Referencing One Another: Documenting Protest Library Book Collections

Sherrin Frances


The protest library (also sometimes called “encampment library,” “library of resistance,” or “occupation library,”) is a temporary library space that emerges from within an activist encampment. The trend began in 2011, and since then protest libraries have been documented via social media in encampments around the world. Two of the first and most widely known examples are Occupy Wall Street’s People’s Library in New York and Movimiento 15M’s BiblioSol in Madrid, Spain, both from 2011. The trend continued in political occupations including Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, and Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in Kiev. As recently as 2016, there have been active protest libraries across Europe as part of the #NuitDebout movement, and one in Chicago as part of the #FreedomSquare/Let Us Breathe movement.

These libraries are usually physical, temporary, outdoor spaces that quickly accumulate collections of several thousand donated physical books. The books sometimes relate to the politics of the bigger movement, but large portions of these collections are simply “general reading material” that span genres from travel guides to romance novels to classic fiction. When the activist encampment is disbanded or evicted, so too is the embedded protest library. Sometimes, the books are given away immediately, sometimes the police destroy the books, and sometimes the librarians try to carry on nomadically after the protest itself is over. In rare cases, a protest library has crossed the threshold into a “permanent” space.

My research generally seeks to situate these protest libraries at the convergence of several well-established lines of scholarship (traditional library studies, radical spatial politics, and archival studies), and my larger project is to put together an edited collection written by librarian-activists from these libraries around the world. In this presentation, I wish to address the question of how to document what remains after the physical space has been dismantled and the books are put into storage or given away. In retroactively constructing an archive of these libraries, how can scholars/archivists remain true to the anti-institutional nature of these spaces and collections?



Sherrin Frances is an Associate Professor of English and the Writing Program Administrator at Saginaw Valley State University. Her research addresses power balances within organizations, institutions, and other systems of categorization. For the last few years she has specifically focused on outsider and protest libraries. She has contributed to publications including Tales and Images of Spatial Justice (forthcoming), CTHEORY, disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory, and Itineration.