Okay, well that was a bit dramatic. But the reason I make noise about “library people” and “outsiders” is because I find myself belonging to both groups. I’m not a library person in the way that many library people have been completely immersed in the culture of libraries for much of their lives. Of course, libraries have always been in my life, peripherally. I can still conjure the image of my grandmother, a long-time volunteer, behind the desk at what was then the Mount Joy Public Library on Main Street (now the Milanof-Schock Library, outside of town, and recipient of the Best Small Library in America award in 2006). I loved that small library, and I loved checking out the latest Nancy Drew and hanging around my grandmother as she put cards in the pockets of books.
When I went to paralegal school and later worked as a paralegal, I happily spent hours in the law libraries at Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle and the Lancaster County Courthouse. I thought then that I loved the law (I even applied to law school and got accepted but never enrolled). I know now that what I loved was the library.
Here’s where it gets interesting: I was a stay-at-home mom for 13 years. I did what many good parents do– I took my kids to the local public library and made sure they had library cards when they were old enough, but when it came to storytime, I took them to Barnes & Noble where I could get a cappuccino and we could buy books. I never once gave a thought to taking them to storytime at the library. I didn’t purposefully negate that thought. It just never occurred to me. Of course now you can get coffee at many library storytimes, too, which is beside the point, but still.
You won’t believe what comes next: About ten years ago, when I began thinking about re-entering the workforce, I applied for a job as the director of my local library—the library where I now volunteer 2 hours each week. I marched in there (my first time in the building in years) and told the then director that I was qualified for the job because I liked to read. I did. I am a walking cliché. I AM the person that all of you out there in libraryland loathe! (Although in fairness to me, I loathe the term libraryland.) It was the shortest interview in history, and she showed me the door within 10 minutes. I will never forget the look on her face—a mix of complete exasperation and stifled laughter. I remember she asked me if I could name any library programs I had attended. I gave her a blank stare. Programs? I thought I would be buying books and putting them on the shelves. I was every bit as ignorant as she perceived me to be—maybe more. Funny thing—that director is now someone who I have worked closely with as a result of my Laura Bush grant (she is the administrator of the grant for Commonwealth Libraries), and I don’t know for sure, but I doubt she remembers me. At least I hope not! I should tell her sometime…
I have been part of a book group for 16 years (more about this in a future post). Several of the women in my group routinely get the monthly selections from the library. In 16 years and over 100 books, I have never once gotten the book from the library. In my defense, I will say that I do like to own books and have my own collection at home. But for much of that time, I did not even have a library card. Yes. I do now.
Next up: My initiation into the world of working in libraries. I got my first library job 8 years ago in Shadek-Fackenthal Library at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Re-entering the work force by way of an academic library is a bit daunting. I found myself surrounded by people who had lived and breathed academia for much of their lives, and I felt intellectually inferior and somewhat provincial. And I did not understand library speak. I may as well have been surrounded by coworkers conversing in Arabic. I needed a translator, and when there were none available, I faked it. I didn’t know a bibliographic record from a vinyl one. I was confused by holds and reserves and by serials and government docs (well, who isn’t confused by government docs). Was an ILS the same as ILL? Why would anyone want to read a shelf? However, it is the librarians and staff at that library that made me want to get my MLS so that I could become one of them. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t have contact with someone from Shadek-Fackenthal, and I left almost 5 years ago. I am literally a Friend of the Library (I have a card!), and I am a friend to the library, I hope. And many of the people who work there are friends to me. But I digress…
Since I work in a System office and not in a library (which is no excuse), I still don’t use libraries as much as I should or could but I will defend their value to anyone who will listen anywhere, anytime. I do love using the electronic resources, especially the databases (and I force my son to use them to do homework). I have downloaded ebooks on my iPad with the OverDrive application. And I’ve used my iPad to help patrons search the library’s resources. But I get people who aren’t library people having been one of them (and by some standards, I still don’t measure up because there are those who seem to believe you have to be born in a library to have any cred. Perhaps delivered through the book drop!).
And yet I have always valued and appreciated and respected libraries. The key difference is that now I have been educated—on the job and in school—as to the work that librarians and staff do and as to how integral the library is to the lives of the people who do use it regularly. And I’ve seen first hand the passion and dedication of the people who live and breathe them. I’ve heard countless stories of how libraries change lives. I am a believer. We—the outsiders—can be converted. In fact converted is not the right word. There are many people like me (and the strategic planning consultant mentioned in my last post) that already have a fundamental belief in the importance of libraries. They just don’t understand what it takes to make them fully functional in today’s fast-paced, technologically changing world or the funding challenges libraries face in today’s economy. They don’t know what libraries have to offer if they haven’t been to one since 1972.
Educating the non-users about libraries may not convert them into users, although that would be lovely. It may not increase circulation statistics, although that would be great, too, since funding still seems to depend upon them (a pet peeve of mine). It may not get them to step though our doors or visit us online, although one can hope. But we don’t necessarily need more users. We need more supporters and not necessarily donors, either, although that, too, would be welcomed. I support in theory and without question many things that I don’t use or fund—closed-captioning ; accessibility for the disabled; cancer research; the food bank; meals-on-wheels; exercise equipment (joke). These things don’t affect me directly, but I support them because I don’t doubt their importance to the people who do use them. And I might need any of those things someday. Maybe now you are fortunate enough to own 2 or 3 or 4 (or more) devices to search the Internet for a job from home. But what if you didn’t have a computer and/or Internet service? Where would you go to fill out an online application? Maybe you get your movies via On-demand or Netflix streaming, but what if you still rely on your DVD player—maybe even a VHS player? And maybe you don’t want to pay to watch those movies. What if you just want a book in your hands and you can’t afford to buy one? Or maybe you want to try a Kindle to see if you like it before you buy one. Maybe you’re just tired of buying ebooks for the Kindle you already own. The possibilities and scenarios are endless.
We have to make sure that everybody knows what libraries do and how they change lives so that no one will question their relevance or the need to fund them or keep the doors open. We need to educate constituents who will in turn encourage their elected representatives to appropriate sufficient funds so libraries aren’t short-staffed and falling into disrepair and technologically out of date. We need people to make noise about libraries so libraries can keep going about the business of welcoming outsiders into the fold.