Street Libraries: Infoshops and Alternative Reading Rooms

By Chris Dodge

Adapted from an article first published as "Taking Libraries to the Street: Infoshops & Alternative Reading Rooms" (American Libraries, May 1998) and later digested and spit back by Utne Reader (November/December 1998).

Imagine a collectively-run library which archives alternative press publications. Envision a radical book shop where customers are free to use the photocopier to create their own zines. Picture a neighborhood center with programs on bookbinding and "how to make your own menstrual pad." Now combine the three into one and you have the Crescent Wrench Infoshop in New Orleans. While low in profile, this volunteer-staffed storefront media center is just one of many such do-it-yourself endeavors which have sprung up throughout North American cities in recent years. The Long Haul in Berkeley, Chicago's Autonomous Zone, Mayday Books and Arise! Bookstore & Resource Center in Minneapolis, and New York City's Blackout Books are volunteer-run "street libraries" known generically as infoshops. Typically founded and run by young people, often from the anarchist and punk movements, infoshops offer more than a congenial place to hang out. They often serve as venues for concerts, video screenings, and political discussions, besides being a space for organizations to hold meetings. Usually operating on a shoestring, they may rely on pass-the-hat donations--or, occasionally, anonymous benefactors--to pay the rent.

From where did infoshops come? Prevalent in Western Europe, infoshops have their roots in the international punk and anarchist movements. In Germany alone there are at least 100 "infoläden" listed in a directory compiled and updated regularly by Chuck Munson, a librarian and infoshop expert. Chris Atton, author of Alternative literature: a practical guide for librarians (Gower, 1996) writes that in Great Britain, infoshops "grew out of the squatted anarchist centres of the 1980s, such as the 121 Centre in Brixton, London." In a recent issue of Maximumrocknroll, Munson notes that in the U.S. they also fall into the tradition of peace and justice centers, many of which arose during the Vietnam War era. Some are predominantly bookstores. Others, such as the Civic Media Center in Gainesville, Florida, are more like special libraries which stock material most libraries do not have--small circulation political magazines and videos on controversial issues, for example, and books from alternative presses. Still other infoshops are full of Alternative Tentacles CDs, straightedge punk zines, and 7" discs unlikely to be found in any libraries (many of which are nevertheless full of secondary material on punk culture).

In the mid 90s a formalized connection, the Network of Anarchist Collectives (NAC), shared infoshop resources in North America via (Dis)Connection, a publication whose editorship was passed along from issue to issue. According to its mission statement, NAC was a "decentralized, nonhierarchical, continent-wide affiliation of in(ter)dependent alternative institutions." Providing suggestions for mutual aid and fostering communication, the publication contained "how-to" articles, contact data, and self-criticism. While the Network is no longer active, infoshops continue to be a loosely linked community, often acting as station stops for young people on the road. A visit to a new city may mean heading to an infoshop in search of other punks, anarchists, and zine editors, not to mention referrals or a place to crash.

Crescent Wrench, for one, has its origins in Autonome Distribution, a mail order business specializing in anti-authoritarian materials. First situated just east of New Orleans' French Quarter, it went into storage for several months last year ("a long story, having to do with a greedy, evil landlord," according to collective member Chantel Guidry). Relocated in December, it is now open more hours than the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library (11-7, Wednesday-Sunday), and serves everyone from people searching for books on self-sufficiency to neighborhood children for whom it is a magnet. Perhaps the latter are enticed by the infoshop's card table covered with rubber stamps and art supplies, a veritable--if unspoken--invitation to play. The Crescent Wrench collective members also do a weekly Food Not Bombs preparation, dishing up meals to homeless people each Thursday evening in Jackson Square.

Many infoshops have come and gone in the past five or six years. Besides financial problems, many have dealt with neighborhood communication difficulties. For one thing, as Munson points out, many are organized by white youth in communities populated by minorities. "The subculture that patronizes the shop," he writes, "sticks out in contrast to the surrounding neighborhood. Residents may perceive the infoshop as a beachhead in the gentrification happening in that town."

