Occupying Boston and Beyond, With Tent Libraries for All
John Ford, who owns the Metacomet alternative bookstore in Plymouth, Mass., organized the Occupy Boston library.
By JESS BIDGOOD
Published: October 21, 2011
BOSTON — This city, home to the nation’s first major public library, has a new and somewhat grittier reading nook. Housed in a green military tent, the library at the Occupy Boston encampment in Dewey Square is overflowing with scholarly tomes that have no due dates or late fees.
The growing collection includes more than 500 books, sorted by genre — consumerism, gender, activism/organizing — and overseen by a bookstore owner and a number of librarians supporting the movement, including some from the Boston Radical Reference Collective. The library has a simple checkout system, an expanding archive of Occupy Boston’s meeting notes and proposals, and a nascent program of speakers and writing workshops.
John Ford, who temporarily shuttered his Metacomet alternative bookstore in Plymouth, Mass., to run the tent library, said it was intended to help protesters learn about systems they find frustrating and explore possible alternatives.
“I hope, at the very least, it just makes people more inclined to be thoughtful about what they’re doing here,” said Mr. Ford, 30, as he stood in front of a table piled with newly donated books that had yet to be filed.
The librarians have eschewed the Dewey Decimal System, concerned by historical accounts that portray Melvil Dewey, its inventor, as a racist and misogynist.
Occupy Boston is not the only protest site with its own library. In New York, Occupy Wall Street has one, as do encampments in Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and elsewhere. The library at Occupy Wall Street is more vulnerable to the elements because protesters there are not allowed to have tents.
“A couple of people have been in here saying they’re not as organized as we are, and I’m pretty excited about that,” said Vered Meir of Boston, who is helping create an archive of Occupy Boston’s records. “Of course, it’s not a competition.”
Still, running a library in a tent comes with challenges. When a gust of wind knocked several crates off a shelf one recent day, a volunteer was dispatched to the “logistics tent,” the camp’s main hub for supplies. In less than 10 minutes, Mr. Ford was binding the crates to the tent frame using bungee cords.
Mr. Ford says up to 50 books have been donated per day. They are coming in faster than they can be checked out.
Stephen Squibb, 28, a Harvard graduate student and Occupy Boston media volunteer, was hunched over a laptop in one corner of the library on Tuesday, flanked by Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” on one side and a package of cigarettes on the other.
He had been there all day, juggling classwork, his volunteer work and articles he is writing for the literary magazine n+1 and Artforum.
“I don’t know what it is, man — books,” Mr. Squibb said. “I just feel better. And I certainly couldn’t have been this productive. I’ve gotten more done today than I ever have here.”
Ilya Slavinski, 24, who works for a nonprofit and was among 141 people arrested during a standoff with the police last week, ducked into the library on Sunday, curious about the historian Howard Zinn, whose “People’s History of the United States” portrays the country as a place where the privileged abuse the downtrodden.
“I’ve been hearing about Howard Zinn a lot,” Mr. Slavinski said later, “in terms of being the unofficial but more true history of the United States.”
He wasn’t allowed to check out the library’s copy of “People’s History,” its most requested book. Like the Encyclopaedia Britannica in conventional libraries, it is considered a reference volume and not allowed to be taken out.
But Mr. Slavinski did take out another work by Mr. Zinn, reading it on and off as he watched concerts and chatted with other demonstrators.
Another sought-after author here is Noam Chomsky, the linguist and philosopher, whose books have their own section, labeled “Papa Noam, Etc.” He is scheduled to come speak to the protesters this weekend.
“It’s huge,” Mr. Ford said of Mr. Chomsky’s appearance. “He’s like the patron saint of left-wing idealism.”
For some, the books are a needed distraction from the harsh reality of living outside. When she was looking for respite, Kassandra Ledesma, 18, a high school dropout from the Dorchester neighborhood, went to the library and signed out “Night,” by Elie Wiesel.
“I read this book in high school,” said Ms. Ledesma, who has been camped out with Occupy Boston for about two weeks. “In your tent, read a book, settle down. It’s a moment to yourself, a moment of clarity.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 21, 2011