Illustration by Liz Lee

In the new issue of the Blue & White, Sarah Camiscoli chronicles one woman’s crusade to save Columbia’s discarded books.

“There used to be a joke when people answered the phone in the Geography Department,” says Lisa Cammett, BC ‘78, “They said, ‘Rocks and maps!’” Outsiders might miss the irony of the greeting, but Cammett—a geography major herself—explains that the field is often misunderstood as dry talk of continental divides and topography when it actually is “about exploring the relationship between the earth’s resources, economics and human beings.”

For Cammett, this exploration has yet to end. After spending 27 years in the administration of the Columbia School of Social Work, she is taking action to mend what she believes to be a gaping chasm between the earth’s resources, human life, and social awareness. And how will she seal this rift? Well, Cammett rescues used books.

Sporting a tight, steely pony tail and rolled up sleeves, Cammett spends hours pounding the pavement of Morningside Heights. Her tools are modest—stacks of books, a plastic water jug-turned-donation jar, faded petitions addressed to President Lee Bollinger—but her ambition is not: she’s devoted herself to finding homes for used books trashed by Columbia professors and students.

The stacks of books that Cammett carries around with her, however, hardly make up a shelf out of the vast library of used books that fills her apartment on 122nd Street. She also has an offsite annex—a unit in Manhattan MiniStorage—for what doesn’t fit at home. But she doesn’t mind giving up the space in her living room. To her it’s a small sacrifice made on behalf of greater social justice, the “dying planet” and its “lower income” peoples. She sees rescuing used books from waste paper baskets and giveaway piles as a way to save trees and knowledge while keeping that revolutionary spirit alive.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that Cammett is driven by the same impetus that inspires today’s green movement. Her devotion to the lives of used books comes from a more personal place. “My father, who died a couple of years ago, was a historian and a bibliophile,” she explains. “My mother loves to tell that there were only two times I got a smack. One was when I ran into the street, and another was when I tore out a page from his book because I wanted attention.” Although she always respected her father’s love for books and was environmentally aware, these interests didn’t coalesce until she randomly stumbled upon a copy of her father’s book in the trash in 2004.

Cammett became incensed when she discovered that professors and administrators at the School of Social Work were being urged to “purge, purge, purge” before they moved offices from 113th Street to their current facility on Amsterdam. She knew she had to do something. “I put my job in jeopardy by going through the big plastic bags,” she explains. In her eyes, throwing out so many used books only helped to propagate the social and ecological damage that the University claims to be helping to prevent. “Perfectly good books,” she says, that could have been recycled or donated were dumped into the trash. When she personally tried to deliver the cache of books she rescued from the sidewalk to Butler and other university libraries, they could only take “a few hardcover classics.” The majority were left with nowhere to go.

After facing rejection from other local libraries, Cammett began setting up cartons outside of her office, visiting used bookstores, and offering her textual treasures to street vendors. When naysayers in her office would challenge her with “you’re supposed to be doing your secretarial work,” she says she would counter, “What does everyone else do when they’re done with work?”

In an attempt to connect with like-minded individuals on campus, Cammett joined Earth Co, the predecessor of today’s EcoReps. But she didn’t find the activists she was hoping for. “They did more potluck dinners than they did anything else,” she remembers. “They never missed an excuse to get some beer.” Nostalgic for the political fervor that rocked Columbia’s campus into the late 1970s, she became infuriated by what she sees as a lack of seriousness from her contemporary student counterparts. Proposals for politically correct forms of speaking out, like “corn husk cups for the frats” maddened her, so she pushed for a hunger strike and similarly radical forms of protest. She was rejected. “I felt like saying, ‘What are you smiling about so much?’” she says. “I simply didn’t understand why there wasn’t a sense of alarm. It seemed like they simply hadn’t seen enough of how much suffering and how much damage there is in this world to take what they were doing seriously.” She was asked to leave the student group after her harsh critiques of what she saw as wasting time to “play nicey nice.”

Not easily disheartened, by Labor Day 2004 Cammett had over 2,000 books—an amount which prevented her and her seven cats from moving about her living room. “I am going to give them away,” she decided then, “I’m going to pass out these leaflets with my rap song.” She planted herself on Low Steps, handing out used books to curious students, collecting several hundred signatures for her petition, and reading out her rhymes: “When knowledge is gone/it may be gone for good/and let’s not forget that paper’s made of wood/to throw away books kills trees and mind/and shows disrespect for all human kind.” Her beats won her an article in the Columbia Spectator and a meeting with the Office of Environmental Stewardship later that year.

Upon meeting with the Office, Cammett was informed that the “Give and Go Green” initiative was already in place to deal with used books. Discarded materials were stored and recycled in an area she calls “the anus of the university”—a disposal and storage garage on 118th and Amsterdam. Unsatisfied with this solution, she notified the Office, pointing out the bins inside of the “anus” were not effectively distributing books to those who had a need for them. In response, the Office granted her permission to sift through the piles and take what she could. And she did—so much so, in fact, that she decided to cough up $600 a year for storage and transportation in order to avoid throwing any of them away until she could distribute the books herself.

Cammett ultimately wants the university to establish an on-campus used book and donation center, and she’s collected several thousand signatures in support of such a facility, “where the precious intellectual knowledge that too many of us here take for granted could be shipped to libraries, schools, and cultural institutions in other parts of the United States or the world.” She wants President Bollinger’s approval and even would like her project considered for a small space in the forthcoming Manhattanville campus. In the hopes of securing a meeting with Bollinger, she has written a letter, hand-painted the margins with floral vines, and had it mounted in a gold frame: “Has word about my petition to you reached your ears?” the letter reads, in part. “What can we do with these books? Will the university take the responsibility for this? … I pray that it will … Can I have a meeting with you?” But its delivery will have to wait, as her unpleasant dealings with some lower-level administrators have made her unwilling to approach Bollinger without more support and awareness.

Still, she’s holding out hope. Flipping through reams of signatures collected over the past seven years, Cammett believes she’s helping to make a difference in the world. “I made a wonderful discovery,” she says. “All across the political spectrum… nobody believes it’s a good idea to throw out used books.”