Libraries: the Choice to be Essential

Posted on May 21, 2020

essential libraries

This post is by ELGL member Stephanie Chase, the founder of Constructive Disruption. Connect with Stephanie on LinkedIn and Twitter, and listen to her GovLove podcast.

On Tuesday, May 19, an op-ed came out in Library Journal, which is one of the major publications in the library field. In it, academic library director Callan Bignoli expresses something incredibly true and deserving of attention — that the work of libraries (particularly, in my opinion, public libraries) is woefully misunderstood — and one that is far more worrisome: that being asked to perform this work in a time of crisis is a troubling thing.

I encourage you to read the piece, which has a good deal in it I agree with, and a significant amount I do not. (I also encourage you, if you are reading this and have no idea how your local library works, to reach out to staff and express your desire to learn more.)

Bignoli states: “There’s been a trend in articles coming out in major publications about how excited people are to get back to their libraries and how resilient libraries are… While they pay important attention to the needs libraries are still striving to meet in their communities, these narratives do nothing to expose the miserable realities that library workers are experiencing, or incite any kind of action to be taken in their defense.”

Miserable realities? 

I love libraries. I loved working in libraries. I loved leading libraries, which I did until, incredibly, the week before the country shut down from the pandemic.

I have a strong collection of moments, big and small, where I have had the incredible opportunity to know I made a difference in someone’s life. I treasure the deep friendships I’ve made through my line of work, and the amazing colleagues I have been able to work with.

But what I need my people, my fellow library people, to understand is that WE IN LIBRARIES ARE NOT SPECIAL. Librarians are not any more special than anyone else working in government, or anyone else working in our communities.

Librarians cannot say our work and our service is essential, as we have been for years, and then back away when we are asked to be essential. There is a heavy and heartbreaking dose of privilege that comes with librarians expressing they are too precious to roll up their sleeves and get to work, even as every library staff person (indeed every worker) interacting with the public deserves to do their job in a safe and supported environment.

As my colleague (and top ten Traeger winner) Jamie Eustace shared when we discussed the article:

“the Ivory Tower mentality of privilege is blowing my mind. The emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being’ will come back to haunt us all [in libraries] if we can’t embrace the role we have in making our communities whole again. No one else is in government work is exempt from doing that.” 

Our job is to meet the information needs of our communities. Those information needs have changed so significantly since I began doing library work in the late 1990s.

The job I did at the New York Public Library during that time doesn’t exist any longer; it has grown, and morphed, responded to societal and community needs. I hope I have, too.

The expertise of library staff is essential right now, and it is libraries’ greatest challenge to rise up and meet the needs of our communities in creative, inventive, innovative ways.

It is not “job creep,” as Bignoli says in her piece, for a job to grow and change, and it is not vocational awe (another topic with a double-edged sword in the library profession) to want to do your job well.

Libraries cannot walk away from being “only shred of social safety net left.” (I would also say we’re not. Your public school and your food bank are two organizations meeting deeply pressing needs far more continuously and substantially than libraries are.)

Our strength in public libraries has always been in creating community and providing connection; it is what will allow us to survive. Public and school library closures are deepening the digital divide, just as overall school closures are.

So many of our people, young and old, do not have access to a computer, to reliable internet, to someone who can help them navigate the complex technological world we live in.

Here in the US, we live in a country that does not care to provide enough for everyone, and our work in libraries is to help bridge some of that gap. Of course I am not celebrating that the gap exists; I celebrate that libraries are here as part of the solution to that gap.

Libraries cannot and should not look the same when we reopen. That’s why “all of our energy” cannot go “to keeping our colleagues and communities safe.”

I participated in a webinar recently where the speaker addressed how important it is, in cities in this moment, to focus on what helps our community and our workers feel safe and functional, but that our long term success for coming out of the pandemic rests on our ability to focus on what makes our communities “comfortable” and “convivial” because that is “what make a place livable.” (Equitable should be in there, too.)

Libraries are just like every other organization that relies heavily on in-person foot traffic in the need to be planning how services can be accessed in a way that is safe for staff and community members; we also must be planning for what services look like in a fundamentally changed world.

Neither of these two truths makes libraries or librarians special. It is incredibly presumptuous to imagine our communities want their libraries to go back exactly the way they were, with nothing new, with no evidence of what we’ve learned, with no acknowledgement that people have changed their habits and their desires.

As the speaker shared, a good deal of what was only very recently thought of as radical or unthinkable is now sensible: mass telecommuting, online grocery shopping, a $15/hr minimum wage, a universal basic income. Are our public services ready to respond to this massive shift?

I know what job I have been doing for over twenty years in libraries: it is a service job. It has required me to work nights, to work weekends, to provide support for some of our most vulnerable and under-resourced community members, to place myself in difficult situations, and to do it with less staff, less funding, less resource, and less acknowledgement than many of my fellow municipal colleagues.

I also know that my library job has never once been as dangerous or as difficult as countless other jobs, even within my own municipalities. I know that my job asked me to serve my community, and I did that willingly, and with my eyes open.

And why should people listen to “people who are no longer working making declarations about how we should direct our energy in the first place?” Because we just may have a clarity of vision about what it is really like, on the other side, to use the services libraries are providing their communities.

Paulo Coehlo said that “new beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.” All of us in local government work are on the precipice of something new, and we are all grieving, in one way or another, for elements of what was so familiar to us only a few short months ago.

We cannot meet what is new by refusing to see the changes in front of us, and we cannot hope, in libraries, to be an essential and vital part of the new beginnings in our communities without contributing with our own hard work. 

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