Libraries are the Best Thing Ever….Except for Maybe Chocolate

girl sitting on a book statue at Brentwood TN public library

Brentwood TN’s public library

On Friday October 18th at our regional library council annual meeting, the President of the American Library Association, Barbara Stripling gave an inspiring talk on how libraries change lives.  How Libraries Change Lives is the message of her presidency, and as a former school librarian and current library school faculty member, this is a subject near to her heart, as it is to all or most librarians.  As part of her presidency, she is urging all citizens to sign the Declaration for the Right to Libraries and to understand that libraries are more than warehouses for books but are also vibrant centers of learning, community conversations, and innovation.

She began by saying that changing the world is an enormous and intimidating concept surrounded by trite rhetoric and little action; and to be truly effective, an individual who wishes to change the world endeavors to have an impact on the lives of others, one life at a time!   We don’t alway hear about the impact we have on others but as we live, work, play, and learn we need to have faith (my word not hers) that our impact may be felt in small or large ways.  When we empower individual voices to speak and to sing, we change lives.

Libraries are safe places to have democratic conversations away from the hurley burly of hyperbolic rhetoric and name calling.  Our communities

have the right to have strong libraries.  With each need comes opportunities and challenges, or as Stripling put it, “chopportunities.”

Libraries empower the Individual.  Libraries provide places and materials for people to imagine, create, communicate, discover, achieve, and develop qualities such as perseverance, self-confidence, and grit (I especially like that one).  Stripling said it’s hard to develop grit by yourself.  It’s sort of the other side of the growth of a pearl.  You can’t become a pearl without the presence of the grit to rub up against.

Libraries support literacy and learning.  In our environment, there are new literacies, social responsibility, and technologies in which to the individual needs to become fluent.

Libraries strengthen families and promote intergenerational conversations and interactions.  Libraries are great equalizers in terms of class, income, and status.  The second level of the digital divide, with the first being access, is the lack of skills in using the technology.

Libraries protect our right to know.  Libraries provide access to materials that study all sides of an issue, popular, unpopular, acceptable, and unthinkable.  Libraries and librarians make us think about our privacy, and social responsibilities.

Libraries strengthen our nation.  Libraries are democratic in their conception and hold a special place in our history and the building of the nation.

Libraries preserve our cultural heritage.

Libraries help us understand each other better.  We can develop greater empathy and understanding of how we see each other.

In an era where libraries are threatened, defunded, and questioned, it’s important to be able to articulate and communicate the importance of this ideal and the reality.  We do have the right to our libraries whether we read fiction, study for our classes, research a new invention, or learn to read and survive in our world.  The world of information is changing but the need for knowledge and wisdom is eternal.  Your library is the place to seek and create.  Sign the declaration , host an event, and/or use your local library.

Chocolate is better than libraries…except the library won’t give you pimples, expand your waistline, cost you money, or go straight to your hips.  So maybe libraries are even better than chocolate….and you have to admit that is really good!

My Reverse Bucket List

Never want to do againMy career as a librarian and library administrator has been characterized as “mature,” which I think means that it has lasted more than two decades.  It’s really been nearly four decades as a librarian, longer if you count that fact that I worked in a library during high school and all through my undergraduate and graduate years.  When I first graduated from library school, I had a list of things that they never taught me.  I though the library school should give me a rebate each time I had to deal with something for which I had been inadequately trained.  A short list includes:

  • Smelly employees and smelly library users
  • Helping people adapt to change
  • Working with difficult people
  • Building issues such as heat, no heat, air conditioning, no air conditioning, curtains/no curtains, fire inspections, trash, and the like
  • undergraduate and library hijinks of all sorts
  • Getting people out to the building
  • Porn vs. sexual materials and having it in the library
  • Dumpsters
  • Unions, non-unions, and the so-called open door policy
  • Getting people into the building
  • Etc, etc, etc

Yes, the primary “soft” skill set needed to be a librarian is creativity, adaptability and flexibility.  Libraries have always innovated and people have always had a range of reactions to it.  Libraries are a community of workers serving a community of users; and those communities bring their strengths, weaknesses, joys, and ills with them.  They do not get left at the door when people come inside.  They act out, suppress, let loose, and sit down with all their history and future.  Our job is to help them find the resources they need to cope with those histories and help them find ways to walk into their future.  It may be entertainment, health information, legal information, or some information they need to get by.

There’s also a mystique and romance about libraries that most people have and expect to be acted out for them when they enter the library.  People become disappointed when they come to the library and expect whatever they expect and don’t get it.  They may expect a nice, quiet place and find that the library is full of lively students studying and talking together.  That there’s food, and coffee, and the gentle hum of computers, printers, and cell phones.  Or that they expect instant answers to all their questions, only to find that there’s a process and perhaps a waiting period.

And through all that tumult of expectations and reaction, the librarian helps people manage their expectations and their research needs.  It’s a juggling act.

Recently I was at a conference, talking to some peers, and I said that I used to have a list of things they didn’t teach us in library school.  Now I have a list of things that I won’t miss when I retire.  My colleague said, “Oh a Reverse Bucket List.”  And so it is.  A few of the things I won’t miss are:

  • Worrying about safety and security of the people, materials, and building
  • Helping people manage change
  • Parking lot wars
  • Leaking roofs, bug and rodent infestations, and user hijinks of all sorts
  • Dumpsters, trash, bathroom ick, smelly people
  • Budgets, spreadsheets, and making difficult choices
  • Hearing, “I really miss the card catalog”
  • Hearing, “I’d love to work in your library because libraries are nice, quiet places.”
  • Dealing with unions
  • Emergency responses, or lack thereof
  • Hearing, “I wish I could work in a library so I could read all day like you.”

Working in a library often strips away the mystique and romance of a library.  We know so much about the inner workings of a library, the pain and suffering that goes into making things a simple as possible for the user, and our own inability to get out of our own way that we lose sight of why we wanted to be a librarian in the first place.

Most of all, I hope the reverse bucket list will restore and revitalize my vision of the library as one of the things in our society that truly envisions and embodies the democratic ideal of freedom of thought, the pursuit of knowledge, and the right to read and reflect on knowledge without censure, judgment, or comment.  Libraries are the place where your rights as a reader and pursuer of knowledge are passionately defended and your tastes and needs are met regardless of what others might think of the format or the  content.