New NYC Library Curated by and for the Homeless

Jean Rice
Jean Rice.

A few weeks ago, I attended the opening dedication of the Jean Rice Homeless Liberation Reference Library in the Fordham area of the Bronx. (I’ve written before about Picture the Homeless [PTH], a grassroots organization of currently and formerly homeless people and allies that does advocacy and data collection, among other campaigns.) By the time I got to the event, someone was just beginning a foot-stomping rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” to murmurs of encouragement from the crowd, so I suppose it wasn’t your typical library ribbon-cutting. There was wine and cheese, but there were also references to Simón Bolívar and the “shelter-industrial complex,” and the invitation postcard included quotes from Frederick Douglass (“Once you learn to read you are forever free”) and Malcolm X (“My alma mater was books, a good library”).

I love hearing non-librarians talk about what a library means to them (comment cards were also distributed at the event so that everyone could share their thoughts). One speaker described it as an avenue to read, discuss, and critique books together. Others emphasized the self-education element, with someone declaring that everyone has something to offer and something to teach (“We’re all learning”).

This library is meant to be a resource for people fighting homelessness, a space for self-education and reflection. It will be open midday (lunchtime) for now. The collection is mostly nonfiction with some shelves of fiction, and it’s a mix of reference and circulating books. There are also some materials unique to the library, including scholarship from when PTH members traveled to Colombia and other places. A review committee has been set up to vet book donations.

After the opening speeches, I spoke with PTH member Rogers, who actually used to work in the collection development department at Queens Library back in the ’80s. He told me about the divide at the time between the white librarians and the Creole publisher six blocks from the library, of which the QL staff was unaware despite such materials’ relevance to many library users. His former work at QL, he said, would be “only a shadow” of what he’ll do in the new PTH library.

A former PTH employee (and current library school student) who’s a member of the review committee recently gave me an update on how the homeless library is progressing. The committee is refining the book categories and hammering out a collection development policy. They’re building a catalog on LibraryThing, and book discussions (some with the authors present) are already taking place in the library. If you’re in NYC and want to help out, get in touch—they’re currently in need of more bookshelves, bookends, a stamp or ex libris labels, a cart, and transportation to get larger items into the space.

library opening scene
Some dedication attendees in the library.


Homeless/Homesteading/Social Justice