Over the past few months, I’ve had a lot of chances to reflect on my career and the services that libraries provide. One of the things that I love most about my job as a sole librarian for two communities is that I have a lot of influence and impact on the learning opportunities available to my patrons and the greater public. I feel so accomplished when I’m making things happen in my communities and sharing my successes with the rest of my county and my peers online. I also feel so betrayed and personally devastated when something happens that holds me back. Some hard-hitting local decisions and events have forced me to learn big lessons about advocacy and how we tell our stories.
The thing I’ve been wrestling with for the past several months is how I discuss what I do and why it’s important. In light of all that’s happened, I have a new perspective, because, let’s face it: Any time an entity or person stops the library from providing a service, they are denying the value of that service. They’re questioning the value of the person or people who provide it and, sadly, the value of the people who benefit from it.
I’ve seen a lot of reports, a lot of research, and a lot of presentations serving as advocacy for what we do and why. In these reports and presentations, I find it interesting that the stories we share are so dependent on the audience listening to them. I don’t think that’s accidental. Our jobs are much more political than most of us are comfortable imagining and for some leaders and organizations, it’s important to present the least controversial, most universally acceptable stories.
I think it’s a great credit to youth services professionals everywhere that their work is often the first to be highlighted when a sensitive audience is present. Who could ever argue with services for children? (Yet, believe me, they do.)
The next most comfortable service to bring forward is job preparation and skills building. A story about a middle-aged man laid off and struggling for work is also pretty hard to argue with when there’s a happy ending. (Just ask Hollywood.)
The next is something that appeals to lots of…people who tend to be politicians. Digital literacy and technological advancement. (Progress for all as long its elitist.)
And here’s the thing. I think all of these are undeniably, immeasurably important. I think stories about these services are important to tell and I understand why they’re favorites.
Still, there’s something very sinister about why we don’t tell some other stories.
I mean the story about how we helped an immigrant get a green card for his wife.
I mean the disabled patron who learned to type her poems and submit them for contests, who learns daily how to tell her story through a blog.
I mean the elderly man who comes every day to read the newspapers because if he stopped, he would forget how to tie his shoes.
My great fear is that we will become so skilled in weaving a careful narrative that leaves out the importance of these populations–the ones certain leaders love to call takers–that we will also forget their importance to us. Friends, it is my whole belief that there are only two kinds of people: those with struggles, and those with more struggles. No matter our monetary value, skin color, native language, country of origin, sexuality, gender, age, mental health, or level of ability we are all equal inside the library.
When do we tell the other stories? When do we decide they have enough value to be represented and defended publicly with any audience?
I love my youth services. In so many communities, libraries are the only organization creating free parent education directed at fostering early learning. Where so many others may focus on correcting developmental and behavioral problems, libraries focus on setting up adults as teachers and giving them the tools to create lifelong learning for their children. We’re also leaders in offering continuing education to caregivers in early literacy and partnering with schools to provide enriching experiences for students.
I love job preparation. There are few things more exciting than having a patron return to you with a job and paycheck for their family after months of helping her search and apply for jobs online.
I love digital literacy. I’ve helped people understand how to use the iPads their doctor’s office makes them use and taught students to search responsibly for information for school projects.
These are not services that benefit all, however. When you consider who has the time and encouragement to attend storytimes, who can make it to the library at a set time for an appointment or class, and who does not or cannot do these things, you start to see the patterns of those very real, very hard struggles that so few are striving to relieve and correct. Our statistics are important not just because of how many are attending programs or coming through our doors. When held to a light, those statistics cast a shadow of all who are missing. It’s the hardest work of every library professional to be that light and to reach for the people we cannot see and do not know yet. Sometimes this reaching means we work extra hard and provide even more or maybe just different services for the under-served than we might for our more affluent or privileged users.
What I’ve come to understand is that with every storytime, every computer class, every murder mystery party, I call upon the people who matter to our legislators and elected officials. I insulate the marginalized patrons in my library with moms and job seekers and students. With every program, I invite those with personal transportation and mental acuity, bank accounts and homes, to help me defend my patrons against those with a vested interest in seeing them kept poor, voiceless, and frankly, ignorant.
That’s my story. It’s why I get out of bed. When I sit in presentations with so many safe success stories and when I see reports go out without mentioning the others, I weep inside for all the people whose worth is too controversial to be included. We cannot fail to represent and honor those who would otherwise be voiceless and invisible because of their socioeconomic status.
(To all the libraries who are routinely advocating for their invisible and controversial patrons and neighbors, I salute you. Please feel free to share how you’re doing that in the comments.)