The people’s library checks out
Activists see an opening in the Seattle Public Library's week-long closure
Thea White showed up Aug. 28 at the Douglass-Truth Library in the Central District clutching a copy of “Monsters of Men,” a young adult novel set in a dystopian future.
The 17-year-old Chief Sealth High School senior planned to return her book and pick up another one like it to fill the final hours of summer vacation.
She had forgotten the library was closed.
In an effort to save money, each year since 2009 the Seattle Public Library (SPL) has shut down every branch and portions of its website during the final week in August.
But White didn’t leave empty-handed. In front of the locked doors of the library, she found a covered awning with three laptops, bookshelves made out of old wine cases and milk crates filled with magazines.
This was the People’s Library, a makeshift resource center set up by volunteers as an antidote to SPL’s closure.
Those who might’ve otherwise browsed inside the library took to the sidewalk, sifting through books and magazines in boxes and shelves or looking for jobs on three laptops connected to the Internet through a cell phone.
White chose three classics she hoped would prepare her for college: “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde, “Someone Else’s Mama” by David Haynes, and “Infants of the Spring” by Wallace Thurman.
She approached a folding table staffed by volunteers to ask how to borrow them.
“There’s no checking out,” a tall man with dreadlocks told her. “Tell your friends.”
Occupy the library
The outdoor library came together quickly. Yates Coley, 28, a University of Washington graduate student studying biostatistics, was meeting with other people from Occupy Seattle looking for a community outreach project. They decided the library’s budgeted closure provided the perfect opportunity.
“It’s been like an all-out sprint since then,” she said.
Coley and others collected books from their homes and used bookstores around the community. Twice Sold Tales, Pegasus Book Exchange and Couth Buzzard Books provided their first boxes of used books.
“Knowledge is power; books are incredible,” Couth Buzzard owner Theo Dzielak said. “Why are libraries closing down when we’re the richest country in the world? It’s just unfathomable to me.”
On Aug. 27, without a permit or permission, Yates and others set up the People’s Library in front of the Douglass-Truth library.
People embraced it. Teenagers and seniors wandered through the stacks picking out novels, cookbooks and nonfiction. While the bibliography surpassed what you might find on the shelves of a Value Village, some offerings were predictable. “The Tofu Cookery,” the “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison and a collection of essays by Noam Chomsky sat among the stacks.
Occasionally volunteers held story time for the kids. Sometimes they even reversed the roles, letting the kids read books to a circle of eager adults.
For Tiffaney Cielos, who didn’t know the library would be closed when she arrived Aug. 28, the People’s Library was a place where her nine year-old daughter, Isabella, could play while Cielos looked for a job on a computer. She’s been unemployed for a year and a half, she said.
“It’s amazing how far out of reach survival is for the average person,” Cielos said.
Isabella pieced together a pirate puzzle on the stoop of a staircase while Cielos applied for a few jobs.
Together, they made a bird feeder out of a pinecone, peanut butter and suet and sat down for a free lunch provided by Operation: Sack Lunch.
Seattle’s libraries opened again Sept. 4, restoring access to books and computers.
No one needs the People’s Library now, so volunteers took it down. It has nonetheless made its mark.
While the People’s Library was still lending books, Sean Gaston sat at a folding table stamping the inside covers of the latest batch of donations. It wasn’t a due date. The stamp read “People’s Library of Seattle, est. 2012.”
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