The lasting impact of librarians

First, thank you to all the recent followers of Nocturnal Librarian. My response to the infamous Forbes piece about closing libraries because we have Amazon and Starbucks is up over 1300 views, and many of you have also left me comments about what libraries mean to you. On Monday, it was my very great pleasure to spend an hour discussing why libraries matter on the Morning Show at Wisconsin Public Radio. One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve heard from many of you, this past week and over the years, is that it’s not only the idea or physical presence of libraries that make such a difference in people’s lives. Nor is it solely the economic or social value libraries have in their communities. It’s the librarians.

Librarians like my friend Barbara White, who helps ensure kids who visit the Akron-Summit County Library can get a snack. She let me know that “Our terrific staff, in partnership with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, served 27,976 after-school snacks in the 2017-2018 school year.”  And librarians who mail books to the homebound or in some cases, to anyone who doesn’t live near a library. And librarians who bring books wherever people are, by bike or traditional bookmobile or by visiting nursing homes or retirement centers, schools, and parks. Librarians who are there for every member of their community, helping people who are often identified as “other” — recent immigrants, the homeless, and job seekers, for example — to feel included.  And at academic libraries, librarians who contribute to student success.

But the stories I like best aren’t even about librarians going the extra mile to make an impact. Last week a young man in his 20s stopped by my office. He had a question, and he came to me because there’s a sign on my door that says “Keep Calm and Ask a Librarian.” The question was not related to anything we have on offer in the library — but he knew I’d help, because his mother had taught him that when he needed to know something, he should ask a librarian.

If that wasn’t already pretty cool, the next part is even better. He said he grew up in New York his neighborhood library was the place he could go after school. A safe place. A place he told me “opened up the world” to him. A place where he was known, and where people were happy to see him. Librarians welcomed him and answered his questions and he grew up knowing he could always count on that.

Far beyond the wonderful places they work, the terrific collections and resources they manage, the community-oriented services they offer, and the inspiring and helpful programs they offer, librarians are doing the simplest and most impactful thing of all: being there for the people they serve. Remembering and getting to know their patrons, greeting them, recalling what they like to read or what they are curious about, reminding them there is a place in the world where they are known. Being open to every new person they meet in their work. Being present. Librarians, like the places they work in, are for everyone.

 

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You can hear me on Wisconsin Public Radio on Monday!

Thanks to former NHPR host Brady Carlson, who is now at WPR, I’ll be on The Morning Show this coming Monday 7/30 at 8am central/9am eastern talking about my most recent post, “Really, libraries don’t need reinventing, thanks” and the incredible response from all of you out there who love and rely on libraries! I’m wicked excited to talk about how libraries serve our communities and why they rock.

Since so many of you use your libraries regularly, I’d love to hear about cool things happening at your local library. What’s the best program, service, or interesting thing you can check out?

 

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

Feedback wall

One of the ideas my library’s new Marketing & Outreach Committee came up with this summer is a feedback wall. It’s very simple: we just installed a white board in a hallway, and placed colorful post-its and a few pens in a holder attached to the board.

So far we’ve posted two prompts, with a third planned for next week. As you can see the response has grown. Our first prompt was “Describe your summer in one word.” Next we tried “What was your favorite book as a kid?”

What’s the point, you may ask, of such folly in an academic library where the staff is mostly engaged in answering questions about how to get articles from databases for assignments and how to extract print jobs from cranky printers? We decided that we wanted to build community with our outreach efforts, to try to grow a group of library enthusiasts.

We’ve increased our social media posting, started sending out a newsletter in campus email once a month, postered the campus with lovely Canva creations to advertise programs, and started a monthly “Did You Know” campaign at the desk to promote services. We’ve also tried a crowd-sourced recommendation cart and staff pick bookmarks in books and videos. But of all the new efforts we’ve undertaken, the feedback wall seems to be eliciting the most response.

It’s also really satisfying — whenever I walk past and see a student reading the responses or writing one, or even when I just whiz by on my way to a meeting or a shift at the desk, I feel a little boost in my mood looking at all those little colorful slips of paper. Each represents someone joining in the conversation, pausing for a moment to contribute. I love that.

The feedback wall may not seem like traditional library marketing, but it’s my hope that we’re creating a sense that the library is a place to be heard.

 

Why be a librarian?

The Guardian recently published two letters from librarians in the “Public Leaders Network” — a brilliant feature which the paper describes, “This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public.” I’ve written before about efforts to reduce funding, cut services, or close libraries in the UK. This map shows mixed results of campaigns to keep libraries open there.

The letters are interesting — the first, published on National Libraries Day, is by an anonymous librarian in the Northeast of England. After explaining the assistance staff provides to job seekers, parents & carers, and young people, the author sums up:

“I know many people think we don’t need libraries when there’s Amazon, kids can use Google for their homework, and supermarkets sell paperpacks for £3 and are open 24 hours. But libraries are so much more than books. They have ebooks, audio books, academic journals, online resources, online driving tests, genealogy research. They play host to art classes, carpet bowls, tea dances, cafes, dementia support sessions. They provide a space for carers to meet, and people to be part of a community when they may otherwise be socially isolated. I’ve lost count of the number of customers who have told me, “You are the only person I have spoken to all day.”” In the face of having to offer so much and on top of that, deal with budget cuts and politicians who believe all this could be done by volunteers instead of professional librarians, the writer goes on, “Who will want to become a librarian now?”

