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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Presence: breathing, sitting, getting out of the building

My life has been a little chaotic lately due in part to a family health issue. I’m fortunate that I work close to home, and close to the various appointments my family member has to attend. And I am able to be a little bit flexible by coming in early, taking shorter lunches, etc. But as you all know, library work, or any public service job, is not all that flexible because we have to be present to do our jobs. I’m a supervisor, so I have to be not just physically present but mentally present to the people who work for me. And to my peers and boss, especially as it’s budget and planning season for FY 2016. And to the public, who are the reason public libraries exist; as I’ve written here before, many of our patrons are seeking human contact as much as they are seeking books and information.

So, presence is key in all the parts of my life. I’ve been a somewhat haphazard student of mindfulness for many years, and I try to be a regular practitioner especially in times of high stress like I’m experiencing now. If you don’t know what it’s about, basically, being mindful is all about being in the present moment. I’m a better person when I’m practicing regularly. But I hadn’t considered that I might also be a better librarian when I’m being mindful.

I recently learned that the Law Librarians of New England spring conference is devoted to mindfulness. I was curious to see if this is a trend in our profession and discovered a number of interesting resources for mindful librarianship, including a webinar offered by University of Minnesota, a resource guide from the New England Library Association conference in 2011, and a Library Journal article from last spring about Sparq Meditation Labyrinth, which uses simple technology to project a light labyrinth and is in use in a number of college libraries.

My library isn’t formally integrating mindfulness into the workplace, but our city wellness program did offer an intro. class which I attended, I admit, in order to meet the requirements for reducing my insurance costs. Even though I’ve read a number of good books on mindfulness over the years (and am reading one to my teen daughter right now, called Sit Like A Buddha), the class was really interesting. I think this is a subject one can learn about forever and still not know everything about. And I know it helps me at work, at home, and anytime I remind myself, gently, to be mindful.

Another cool thing I did this week was attend a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Reference and Adult Services division of my state library association. Getting out of the building can be stressful — it means changing the desk schedule, arranging for coverage of necessary tasks, etc. But meeting with fellow librarians, especially in a format designed to share as much experience with each other as possible, is wonderful. The topic of our roundtable was The Community Driven Library. Among the many things I learned: Mahjong is big in several small town libraries nearby, all those extra mass market paperbacks from the book sale are perfect for stocking a town beach or pool, and there are several cake pan collections on loan in my small state. Besides getting good ideas, I connected or re-connected with colleagues and generally felt refreshed and reminded that I’m part of an awesome profession.

So, breathe, sit, be present, and get out of the building. You’ll be a better librarian for doing these simple things.

 

Mad for Mail

I still have a letter I wrote to the newspaper when I was a child about supporting the Phillies even when they lost, and another I sent the school board advocating for a better library for my junior high. I’ve shown my kids letters I saved from President Carter and members of my Congressional delegation after I wrote asking for protection for the endangered snail darter (if you read Ranger Rick in the 70’s, this may sound familiar).

In the same album are letters and postcards my mother sent me one summer while I was visiting my grandparents on their walnut farm in Michigan. My husband and I kept boxes of letters we wrote each other during his military deployments. I’m fascinated by letters my grandmother and her brother sent during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. My grandmother also loved reading collected letters, especially those of John & Abigail Adams.

She asked me once whether people would really someday read “collected emails.” I think she would enjoy the resurgence of interest in old-fashioned correspondence.  Letters of Note, a website created by Shaun Usher, is devoted to “fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos.” The Rumpus online magazine recently started Letters In the Mail, whose subscribers receive letters from authors.

Author Mary Robinette Kowal has issued The Month of Letters Challenge: write and send a letter every day in February (excluding Sundays and postal holidays). I’m in. Since September, I’ve been writing weekly to my son in England. This afternoon I began thinking of other potential recipients.

Letter writing is gift of presence; it’s slow conversation. You have to pay attention to what you’re writing and who you are writing to in a way I don’t think email replicates. It’s also a gift to the future. Letters are excellent primary source material for historians and teachers, and I’ve found them to be troves of ideas for creative writing.

Will my letters inspire a poem or story or end up in a library, historical society, archive or museum? Possibly. More likely they’ll find their way to a descendant, who like me, will pore over them, piecing together news and family, observations and dreams.