Infoshops are also threatened by other internal and external political pressures, as well. Started in 1992 in Minneapolis, Emma Center ambitiously provided free daycare, clothes, and bread; hosted a men's anti-sexist group--and allotted times for women-only and queer-only gatherings; maintained a growing zine and book library; and held concerts in its basement. According to one insider, a split developed between those operating on political theory and altruism alone and those doing what they knew best to raise income: "stock punk music on the shelves and hold more gigs." Decimated by the internecine rift, Emma closed in 1995.

Infoshops have also been targets of political oppression from the outside. Last December Wooden Shoe Books in Philadelphia had "Death to Mumia" fliers and white supremacist propaganda pasted to its windows a few days after receiving an anonymous phone call threatening to burn down the "commie, nigger-loving store." Still other infoshops face problems of rising rents, or are being run out by developers. Such is the case with the Lucy Parsons Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which at nearly thirty years old is a veritable infoshop senior citizen.

Still, new infoshops seem to crop up like dandelions. In Minneapolis, the Insur-Recreation Center, a "radical infoshop and resource center for activists, punks, and the community," opened in 1998 with a weekly "vegan café" and film screenings. [Now closed, it seems. -CD, 2/99] Also in South Minneapolis, the Arise! Resource Center and Bookstore now offers free Internet access and continues to be a venue for meetings and programs of Minnesotans for a United Ireland, Earth First!, and other organizations. Struggling to survive, most infoshops are a bit down at the heel.

When is an infoshop not an infoshop? Ann Miyoko Hotta describes a do-it-yourself phenomenon called "bunko" in her article, "A Grass-roots Library in Japan" (Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, Winter 1998, pp.143-152). Typically run "by groups of women for their neighborhood children," Hotta writes, bunko are a network of "tiny outposts which may be found in homes, converted train cars, community centers, or even log cabins." Is this an infoshop cousin? If so, then so too is the residents library founded by K.D. Steward at the Rice Marion Apartments in St. Paul in 1994. So too are anarchist collections such as the Kate Sharpley Library in London and the "Alberto Ghiraldo" Library in Rosario, Argentina. So too was the now defunct "unconventional" library in Asheville, North Carolina, known as The Alternative Reading Room (TARR). (Founded in 1990, TARR was anomalous; funded by a local philanthropist, it specialized in subscriptions to hundreds of environmental and political periodicals.) The Copenhagen-based Tidsskriftcentret (The Periodicals Center) is a more distant member of the family, while the Durland Alternatives Library in Ithaca, New York, might be called a clean well-lit infoshop. Part of the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy (CRESP), an independent entity located at Cornell University, the Durland library is aided by faculty advisors and a regular budget. This is unlike the typical infoshop whose members constantly scrape for money just to keep it going.

The Civic Media Center and Library (CMC) in Gainesville, Florida, is another independent alternative institution. Founded in 1993, the nonprofit CMC is located in a 50-year-old storefront near the University of Florida campus and is currently supported by member dues and donations, as well as by receipts from concerts, poetry slams, and benefit events. Most infoshops are doing well if they have their zine collections filed alphabetically, but the CMC has taken a big step in making its collection more accessible. The difference here was the presence of a librarian, CMC activist Charles Willett. Since many of CMC's titles are not found in the Alachua County Library System or the UF Libraries, in 1995 a request was made to have its book collection entered into the ACLS's online database, accessible to 300,000 people in north central Florida. According to Willett, a contract was signed in 1996 to catalog 1,100 records for $2,298 over two years. The public library's "Friends" organization donated $2,000 toward the cost and by January 1998 the ACLS had cataloged most of the titles. Annually in the future, 100 additional records will be added at a cost of $200.

