The Spontaneity of Well-Meaning Crowds

Posted by jlubans on January 21, 2014

In early February I will be teaching at the University of Latvia my 8-week class on the Democratic Workplace. The main reason I am in Riga two weeks early was to participate in the “Grāmatu draugu ķēde” (Friends of Books Chain) on January 18.
The book chain was reminiscent of the 1989 Baltic Way, a cry for freedom (with people linking hands from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania).
The January 18 chain moved books, plastic encased, from the Old National Library to the new National Library (The Castle of Light) from the City Center, along the streets of Old Town
Caption: The first book in the chain - The (Latvian language) Bible of the Lambsdorff family (1825) reaches Līvu square. Photo by Ināra Kindzule.
and across the Old Stone Bridge to the nearly complete iconic new building slumbering on the left bank of the River Daugava . Slumbering no more!
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Caption: A bridge not too far. The Castle of Light in the distance across the Old Stone Bridge early January 18. Photo by John Lubans*
Forget the -17 Centigrade (1 or so in Fahrenheit), Latvians of all ages and Estonians and Lithuanians and even a few Americans came out and waited and waited and handled books, and sang folk songs and wept happy tears as the first book entered the new building and made its way through a multitude of hands up to the display shelves far above the main floor.
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Caption: Inside the new library, looking up at the marvelous soaring display for the books in the “Grāmatu draugu ķēde”.
What struck me most of all was how the Latvian organizers and planners responded to the enthusiasm of people wanting to take part. If you were not registered, that was OK. Join us!
Want to sing? By all means! Want to dance? Dance!
Caption: One of several sound systems pounding out rhythms.
Indeed the towering speaker systems at the start and end and along the way boomed out rock and roll in American and Latvian, engaging and warming.
While planned for months, those plans changed at the last minute. (There is something we could call, the unplanned!) The extreme cold tossed in a wrench, as did the question of occupancy, of allowing anyone into the yet unfinished building. This was exacerbated by the painfully fresh memory of the Zolitudes tragedy of a shopping center’s collapse in Riga. Public tours were planned and hundreds of librarians, taking turns, were to complete the chain inside the library. The fire marshal said this was not possible. Up to the last minute, several government agencies haggled over the terms of admission. One temporary resolution was to let the books into the building but no public tours, a guaranteed public relations failure. Fortunately, the public was allowed into the first floor.
As for the kede, the chain, the books traveled in fits and starts – there were bottlenecks. After I snapped this picture of the first book,
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Caption: The first book (dead center) makes its way across the bridge, only 100 meters more to go!
a few more came by, but then no more books. We waited,
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Caption: Waiting for the next batch.
patiently, spirits still high, unaffected by the cold. And when the books re-appeared on the horizon, we were back on task.
Books were treated with respect. Perhaps too much respect, as some of the bottlenecks were certainly caused by participants, one pictured below, examining each and every title.
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Caption: On the access road to the Old Stone Bridge, a colonel browsed every book; an advertisement for the love of reading!.

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Caption: Nearby the colonel, a young person in pink joins soldiers in camo.

There was a self-organizing element among the 14,000 participants. With minimal instruction, they created two rows and passed the books back and forth. If there were not enough people for two rows, one sufficed.

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Caption: Inside the library, the lines sang and sang.

Caption: Book friends clasped hands and went up on the bridge to take the next shift in the chain, dozens pouring past me.
There appeared to be the right mix of guidance by the organizers, certainly nothing heavy-handed or verboten!. The mantra appeared to be “accommodate, accommodate, don’t deny, don’t deny”.
What does it take to involve so many different perspectives on libraries, books and reading? Trust was apparent that the many would do what was right, not harm any book, but to honor each book, as it was meant to be.
The last book, randomly (and highly apropos) selected, of the 2000 volumes that were sent from the Old to the New was, : “Balandnieki” by Pēteris Upenieks – a book about the Catholic Suiti community in Western Latvia, one part of Latvia's folk or ethnographic movement.
Caption: Ināra Kindzule (librarian and former student) holds a book with the title in English: "I was there." Photo from Ināra Kindzule.

*Unless stated otherwise, all photos are by the author.

UPDATE:AL Direct (American Libraries) linked to this blog in its January 22 edition.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Cecil Renaud (Main) Library, University of KwaZulu-Natal -Pietermaritzburg Campus, Scottsville, South Africa. If the link does take you directly, simply enter “Lubans” in the search box and voila!

Copyright John Lubans 2014
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Posted by Polly Medlicott on January 21, 2014  •  16:55:07

John, this was fascinating! A friend and I were just talking of our love of books--their smell and feel and look, as well as their contents--but I think the Latvians have remained so much closer in spirit to the things that are most important in life--community, purpose, ritual, singing together....thanks for this post, polly

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