Full catastrophe living for libraries

Many years ago when I was first learning about mindfulness, I read John Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. He writes about how mindfulness — in brief, being in the moment, observing and nonjudgementally letting go of thoughts not related to being present in the moment — can help us deal with the “full catastrophe” of contemporary life, from actual physical pain or illness to the anxiety, panic, fear, and other uncomfortable emotional states we might be in as a reaction to things beyond our control. As I read American Libraries Direct the past two weeks I realized libraries are kind of in a full catastrophe moment along with the rest of the world.

In those two issues alone, there are articles about about the American Library Association’s and children’s literature authors’ stands on family separation at the border, about library equity issues such as the threat to LGBTQ books in Hong Kong, freedom of access to information issues, the long history of pubic libraries advocating for the poor or marginalized, librarian’s in the Iowa trying to help those in Puerto Rico still reeling from last year’s the hurricanes, and a man from Alabama leading a drive for books for his school district’s library (which it can’t afford) by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. Meanwhile in the everyday trenches libraries of all kinds are facing flat or reduced budgets, position cuts or reductions (even directors in my state are part time in smaller libraries), and loss of school or even public libraries, depending on the state or country. Many of these issues result in contentious disagreements among people — sadly, almost everything in our culture now seems to be fraught with that possibility.

The good news is we as a profession can get through all of it — the full catastrophe — the same way individuals can get through their own. We can be professionally mindful, present for and with the people in our libraries. We can be mindful of what libraries bring to people, and how we approach our work. We can let our anxieties and fears about the future of our workplaces and our profession go, and focus on what’s right here now, which in my experience makes us even more open to trying new things, rather than being afraid of change.  In doing that, I predict, we’ll be ready to meet any catastrophe, we’ll thrive where we are, and our libraries will benefit and be welcoming places that meet our patrons’ needs.

In 2014 in this space I wrote, “What we do is awesome. What we do is community-building. What we do is hope-fueled and potentially narrative-changing. What we do can fill in the broken spaces in our communities, in our lives and the lives of those we serve. What we do is empowering — people can learn and grow and be their best selves because of the books and services and programs and presence we offer. What we do is shepherd the most egalitarian places in America. Our libraries when they are at their best are the very best of what our society can be.”  I was writing about public libraries but this describes academic libraries just as well. It’s full catastrophe some days, but we can handle it

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Supporting libraries

My husband sent me this great article from the New York Times, Denying New York Libraries the Fuel They Need.” Jim Dwyer provides some startling facts, like this: “The city’s libraries — the fusty old buildings, and a few spiffier modern ones, planted in all five boroughs — had 37 million visitors in the last fiscal year. . . . So the city’s libraries have more users than major professional sports, performing arts, museums, gardens and zoos — combined.”

Dwyer notes “No one who has set foot in the libraries — crowded at all hours with adults learning languages, using computers, borrowing books, hunting for jobs, and schoolchildren researching projects or discovering stories — can mistake them for anything other than power plants of intellect and opportunity. They are distributed without regard to wealth.” And yet, he goes on to explain, the city’s professional sports teams have enjoyed hundreds of millions of dollars in capital funding and tax incentives while the public library system faces a fight each year for adequate funding.

Here’s where I’d better remind you, dear readers, that my opinions are mine and not that of my employer, a public library.

That fight goes on in your town too — it’s known, in public sector parlance, as the budget process. In New York, it seems, libraries have to fight for their hours every year, as part of a carefully choreographed dance between elected officials who are haggling with each other for their preferred projects. I am guessing that process isn’t so different in your town, or mine, just on a smaller scale than New York’s.

Meanwhile it seems every year there’s some non-librarian academic expert who comes along and fuels the idea that libraries are obsolete. Public officials love this, and it does libraries a disservice during the budget process. The latest is John Palfrey. Palfrey’s book is called Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google and the Washington Post review is provocatively titled, “Do We Still Need Libraries?” Palfrey’s main point seems to be that libraries as we remember them from  our childhoods — and as I’ve noted in this blog before, in most towns across the country, they are still very much the same — must transform themselves into highly connected digital hubs, or die.

