Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Librarian Noire: Thoughts on Being a Librarian

At a mere couple weeks shy of the big 3-0, I am surprised to discover how many of my family and friends are unfamiliar with the importance, value and enjoyment of libraries.

When I first hear that someone doesn't visit the library, I'm always taken aback.  I can't fathom how they got through high school, let alone college, without learning how to navigate and use a public or school library.  Now, I'll admit that I spent a good portion of my youth getting put out of the library with my boisterous classmates.

We'd be given some  assignment by well-meaning teachers who assumed our parents would take us to research, but we'd all get on the bus together and before you knew it, there came security.  But I thought even with that kind of experience that all of those rowdy kids would, like me, return later to finish those projects.  You had to know that the trip with your friends, or that study session with your boo was the practice round.  You ALWAYS, if you wanted a good grade, should know to re-study/re-research.

But I guess that's just my nerd showing.
The experience that I gained when I would return to the library alone, or with my mother, was drastically different than the one I'd receive with my friends.  The librarians were warmer and more willing to help me.  I always came away with the research I needed as well as something I just wanted to read.  I really liked it.

That experience, combined with what I gained from hanging around and helping my school librarians gave me a much different outlook on the library than my classmates.  All they knew of libraries was that they were boring and quiet places, with mean old women who put you out for laughing.

What a disservice.  To those kids, and those librarians.

That lack of attention was the breeding ground for the thirty-year olds that I know now, who don't even know where their local libraries are.  They have no idea how to find things inside of one, and if you recommend borrowing a book instead of purchasing it, they look like you've insulted them.  All it would have taken was for one librarian to walk over, ask us what we needed help with, and refocus our energy.  Those experiences could have bred the new scholars and advocates that libraries need right now.

As a librarian, my goal is to right some of those wrongs.  I'm trying every day to rectify the crappy job that the Chicago Public Library did for my friends and I.  Even if I have to drag those closest to me, kicking and screaming.

Fine anxiety(the fear of accumulating too many late fees), not understanding what is available, and just wanting to purchase books seems to be the three largest hurdles I have to break down when explaining the library to people.  This vision of the gloomy, quiet place where fun is left at the door seems to be permanently ingrained in most of their minds. The library of today is not that place.  I even tried explaining this to my former administrators when they were adamant about me making it a silent room.  A children's library these days is NOT a quiet place.  Children are spirited and lively, and the right book can be too.  Why should we kill that in them?

Being a black librarian is interesting in and of itself but there is a vast general ignorance about what goes into being a librarian at all.

"You have to get a Masters Degree for that?" 
Yes, Virginia.
"You have to read alllllll the books in the library?"
No, idiot. "
You have it so easy!  All you have to do is sit there in the quiet and check the books in and out." Absolutely, COMPLETELY, and TOTALLY untrue.

First of all, yes, Library Science is a graduate profession.  The philosophical practice that goes into librarianship is not a walk in the park.  We have to become versed in educational and psychological theories that make a bachelor's degree the starting point, rather than the ending.  You may look at a book display and see some books that were snatched off the shelf, or see a storytime and think its just some lady reading books and playing games when in fact they are  the result of careful planning and include educational or enrichment standards and goals quite similar to a teacher's lesson plans.  We just make it LOOK easy.

Secondly, NO we do not read all the books.  However, the work that goes into developing a collection that fits the community where our library is placed takes a lot of research.  We study the census and trends of our area, socio-economic and cultural statistics, and then filter those through reviews and journals.  A tremendous amount of planning and work goes into making sure that YOUR branch has the kind of books and materials that are important and necessary for YOUR community.

Third, and for me the most frustrating to get across; it is NOT the cushy gig you may think it looks like.  A librarian, (a REAL librarian, not the library aides that sit there doing checkouts), is actually doing about fifteen jobs at any given time.  Sometimes more.  This was most frustrating to me during my time as a school librarian.  Many of the teachers thought I was sitting there shooting the breeze all day.  I guess they figured the book fairy was coming in at night making sure all the books were somehow magically aligned to their curriculum standards, engaging to every student of every background, as well as labeled, shelved and inputted into the catalog.  Let's also not forget that I was doing storytime, checkout, research assistance and technology enrichment for every grade.  And that whole pesky business of knowing the exact book to fit their exact need when they asked me for it...

I believe that underneath every person who believes that reading sucks, or that museums and libraries are boring, is a child that had a crappy experience.  Educationally in this country, and I put emphasis on my community, we are drowning.  Even the children who are being encouraged to learn, are doing so often without being given ways to enjoy the process.  Learning should be fun.  Entering a space that holds the very history and artifacts of our world, such as libraries and museums do, should create a sense of curiosity and wonder that will make for our new inventors, teachers and artists.   It shouldn't bring back memories of being put out, shushed or just bored to tears.

At my core, I am fueled by a passion for books and intellectual engagement that I believe is vital for our people right now.  The act of joining people to the book that they will enjoy or the one that can change their life, is important to me.  Specifically, my personal mission is to ignite the very same hunger for knowledge and entertainment in children and youth that started me on this path so many years ago.  In teaching and inspiring the young, I hope to create a new generation of library advocates, supporters, friends, and professionals. And if I can re-teach a few adults in the process...I say Bring it On.


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