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Ryan Clover-Owens –
Durland Alternatives Library

Ryan Clover-Owens is an activist, musician and the director of the Durland Alternatives Library. The Alternatives Library is a source for literature and other media that falls outside of the mainstream. Anything from an anarchist treatise to a DIY folk music CD to a history of the world from unique perspectives can be found there and checked out, free of charge.

In this episode, we talk to Clover-Owens about the library’s offerings, events and workshops. We also learn about his history and methods as a radical activist, his DIY mentality, and his ideas about community building.  And, to close the show, we get to hear one of his great folk-punk banjo songs, “Sing the Sad.”

Below are 4 interesting snippets from the interview:

1 – Why did Clover-Owens go “off the grid”?

For the past year and a half, Clover-Owens has lived in a cabin in Van Etten where he and his partner live totally off the grid. They have to haul their own water and use flashlights and candles for lighting. He’s not the kind of guy who is going to preach at you about it, though: “I don’t say I live ‘off the grid’ because I think I’m better than anybody, or this super-pure environmentalist. For me it’s a choice about wanting to live closer to the cycles of the world around me – the bioregion, the seasons, the plants. And that’s exactly what it does,” he reports.

This method of living is a natural fit for Clover-Owens, who grew up with a very “do-it-yourself” mentality thanks to the punk music scene he was involved in early on. The philosophy is as simple as, according to Clover-Owens, “…taking action on things you care about. Want to start a band? Start a band. Want to host shows and have touring bands come through? Find them a place to stay, invite everyone over and make it happen. Want to publish your own literature? Make a ‘zine.”

2 – What are Clover-Owens’ roots in the radical/activist community?

Clover-Owens’ first hints of his future as an activist came when he was in college for environmental studies. He soon started looking into issues, like deforestation. That inspired him to go out to Oregon and join up with environmental activists in that area.

Clover-Owens has been heavily influenced by the anarchism school of thought, but he doesn’t entirely embrace the label of “anarchist.” For him, the big takeaways from that movement are self-sufficiency, the “DIY” ethic and their approach to community building through sharing of resources. Clover-Owens says, “All the things that come naturally to us as human beings to share and distribute our resources amongst each other in an informal way, or a way that doesn’t rely on the exchange of money – that kind of thing builds trust. It builds a stronger community.”

3 – How did Clover-Owens get started as a musician?

When Clover-Owens is at a protest or other event, you may see him toting him jamming out one of his great folk-punk protest songs on his banjo. He got his start as a musician playing drums in a hardcore punk band, but has since gone down a softer musical path. That’s not to say his banjo-driven tunes lack in intensity – there’s still definitely a punk edge to them.

Clover-Owens was largely self-taught on the banjo. While his dad played and occasionally gave him lessons, he mostly learned by watching and even just listening to audio lessons on CD. His advice for self-teaching music: “The most important lesson I’ve learned in music is to play often. Just leave your instrument out of the case, leave it out, leave it on your bed or on your favorite chair or something, so that you just impulsively pick it up and play with it.”

4 – What does the Durland Alternatives Library have to offer the community?

In Clover-Owens own words: “We focus mostly on materials that aren’t commonly found through mainstream channels. We’re really a resource for social change and action.” According to him, the library has materials on a wide variety of topics: people’s histories, grassroots movements, anarchist studies, do-it-yourself resources, homeschooling, homeopathic medicine -even relationships and sexual health – and that’s just the nonfiction section.

The library is located in Anabel Taylor Hall on the Cornell campus, but its materials are distributed through the Finger Lakes Library system as well. If you do want to visit the main location, however, try a Thursday afternoon between 2 and 4pm for the “Alternatives Cafe.” This weekly event celebrates the introduction of new materials to the library with free coffee, tea, snacks and, presumably, like-minded people.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.