ECHO and the radical history of libraries

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Donate to the ECHO mobile library fundraiser here.

When we pulled up to our most recent session at the refugee camp in Malakasa, about an hour north of Athens, one regular library user sprinted towards the van. It had been a week since our last visit and she was more than done with her last loan, a book in Farsi on relationships. The rest of the session saw a steady stream of people visiting the library despite the pouring rain. Some borrowed books and some stayed for a chat while their kids played games. It was a relatively quiet day for the ECHO mobile library, which has been regularly visiting Malakasa and other refugee camps or social spaces in and around Athens since it was established in 2016. Built into the back of an old LDV Convoy, the library consists of eight shelves with books organised into different languages: Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Kurmanji, French, English, German, Greek and a few others. Among the collection are Tayeb Salih’s postcolonial Arabic novel Seasons of Migration to the North, copies of Harry Potter in English, Farsi and Arabic, Little Women in Turkish and a Farsi edition of the Handmaid’s Tale that has been consistently loaned out since it joined the collection last year.

There are currently around 115,000 refugees in Greece, most living in isolated camps such as Malakasa. Many sleep in tents or in cramped containers, and waste facilities regularly overflow. Often the refugees are stuck in the interminable insecurity and boredom that arises from navigating the Greek and EU asylum processes, a limbo between unsafe origins and uncertain destinations. While stranded here, many lack access to secure housing, proper healthcare, work and other opportunities. In the context of such pressing and emergency needs, why run a library?

The answer can be traced through the global, radical history of libraries, where spaces from which to access books have also acted as sites of struggle for equal access to knowledge, free speech, public life and self-definition. This is a history that has run in parallel with the spread of public libraries, albeit sometimes operating in active opposition or critique to those institutions. The origins of the public library movement in the UK, for example, are typically attributed to the efforts of aristocratic philanthropists – the Carnegies and Tates whose library buildings still stand, however decimated by funding cuts, across the UK – but there existed lesser-known parallel institutions initiated by the Chartists.

Best known for their campaigns to broaden suffrage for all men during the mid-nineteenth century, at a time when voting was limited to land-owners, the Chartist movement also established reading rooms, hosting discussion groups and the reading aloud of the latest news for the working-classes. In contrast to the lending-libraries of the day, which typically charged subscription fees, or the later public library movement which was guided by a paternalistic impulse to improve the moral standing of the industrial working class via education, the reading rooms were ‘radically oriented’ spaces. As Patrick Collier and James J. Collony have written, “Far from neutral sites for the encounter of individuals with the written word, these institutions enabled dramatically different reading practices and understandings of the social function of literacy.”

Library historian Matthew Battles has compared the Chartist reading rooms to the People’s Library of the 2011 Occupy Movement. Founded by volunteer librarians taking part in the occupation, the People’s Library provided a space for learning and gathering (and shelter from the rain), but also as an enacted critique of structural and institutional barriers to education that chimed with the broader motivations of the Occupy movement. As with the Chartist reading rooms, the People’s Library aimed to provide unrestricted access to a collection of books, magazines, pamphlets and other materials that were donated, discovered and otherwise gathered together.

These collective efforts tie into a broader history of guerrilla libraries which have served marginalised, precarious or temporary publics across a broad range of geographies and political contexts. As Mandy Henk, one of the volunteer librarians at Occupy New York, describes them, guerrilla libraries are typically created ‘without the approval or support of the state or other authority’. She continues: “Instead, they provide a space for people to arrange their own relationships and provide their own needs.”

Beyond Occupy, we find numerous other examples of guerrilla libraries, and librarians, working in challenging contexts to provide free access to education, and temporary safe social spaces to disparate publics. In the town of Darayya outside of Damascus, for example, an underground library operated in spite of the Syrian government’s siege of the city, as detailed in Mike Thomson’s book Syria’s Secret Library. Elsewhere, the Biblioteca Abierta is an intervention by Venezuelan architects Proyecto Colectivo which sought to transform street spaces into ‘libraries built without walls’, by placing hundreds of open books at the Central University of Venezuela as part of a national university strike. Shannon Mattern, whose writing on libraries is an ongoing inspiration to bibliophiles everywhere, has highlighted other examples from Latin America including the Biblioburro, a mobile library in Colombia transported on the back of the librarian’s donkey, and the Weapon of Mass Instruction, a tank repurposed as a ‘bookmobile’ that travels around Argentina.

Mattern has also written on ‘fugitive libraries’, independent and itinerant collections which ‘respond to conditions of exclusion and oppression’ that can be perpetuated by myopic public library collections which are, in turn, influenced by societal structural inequalities. The Free Black Women’s Library and The Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, two examples from the US cited by Mattern, are both run by women of colour, featuring books by and about black women. Both mobile projects, these libraries provide temporary spaces to share literature in unexpected places, but also to hold discussions centred on racial and gendered injustices that can be more ‘frank and confrontational’ than publicly funded institutions.

We see traces of these guerrilla or fugitive libraries in digital spaces as well. While the initial ideal of the internet as a utopian place to share knowledge is rapidly replaced by the landscape of surveillance capitalism we surf today, there remain a number of digital library projects operated by open access activists and others. Architect and educator Dubravka Sekulić has written on the ‘incredible power’ of digital networks to ‘provide a solution for enclosure of knowledge’, citing examples of shadow libraries that hold collections and catalogues open for all to read. These include sci-hub, Library Genesis and Memory of the World, where Sekulić herself maintains collections on feminism, race and space. Just last week, on World Day Against Cyber Censorship, a new digital library ‘opened its doors’ within the gamespace of Minecraft. The Uncensored Library publishes articles by journalists who have been censored within the physical borders of their own countries, such as Nguyen Van Dai from Vietnam or the late Jamal Khashoggi, and can be accessed through minecraft to bypass internet censorship.

ECHO has much in common with this rich (and far from complete) lineage of guerrilla libraries. Like the Chartist Reading Rooms, or the People’s Library, ECHO provides a service to people regardless of residential or citizenship status (we require only a name and simple accommodation details to loan a book). Like the Weapon of Mass Instruction or The Free Black Women’s Library, ECHO’s mobility facilitates access to knowledge and the imaginative worlds of literature for those whose own movement is deliberately restricted by the European border regime. And like Memory of the World, our collection crosses disciplines, categories and languages, such that the feminist Iranian poetry of Forough Farrokhzad sits alongside an Arabic translation of Isabel Allende or the endless, cross-cultural delight of Handa’s Surprise. (That said, we are always looking for more radical books in Arabic and Farsi; do get in touch if you might be able to help us source new books.)

Unfortunately, the library has also come to resemble the donkey-like gait of the Biblioburro in recent months. The LDV Convoy is on its last legs and frequent breakdowns have caused us to miss numerous library sessions, something we take very seriously when our library-users rely on a consistent service. ECHO is therefore currently fundraising for a new van, to continue providing this service to refugees. Please consider donating to our crowdfunder, more information here.

Donate to the ECHO mobile library fundraiser here