What does a library say about its community?

In a previous post I wrote about an upcoming book and event series that discusses open spaces and what the Occupy Wall Street Movement has taught us about the utilization of spaces during times of protest. Whether one agrees with the politics of the movement or not, there are many potential lessons learned from it. One such is discussed in an interesting paper on the Occupy Wall Street library. The People’s Library, as the library is called, popped up in the midst of the protests and was created mainly from donations. A librarian and volunteer at the People’s Library wrote the paper.

Libraries often perform important and many tasks for their communities (from providing immigrants connections to their places of origin, to teaching children, holding local events, generally engendering a center of culture and community, etc…). They also, as I learned from Ms. Lingel, reflect the values of the community through their collections and the policies they create…

“…a large number of my interactions at the Library have not been with people currently occupying the square or protesting, but with visitors curious about OWS a whole. For them, I suspect that the Library offered a way to feel comfortable asking questions and to see the vestiges of a recognizable institution within an anti–authoritarian movement. In this sense, the Library lends legitimacy to Occupy Wall Street via the presence of a familiar institution, but also an entry point for making sense of a vibrant, complex, occasionally self–contradictory movement. This sense–making may take place literally, by asking librarians questions, or it may take place more abstractly, by recognizing the Library as a site of learning, access, sharing and community, and extrapolating those values onto the protest as a whole. This is precisely the kind of function that cannot be evaluated solely by looking at the Library’s values, and must instead (or as well) take into account its policies of open–lending, volunteer–staffing and auto–archiving. These are the politics and ethics of the People’s Library, and they operate entirely outside of the content of its collection.”*

A nurse once told me that an easy way they use to judge the overall health of elderly patients was to look at their feet. If they were uncared for then it was a good indicator that they were likely not in good overall health. Not to compare libraries to feet, but libraries as embodied in their collections and policies could be an indicator of the overall health of a community. I would encourage you to read the whole thing and then on your next trip to your local library think about what your library says about your community. Is it well cared for and used? Is it intimidating or welcoming? Comfortable? Inclusive? Exclusive? Etc…

As a final note, isn’t it fascinating that an anti-establishment group in the midst of protesting chose to put together a library, which is generally the type of institution that historically only arises out of established societies with extra resources to devote to them?

*Lingel, Jessa. “Occupy Wall Street and the myth of technological death of the library” First Monday [Online], Volume 17 Number 8 (22 July 2012)

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