Guerrilla Librarians

by Henry Farrell on November 3, 2011

Scott’s new “article”: at _IHE_ provides some interesting follow up information on the role of librarians in _OWS_ (and their historical antecedents).

bq. Steven Syrek, a graduate student in English at Rutgers University, has been working at the OWS library since about the third week of the demonstration. “People talk about this movement like it’s a ragtag bunch of hippies,” he told me when we spoke by phone, “but the work we do is extremely well-organized.” The central commitment, Syrek says, is to create “a genuine clearinghouse for books and information.” Volunteers have adopted a slogan summing up what the library brings to the movement: “Literacy, Legitimacy, and Moral Authority.”

bq. … But the libraries at the anti-Wall Street protests are not quite as novel as they first appear. They have a tradition going back the better part of two centuries. In a recent article, Matthew Battles, the author of Libraries: An Unquiet History (Norton, 2004), noted the similarity to the reading rooms that served the egalitarian Chartist movement in Britain. … points out that libraries emerged as part of the sit-down strikes that unionized the American auto industry in the 1930s. …

bq. So the OWS library and its spin-offs have a venerable ancestry. But what distinguishes them is that the collections are drawing in people with a deep background in library work – who, aside from their feelings about the economic situation itself, are sometimes frustrated by the state of their profession. … The issue here isn’t just the impact on the librarians’ own standard of living. Their professional ethos is defined by a commitment to making information available to the public. They are very serious about that obligation, or at least the good ones are, and they are having a hard time meeting it. If knowledge is power, then expensive databases, fewer books, and shorter library hours add up to growing intellectual disenfranchisement. … joining the occupation movement is a way for librarians “to begin taking power back,” Henk says, “the power to create collections and to define what a library is for.” It is, in effect, a battle for the soul of the library as an institution.



Gene O'Grady 11.03.11 at 3:59 am

I suspect the Mechanics Institute Libraries, of which one still remains in San Francisco with a rather different atmosphere, going back into the mid-19th century represent something of the same phenomenon?

It would be amusing to list some of their discards I bought over the years but I will refrain.


Warren Terra 11.03.11 at 7:11 am

Not terribly amused by the post title, which achieves a weak pun at the cost of some really unfortunate resonances.

Thanks for the link to McLemee’s essay, though. Looks interesting.


maidhc 11.03.11 at 9:13 am

I was going to mention the Mechanics Institutes, but I see that Gene O’Grady has anticipated me. There is a very interesting one in Swan Hill, Victoria, but it’s part of a history park and not a functioning entity.

They were made obsolete by the public library? Although they sponsored lectures and did other things that public libraries didn’t do. I wish I knew more about what happened to them.

Apparently the public of 100 years ago were in some ways much more engaged in current events, even though they lacked many of the amenities that we have today.

I found an account of Emma Goldman back 100 years ago delivering a lecture to the citizens of the town where I live now, and it seems to have been quite a lively evening full of spirited debate. You would have a hard time finding anything similar today.


Emma in Sydney 11.03.11 at 9:31 am

Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, founded 1833, still running, has the oldest library in Australia. They still have great lectures too. All of Sydney’s technical education, and two universities, trace their origins to the SMSA, one way or another. There’s more here, and they have a website, but I can’t make it link —


daelm 11.03.11 at 11:23 am

“Apparently the public of 100 years ago were in some ways much more engaged in current events, even though they lacked many of the amenities that we have today.”

no television


Ebenezer Scrooge 11.03.11 at 11:45 am

By coincidence, I was looking at the library collection the other day. It was mostly fiction, medium-strong in identity studies, and very weak in economics/political economy. Maybe all the economics books were checked out? Maybe not–the catalog seems consistent with my perusal. (
A bleg in comments: donate your old economics/political economy books.


Witt 11.03.11 at 12:25 pm

This is terrific to hear. I have been working in libraries since 1989, and the continuing erosion of public accessibility is pretty remarkable. Many print resources were switched (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes forcibly) over to electronic in the ’90s and early 2000s.

By the time the state fiscal crises began in 2007-08, and public library budgets were slashed, the electronic subscriptions were an easy place to cut. The result has been a serious weakening of available material.

Way to go librarians. I’m glad to hear they’re finding their place in the Occupy movements.


