Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Libraries as Public Spaces: and another reason why activism works

LESC we won poster for the gardens 1999,
book block December 2013, all part of a movement to defend the public commons.
scenes from a campaign

“We Won!” organizer Leslie Kauffman declared in a flyer produced by the Lower East Side Collective Public Space Group in spring 1999, after the extraordinary victory of the grassroots campaign to save New York's community gardens. Many of us got involved in that struggle because we recognized gardens as vital public spaces, open for everyone to learn and grow and build democracy together. Gardens, libraries, parks: These are all part of the commons of a healthy vibrant city. So we organized, connected gardens with broader movements supporting open green spaces, got arrested, used street theatrics, and helped push back the attack on these spaces.
Last week, Kauffman trumpeted another victory. “WE WON! New York Public Library Abandons Plan to Revamp 42nd StreetBuilding,” she posted on behalf of Library Lovers League, a group she formed last year with long-time activists including S.J. Avery, Zack Winestine, and a few supporters from the Lower East Side Collective Public Space working group, including this writer.

Kauffman above, and Winestine, below, driving forces behind the campaign

The Library Lovers League lit a fire under a lot of us, plugging in activists from the Illuminator Collective, the Puppets of Occupy Wall Street, Interference Archive, the Billionaires, with the ongoing efforts of  Citizens Defending Libraries, the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, and other organizers already working on the library issue. We came together to push back against the privatization steamroller, ready to blandify and homogenize the cultural landscape, just as the old Lower East Side Collective Public Space working group had done fifteen years prior.

The successful effort to beat back NYPL's Central Library Plan is a testament to the lesson that that organizing works.

A few days after the news broke, I spoke with Kauffman, who helped break down the steps in the campaign.  We talked about the ways this campaign connected with the struggle to save the community gardens. “To me, the library campaign was very much about the public sphere, about defending the commons and protecting public spaces,” explains Kauffman.

“Then as now, is it a perfect victory? Of course not,” acknowledged Kauffman, noting there are many unanswered questions about where the books will be housed at the 42nd Street Research Library, who paid the architect $9 million dollars, and who will be held accountable. “But I’m in the camp that says it's important to claim and celebrate your victories. They are rare and precious. Then with the gardens, and now with the libraries, you say it proudly: Together, WE WON.”

Kauffman continued, “The fight around the libraries was started and sustained by a dedicated group of scholars concerned about what would happen to the 42nd Street Research Library, one of the world's great public research institutions. But it was only won when it become more than that. The NYPL real-estate plan would have damaged the library system in larger ways. We prevailed only when we were really able to make the issue not just about the fate of the research stacks but also about how the deal would take resources away from branch libraries and close the largest circulating branch in the United States, the Mid-Manhattan Library.”

Over time, the NYPL campaign evolved from an effort led by scholars to a broad-based coalition featuring many rank-and-file library users, defending the system as a public commons. A powerful combination of tactics – lawsuits, creative organizing, and coalition-building – propelled the victory.

“The lawsuits worked brilliantly at stalling the plan and buying more time to organize opposition. Over time, more and more cultural figures spoke against the plan, and not just about its effect on scholarship. You had, for instance, Junot Diaz decrying the effect on branch libraries and artist Molly Crabapple attesting to the importance of Mid-Manhattan in her education. A very crucial piece was pulling in some of the same forces who elected Mayor Bill de Blasio to ask him to block the plan – union leaders like George Gresham of 1199 and Hector Figueroa of SEIU 32BJ, and community groups like Make the Road NY and El Puente.”

Breaking the story last Wednesday, the NY Times credited the turn around with a change in administration, an honest assessment of the costs of the projects, and pressure from the public, including “critics dressed like books” who made “frequent appearances” at NYPL board meetings.  

Later the night we received the news, a few organizers from the Library Lovers League, including Kauffman and Winestine got together for a drink at Andrew Boyd’s monthly Billionaires’ reunion hang-out night. 

A few of us recalled the workings of the campaign. 