Although, I had to look up carpet bowls, this otherwise sounds pretty similar to pieces on blogs and in journals here in America. The second letter, a response to the first, is by someone who answered the first writer’s question. This writer sees becoming a librarian as a calling:

“For me, it boils down to one important point: the internet is a shallow (but extremely wide) surface-level summary of secondary, often opinionated information that sits on a bedrock of substantive knowledge that either isn’t on the internet, or lives behind a paywall, or is too expensive to purchase. Public libraries broker equal access to all that stuff. Get rid of them, and your information becomes drip-fed through Google filters (if you have a computer to access it). As a librarian, it will be my job to make sure those bridges are not burned, and that they’re well maintained and clearly marked, with delightfully efficient help points dotted along the way.”

The profession is in good hands with both writers — the first, a veteran of the culture war that argues libraries are somehow both unnecessary luxuries and basic community services that could be provided by volunteers, who still manage to end the letter, “even in difficult times, when I don’t know if I’ll have a job from one round of cuts to the next, I love it.” And the second, an idealistic newcomer to the profession. Both argue more or less this: libraries continue to be an essential public service.

The second writer’s perspective on this is eyebrow raising:

“A successful day in the library is one where people complain, like they would with any other local authority service. The Wi-Fi isn’t good enough; there aren’t enough academic texts; it’s too cold; it’s too loud; I don’t know my email password; why don’t you have this book? I love it. Complain and moan all you like – it’s your library service. It’s for you: take it, have it, use it. I’m your public librarian and this is your public library, and these are the hallmarks of public service.”

I am going to keep that in mind. It’s interesting to think that people only complain because they take for granted that libraries should be replete with well heated, quiet rooms bursting with every possible book and completely reliable Wi-Fi, regardless of having smaller staffs and budgets. But it seems a fine line between “Libraries should be doing all this much better, after all, they’re libraries!” to “Why do we even need libraries anyway, if they don’t even have/do ___?” I find that somewhat alarming. But I guess it’s cheerier to assume that people are only complaining because we’re essential. And it’s certainly heartening to know that people are choosing, even in quite uncertain times for libraries in the UK, to become librarians.

 

 

 

 

Book tribe community

This week I’ll be doing one of the things I love most about my job — helping to facilitate Books & Brew, our book club with no assigned books. We meet at True Brew Barista, a coffee shop and bar near the library, people enjoy the brew of their choice and we talk about what we’ve been reading. I borrowed the idea from a readers’ advisory blog post I saw that talked about a similar library group meeting in a wine bar.

And this weekend, we’re wrapping up my library’s first Winter Reading program for teens and adults, Book Bingo. The idea is to try any of the reading tasks (several of which are designed to get people to venture into different parts of the library, like reading a magazine, a graphic novel, or a book from the teen area) on the twenty-five squares, and if you get a “bingo” of five in a row, you get a raffle ticket. As you can see, I’ve whited out spaces as I rearranged titles to maximize my squares. I have books picked out for the rest of the card; I’m just playing for fun, not prizes, so I’m going to keep reading all the tasks even though it officially ends tomorrow.

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Books & Brew and Book Bingo both appeal to me as a member of the book tribe – I love it when people want to talk about what they are reading. Just yesterday I had a woman stop by the information desk to say she usually just reads mysteries and she has had so much fun trying all the other things on the card. And the response to Books & Brew has been great for the same reason — it’s easy to join in, fosters a shared love of reading, and expands our reading horizons as we hear about and think of titles to recommend.

At their best, that’s what all kinds of libraries do — engage people of many different backgrounds and life experiences and bring them together, joined by a love of stories, true or fictional. Community happens when people recognize in each other a common humanity and a shared purpose, whether it’s seeking information or a quiet place to work or study, or finding a good book to read. And that’s why I love the parts of my work that remind me I’m a part of the book tribe.

Bookmobiles to the rescue

I have fond though somewhat vague memories of visiting a bookmobile when I was a kid. A recent thread on the New Hampshire State Library’s email list confirmed that most libraries in this area of the United States no longer have bookmobiles. I’m hoping some of them are in storage somewhere.

This morning in the New York Times I was happy to read that in the Rockaways, where several Queens Borough Public Library branches were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, an old bookmobile bus is making a real difference to residents impacted by the storm. The article says that while information, power outlets, and free coffee were the initial draws, books are what people are seeking now. And that the staff actually drove to Connecticut for fuel. Librarians rock.

American Libraries reports on the Queens bookmobile as well as the library’s programs for families in area shelters. The article also mentions other flooded and damaged libraries in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, and efforts to aid their recovery. Galley Cat reported on storm aid from publishers for libraries and schools, and also noted that Brooklyn Public Library’s bookmobiles were delivering relief supplies earlier this month. The library’s website listed other ways they are helping storm victims, from online learning to pop up library service.

So if your library has a mothballed bookmobile, it might not be a bad idea to give it a tune-up from time to time. It may come in handy if there is a natural disaster. And it also might be wise to think about how your library could help the community in case of a large-scale emergency. Our colleagues in  Sandy-impacted states are providing plenty of inspiration.