Beyond the Basics

Susan Naomi BernsteinSusan Naomi Bernstein’s most recent book is Teaching Developmental Writing, Fourth Edition. Her articles on basic writing, social justice, and learning differences have been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Journal of Basic Writing, Modern Language Studies, and elsewhere. She is a past co-chair of the Council on Basic Writing and a past co-editor of BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal. Susan taught her first Basic Writing course in 1987 and has worked with students for more than two decades in urban and rural settings in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Libraries: Claiming Imaginative Space for Basic Writing

posted: 11.21.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

This morning I considered the relationships we create with libraries, and how often that space remains utilitarian rather than imaginative. I had awakened to local radio news that a forced eviction of Liberty Plaza had taken place in New York City overnight.  The People’s Library at the Plaza was gone. Only the day before I had visited the library and had marveled at the changes since my first visit in late September. Back then the library consisted of a small collection of books and pamphlets placed on one of the sitting areas in the park. By the time of my last visit, the library had moved into its own tent.Peoples Library Occupy Wall Street 2011 by David Shankbone [Creative Commons on Flickr]

Libraries hold free access to new and often disconcerting ideas and experiences that can lead to lives opened and transformed, perhaps most movingly described by Richard Wright. Yet the privacy of following our own thoughts in a library setting remains a matter of privilege. Writers in our courses may not yet have experienced such privilege. Perhaps, for good reason, the thought of such quiet seems unsettling, the idea of endless stacks of books intimidating.

For complicated reasons, libraries often remain mere utilitarian spaces to be used by students only for completing homework assignments, to find printed or digitized resources for researched essays, and to compose and print out their essays in computer labs. If the more exploratory aspect of libraries remains unfamiliar to our students, then we especially need to introduce discovery experiences into our courses. Students who feel comfortable in with the imaginative potential of libraries may feel more engaged in academic settings as the library develops into a comfortable home away from home.

We can facilitate access to libraries and give students opportunities to discover for themselves the kinds of spaces that libraries offer for deeper study. We might begin by providing in-class time and space for students to discover the local college library on their own. Large urban or suburban public libraries, or university libraries beyond our home institution’s facilities, may offer excellent opportunities for class field trips.

Students who take courses online or who attend school in areas without access to additional libraries (or who take courses that do not have time for field trips) can browse special collections or archives on the Internet. Whether the experience is virtual or takes place in real time, two simple questions may prove useful to guide students’ exploration: What section of the library fascinates you most? Why?

The tent that held the People’s Library at Liberty Park became a reminder of those fascinating imaginative possibilities. Inside the tent, plastic bins now overflowed with books and posters, and flyers covered the tent walls. There were systems for borrowing and donating books and a welcoming librarian who offered suggestions for volunteering.  On the outside of the tent, facing Broadway, large red, yellow, and green capital letters spelled out the word LIBRARY.  If only memories remain, perhaps these memories hold out the hope for creating new visions for how we might live our lives. Certainly this hope may propel us toward understanding the possibilities of libraries as imaginative space for our students in Basic Writing.

PeoplePostscript: A day and a half after the People’s Library was removed, I returned to Liberty Park in the midst of a drenching rain. Later that night, the books recovered from the New York City Department of Sanitation and the additional books donated to rebuild the collection, were confiscated once again. In a citywide demonstration the following day, the librarians received still more donations of books, which they pulled through the city in two-wheeled shopping carts.   When I visited the park, the librarians urged me to remember that the story of the People’s Library had not yet ended, and that recent updates can be found on the Library’s website.  You also can read and contribute to a poetry anthology at the website.

As I follow the further developments of the People’s Library, I continue to consider the

relevance of this story for our work in Basic Writing. Here are questions that continue to jog my thinking, and that may be usefully shared with students. Please consider adding other questions and/or students’ questions or responses in the comment section below.

  • What is the importance of a People’s Library located in outdoor public space? What does the Libraryrepresent to the librarians? To the people who use the library? How can you tell
  • What symbols, metaphors, or analogies might best describe the Library? Why do you think so?
  • Even though the Library has been seized at least twice, people continue to donate books to the Library? What do you think motivates people to give to the Library? Why do you think the librarians continue to accept these contributions?
  • Do you have a have a place similar to the People’s Library in your home community? If so, what function does this place serve? If not, would people in your community benefit from a library like this? What would you need to do to start a library like this in your own community? What can you learn from the experiences of the librarians?
  • Occupy Wall Street Librarians

    Occupy Wall Street Librarians


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