I first heard about the campaign a year ago, plugging in last fall after the one of our monthly salons, dating back to the days before the Battle of Seattle, turned into a planning session.  

At the meeting, we agreed that the challenge facing the battle between the books and the billionaires needed to be dramatized.  After a dozen years of Michael Bloomberg’s billionaire rule, we were more than used to the logic of the billionaires and their ever expanding proclivity to privatize the public for private gain.  Their zest to gut the public had become commonplace to the point of absurd. 

What we needed was a counterpoint to this logic, framing the argument from the point of view of the public, of the book users, the people who learn English in libraries, the 13 year old kid from Queens who finds salvation in a library.  In other words, the books would need to speak back.

We would have to make the clash between the books and billionaires a public spectacle for everyone to see.

Let's put together a book block, I suggested, describing a few of the book blocks in protests around the world.

book blocks from around the world

The idea clicked.  We would stage a demonstration with displaced books converging, begging not to be moved.

We’d call the flashmob of books for December, planning paint sessions at Interface Archive, organizing painting and planning meetings for the next several weeks as we planned and drafted a press release.

And engaged our friends from the Puppets of Occupy Wall Street, as well as the Billionaires, who planned their own placards for the action.

The Billionaires debated placard ideas, messaging, and talking points:

Luxury Housing is a Right
Books: Can't Eat 'Em, Who Needs 'Em?
Private Libraries- Get Your Own.

Further talking points:
If people want books, they should just buy their own. Or I'll tell you what-- it's the holidays season, so I'll buy everyone here the book of their choice if they'll just stop all this fuss about preserving the library. How's that sound? You get a book, I get a luxury condo: it's a win/win.

Real Estate is for the Estate Class
--I think we can all agree that what the average New Yorker needs is another block of luxury condos that they can't afford to live in, not a library that serves everyone equally.
--If we can get our hands on the libraries, just think of the possibilities for future acquisition.  I've always loved the Statue of Liberty--why not put it up for sale to the highest bidder?  America's huddled billionaires are yearning to breathe free! If I can afford it, I should be able to build myself a luxury penthouse in the crown...That's the American way, isn't it?

Libraries are creeping socialism
--Did you know that anyone who lives in New York can become a "member" of the public library for FREE?  This is an affront to anyone who supports uncontrolled capitalism.  
--Sending these books to New Jersey is a first step towards ending dependence on free book loans.  
--What are we teaching little Sally when we allow her to "check out" a book for free?  That knowledge is free and should be shared?  Balderdash! 

On December 11th, 2013, Andrew Boyd put out a call to the old Billionaire List.
From: Andrew Boyd
Subject: New date! Mon Dec 16, noon -- Billionaires vs. Books on steps of NYPL! Be there!
calling all billionaires, um, again -- it's a new date but same bling!

Books and rain don't mix, so Leslie, Ben & co have rescheduled the Books Not Billionaires Flash Mob to Save NYPL for noon on Monday, December 16.

again, you don't have to organize this one -- the wonderful Leslie Kaufman & Ben Shepard are already doing that -- all you have to do is show up and be your beautiful blinged-up selves

·The Books Not Billionaires Flashmob was scheduled for December.
The New York Public Library is in peril. Plans are afoot to exile a large part of its legendary research holdings to storage in New Jersey. Why? So the nearby Mid-Manhattan Branch, one of the country’s busiest libraries, can be sold to billionaire real-estate developers and replaced with a luxury tower. A much smaller Mid-Manhattan library with far fewer books would then be crammed into the space made available by evicting the research collection.

Help stop this crazy “renovation" by joining in a street theater flash mob at noon sharp on Monday, December 16 on the steps of the 42nd Street Research Library. **Dress as a favorite book or as one of the real-estate billionaires who see the books as an obstacle to profits.** Be ready to take part in theatrical improvisation as the plutocrats try to displace the books, and the books alternately lament their fate and seek to stand their ground.

Book costumes can be really simple: just cut a cardboard box to a suitable size and paint it! Or you can create something much more elaborate. You can also just make a big book cover and carry it as a prop. Here's one 10-year-old's version:

Formal evening attire is best. 