Palfrey should ask Dwyer to show him around the libraries of New York (or any neighborhood in America, I’d wager) and talk to the patrons who are using what he rightly notes are the backbone of egalitarian society. In our public libraries, where information is free and available to all citizens, people are reading or making readers of their kids. Mostly in print, which is still a better deal for libraries and the taxpayers who support them, because physical books don’t expire after a certain number of checkouts or a certain amount of time, as many library e-books do. When they open these books, people are discovering all the things that make us human, and what that means to them. They’re getting to know their neighbors. They’re becoming informed citizens.

Nostalgic and old fashioned? Ok, if you say so, digital experts. But in a society where there is almost nowhere to be quiet, study, or think, libraries offer that space. In a society where it’s hard, on a limited income, for retired people to meet friends and chat over the day’s newspaper, libraries offer that community. In a society where after school enrichment for kids almost always costs more than the working poor or even the middle class can afford, libraries offer that opportunity. In a society where the under and unemployed have almost nowhere else to access the internet, learn computer skills, apply for jobs, or print important documents, libraries offer those resources. In a society where the mentally ill, the disabled, the homeless, and the recently imprisoned are often unwelcome, libraries offer radical hospitality — we are open to all.

From information and books to early literacy, education and support for marginalized adults and new Americans, community and small town (or big city) culture, public libraries’ work is not diminished by people claiming that Google can replace your local librarian, or that libraries should “hack” themselves into “‘nodes in a larger network’ of organizations and must move toward ‘the digital, networked, mobile, and cloud-based library'” Palfrey envisions. And imagines private philanthropy will fund.

Space. Community. Opportunity. Resources. Books. These are real life, everyday services of public libraries. That we fund vast caverns where millionaires play sports and then leave libraries to fend for themselves every budget cycle sounds crazy because it is. That we think placing our hopes in some hypothetical network of charitably funded digital collections will improve upon what’s already going on in library branches all over America is silly. Build your fancy networks, go ahead, but in the mean time, don’t patronize the vital role of public libraries as “nostalgic” when for many ordinary citizens, that so-called nostalgia is actually a vital service they rely on.

 

The Good the Bad and the Snowy

It’s snowed an awful lot here in northern New England in the past two weeks, as you’ve likely heard in news briefs. We’ve had feet of snow and the forecast is for snow today, snow tomorrow, snow right into the next day.  It’s a good time to read, all snug and warm inside. It’s not so great for slogging off to work, but we all manage.  Today my library is hosting an “Over the Rainbow Songfest” (we’re singing along to a film with Dorothy, Toto, et all, but our movie license forbids me from revealing the title). We’re hoping people are tired of staying in and will come out in costume to have a good time despite the white stuff falling from the sky.

In the library world, there’s been good news and bad this week. Close to home for me, in Brattleboro, Vermont, a janitor left millions of dollars to the benefit of others, including his local public library. Woot! In Great Britain it’s National Library Day and the Guardian‘s books blog is celebrating with shelfies.

In Wales, cuts threaten to reduce library services in Cardiff but people came out in large numbers this weekend to voice their support. Across America, there continues to be strong public support of libraries as well — 95% find them important, according to Pew — but municipal leaders do not necessarily reflect this value in their budgets. It’s budget season in many library systems, and as we all work to make our numbers as lean and workable as possible, we hold our collective breaths and also dream a bit of what we could do if funding reflected the love of libraries we share with so many of our fellow citizens.

That said, just as we manage to muddle through storms and carry on with the job at hand, we’ll carry on, in libraries large and small, the world over. I posted a review of When Books Went to War this morning on bookconscious; author Molly Guptill Manning describes how librarians came together during WWII not only to provide books to servicemen through a national book drive, but also to champion the books and author banned in Nazi occupied Europe and here at home. Librarians are resilient and books cannot die. I salute my colleagues in Cardiff and hope the tide will turn for them.