The temporary autonomous library at Occupy Boston, an interview with Kristin Parker

all photos courtesy of Kristin Parker, please do not reproduce without permission

I have friends working in the various Occupy X libraries. We don’t have a very big Occupy presence near me in Vermont and I was curious how things work there. Kristin Parker (@parkivist) is an anthropologist who received an MS (Simmons) with a concentration in archives management. She worked for twelve years managing the collections exhibits and archives at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and is now managing the art collection at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis. She’s a newish associate of the Boston Radical Reference Collective and is one of the people who has been organizing and staffing the A to Z (Audre Lorde to Howard Zinn) Library at Occupy Boston. I asked her a few questions over email. She writes…

“The A-Z Library is a partnership made up of the Boston Radical Reference Collective, the Progressive Librarians Guild of Simmons College and Metacomet Books of Plymouth, MA, run by John Ford who recognized a need for a durable setting for books at Dewey Square (the Occupy Boston site). He graciously installed a military tent and brought in a third of his own personal book collection. Other donations soon arrived through the librarians and members of the public. The library has been up and running for more than 2 weeks now. Every day we receive donations – it’s amazing. Books are organized according to subject, in plastic milk crates and wooden cranberry bog crates, for easy transporting and shifting. As described in the statement (link below): ‘The library aims to provide high-quality, accurate information to all interested parties. The collection contains material on topics such as political thought and social movements, activism, history, philosophy, religion, ????? finance, consumerism, gender, race, as well as a large fiction section.'”

What your role is with the Occupy library in Boston and could you suggest a few links for people interested in the Occupy Library System generally?

Why I got involved – I love answering reference questions and I really enjoy working with the public. I’ve always admired the work of Radical Reference librarians and understand the importance of offering folks an alternative way to navigate resources and identify new ones. As an archivist: I remembered reading about the American Radicalism collection at Michigan State University, and how archivists sometimes have to be pro-active when it comes to documenting certain moments in history. I recognized pretty quickly watching the movement grow and definitely after my first visit to Dewey Square that this was an historic event and I wanted to attempt to capture activities at Occupy Boston in a way that would be useful for occupiers, visitors to the Square, and into the future.

We created a binder full of documents printed from the wikispaces (reference copies), that includes Occupy Boston’s statement of solidarity, the General Assembly Process for Consensus and other operational information. There are also copies of the GA minutes and other important documents from the various working groups. So, ideally, people can come to the library and get caught up on what’s what and hopefully the information is up-to-date, though things move quickly. We’ve also created an active archive bin that mimics the reference copies, aiming to document in print all records produced by the working groups etc, as well as a sampling of ephemera that might capture the day to day life at Dewey Square.

Occupy Boston website announcing establishment of the library about a week before the GA [General Assembly] announcement:
Occupy Boston Wiki, Library page where all documents are poured
Radical Reference
New York Times article on “tent libraries”

Have you taken the library concept/idea to the general assembly yet? Do you have to?

The Library was up and running about two weeks before it was announced at the GA: On Saturday October 22nd, representatives announced the Library Working Group at the GA and we received a lot of “sparkles” – hands with wiggling fingers, raised in the air, declaring their support and consensus. Here is what was read at the GA:

[we announce] “The Audre Lorde to Howard Zinn Library” — aka the A to Z library.

We have chosen these two individuals because, in their own words:

‘To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.’ Howard Zinn

and ‘There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.’ Audre Lorde

And because as Zinn taught us, ‘Tyranny is Tyranny, let it come from whom it may.’

and Lorde reminds us, ‘Revolution is not a onetime event.’

And lastly, because we agree with Zinn that:

‘Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.’

and with Lorde that: ‘Without community, there is no liberation.’

We name the library at Occupy Boston The Audre Lorde to Howard Zinn Library because Audre Lorde was an activist and a radical librarian and Howard Zinn was an activist with strong connections to Boston. From A to Z they give us inspiration, knowledge and power.

How much, if any, interaction has there been between the various Occupy libraries (can I do ILL?) and what sorts of interactions have you had with other non-Occupy libraries and librarians?