Books and magazines on shelves, a place to sit, videos to check out, and a schedule of programs: one might be describing a public library branch. What's missing from infoshops, however, are big budget reference collections and--refreshingly--the typical library bias toward serving middle-class adults. William Ayers writes in A Kind and Just Parent (Beacon, 1997) about how the mass media tell a single story over and over again: random violence, accidents, unpredictable weather, unlucky lovers. "The message conveyed by all this speaks to something deep in the modern predicament," he says, "the sensation of incapacity and alienation, the awful feeling of impotence, the suspicion that a desolate, frightening landscape lies just outside, the impression that nothing you do matters or means anything or could possibly make a palpable difference." In every public library mass circulation periodicals trumpet the latest catastrophe; weekly "news" magazines hawk scandals and pimp for royalty. Infoshops, on a small scale, resist this nihilistic trend by operating as though human beings can make a difference through thoughtful analysis, hard work, and commitment.

Librarians who know about infoshops generally agree that their presence indicates some degree of failure on the part of urban libraries. Chuck Munson criticizes public libraries for catering to businesspeople. He notes problems people have in distributing free literature at libraries and the fact that most close early in the evening, if they are open at all. For Charles Willett, infoshops demonstrate the deep intellectual and political prejudice of most librarians, who turn "a tin ear and a jaundiced eye" to ideas outside the commercial mainstream.

How might librarians take inspiration from infoshops and apply some of their practices? For starters, they might be made more inviting by serving coffee, providing more comfortable chairs, abolishing fines, and setting up community bulletin boards. Cathy Camper from Minneapolis Public Library also points out that library bureaucracies can impede dissemination of zines and alternative literature, but suggests simplified ways of acquiring and processing these materials. "We do it for books of house plans and car buyer's guides, why not Holy Titclamps and Factsheet Five?," she asks. Julie Herrada of the Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, notes the additional importance of administrators "willing to encourage a sense of creativity and freedom among their staff (particularly in the area of collection development and community outreach)." Still, she cautions that libraries are for the most part "too understaffed and underfunded to be the local community center for everyone."

Zine archive, distribution point for free publications, meeting room, day care center, concert venue, free school, mail drop for activist groups, bookstore: an infoshop can be each of these things and more. Providing alternative materials, services, and settings to those of a public library, infoshops share a common devotion to seat-of-the-pants information democracy.

Those interested in learning more about these "homemade libraries" should check out Chuck Munson's infoshop web page .

Some contact data:

121 Center: 121 Railton Rd., Brixton, London, SE24 0LR, England

The Action Resource Center: 520 West Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN 55408, 612-825-4745

Arise! Resource Center and Bookstore: 2441 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, 55408, paarise@mtn.org, 612-871-7110, FAX: 612-871-9597

Autonomous Zone: mailing address: 1573 N. Milwaukee Av. #420, Chicago, IL 60622, 773-252-6019 (infoshop located at 2012 West Chicago Ave.)

Blackout Books: 50 Avenue B, New York, NY 10002, 212-777-1967, blackout@panix.com, http://www.panix.com/~blackout

Civic Media Center: 1021 W. University Ave., Gainesville, FL 32601, 352-373-0010, cfc@afn.org; http://www.afn.org/~cmc

Crescent Wrench: P.O. Box 30058, New Orleans, LA 70190; 504-527-0077, voicemail: 504-944-4907

Durland Alternatives Library: 127 Anabel Taylor Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, 607-255-6486; http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/Courses/altlib

Long Haul Infoshop: 3124 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94705, 510-540-0751, resist@burn.ucsd.edu, http://burn.ucsd.edu/~resist/slingshot

Lucy Parsons Center: #3 Central Square, Cambridge, MA 02139, 617-497-9934; http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/7251/lpc.html

Mayday Books: 301 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55454, 612-333-4719

Mid-Atlantic Infoshop (a virtual infoshop): http://burn.ucsd.edu/~mai

Tidsskriftcentret: Ahornsgade 20, 2200 København N, Denmark

Wooden Shoe Books: 508 S. 5th St., Philadelphia, PA 19147, 215-413-0999

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