What is a library…

…and where should it be housed?
It is not for nothing that the libraries at Occupy camps and sites raise such questions. Judging from the images of Occupy libraries on Flickr, the housing of books can take many forms, from Toronto’s yurt to the volumes packed into plastic boxes on long trestle tables in New York. Occupy London at St Paul’s deploys Starbucks branding – ‘Starbooks,’ inevitably, though still amusingly – presumably as a two-fingered salute to a media industry intent on exposing the smallest cracks in the edifice of protest when they report on the paradox of protesters holding meetings in a nearby branch of Starbucks.

In a sense it doesn’t matter much where a library is housed. The more unlikely of places the better! Libraries as buildings create a sense of separation of life from knowledge: this is where knowledge is sought, that is where you are meant to stop thinking in creative and intellectual – or indeed in all – ways.

We can’t do away with library buildings: they keep old and homeless people (sometimes the homeless elderly) warm for a few hours as they read newspapers and books, chat to other people, feel in company and so less isolated and lonely. Libraries are also good for teenagers seeking relative peace from rowdy homes where there is a lack of private space for study. Clearly libraries in most cases need to be housed in buildings. But there is too much separation within life, far too much compartmentalisation of this from that. The life of the mind, the imagination, and dreams have their place. Sadly, there’s more places where all three of these things don’t go on than do. Neoliberalism again.

What is its function?
Not all of the books in Occupy libraries are what you would call the movement’s textbooks, if it could be said to have any. Think of a library hosted by protesters and what pops up in your head? The collected works of Marx and Engels? Klein’s Shock Doctrine? Holloway’s Crack Capitalism? Recent editions of the New Left Review? Ginsberg’s Howl? Perhaps. But what you do see in the pictures on Flickr are biographies of the ‘enemies’: Dubya, Palin et al… You think: are these sarcastic additions donated by right-wingers keen to make their own fingered gestures at a movement they deplore? Maybe some city boys have clubbed together to buy these memoirs of Republican nasties. Why not? What’s wasting twenty five quid to them? Or – shock horror! – anti-capitalists really do want to understand the world beyond their idea of things, which means they want to be informed about the enemy through their ever-so soi-disant mutterings.

The library is a hub where knowledge and dreams are born. It can be anywhere. It can be nowhere. Hold on: it is everywhere and nowhere simultaneously! No fines involved.

What is knowledge?
This is not a philosophical question. It could be; it’s just that I’m not posing it as such. Reason being: the exciting thing about these libraries is their randomness. There is no chief librarian vigorously thumbing publishers’ catalogues which tell libraries what they should have on their shelves. No, Occupy libraries appear to prefer a different kind of systematicity. As in, the system comes afterwards, once the title is picked up and is engaged by a reader whose desire is to engage another reader, provoking a potentially infinite chain of recommendation that literally conveys knowledge one-to-one or in some other configuration of readers and thinkers. Knowledge is not so much disseminated as embodied by a process which sweeps up engaged readers who become agents of change as a result of what they have or have not read (this latter can be as much of an active choice as the former).

Knowledge is what you made of the exchange? Knowledge is what you make of the book (which might involve you cutting it up and rearranging the paragraphs according to your whimsical or portentous desires)?

Why library?
Simple answer: it’s a form that works. A collection of books and other materials for enlightenment and pleasure in one space. This government (not to mention the efforts of the last) is keen on devaluing libraries not because people don’t visit them but because they are said to fail the economic utility that determines all value in this wretched f*&^%$g neoliberal world. All talk of communities running their libraries in some Big Society love-in is mendacious, colluding with neoliberalism. This fundamentally undermines what is meant by the library as an institution and its role as an incubator of dreams and facilitator of knowledge. That government policy on the provision of libraries goes hand in hand with worsening social and economic conditions in those very communities means the library somehow loses its purpose, becoming yet another space of entertainment that is the end result of neoliberal and capitalist notions of aesthetic pleasure: in fact, the aesthetic is merely an adjunct to the accumulation of capital.

Occupy libraries overturn such insidious manipulations of the idea of the library by hosting processes of knowledge and book exchange in the context of a gift economy one of whose endpoints is, without a shadow of a doubt, humanisation, and to feed the soul and mind in the interests of democratic change. Intentionally or not, Occupy libraries are tapping into the broader debate about the place and value of libraries in our communities by removing knowledge and pleasure from the cycle of capitalist exchange. It’s as if there’s a dialogue between Occupy libraries and the campaigns against local library closures, and the one is saying to the other: continue to fight to save the dreams and intellects within your communities! The dreams and intellects! Dreams and intellects are stronger than arguments about utility determined by checks and balances, by how much money is made by this or that library as they buy more DVDs and computers and install a branch of a coffee chain where the European literature section used to be (remember we’re selling off all European literature titles to fund the new and exciting changes!). And so, just as Occupy sites have installed libraries and universities as a matter of course, placing reading and discussion at the centre of what is entailed by the commons and democratic life, it is there for all to see that wherever neoliberalism treads, the denial of free access to knowledge follows (the rise in tuition fees is yet another node in this particular network).

Why library? We can’t do without them.

What is the order of things?
When people refer to their libraries it is never known what they mean. Beyond those individuals who ironically name what is merely a stack of books something grander by far, you are inclined to think that what is being referred to is a substantial collection that has been acquired and archived with the idea of systematising a body of related works and/or the passions and interests of the collector. All of which makes me think: why can’t a stack of books collected in this way be a library? Is it not a more meaningful concept of library? If my stack of books represents a bout of research or sustained curiosity, I would consider this not merely an archive but a library to which others might benefit, gaining access to a living embodiment of a thought process or moment in history. In other words, much like the libraries of the Occupy movement, this ‘library’ is not determined by the amount of books and their expense but by the extent to which it embodies or even crystallises a continuing history. To put it another way, such a library distances itself from the bourgeois concept of a room in which feigned intellectual tastes collide with the acquisitiveness of the privileged.

The artist and producer Lorena Rivero de Beer wrote recently on Mute about the process of cataloguing the Free University of Liverpool’s library. This library consists of donations made to the University by colleagues, friends, associates, the like-minded and the participants themselves. It is another example of a gift economy in which the gift will go on giving. Lorena’s article includes a photograph of participants surrounding a table of around 500 books and ‘intuitively cataloguing the Free University of Liverpool Library’. Intuition and desire were at the centre of this cataloguing process, which jettisoned preconceived notions of category, genre, discipline, publisher, or even theme. This playful and loose classification was ‘aimed at revealing the power hidden in disciplinary divisions and also to reflect on the subjective positions through which they are made’. They were personalising the library, ordering it through the interlocking desires of the collective as a result of discussion and reflection. Like the Occupy libraries, the Free University of Liverpool’s motley collection of books – to which all are invited to access and enjoy – is not aimed at increasing knowledge in the service of capitalist production and accumulation. No, it is far more important than that: it is humanised and humanising, both of which qualities a library must embody if it is to earn its name.


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