Monday, June 14, 2010

24-Hour Read-In Protests Cuts to Libraries

Valerie Hoyte and her 3-year-old daughter, Jordin Trillo, selecting a book at the read-in at the Brooklyn Public Library. Photo by Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times


It was the literary equivalent of a filibuster, a bookworm’s take on 1960s-style protest.

A 24-hour stream of sentences and stories, spanning the canon from George Eliot to “Gossip Girl,” flowed from dozens of book-loving New Yorkers this weekend who were concerned about austere budget cuts to libraries proposed by City Hall.

Not typically ones to raise their voices, librarians staged an overnight read-in on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library on Grand Army Plaza to criticize the city’s plan to close 40 branches by month’s end, and to reduce hours and employees at those that remain.

The event’s slogan: “We Will Not Be Shushed.”

Aliqae Geraci , above, called libraries “a huge support system for the unemployed.” Photo by Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times.

“In the Great Depression, the New York public libraries were kept open seven days a week,” said Aliqae Geraci, a librarian in Queens and a coordinator of the event. “It is a huge support system for the unemployed and the transient.”

Another organizer, Christian Zabriskie, put it more bluntly.

“We librarians have a saying,” he said with a grin. “You can close our libraries when you step over our cold, beaten bodies, chained to the doors.”

The organizers are hoping the City Council will restore financing to avoid the cuts, which they say will particularly hurt the city’s less fortunate, who depend on libraries for Internet access and employment help. The reading attracted more than 200 volunteer readers, twice the number needed to fill each of the 15-minute slots.

The marathon started at 5 p.m. on Saturday with “Here Lies the Librarian,” a children’s story by Richard Peck featuring a gravestone on the cover marked with the word “SHH!” Texts ran the gamut from Woody Allen to classic works by James Baldwin and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

“Gossip Girl,” by Cecily von Ziegesar, appeared at 1:30 a.m., courtesy of one of the event’s coordinators, Lauren Comito, who runs a room for teenagers at a library in Flushing, Queens. “We had so many serious things,” she explained later, a bit frazzled after only two hours’ sleep on a makeshift cot. “I wanted to read something tawdry.”

The “Twilight” series has since usurped the “Gossip Girl” series among Ms. Comito’s adolescent patrons. So did she choose “Gossip Girl” for its cultural resonance in a city struggling with a hangover from its second Gilded Age? “I didn’t get that deep,” she said.

By the wee hours, the event had taken on a graduate school vibe. The Norton Anthology of Poetry emerged at 2 a.m., with selections from T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, as empty pizza boxes began to pile up near a tent erected for napping activists.

Albert Camus and Bertholt Brecht made cameos. At 3:45 a.m., someone broke out Donald Barthelme, the postmodern short story writer and perennial subject of late-night lit-major debates.

Ms. Geraci, the event’s coordinator, chose to recite a Studs Terkel history of the auto workers’ strike in the 1930s and the birth of the modern labor movement, as well as Emma Goldman’s “Woman Without a Country.”

Besides her librarian duties, Ms. Geraci is studying for a graduate degree in labor studies, focusing on librarians’ self-perception of their profession. Not enough of them, she said, view their work “as being worthy of promotion.”

They did on Sunday, sporting pins that read “Save Our Libraries” as they gathered in Brooklyn, attracting a few dozen curious passers-by. There were a few hours of children’s stories, with free books handed out from a cart. A postcard and petition campaign urged listeners to write to politicians to oppose the cuts.

Some of the onlookers seemed more interested in the free pizza and coffee than any of the works of literature. But Elizabeth Nunez, a novelist from Brooklyn who read on Sunday afternoon, said she appreciated the presence of “words in the air.”

“Just that people are listening to words and valuing words, I think that’s important,” she said. “It may be they don’t understand what’s being said, but they know there is value to words.”

A version of this article appeared in print on June 14, 2010, on page A19 of the New York edition.

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