a librarian explains the public library: funding

Government of Texas $50.00 (fifty dollars) treasury warrant from DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
Government of Texas $50.00 (fifty dollars) treasury warrant [source DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University]
When I started out working in libraries, I had this great idea that I was going to be serving the cause of justice and equality and fighting the evils of capitalism. I have little excuse for such thinking — I was not even particularly young — but so I thought. I got a little more realistic (or a little more jaded), or at the very least a little less obnoxiously high-minded, but I did still generally feel that I was on the side of righteousness, or at the very least the side of doing no harm.

I worked for five years at a library in rural Wyoming, which I loved — I loved the town (where you could have any farm animal living on your property except for a pig) and the land (we were only thirty miles from the edge of the Shoshone National Forest, where you could get lost and never find your way out) and the ways in which the place hadn’t completely succumbed to the media monopoly that strangles the rest of the country (there were multiple local papers, none of them owned by Gannett). And, I would think to myself smugly, at least I don’t work for the energy industry.

Then one day I was looking at a list of the largest property tax payers in Park County, and right there at the top was Marathon Oil Company. Well. That put me in my place. Of course I did work for the energy industry. I just didn’t do so directly.

Public libraries, like public schools, are funded mostly by local property taxes (they also — to varying degrees — get state, federal, and private money, all of which comes with its own privileges and strings). That brings with it both the advantages of local control and the disadvantages — if you live in a poor area — of not much revenue. It also creates the interesting difficulty of how library service areas are defined and drawn and thus who pays into the property tax pool that the library draws from.

Wyoming, which is extremely rural — in my town, more than half the population we served outside town limits — wisely decided to organize their libraries at the county level. All twenty three counties have a public library system, usually with a main library and several branches, but they draw funding from (and serve) all residents of the county. That — plus the school and the oil company — is how a town of 351 people was able to have a public library that was open 44 hours a week. Wyoming went a step farther and decided a few years back to integrate all the counties into a single database system. You still get a card from your home library, but you can use it at any library in the state.

Iowa, where I live now, is generally thought to be rural, but in fact it’s a network of small cities. We have 99 counties to Wyoming’s 23, all packed into a much smaller area. Each of those 99 counties has a county seat and at least a smattering of other towns, and 544 of those towns have public libraries. Each of those libraries was established by a local town or city ordinance. Here’s the one for the library where I work now. We’re a newer library — we just celebrated our 50th anniversary last year — and our earliest funding came from a Girl Scout troop that wanted a library they could use in their own town. Coralville sits cheek-by-jowl with a much larger city, and for many years, residents of Coralville could only use the library in that town by paying a yearly fee. The same was true many other small cities in the county.

Some years back, Iowa started a program they call Open Access*, which allows anyone who lives in the bounds of a participating library to get a card at any other library that participates. Currently there are only about a dozen libraries that aren’t part of the program and so, effectively, anyone in Iowa can get a library card at any other library in Iowa. You could, as I tell patrons, travel around the state and collect over 500 library cards. You can return library materials to any participating library and we’ll mail them back for you free of charge. The result is a much looser system than Wyoming’s, but one that gives individual libraries far more control.

But what of the people who don’t live in towns? In many states, those people are still out of luck unless they want to pay a yearly fee to use a local public library. The fee is usually some approximation of how much the library figures people contribute it property taxes to the library each year — I’ve seen anything from $25-$100 a year, but I have not done a thorough survey. Many counties get around this by collecting and contributing some money to the county’s libraries on behalf of their residents. Such is the case in my county. At present, we have 27,728 patrons and only 1219 of those are from rural Johnson County. So it’s not a huge service — unless, of course, you’re one of those 1219 people, in which it’s quite a big deal indeed.

Bored yet? Confused yet? I haven’t covered the half of it. But all these vagaries in funding relate to what services libraries provide, how they provide them, and whom they provide them to — all of that fodder for many other posts.

*Confusingly, there’s another very important topic in libraries called Open Access, but it has to do with free access to digital scholarship and is another problem for another day.

a librarian explains the public library: introduction

Atlanta, IL Public Library
Public library in Atlanta, Illinois [source]
Or some of it, anyway.

I’ve worked in public libraries for over a decade, and I answer a lot of questions. I get questions from library patrons, of course, and from library staff, but I also often answer questions (okay, sometimes I force answers on people who did not actually ask a question, because I can’t have information that might be of interest to someone and not share it) from dental hygienists and receptionists and doctors and dudes at the car dealership and grocery cashiers and all the other people I chat with in the course of going about my life. Usually part way through these answers, I can see people’s eyes glazing over, and then I cut to the chase and say, “Well, the answer to that is money and politics,” and that always shuts them up.

But I’m really interested in how money and politics shape the public library, this democratic/socialist/anarchist paradise that nevertheless exists in the world and has to abide by its rules and complications. So I’m going to write about some of them and put them here.

Topics may include

  • library funding
  • ebooks (and other online resources)
  • patron privacy
  • providing internet for the public
  • public meeting rooms

Suggestions are welcome.

ten years in libraries

desk, with papers and broken tape dispenser
Today marks my ten year anniversary working in libraries, which is not a very long time to have worked in libraries, but it is a very long time for me to have done anything. I’ve never lived in a house or an apartment for more than four years, ever, and I’ve never had a job for more than five years. Some jobs I’ve had for less than five days. So a decade in one profession seems like a very long time.

