Where to go when your library lets you down
Imagine a library that archives alternative-press publications, a radical bookshop where customers use the free photocopier to create zines, and a neighborhood center featuring how-to programs ranging from bookbinding to making your own menstrual pad. Combine them and you have the Crescent Wrench Infoshop in New Orleans. This storefront center is one of many such alternative media oases springing up throughout North America.
The Long Haul in Berkeley, Chicago's Autonomous Zone, Arise! Resource Center and Bookstore in Minneapolis, and New York City's Blackout Books are other “street libraries.” Typically founded and run by young volunteers, infoshops are more than just an interesting place to hang. They often also provide concerts, video screenings, and heated political discussions. To pay the rent, most of them rely on pass-the-hat donations—and the generosity of anonymous benefactors.
Infoshops, which are common in Europe, grew out of the international punk and anarchist movements. Germany has at least 100 infoladen listed in a directory updated regularly by infoshop expert Chuck Munson. 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.” Many of the infoshops in the United States began as peace and justice centers during the Vietnam War.
Some infoshops are predominantly bookstores. Others, such as the Civic Media Center in Gainesville, Florida, are specialized libraries stocked with countercultural material—small-circulation political magazines, videos on controversial issues, books from alternative presses. Still others are full of alternative (or underground) CDs, straight-edge punk zines, and other cultural flotsam unlikely to be found in any libraries, even those that offer secondary material on punk culture.
Infoshops come and go. Besides financial problems, many have neighborhood communication difficulties, especially those organized by white youth in minority-populated areas. As Munson points out, “residents may perceive the infoshop as a beachhead [for] gentrification.” Internal politics can also put them out of business. Emma Center in Minneapolis, founded in 1992, almost immediately began providing free day care, clothes, and bread; a men's anti-sexism group; “women-only” and “queer-only” gatherings; a growing zine and book library; and even concerts. Eventually a split developed between one group of staffers motivated primarily by altruism and another interested in making money for the center. The rift forced Emma to close in 1995.
Infoshops also have been targets of outside oppression. Last December, “Death to Mumia” fliers (referring to the imprisoned black activist Mumia Abu-Jamal) and white-supremacist propaganda were pasted to the windows at Wooden Shoe Books in Philadelphia a few days after the shop received an anonymous phone call from someone threatening to burn down the “commie, nigger-loving store.” Despite these hazards, new infoshops seem to crop up like dandelions. Recently the Insur-Recreation Center, a “radical infoshop and resource center for activists, punks, and the community,” opened in Minneapolis, promising a weekly “Vegan Café” and film screenings.
When is an infoshop not an infoshop? In Journal of Youth Services in Libraries (Winter 1998), Ann Miyoko Hotta describes Japanese bunko, typically run by women for neighborhood children, as a network of “tiny outposts that may be found in homes, converted train cars, community centers, or even log cabins.” Is this an infoshop cousin? If so, then so too are the residents' library founded by K.D. Steward at the Rice Marion Apartments in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1994 and anarchist collections such as the Kate Sharpley Library in London and the Alberto Ghiraldo Library in Rosario, Argentina. The Copenhagen-based Tidsskrift-centret (Periodicals Center) is a more distant family member, 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 advisers and a formal budget.
Librarians generally agree that the presence of infoshops indicates failure on the part of urban libraries, which are accused of short hours, emphasizing business-oriented materials at the expense of everything else, and, as one critic put it, turning “a tin ear and a jaundiced eye” to ideas outside the commercial mainstream.
Library bureaucracies also impede dissemination of zines and alternative literature, but it doesn't have to be that way. “We do it for books of house plans and car-buyers' guides, so why not Holy Titclamps and Factsheet Five?” asks Minneapolis Public Library's Cathy Camper.
Public libraries may be too understaffed and underfunded to act as local community centers. But until they can serve as zine archive, distribution point for free publications, meeting room, day care center, concert venue, free school, mail drop for activist groups, and bookstore, there will be a lasting and important place in our culture for infoshops and the alternatives they provide.
From American Libraries (May 1998). Subscriptions $60/yr. (11 issues) from S&S Computer Services, 434 W. Downer, Aurora, IL 60506.