The garbage man librarian

It’s been some time since my last post — I’ve completed my first year as assistant library director at a small university, and I admit that budget season, the end of the spring semester, performance management plans (I had to write 14) and writing the annual report have made me busier than I expected. It’s also the season for trying to go to annual meetings of regional library organizations, and my home life has also been occupying a fair bit of my time. I will try to blog more regularly

Today I saw this article about a Columbian man, Jose Alberto Gutierrez, who was not afforded a formal education and worked as a garbage collector. He began gathering books that other people threw out and over the years filled his house. He has thousands and thousands of books and shares them with his neighbors, especially kids.

He saves books and he helps people, and that’s what librarianship is about, in many ways. He’s even helping FARC fighters who now have to find a new way to live. HIs comment on that: ““Books transformed me, so I think books are a symbol of hope for those places,” Gutierrez said. “They are a symbol of peace.””

I leave you with that for now. Books as a symbol of hope and peace. A man with hardly any education who has become a librarian for children around his country.

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Do Libraries Sap Attention Spans?

My son’s freshman class at college read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr this summer. My husband is reading it now. Last night he read aloud: “until recently the library was an oasis of bookish tranquility” but now, Carr dramatizes, “The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages.” The implication that by offering internet access, libraries are contributing to the “shallowing” of our minds struck me as fairly improbable.

At the public library where I work, I recently chatted with an English teacher looking for a good book to take her mind off work. She’s the second teacher to tell me this summer that her students can’t read as much as when she began teaching. She assigns shorter classics so they won’t get frustrated, and because she’s learned that they won’t finish longer works. But she says they are reading, and she noted that how and what is probably less important than she once thought. As she put it, she sees teaching English as helping  kids become competent, not cramming them full of particular titles.

The teacher and I agreed someone reading an entire New York Times article on a smart phone (like my son) is getting the same depth as someone reading the print edition (more if like me, that person is skimming over morning coffee before rushing off to start the day).  So aren’t libraries broadening access to reading by catering to both print and online readers?

As Carr notes, library internet service is very popular. But many of the same people using the computers at my library are checking out books. And those who don’t use the computers are probably not Luddites, who are really fairly rare, but rather people who can afford computers and internet service at home. According to the ALA’s 2012 State of America’s Libraries report, libraries across the country have seen circulation increase, as my library has. From what I can see, people who have nowhere else to use the internet are finding their way into the stacks while they’re at the library, and not the other way around.

As for that bookish tranquility? The “shushing” era of librarianship was over long before I was in library school, twenty years ago. Libraries are community centers, and we’ve always been places where information is freely available to all. If the internet and its keyboard clicks are a part of that open access, so be it. Reading, whether on a screen or a page, is still very much alive in our hopped-up, attention-challenged, 24 hour news cycle world. It has faced other challenges in its history, as have libraries, and I think both will adapt and survive.