Keeping the end in mind (also: public libraries and cross-country travel)

by Sarah Elichko

Whether it’s how librarians talk to library students, tired approaches to library activism, or even what is posted on social media sites, attitudes (both negative and positive) have gotten a lot of attention in the library blogosphere lately.

Granted all of the very real challenges facing our profession (and society at large), I think it’s essential to keep the larger point in mind.  We’ll accomplish more if we pause to remind ourselves why we do the work we do, or why we’re trying so hard to obtain a position where we can do said good work.

Sometimes a personal approach to this question is more readily grasped than statistics and other objective measures of impact, so to that end, my post today will focus on the many ways in which public libraries helped me and my friends during a 3-week trip across the US.  (And later I’ll get back to talking about keeping the larger goal in mind.)

A few years ago, three friends and I embarked on a cross-country Amtrak trip in the middle of winter.  We had few plans beyond a list of places – Chicago, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Portland –  and a timetable – be back in Philadelphia for the start of spring semester.  Without really planning to, we ended up visiting at least one branch of the public library in each city.

For the record, at no point did we borrow a travel guide!

Salt Lake City Public Library (Main Branch)
The SLC Public Library is worth a trip for the architecture alone.  None of the photos I’ve found quite do it justice.  (If you stand in the right place, you can see the Rockies framed by the sweeping ‘tail’ of the building.)

Zine Collection
I didn’t know that public libraries had zine collections until encountering the SLCPL’s collection.  What’s particularly great about this collection is how accessible it is: some zines are on display like current magazines, while others hang in bags that patrons can easily open. I spent more time there than my friends probably wanted to, actually reading copies of the zines I’d seen reviewed in Punk Planet but otherwise hadn’t found a way to access.

(The Zine Collection has a website here, and if you’re logged into Facebook, you can check out photos of the collection.)

Park City Public Library
Predictably, taking ground transportation through Utah in January means some weather-related delays.  We were snowed in for days in Park City, so we used a local friend’s library card to borrow a bunch of DVDs and YA novels from the Park City Public Library to pass the time.

San Francisco Public Library Main Branch
Deaf Resource Center
I don’t remember exactly why we stopped by the SF Public Library in the first place, but we came across a sign for the Deaf Resource Center and went in.  One of the members of our group is deaf, and he was able to use the free video relay calling to contact his family and let them know how our trip was going.

An exhibition in the downstairs gallery presented the work of prisoners who had enrolled in a college writing class.  The focus was on letting the prisoners tell their own stories, to offer another perspective on the dominant narratives about crime.  (There’s a short blog post about it here.)

Portland (Oregon) Public Library (Belmont Branch)
We stayed at a really comfortable and friendly youth hostel in the Hawthorne neighborhood, which required taking the bus to get to many of our destinations.  The tiny Belmont branch library was nearby and offered free Internet access for looking up directions and bus routes.

Portland Public Library (Main Branch)
Portland’s main branch has an impressive zine collection and a good collection of graphic novels.  We stopped in when we were in the neighborhood, and ended up staying for a while. This was near the end of the trip, and it highlighted the importance of libraries as places where one can go to just read in peace.  (After travelling for weeks with the same group of people, even your closest friends, some independent downtime is key!)

When I look back at this list, some of the experiences seem almost dated in the age of Netflix and smartphones.  But quite a few of them remain viable: the library as a place for socializing, reading, or solitude, providing access and visibility to physical collections that are by definition scarce (e.g. zines, local publications, and other small-press-run materials), displaying art and other exhibitions that are relevant to the community.  And these concrete experiences connect to more ephemeral ones that libraries certainly continue to enhance: discovery, excitement, connection, learning, enjoyment.

Taking another step back, this list reminds me of an excellent blog post on how librarianship is the ultimate extensible profession.  Fiona was talking largely about developing new skills and evolving expertise, and while I agree that this is definitely a strength (and a goal) of librarians, I think our profession is extensible in other important ways.  Sure, librarians work in wealthy institutions and assist with exciting new research and manage valuable collections of rare documents, but unlike the dominant conversation in (the US) mainstream media, librarians still remember that the digital divide hasn’t gone away.  Many librarians have embraced mobile technology for a variety of purposes, and at the same time, have organized to promote information access around the world (even in the form of print books).

There are plenty of more intellectual and substantive approaches to this topic than my personal anecdotes – Emily Ford’s indispensible take on developing a philosophy of librarianship and Lane Wilkinson’s discussion of librarians as experts on the “chain of testimony” are the first two that come to mind.

My point being:  as a profession and sometimes as individuals, we work with an incredibly wide range of community members doing everything from data management assistance to toddler storytime to search skills classes. As a group, we have something to offer nearly everyone, across the country and across the world.  So the next time you’re facing a shrinking budget or staff conflicts, remember the larger context and see how the work you’re doing right now contributes to a larger goal.

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