If you attended the University of Kansas or lived in Lawrence during the early 2000s, you might remember the radical politics of Solidarity.
The collective of KU students and 20-somethings, known for its “Kansas Anarchists Exposed” nude calendars, anti-establishment protests and various downtown Revolutionary Center storefronts, fizzled out years ago. But the library that houses the group’s expansive collection of rare and radical literature is still around, and on Saturday will make the move from its small office at KU’s Ecumenical Campus Ministries to a larger, more open area on the building’s main floor.
“I think people wonder if we’re still open,” says ECM administrator Kim Brook, who is among a handful of ECM staffers tasked with maintaining the Solidarity Library, at 1204 Oread Ave.
Saturday’s relocation, which will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and will provide lunch to those who help with the move, is part of a larger effort at Ecumenical Campus Ministries to increase public awareness of the library, which has changed venues at least four times since its launch about 15 years ago by the now-defunct Solidarity group.
The collection boasts more than 4,000 rare and radical books and upward of 1,000 magazines, periodicals, zines and other publications — most of it donated by community members and visiting authors to the ECM, Brook says, with some books found on the street or in thrift stores by ECM staff.
It’s a great resource for the public, she says — if only they knew about it.
“We want to be able to have people go to the Solidarity Library, not just as a destination spot but also stumbling upon it,” says Brook, who hopes the library’s move to a more visible location will draw more visitors.
The ECM has housed the Solidarity Library for about 10 years now, according to Ailecia Ruscin, a local photographer who helped found Solidarity (the group went by several other names during its lifetime, including the Mother Earth and Black Cat collectives) as a KU graduate student around the dawn of the millennium. Ruscin, then 22, had been active in anarchist groups back in Pittsburgh, and wanted to organize a similar movement with other “punk kids” in Lawrence.
The whole thing was very egalitarian, she remembers, with no official hierarchy, though one of her jobs within Solidarity was aiding library operations. As a member of the library committee, Ruscin, now 40, helped organize the labeling and checkout system.
“My time was very ‘small-town library’ style,” says Ruscin, who has fond memories of stocking the shelves with books on Palestine solidarity, the Zapatista struggle in Mexico, the Black Panthers, gender theory and other “topical” subjects in line with Solidarity’s radicalism.
There was also a large collection of more “practical” reads, covering everything from holistic health and self-care to carpentry and gardening. (These days, Brook says, there’s a growing section of cookbooks — including special interests like veganism — at the library, in addition to the radical books and periodicals.)
Eventually, Ruscin says, a younger woman arrived on the scene to help digitize the library’s checkout system. That was the nature of Solidarity and its library, she says. Because it was run by college students and people in their 20s, it was constantly changing hands.
Once the group’s older members moved away, Ruscin explains, the remaining radicals apparently felt overwhelmed with handling rent and managing day-to-day operations. That’s how it ended up at the ECM, she says, where its thousands of books could be housed all in one place.
“It was really Solidarity that was meaningful to me,” Ruscin says, reflecting on her years with the anarchist group. “The library was a key component of Solidarity being meaningful, but it was really about a group of 100 people organizing around these political topics, sharing life and culture and supporting people like us who traveled from other towns.”
“All of that has been dead for a while, and the library was really meant for that population of people,” she says.
Ruscin herself was in the dark about the Solidarity Library’s location for some time, not realizing it had moved to the ECM. Not many people know it exists, she theorizes, outside a small pocket of Solidarity alumni and ECM frequenters. That’s why she’d like the library to remain as accessible as possible.
These days, says Kim Brook, there’s no committee responsible for the library and the related programming (speakers, meetings, workshops and the like) that used to thrive at the former Solidarity centers. There’s no official Solidarity librarian, either. The library still uses a very simple, very free-wheeling honor system when it comes to checking out materials — visitors fill out a sheet with their name, email address, the date and the title they’re borrowing.
“Eventually someone will look at that and say, “Oh, I wonder where that book is?’” Brook says. “There’s no strict enforcement policy.”
“It’s really self-supporting at this point,” Brook says. “We do have volunteers who will come in periodically, but there’s not a consistent group of volunteers. If someone would come in every other week for two hours, that would be phenomenal.”
She doesn’t know how many libraries like Solidarity’s exist across the United States, though if she had to guess, she’d wager not many. Just three weeks ago, Brook says, a man traveling cross-country from Portland ventured down to Kansas just to visit the Solidarity Library. Lots of out-of-towners have shared similar stories with her, she says.
Brook and other ECM staffers are asking community members to help with the library’s move Saturday, even encouraging folks to write short book reviews in an effort to increase awareness. If anyone wants to start a Solidarity Library book club or help with the library’s movie nights, Brook says, she’d be thrilled.
Media consumption has changed a lot since the library’s founding, Brook says, when radical literature and communities weren’t as easily accessible as they are now online. But the Solidarity Library still retains relevance and value for those who know where to find it, she says.
“As a source, I think reading is still such a special thing to do. Reading from a page, I think, we gather differently than just cruising a hundred websites over and over,” Brook says. “To me, that specialness is the accessibility to read something different. And it’s all in one spot.”
Anyone interested in getting involved with the Solidarity Library is encouraged to contact Kim Brook at 843-4933 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The library is open from 10:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.