The A-Z Library began the day after Occupy Boston did, when John Ford drove down from his Plymouth bookstore in a repurposed military ambulance filled with the 200 titles that would become the seed of the collection. The following day, he was joined by members of the Boston Radical Reference Collective, a group created to support activist communities, looking to make themselves useful to the movement. They in turn reached out to the Simmons Progressive Librarians Guild, and the A-Z Library began to take shape.
The books started flooding in almost at once.
"We've had a really amazing outpouring of support from people," said librarian Heather McCann about a week before the library's demise. McCann, a petite blonde who radiates competence, works as urban studies and urban planning librarian at MIT. As a member of the BRRC, she was involved with Occupy from the start.
"Some people have donated books that are their very favorites. Some people have bought brand new books," she said. Too many, in fact — the A-Z library got so many books that it had to winnow the collection down to those it felt appropriate to the goals of the movement. Some books went into the spirituality tent. Others were donated to underserved communities, including prisoner inmates. Still others were traded in at the Brookline Booksmith.
After a New York Times story about Occupy libraries highlighted Zinn's most famous work, A People's History of the United States, a woman bought a stack and donated them to the occupiers. They went fast.
"The Zinn and Chomsky stuff gets checked out pretty quickly," McCann said. "Any of the books on anarchism go out right away, and a surprising number of political and economic theory books." History books and works espousing the movement's core values also moved quickly, McCann said. Fiction and lighter nonfiction was popular, too, like Hunter S. Thompson and novels like 1984 and Brave New World.
Sifting through the card catalog — a plastic recipe file containing alphabetical index cards listing just title and author — one could see just how diverse the Occupiers' tastes were. A random sampling of circulated books included Affluenza, The New Testament, A Welfare Mother, and The Shock Doctrine — twice.
"Their minds are open now," McCann said, explaining the breadth.
As a hand-written poster board above the card catalog indicated, A-Z Library patrons checked out books on the honor system by initialing the title card at checkout and writing the letter "R" upon return. This catalog was one of many improvisations the librarians concocted: McCann and her colleagues had to navigate their fair share of alien conditions.
"[The collection] was too small to organize into formal classification systems, so we organized the books by topic," McCann said — a difficult concession for a notoriously precise bunch. The materials wound up in about 30 categories: the books in milk crates with white paper signs, and ephemera — 'zines, magazines, leaflets, relevant printouts — in neat stacks on shelves, in woven baskets, in magazine files. They hung newspapers from a clothes drying rack.
Organizing the collection may have been the easy part.
"This is an all-volunteer work force," McCann said. "Trying to find enough people to keep the library manned at any given time is hard. It's a completely volunteer situation. It's outside. There's no money. There's no governing body or hierarchy."