Henry 11.03.11 at 12:28 pm

bq. Not terribly amused by the post title, which achieves a weak pun at the cost of some really unfortunate resonances.

Fair enough. Choices at 11pm after a long day of kid-herding are not always good ones. Changed.


J. Otto Pohl 11.03.11 at 2:05 pm

You really need to note that you changed the title of the post using the strike out option. This is not just the correction of a typographical or spelling error. It is a fundamental recasting of the intended emphasis. This is fine, but you should note that you have made this correction in the OP.


bianca steele 11.03.11 at 2:21 pm

If you read something like Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines (which had a huge influence on me and on my deciding to major in computer science), you see a strong hope that everybody will have access to the information. Admittedly, you also see no focus at all on who was going to pay for the system, who was going to control linkages between one text and another, or what was going to happen if and when knowledge was contested. But you don’t see any inkling that knowledge would be restricted to given physical locations like universities and think tanks. And what you also don’t see is the dismissive response I got from most academic types in the 1980s who I described “hypertext” to: “what you want is a machine to do the grunt work for you,” as if grad school dues are all about the virtue of tracking down journal articles. And that’s the response I suspect you still get in most places that aren’t focused for political reasons on the cost of the databases and the profits made by the publishers.


Barry Freed 11.03.11 at 2:30 pm

As someone now back in school to become a librarian after an over long hiatus and a few missed starts this pleases me no end.

(and I second J. Otto Pohl, above, not necessarily in using strike through, but some kind of acknowledgement is to be preferred).


J. Otto Pohl 11.03.11 at 2:33 pm


The whole world of academic publishing and how those publications are accessed needs to be rehauled. But, certainly the inability of people not employed by universities to access things like JSTOR is part of the problem. Academics should be seeking to get as large an audience as possible and instead their readership has been shrinking. Including the editor and the peer reviewers I would be suprised if most academic journal articles had a dozen readers. Making these articles available to people outside the 1% lucky enough to have university jobs would help in this matter. Although I am guessing that I am one of the few people with a university position who views things this way.


Gene O'Grady 11.03.11 at 9:50 pm

To the best of my knowledge, the SF Mechanics Institute Library is still a going concern. My understanding when I worked a couple blocks from it in the late 80’s was that the chess matches were the biggest appeal to potential members.


Henry 11.04.11 at 12:41 am

J. Otto – it seems to me to be a pretty trivial change – the title, as noted was a weak pun which didn’t really have anything to do with the argument of the post, so I think an acknowledgment in comments is sufficient.


EM 11.04.11 at 3:57 am

J. Otto (regarding open publishing) – I think you’re wrong that most academics would not favor overhauling the system. We’re talking about publishers that, for legacy reasons at this point, get paid coming AND going and make $2 billion in PROFITS. That’s basically skimming money out of research to go to unrelated investors. Why this has continued in the internet age is twofold: (1) inertia, in that many people still want to publish in Science, or Physical Revew Letters, or whatever, and probably have not paid much attention to new open source journals and (2) Even if they have paid attention (like me), are worried about voluntarily dropping to a “new” journal which would have a lower impact factor (I am not sure how much this matters) , or even just seeming to stand out too much by taking a stand (something I worry about more).

Link on that $2 Billion point:

Reading that really makes me want to submit my next paper to the Open Astronomy Journal.


J. Otto Pohl 11.04.11 at 9:26 am


My guess is that most established academics in the US at least support the status quo even if only tacitly like you because it entrenches their position by allowing them to be gate keepers of “acceptable knowledge.” Of course with this “acceptable knowledge” as published in certain restricted journals also comes highly lucrative tenure track jobs which are also extremely limited. The main function of peer review is not quality control. It is to limit severly the types of ideas that get published in journals expressing the official views of academic disciplines. Generally to the ideas expressed by themselves so that they can keep their monopoly on tenured positions in the field. This is one of the primary reasons it is much easier to get published in interdisciplinary peer reviewed journals than those devoted to specific fields.

There is also an iron law of nature that says that nobody else on the internet ever agrees with anything I ever write, particularly if they are US academics. So based on that alone I am going with the claim most academics support the status quo. Honestly, I have a lot more in common with my African co-workers than I do with US based academics.