Come to the flash mob anyway! We have a bunch of extra book costumes plus lots of signs to hold.

It will be simple: Follow the lead of the head Billionaires and the captains of the Displaced Book Brigade. 

No, this is a street theater flash mob, not a dance flash mob!

Well, we won’t do exactly the same thing again, but we’re planning on a whole series of actions and pop-up happenings until our libraries are saved! Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates. 

Background on the NYPL’s awful renovation plan:

Sponsored by the Library Lovers League
Follow us on Twitter @LibraryLoversNY

To learn more about the fight to save libraries in NYC, visit and

Ron, a LESC veteran who supported the campaign

By the end of the day, news about our action was tweeted around the world, with stories and videos sympathetically highlighting the plight of the displaced books in multiple news outlets. 

Photos from the citizensdefendinglibraries capture some of the spirit from the flash mob.
One of the billionaires tried to bribe one of the potentially displaced books to just
be quiet and go to new jersey where the books were to be shipped. Why are real estate interests calling the shots on library policy we asked over and over. 

Before the action had even happened, I got a call from a friend putting together a show on book protest shields being held at the Victoria Albert Museum in England asking for a copy of one of the signs.

Somehow the book block resonated.

But so did the call for to preserve ths piece of our cultural history.

By 2014, supporters were popping up in countless circles.  Prominent writers, such as Jonathan Lethem, were speaking out.  The Wall Street Journal condemned the NYPL trustees for their lack of support for the organization they were charged to protect, and the Illuminator shone images questioning the motives of the Central Library Plan.  Every article on the project seemed to work against the NYPL’s Orwellian argument that they were preserving the library by selling its largest branch. Like the Bush era Clean Skies Act allowing for increased pollution, the Central Library Plan defied conventional wisdom or common sense.  And the whole city seemed to know it. 

Message from the Illuminator on the Mid Manhattan Library

In the meantime, the sleeping giant of the campaign, moms with strollers and rank-and-file library users got involved, meeting at rallies, speaking out, and sending some six thousand letters to de Blasio. Each letter seemed to make the plan less and less tenable.

“Aren’t libraries about Democracy?” declared a flyer from a flyer at a subsequent rally. “Aren’t libraries about providing equal access and opportunities for all?” 

By May, the NYPL scratched plans for the Central Library Plan.  It is a testament that we can push back against big developers, even in New York City. The day after the action, shippers came to the house to take a copy of the old book block, we’d used at the December 16th rally, to hang in the show in London.

Gavin Grindon wrote a description for the book block we made for the December 16, \
2013 rally, to be displayed in the Disobedient Objects show and tour.  This is the 1962 cover of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the novel, Atticus, after his friend passes, explains to his son, “I wanted you to see what real courage is.” His friend kept on, even when she knew her illness became terminal. “Instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. Its when you know that you are licked before you begin but you begin anyway. And you see it through no matter what. You rarely win but sometimes you do.” The struggle to save New
York’s libraries may be such a fight. Benjamin Heim Sheppard.

Book Bloc placard, Books Not Billionaires, New York, 2013, cardboard,

Libraries and Gardens, parks and streets – these are all our commons, the foundation for a vibrant city.  They are places where kids hang out and build community, ideas are preserved, and born.  They are also places for daydreaming.  As of today, there is a kid from Queens who can go to the Mid-Manhattan Library and find a book unavailable in her neighborhood and watch her world expand, her mind explode with new ideas.  Libraries do these wonders, helping us see cities as gardens, with pulsing public commons.  

According to the Library Lovers, the NY Times editorial board approves, the critics of NYPL's plan vindicated, but everything is not coming up roses. Demand transparency and accountability from your public library.

1 comment:

  1. It's good to celebrate victories and positive actions by activists. Over at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn unfortunately efforts against a pipeline project that aims to hand over historic property in the park to natural gas companies was actually hindered by activist, some mentioned in this post even like the people's puppets.