From Chomsky to the Onion: What’s on the Shelves at Occupy Wall Street’s Library

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Mike Segar / Reuters

A demonstrator browses books at the People's Library of Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan

Another blue-skied weekend at Occupy Wall Street saw the usual congeries of activists, drummers, pontificators and sympathizers in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

Folk musicians strummed guitars next to environmental campaigners agitating against the practice of fracking. Near the northern face of the park, a man visiting from Florida angrily denounced the bailout of banks before a broadcast streamed on the Internet. Online viewers typed their support in an open chat window.

Not far from this real-time vox populi, three volunteers sat sorting a pile of books. One raised a copy of an Estonian dictionary. “Is this for reference or foreign languages?” she asked. “Foreign, I think,” came the considered answer.

Occupy Wall Street’s People’s Library is, like much else at the movement’s adopted home, somewhat surprising. Taking up a good chunk of the northeastern corner of the park, it consists of a maze of tables and hard plastic boxes marked by genre — fiction, classics, sci-fi, children’s and so on. The movement’s designated librarians say there are between 2,500 and 4,000 volumes in the park, with more in storage and dozens of books donated by visitors and supporters every day. “As the occupation and movement has grown,” says Zachary Loeb, a librarian in the New York City area who volunteers at the site, “so too has its library.”

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The 10 or so volunteers who man the library at any given moment record the ISBN number of each book and tag the bindings with pink stickers marked “OWSL” — making the collection, despite its unorthodox home, look like it wouldn’t be out of place in any other public library. But there is no formal method for borrowing from the People’s Library. It exists on an unwritten honor code among denizens of Occupy Wall Street.

While I was speaking with Loeb, a visitor asked whether there were any system to return books. “None,” Loeb replied. “You’ll just have my eternal gratitude.” Hristo Voynov, a student at Hunter College and another volunteer at the library, claims that simple trust works at Occupy Wall Street. “Every night, the library ends up with more books than it started with.”

One may wonder why Occupy Wall Street needs to invest time and energy into maintaining a library, not least as New York City’s bitter, oft-snowy winter approaches. Loeb turns the question around: “Why is it important to have a kitchen, a [tents and blanket] station, a press table and not a library? Information matters. We are feeding people’s minds.”

The most popular books on offer seem to be what one would expect: leftist tracts on history and politics by authors like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. These populate a set of shelves that cannot be borrowed from because the books are so in demand. Yet also in the most popular mix are satirical commentaries from the Onion, a binder of ponderous articles explaining the financial crisis and myriad anthologies of poetry, including one written by participants of Occupy Wall Street in honor of the protesters. That collection even boasts works submitted by famous American poets such as Adrienne Rich and Anne Waldman.

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In the Sunday-afternoon sunshine, an adolescent boy sits amid the crowd in yellow socks and soccer cleats, reading a comic book titled “Addicted to War,” about the militarization of American society. Myriad New Yorkers and protesters file through the library’s aisles, perusing the books before sitting down on nearby park benches with their finds. Amanda Hartkey, another library volunteer, says the library is emblematic of the wider spirit in the park. “I’m inspired by how so many different people come here and treat each other with respect. No one interrupts the other, and now they read together.” The library has also started its own public readings series using wireless headphones that are passed around in the park. It’s Zuccotti Park’s local radio station.

But away from the almost quaint pleasantness of the library, all’s not rosy for Occupy Wall Street. Winter is coming, and the scramble is on to amass enough sleeping bags and warm clothing for the occupiers to be able to withstand below-freezing temperatures. Organizers claim that they will be prepared but acknowledge that the park’s overnight numbers may slip dramatically as activists opt for warmer, indoor spaces. Meanwhile, some among the group are pushing for the movement to consider occupying Central Park, a move that could more easily incite police intervention and is opposed by a number of the organizers at Zuccotti Park.

Moreover, concerns are growing about local complaints over the disturbances caused by protesters — including incidents of public urination and the incessant noise of the drum circle. Organizers claim to have reined in the hours during which the drummers can bang away, though some grumble about wanting to sabotage the musicians’ instruments. Occupy Wall Street has the money to rent Porta-Pottys, but protesters say city authorities have so far denied them the right to set those up. “We are doing everything in our power to abide by the laws and respect our neighbors,” says Sherman Jackson, an Occupy Wall Street media representative, who adds that many on the neighborhood community board support the occupation. Still, the threat of eviction is a perennial, invisible presence in the park.

Back at the library, there are more immediate problems. Voynov, one of the volunteers, struggles to preserve the integrity of the sci-fi/fantasy shelf. “People just put back books anywhere,” he says. But he admits that it’s impressive that books once borrowed come back at all. Of course, not all are returned. The People’s Library had on reserve two copies of Steal This Book, by 1960s rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman. Both volumes have been stolen.

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Ishaan Tharoor is a writer for TIME and the editor of Global Spin. You can find him on Twitter at @ishaantharoor. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.