EM 11.04.11 at 3:38 pm

J Otto – (I hope it is not bad form to deviate so far from the topic?) –

Wow! I do not consider myself a gatekeeper. But I am in a relatively non-controversial field (astrophysics). Certainly my motivations for going with the status quo have more to do with the hierarchical structure around me: neither my present advisor, nor future, say, department chairperson would be particularly happy with the idea of putting all my research in a “no name” journal. And this criticism has some basis, in that the open journal in my field is published by Bentham, which is known to have a very poor (possibly nonexistant) review process, and to charge very high prices for publishing.

However ideologically, it makes me more than a little upset that I am funded by public money and yet the public can not easily read my research. I think on this point you’ll find broad agreement.

If your idea of open source journals is to allow more “non-mainstream” opinions, this means you have a problem with the narrow-mindedness of your field perhaps. In astronomy any reasonably supported idea can be published, but the snubbing usually comes in lack of citations (not always deserved, and relative to the “bigness” of the author). But this is a different fight than open/not open.

PS – “lucrative?!” Here 60K 9 month salary is not really considered lucrative. I’d make double that easily selling myself to an oil company or financial trading firm…


Jon 11.04.11 at 5:09 pm

J. Otto: if no U.S. academic agrees with you about the merits of open-access publishing, and no U.S. academic agrees with you about whether they agree with you, you begin to get a Cretan paradox going there . . . NB that proprietary vs. open-source is a different issue than that of peer review; U.S. legal academia, for example, has mostly proprietary but non-peer-reviewed journals. I feel confident that the fact that people without database subscriptions have less access to my work does nothing to entrench my position. I have tenure either way. The restrictions on ordinary people getting jobs in my field (because they don’t have the right academic degree, etc.) are the same either way. It does make money for the database proprietors, though.


ragweed 11.04.11 at 5:40 pm

“Apparently the public of 100 years ago were in some ways much more engaged in current events, even though they lacked many of the amenities that we have today.”

I wonder how much that was a selection bias issue – ie. the accounts we read of events in the past, written by people who were in the engaged crowd, make it seem that the public as a whole was more engaged, when it was really just the same small percentage. Obviously there were times when people were more and less engaged in world events – eg. world or civil wars – but can we really generalize?

The WTO protests in Seattle were a huge act of public participation and disruption to the city, and yet I know people who lived here in November of ’99 and hardly noticed anything was going on other than the busses ran a little slow.

@J Otto Pool, EM, etc.

I am not sure that academia is behind the limited access to information. Didn’t Princeton just prohibit their faculty from granting exclusive access to journals unless a waiver was obtained from the university?

I find that many, many academics post their published articles, or a recent working copy, publicly on their academic web-sites. While some just include the JSTOR link, many link the papers themselves (and I suspect the ones that link JSTOR are doing it because of copyright restrictions).

I suspect the reason academics are not more vocal about it is more a matter of tradition and institutional inertia than any actual desire to cooperate with the access restriction. They assume that most of the people who want to read academic articles are people with access – the idea that the broader public would want to read obscure journal articles probably hasn’t occured to most (especially if one is in a field where talking about your work at non-academic dinner parties quickly results in glazed eyes . . .).



Gene O'Grady 11.04.11 at 7:51 pm


from what I know of San Francisco area history I think it isn’t selection bias. The customers of the Mechanics Institute library really were mechanics (in the archaic sense), and the Tivoli Opera really was for entertaining the masses, prize fighters especially. Plus the intellectual level provided by the churches, both the old style Protestants and the pre-Wojtyla Roman Catholics, plus the old free thinkers in the debate, shouldn’t be underestimated.


bianca steele 11.04.11 at 8:05 pm

Is that really Jessamyn West in the comments section?


Barry Freed 11.04.11 at 10:31 pm

Is that really Jessamyn West in the comments section?

Where? I don’t see any comments by her here.


Barry Freed 11.05.11 at 1:14 pm

Ah, silly me, I see that you meant at IHE (though it’s not much of a comment).


Jon 11.05.11 at 1:51 pm

It may be a Jessamyn West, but it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of (who died in 1984).


bianca steele 11.05.11 at 3:50 pm

Actually, it was in part the Jessamyn West I was thinking of, whose name was in the paper recently, but I’d gotten confused and thought they were the same person.


Barry Freed 11.05.11 at 4:01 pm

I’ll bet she gets that a lot.


Eli Rabett 11.07.11 at 3:02 am

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