I’ve personally not observed any formal interaction with other libraries yet, though I think we’re all interested in one another’s Occupation activities – I know I read the facebook page for OWS library, for example. We get messages from visitors to the tent who tell us a bit about what OWS library is up to. OWS has an online catalog of books (we’ve opted not to catalog) that our online site will link to for visitor’s interest. We’re not quite ready for interlibrary loan :) . I wonder if there will be any sort of difference between collections at different occupations – that would be interesting to learn more about.

update: A number of us have been to OWS and are in touch with the librarians that are organizing the library there (many of us are in the same national group: Radical Reference Collective). There is a solidarity bus traveling to OWS soon – representatives from Boston working groups will meet their OWS counterparts and share information and updates.

What, to you, is the most important thing you and others have been doing in the A-Z Library?

The most important thing? I could poll the group and ask their opinion if you like? To me personally…hmmm. Helping visitors become oriented to activities at Occupy Boston, and to offer resources that will help fuel visitor’s interests in the movement and support their thinking. Dewey Square is a think tank, with ideas percolating around every corner/tent, and I hope the library offers a comfortable space in which to share and find ideas. It’s really amazing how many people come in through the tent, sigh, and say “Ah! A library! I LOVE libraries!” I think there’s something comforting and familiar about a library space – we are a village at Occupy Boston, a community, and I’ve always been of the mind that any town worth living in had to have a library. (I’m also heartened by the excitement people have for the printed word – there are no public computers at Occupy Boston as far as I can tell – though we have a laptop people can use to access and input to wikispaces – people are very content to walk away with a printed book tucked under their arm.)

What’s your favorite part of all of this, the library, the Occupy movement, whatever?

My favorite aspect is the diversity of people I’m privileged to meet (today I met an ex-airforce Russian linguist working on site, a fellow who works for a prison book program, a teenager writing a paper for school, and a psychic who predicted an earthquake would hit Boston). We have curiosity seekers and folks who! The volunteers I’ve spoken with so far and I agree that we each seem to have a weepy moment every time we work, overwhelmed we are by the support and energy of everyone around us at Occupy Boston. It seems that, if one person tires, someone else swoops in and offers to take up the slack, and, in this way, we keep going, enthusiastically and determinedly. The energy draws you in and it’s difficult to leave at the end of your shift…

How many people work there, ballpark and do you guys have any real internal structure to speak of? Anecdotes to share about General Assembly?

This is a contact list of working groups. There are 30 members on our contact list and 12 of us on the roster to be on-site librarians so far, plus John Ford who lives on site 24-7. We are leaderless – we present ideas in our google group, weigh in, figure out. We set agendas weekly meetings in person. Each person brings their own interest or level of experience to contribute and we learn from one another.

People can watch examples of the general assembly on the occupy boston live stream and youtube. Check the GA schedule and perhaps folks can watch one live. They are really moving. Although GA’s occur most every night, the etiquette remains the same throughout the day, every day, during lectures/classes, etc. A good way to communicate within a group. Here’s the process and the hand signals. Here’s a recording I made of a GA after the October 11 arrests of 141 people at Dewey Square and some other exampleds (1, 2)

Do people have library cards or any sort of ID or is it all honor system stuff there? Is the place staffed 24/7?

All honor system :) . We do have a check out process (visitors write title of book and date checked out on index card), and we ask folks to bring books back when they’re done. It is most important to get the information out there as far as I’m concerned, rather than get too too hung up on who is borrowing what and for how long. There are several valued books that we’ve nominated for reference only that do not leave the library – such as the Occupy Boston documents binder, or a particular edition of Howard Zinn’s People’s History for example (though we have multiple copies of that to circulate, courtesy of a man who read of the Boston library in the NYT).

We’re not staffed 24/7 but for several hours a day though that would be awesome – mainly evenings during week, afternoons on weekends so far. John is there pretty much all the time since he lives there. But we want to give him some relief!

Anything else you’d like to add?

This project is a recent endeavor so things will change and grow – keep checking back! I want to mention how grateful I am to be able to participate in this process and for the passion and hard work of fellow librarians!

6 thoughts on “The temporary autonomous library at Occupy Boston, an interview with Kristin Parker

  1. You just inspired me to walk down and check out the library. Best tent award for sure. Joking aside will watch they grow with great interest.

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