I met a guy when I was only 17 and still a senior in high school. We dated throughout college and got married the year I graduated. I worked as a paralegal for 5 years, got accepted into law school and intended to go, but we had our first child instead. I could have done both, but I didn’t want to. We then had two more, and I stayed home full time for 13 years. I wouldn’t change a thing, and I’m grateful that as a parent I had the good fortune to have a choice when many parents do not.
Becoming a mother awakened in me something that had been lying dormant—a need and a desire to know myself better so that I could be the parent I wanted to be. I had been raised by fundamentalist, Christian evangelical parents and surrounded by political conservatives all of my life, and even though I subscribed to those philosophies on the surface, I knew deep inside that they didn’t fit well on me at all. And I knew I couldn’t pass along to my children something that I didn’t believe with conviction.
During those years I followed my instincts, and I didn’t take my children to church, although I did teach them compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. I taught them what I thought I believed leaving a door open for them to make up their own minds. I didn’t espouse any strong political ideology, but I did teach my kids to listen, to try to see both sides, and to always respect differences. Of course, my husband helped with all of this, too. But I still didn’t know what I believed because I was too busy taking care of others to figure that out for myself.
When I re-entered the workforce ten years ago at the age of 42, one of my first jobs was at Shadek-Fackenthal Library at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as a part-time cataloging assistant. Quite frankly, the only reason I wanted that job was because I was convinced that we would be able to put our three kids through college for free. Well, that never happened but something else did.
Here I was—this seemingly traditional on the outside, middle-aged, stay-at-home mom from a very conservative small town thrown into academia. It was terrifying, exhilarating, and life-changing. I was an alien among these people who seemed so much smarter, and who talked differently, thought differently, lived their lives differently, and looked at the world differently. It was intimidating, frustrating, confusing, and inspiring. That was when I started to make sense of my world.
I loved working at F&M but needed a full-time job and that’s what brought me into the world of public libraries, where I was still a bit of an alien. I wasn’t one of those people who lived and breathed libraries–I’m still not. I didn’t even use libraries or really understand their value. I still don’t use libraries very often for my own purposes, but what has changed is that I do understand their value—libraries feed hungry minds.
If simply working in a library environment helps to create a mindset in which knowledge and learning and transformation is fully embraced, then I know without a doubt that libraries can create that kind of environment for everyone. Working in that kind of environment has helped me to become authentic, which I believe is the most important quality in a leader. Libraries are helping to create leaders.
The culture of libraries and tribal norms has been a frequently revisited theme on this blog. And while it’s often true that I don’t fit in, what is also true is that I have learned so much about myself from working around the people who do live and breathe libraries. I’ve learned to think for myself and consider matters thoughtfully, from all perspectives, and to not assume that everyone else experiences life as I do.
The beauty of libraries is that they exist to ensure that there is a safe place to go to find out what matters to you. There are other ways to learn and grow. But the library as an institution represents the ideal that lifelong learning and lifelong personal growth is important.
If I can learn about myself from libraries, then libraries can learn about themselves from others like me who sometimes have a different perspective. Libraries can learn and grow and transform as an institution by listening more to those who linger on the fringes of the tribe and from those who don’t even know the tribe exists. Lifelong learning is a two-way street.
Libraries do change lives. And libraries can learn from those whose lives they’ve changed. Every voice matters. Every perspective counts. Otherwise, libraries risk missing the opportunity to reach their fullest potential.
As professionals, we’re smart enough to know that we may not always know what’s best. And we’re smart enough to look outside the tribe for answers. Libraries bring the world to those who walk through our doors or enter our portals online. But libraries are not a world in and of themselves. We are not “Libraryland.” We are part of the world landscape.