collection of books and magazines donated to entertain the occupiers in the times between protests. About 10 days into the occupation, Brooklyn librarian and protestor, Betsy Fagin decided that the ragtag collection needed to be turned into a more formal library.  Books from the library are free to borrow and are available to protesters and passers-by alike, with no formal check-out process. It truly is an open, public system for sharing and contributing to the general welfare of others.

Through technology and the Internet, that initial effort to organize, protect, and distribute the books donated to the protest has evolved into a 1944 (as of 12:23 pst on Oct. 20, 2011) volume peoples’ library which reflects the movement and the individuals involved in it. Technology has allowed not only the movement itself, but even the contents of the OWS Library to be shared across the globe. The library now has its own web presence including an up-to-the-minute online catalogue through LibraryThing.com. It is this catalogue that provides insight into the OWS movement.

The OWS Reader
When attempting to characterize the OWS Library, eclectic is an understatement. Books in the collection date between 1849 (Civil Disobedience) to 2012 (Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party) and range from children’s books, to philosophy, manifesto, romance, mystery, essay, and magazines. There are no constraints placed on what is donated to the library and the collection has grown almost organically since the start of the occupation. This growth is what makes it an interesting artifact for study. Here are a few choice pieces gleaned from the catalogue and what their presence might indicate for the movement:

  • Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse (1922) – This book’s message is that the path to enlightenment is through worldly experience.
    Analysis: In terms of the movement, we should be considering the aggregate of our worldly experience and the experiences of others in determining social and political policy.
  • Journey to the End of the Night, by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1932). This French novel takes a cynical, even pessimistic view of human nature as it follows the main character, Bardamu, through World War I, to the Ford Motor Company, and to France. The novel satirizes medicine, science, and human nature in general.
    Analysis: This novel allows OWS readers to get a glimpse at the most pessimistic manifestation of human nature and galvanize their strength to press forward in their efforts in spite of it.
  • The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (1973). This fantasy novel chronicles the power of true love to bridge any divide, even that caused by death.
    Analysis: What more optimistic novel could there be to represent a movement based on human equality, fairness, and consideration for others. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if corporate America or our politicians said, “As you wish,” once in a while? Maybe that is the overall goal of the movement?
  • On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau (1849). Thoreau explains that it is the duty of the conscientious individual to resist (in his words, “to stop the machine of government”).
    Analysis: This is the closest thing that there currently is to a manifesto for this movement. It is a work that has informed most non-violent protest since its writing, so its presence in the OWS Library is to be expected.
  • Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America, by Jack Rakove (2010). This historical work examines the evolution of the leaders of the American Revolution from private citizens into the men history remembers. Refuting the idea that the Founding Fathers started as visionary leaders and statesmen, this book examines how the events of their time changed these men and led to their roles in the founding of the country. 
    Analysis: This book provides an interesting insight into the, thus far, disorganized appearance of the movement itself. Perhaps the speed of our connected world has brought the OWS protests into the mainstream at such an early state in its development that it cannot have a concrete direction yet.
  • Free: adventures on the margins of a wasteful society, by Katharine Hibbert (2010). This account of journalist turned homeless person, Katherine Hibbert, chronicles her life when she walks away from her home, job, and family and spends a year living on the streets of London. Hibbert’s anger at the wastefulness of society is set against her understanding of human interdependence, particularly in regards to the support structure among the homeless.
    Analysis: For those living in Zuccotti Square and at other occupation sites across the country, this book provides a sort of survival guide for the displaced (Watt, Jan. 18, 2010). On a less pragmatic level, it provides insight into yet more issues that the OWS protests could address, such as wastefulness, homelessness, and human compassion.
  • Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, by Jeffrey Stout (2010). This book examines both the Obama Presidential campaign and smaller, local grassroots movements around the country and how this bottom-up model of change can and does work.
    Analysis: This book provides another how-to guide for OWS organizers and participants. Examining other successful grassroots movements is both inspiring and informative for members of the current protests.

Obviously this list could go on for another 1937 entries with similar results. Now, while these books were selected specifically because they illustrate a point, similar themes to these can be seen in many of the works in the OWS Library. Those themes include:
 

  • Activism/Resistance
  • Politics
  • Environmental issues
  • Economics
  • Human dignity
  • History
  • Optimism

A formal study of the library as a cultural artifact would examine all of the books in the collection and further break down the themes, consider the number of copies donated and the number of readers logged for each. Again, technology makes this very easy to do as the online catalogue displays all of this information as well as facilitating online book discussions and social networking possibilities.

One thing that this exercise has taught me, however, is that there is an underlying philosophy and political consciousness at work in OWS that is not always readily apparent to outsiders. Browsing through the catalogue reveals, not an eclectic array of unrelated books, but, rather, a subconscious collaborative effort to inform members of the movement, and the wider world, what the Occupation is about and what the motivation behind it is. This collaborative meaning making is something that is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that is being speculated as at work behind the organization of OWS. What the movement’s library reveals is that the speculation is correct and there is a driving force behind these events, and a new model of human learning is working right before our eyes.

Visit the Peoples’ Library website at: http://peopleslibrary.wordpress.com/
View the Occupy Wall Street Library catalogue: http://www.librarything.com/catalog/OWSLibrary