The Occupy Wall Street Library


A prerequisite for any successful revolution is literature. As the Occupy Wall Street movement has grown, its headquarters, Zuccoti Park, has spawned many of the institutions normally associated with a far larger community. Among these is a thriving lending library.

The People’s Library, as it is known, began life as a handful of books kept in two beaten cardboard boxes, one labeled “Fiction,” the other “Nonfiction.” A tarp kept them dry when it rained. Since then, it has grown to between 500 and 1000 books on any day, all donated, and has been transferred to a score of plastic bins and a few old mail crates. The books, all donated, are organized into such categories as politics, women’s studies, media and culture, the environment, and “history and resistance.” Borrowing is free; a lender is not required to return a book, but, after he has read it, he is encouraged to pass it on to a friend rather than keep it for himself.

The library is maintained by about a dozen volunteers. Among them is Steven Grant, 28.  Grant, a former Marine,  was living in New Orleans when he heard about the protests and decided to head north. His first nights in the park were spent sleeping on a low granite bench that runs along the park’s southern parapet, a few yards down from the library. One evening, he returned to find that his sleeping bag had been displaced by new books. He still sleeps on the bench, next to the paperbacks.

Today, Grant is sorting through a bin filled with pamphlets, fliers and assorted photocopies gifted to the library by visitors. The sheer abundance and diversity of pamphlets — titles range from “Who was Henry George?” “Know The Truth About Life In The Military” and “What You Need To Know About Fracking” — suggests that pamphleteerring is not a dead form. Grant is trying to decide which to keep and which to throw out.

“I don’t feel right saying what stays and what goes,” he says, “but some people are trying to pass out something with an agenda that’s not really related to the protests. Like, ‘See my band’.” Librarians don’t censor any of the books, but the movement shies away from endorsing specific policies, either directly or tacitly.

He holds up  a pamphlet entitled “End U.S. Military Aid To Israel.”

“Or, I mean, stuff like this,” he says. “Do I put it out there? Because then it looks like we’re passing an agenda.”

Grant reads the pamphlet for a little while and then decides to risk erring on the side of freedom of speech.

“I mean, it’s true,” he says, dropping it in the “Keep” pile. “Israel is just beating the shit out of Palestine.”

A protestor comes over with four copies of The Inquisitor’s Apprentice by Chris Moriarity, which a donor mailed in. Many of the books are donated from afar, often by people who have come across the library’s new website.

Zackary Loeb, 27, a part-time librarian for the New York Public Library, comes over to process them. All books have the letters OWSL (“Occupy Wall Street Library”) penned on their sides and a small orange circle applied to their covers.  Today, the librarians are instituting a new system, in which all books have their ISDN number scanned and sent to a librarian in Indiana; the librarian will be posting the titles on the site’s web page in a catalog, to keep better track of what’s going in and out. For all its technological savvy, the library’s expansion is still inhibited by the size of the square, which has grown increasingly congested as more protestors arrive.

“Because of the number of  book an the limited space, some double-stacking is inevitable,” he says, perusing the bins, looking for misfiles. “But we’re trying to fight back, with some success.

Today, Loeb has organized a new “Memoir/Bio” section. It contains such diverse fare as Goldwater by Barry M. Goldwater with Jack Casserly, an account of John Brown’s stand at Harper’s Ferry, and the autobiography of Lauren Bacall. While overtly political books go most quickly, the protestors’ reading habits vary widely. One protestor flips through vintage issues of the socialist journal Monthly Vintage, while another coos over Ursula K. LeGuin.

The library has become enough of a fixture in the camp that many publishers, particularly independent publishers, have been dropping off books. In the last week, Haymarket, Verso and Metropolitan have all dropped off books. When Jeffrey Sachs spoke to protestors on Friday, he brought along 10 copies of his newest book. A few days ago, someone dropped off dozens of copies of Homothug: The Secret Life of Rudy Giuliani, by A.J. Weberman, which went like hot cakes.

Steve Syrek, 33, an English PhD at Rutgers, comes by with four copies each of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which he bought with his own money.

“I bought the Zinn at McNally Jackson,” he says, “but I have to admit I bought the Klein at Barnes and Noble because it was on the way.”

Syrek had been following the protests for weeks, but came down for the first time yesterday.”I guess I’ve been feeling for a number of years that this had to happen,” he says. “The masses and rallies are fine, but people occupying a space, making their presence felt — that’s what matters to me.”

Syrek is doing his dissertation on several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Coriolanus.

“You might say that Coriolanus was the first Republican, in the modern sense of the term,” says Syrek. “He is the most sublime bombast in all of literature.”

I asked him who would be Coriolanus in the political drama playing out in Zuccotti Park.

“Oh, God, what’s his name? Sean Hannity.  And Menenius would be David Brooks.”

Matthew Wolfe is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in The Nation, Capital New York and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. More from this author →