Occupy Wall Street Librarians Talk About Feminism, Activism and Librarianship
Betsy Fagin, Zachary Loeb and Mandy Henk presented at ALA Midwinter in Dallas on their experiences managing the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library. Later, they shared their thoughts with Women in Libraries.

Why a library in Zucotti Park?

Zachary Loeb: On a certain level we didn’t set up the library, the library set us up. It started small, some books that people had dropped off on a bench. But then more people dropped off books, and then some of us saw these books and started
photo by Cranberries
to organize them, as we started to get them better organized it fed into a cycle where: more books came, we organized the books better and better, more people saw this and wanted to donate books, etc… In my opinion the library originally grew because OWS represented an important idea and books have – historically – been an excellent way that people spread ideas. In such a political space it was only natural that people would seek the wisdom of ages as written down in books and that people would seek to pass on the books that had inspired them. It was important to make it into more of a genuine library because it can be intimidating to wade into the sea of information without somebody to help you get your bearings and because a pile of disordered books fails to truly serve the informational needs of patrons. Furthermore, OWS had a real component that focused on building community, and libraries are an important part of any truly democratic community.

Mandy Henk: An important part of the Occupation was both meeting the needs of the Occupiers and creating a model of the kind of world we want to build. Since Occupiers need books and because the kind of world we want to build includes libraries, a library was created. No one started the library or set one up--it just happened. It happened because people love books and literature. Organizing it into a library happened because there were librarians and others around who looked at the books and went, "Oh no! There are books not in logical order. We must fix this."

Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, how did this affect or interact with your Occupy work?

Zachary Loeb: Yes, I do. I think that this made me feel a commitment to being a better steward of the library, though a step like making sure that there was a “Gender studies” section seems rather minor. Being a feminist just led to a greater attention to and commitment to making sure that all of those in the working group and all of those in the occupation were recognized in virtue of their humanity, while treating all with the proper respect that they deserve, and trying to ensure that all voices were heard.

Betsy Fagin: I do consider myself a feminist. Feminism permeates my existence; I'm not sure how I would go about isolating its effects on my involvement in Occupy. The first thing that comes to mind is that I would never have been involved with Occupy at all if I weren't the mother of a young child. I've been a stay-at-home mom for the last five years–my son began kindergarten just before Occupy started. My partner is lucky enough to have full time work that supports us (despite the lack of pay equity) and that has allowed me to care for my son. Another contributing factor is that after having a child, it was extremely difficult to re-enter the workplace in a capacity similar to the one I'd left before my son was born. The jobs that were available that would have the flexibility I required didn't pay enough to exceed the costs of decent childcare. Feminist issues, no?

Mandy Henk: I am absolutely a feminist. I'm at a stage of life right now that includes small children. I couldn't do any work at all, much less activism work without a fully engaged husband and father and wonderful child care. Those are both important feminist issues. Right now, my entire life rests on the shoulders of the women and men who fought those battles in earlier generations. We still have a long way to go. Female professions, like librarianship, have made great progress on family friendly workplaces, but traditionally male occupations (I'm looking at you engineering) still have a long way to go to create that kind of workplace that allows parents to be fully engaged at home and at work.

Have you faced any criticism over whether social or political activism is consistent with librarians’ professional ethics? What do you say to critics who believe librarians should not take an activist role? How do you negotiate the tension between objectivity and activism?

ZL: Honestly, I don’t think that there is such a thing as objectivity, at least once you start talking about people doing things. We’re human. We have opinions. We take stances. Objectivity is just a word that is used to keep people from acting up and is far too often meant as a stand in for “preserve the status quo.” Deciding to keep your opinions to yourself is not an objective action, it is a choice, a decision, and it is one that privileges some voices (those currently atop power structures) against others (those currently at the bottom of power structures). Have we faced criticism? Of course. Though most of the criticism does not come from those who trumpet objectivity but from those who are activists in their own way for their own causes. Being a librarian is activism, it always is. You are helping others find the information that will empower them or enlighten them, that is never a neutral act. Furthermore libraries are under assault, though it is generally through the soft force of the budget cut rather than the brute boot, and for a librarian to not stand up (as an activist) for their library in such a situation is for them to fail to stand in defense of their patrons. That being said, as a librarian, I do not feel that it would be appropriate for me to enforce my ideology upon another person, people came to the library and frequently sought books of which I might not have been a huge fan, but this did not keep me from helping them – which is the way to negotiate between objectivity and social activism.

BF: I have not personally encountered those criticisms, perhaps because I have been out of the field for five years. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the notion that the personal is political (& the political is personal). I don't see why social activism would be separate from the rest of life.

MH: Absolutely not. Librarianship is a form of activism. Our professional ethics are activist through and through. Look at the Freedom to Read Statement or the Code of Ethics. Objectivity, looking at the world from a positivist stance, is important--but being neutral about what you see is absurd. I spent a good part of my twenties well aware of the problems of the world, but largely convinced that the "adults" were working on it. Now that I am in my thirties I can see that each and every one of us has an obligation to work to build that better world--the one that an objective look at reality (consider climate change) shows is increasing urgent. We have run out of time to be complacent. If you look at just the data on climate issues--both the oceanic issues and the atmospheric issues, it is long past time to get out in the streets and fight like hell for the sake of our planet.

What can the Feminist Task Force as a group or Women in Libraries readers as individuals do to support Occupy or similar grassroots movements?

ZL: Keep the conversation going. Speak to your friends, speak to your colleagues. Be honest with those around you and unafraid to declare it when something in the world angers you, or saddens you, or makes you laugh. For this movement to grow, we need to all have the bravery to stand up. We need to get off our computers and come together. Movements aren’t plants. They don’t grow just because they’re in the sun and getting some water. Movements are like libraries, they need to be built, and they need to be filled with books. Come help us build, come add your story.

BF: People can participate wherever they are in causes that are close to their hearts. We each work to bring about social and economic justice, to address climate reality, to engage in the ways we are moved to. People must begin to take personal responsibility for effecting change in their own lives and in their own communities.

MH: Bring people out in the streets. One of the things I hear over and over again is that people admire what I do, but could never do it themselves. Let's bring down the barriers and do what we can to make being an activist and engaging in street protest easy and unintimidating. The more of us get out there, the more we do it as a group, the easier it will be for others to join us.

If you participated in an Occupy library across the country, contact Elizabeth Andrejasich (eandrejasich@berry.edu) to share your story with Women in Libraries.