Who should be in the library?

The library is the ultimate civic commons; a place where all are welcomed to gather. That said, if you spend long enough working in a public library, you are bound to hear complaints about the homeless. These are not new. Communities have been complaining about homeless in the library as long as there have been public libraries in this country.

To me, community does not always look exactly how we want it to look. Community can be rough and challenging but that’s because as humans, we are not all the same. And the public library, because it’s a place for all, is the one place (besides maybe public transportation) where people from all walks of life come together and figures out what community really is.

I love this quote from a 2005 Washington Post article about a branch of the DC Public Library, “It’s one of the last outposts where a cross section of people still come together. It’s where Sarah was reading in groups with kids from wealthy families and those who were just getting by. It’s where they gathered on holidays for parties, where they caught up with neighbors during the weekly story times. And it’s a place that remembers them.”

Shelf Life; Even a fading D.C. library still contains a multitude of unforgettable characters and surprising plot twists. And that’s before you get to the books: [FINAL Edition]

Wee, Eric L. The Washington Post; Washington, D.C. [Washington, D.C]31 July 2005: WMAG.15.

Give ’em What They Want!

I believe in the power of reading to transform a life. This transformation can come from many different types of books and sometimes from books that many people might consider trash or unworthy of being read. There is a long history in public libraries of librarians trying to keep commonplace fiction off the shelves so people would be forced to read “quality” literature.

In 1992, revolutionary Library Director Charles Robinson said this, “We are always somewhat bemused by librarians who underestimate, or at least misjudge, the tastes of the public they serve. Our users are very often quite different from the kind of people who become librarians, and placing value judgements on other people’s interests and reading is certainly a violation of the intellectual freedom which librarians profess to hold so dear.”* 

In other words, give them what they want and don’t judge. That one romance or western might not lead to transformation but over time, the power of storytelling and imagination will.


*Blue Ribbon Committee. Baltimore County Public Library, Give ‘Em What They Want! (Chicago: American Library Association, 1992), pp. 5-6

Berkeley Springs, West Virginia

While our real estate agent tries to sell our house, Ry and I are spending the weekend with the dogs in Berkeley Springs, WV. I visited the state-run spa this morning for a hot springs soak and massage. I love the idea of a service like this being run by a government entity. Afterwards, I stumbled on the Morgan County Public Library. The original owner of the building was a signer of the Declaration of Independence! You don’t get that kind of history on the west coast.

Value and Worth

One extremely important thing I’ve learned since starting to teach Public Libraries at Catholic University is that there is nothing new in public libraries. Everything we do now, every controversy, every success, and every scandal has happened before sometime in this nation’s history. And while the internet is new, fear of change is not. In the 1920s, the increased popularity of the radio caused some librarians to be concerned that it would “wean people away from the written word”. Do you hear the echo to the past that I hear?

I find this connection to the past very comforting. I am part of a long and strong tradition of librarians–flaws and all. Even down to this quote:

“It is the more intangible question of influence on the community and value to the individual. The library supplants the schools, extends their service through life, and takes their place. It serves as a center of recreation and inspiration, a storehouse of mental treasure available for the varied needs of our citizens. In arousing worthy interests and ambitions, satisfying mental longings, bringing practical advice, information, cheer and comfort to the average citizen, the library proves it’s value and worth.”

–Bangor (Maine) Public Library Director, 1927

(as always, thanks to the magnificent book Part of our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library by Wayne Wiegand)

Educational Book and Media Association Conference

Last week, I was fortunate to speak to educational publishers and wholesalers at the Educational Book and Media Association conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was on a panel with Kent Oliver, Director of the Nashville Public Library, Dr. Annie Norman, State Librarian of Delaware and the panel was moderated by Rebecca Miller, Editorial Director of Library Journal and School Library Journal.

Rebecca, me, Annie, Kent

The topic of our panel was Public Schools and Public Libraries: the logistics of partnerships. DCPL was asked to be on the panel because of the partnership we’ve been working on with DC Public Schools for the past couple of years. It’s still pretty much a baby project and we’ve had some bumps along the way. That’s probably why I was asked to lead the challenges section of the panel.

It’s hard to have a conversation with a few hundred participants but we did our best

I hope the participants found our panel helpful. I certainly learned quite a bit about the world of educational publishing. I learned that they are passionate about educational books and helping kids learn and grow but they know next to nothing about public libraries. They don’t know our funding structure, how we operate, or how we make decisions. I’m glad EBMA brought us in because as schools start to work with public libraries more and more, educational publishers will discover that we do things very differently than schools. I hope this opened the door for these conversations.