I walked in to my first day — my first night, really, as I worked exclusively nights and weekends as a part time Youth Services Assistant — at my new library on Ash Wednesday 2005. The town had a large Catholic population, and seemingly every other person I saw that night had a smudgy forehead. I am Christian, of the Episcopalian variety, by both birth and inclination, but I was living with my deeply agnostic grandmother at the time and wasn’t attending church. I wondered about the ashes on the foreheads of many of the staff and how they made patrons feel. I wondered about the lack of ashes on my own forehead, and what that meant. But mostly I was excited. I’d been trying to get a job of any sort in a library for a long time (in my hometown, it’s hard to get even a volunteer position at the library because it’s so popular), and here I finally was, a semester into library school, and I finally had one.

I was very excited when I started working in libraries, and I was also very lucky. The excitement lead me to start a blog just a few months after starting my job, and the luck led me to attend the Radical Reference meetup and the OCLC Blog Salon at ALA where I met all sorts of wonderful and talented people, many of whom I now call friends. Getting into libraries changed my life, and I’m grateful every day to have found a profession where I fit in, where the codes make sense to me, for the most part, and where I get to do at least some things I’m pretty good at.

When I started I spent a lot of time thinking about all the things I was excited about. Alternative literature in libraries! Books I hope people will read! Intellectual freedom! Useable, fun library websites! Blogs! Folksonomies! I was the biblioblogger at the local branch library.

I still think about some of those things, but mostly I think about other things, the kind you see taking up space on my desk. I think a lot about tape. The big tape dispenser, used by volunteers, is missing the thing that the tape rolls around in, which renders it somewhat useless. So I snagged another tape dispenser out of the supply drawer, but it was the last one there, so I put the box and the broken tape dispenser on my desk to remind me to mention all of this to the person who orders supplies when she gets back to work. She’s out with a sick kid today. I’m also supposed to be thinking about receipt paper, and whether I want to get special receipt paper that we could use for holds or if we just want to keep taping the hold slips to the books with removable tape. There’s a list of some books I should go weed because I’ve pulled the rest of the books in the series due to low circulation. There’s a list our praticum student has been working on of mystery series we own, because we make little paper shelf tags for the series, and they need to be updated. (I’ve also taken our practicum student with me to look at all the fire extinguishers in the buidling, because the City wants to know when they were last inspected, and to the bank with the coins we’ve pulled out of our fountain, which are too dirty to run through the change counter and thus must be separated by denomination (thank you, library volunteers!) and then weighed.) There’s a list of some other stuff I should do. There are some paper purchase suggestion forms, because we still use a lot of paper forms here, even though it is 2015, because in many cases, paper is still easier. There’s my email, which always contains a much longer list of to do items, frequently related to gaps in the desk schedule or discrepancies in the cash register or ebook titles that are about to expire because of ridiculous publisher limitations. We recently decided to get MARC records for our ebooks, but that’s creating complications, because the MARC records don’t disappear when the books expire, and some of the books we’ll rebuy and others we won’t, and we share the collection with another library, and some they may rebuy, and I can rant all I want to about how much I hate DRM, the publishing industry, and current ebook licensing models, but none of that will deal with the immediate problem of the records in the catalog and what we want to do about them.

There’s a song by some indie band I can’t recall that I used to listen to in college a lot, and I find it running through my head these days. “I’ve become every thing that I hate / As if tragedy were my trade.” I think a lot now about how much people complained when I started out in libraries that we could never try new things, and I think about how wary I am of new things now, ten years later, when people propose them, and then I think about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce. Then I shake my head and remind myself that I need to answer the emails that have shown up while I was typing this.

You’ll notice that there’s one thing in the picture I haven’t talked about. It’s a book. We still have those at my library. Ten years later, there are some things that haven’t changed. We still have books, and I’m still telling people that libraries are about far more. I expect that will be true in another decade, too.

weeding: how i did it

Weeding has been getting a lot of attention in library circles of late (or, er, in the library circles I hang out in, which is pretty much the LSW room on FriendFeed). The discussion comes from a story that revealed a major weeding project was underway at the Urbana Free Library and that it was being done hastily and without much librarian supervision.

Read the original story, a followup, and some statements from librarians for more information, but the gist of it is that the director wanted to get a major weeding project done quickly before a new RFID system was put in, and so she decided all the nonfiction older than ten years should be targeted, and librarians were to look only at lists when deciding what to keep, not take time to peruse the shelves. Oh, and much of this was done with temporary employees while the person in charge of the collection was on vacation. The result was that huge swaths of the nonfiction collection were reduced by 50-75%.

At best, this is what we call a major snafu; at worst, it’s a travesty of management, planning, and community relations. I lean toward the latter view, but I respect that, as they say in The Big Lebowski, new shit may come to light.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to talk a little about how to do major weeding in a more thoughtful way and about. As it happens, in my eight years in the library profession, I’ve been involved in three major weeding projects. They’ve varied in size and scope, but in every case, they represented a collection that had barely been touched in a decade or more. In my current job, I’m in the final stages of weeding the mystery and fiction collections. Here, then, is a bit about how I did it and what I’ve learned along the way.

The First Pass
I started by targeting things had not moved at all in the past decade. I ran a report of everything that hadn’t circulated in ten years and had a volunteer pull the volumes and bring them to me for deletion. I looked at these books only briefly in passing; a handful I retained either because they were the sort of classics I could imagine someone walking in the next day and wanting or because I had an immediate idea for a display that I thought would bring the books new life. Out of 500+ books on the list, I saved perhaps half a dozen.

The Second Pass
The second thing I wanted to do was eliminate old books with low circulation. I ran report for books more than twenty years old with five or fewer circulations. I saved more out of that group — sometimes for the reasons mentioned above; sometimes because they belonged to a series that we had all the other volumes of. In one case, eight out of the ten volumes of a series showed up on the list. The remaining two volumes had circulated only six times, just missing the cutoff, so I weeded them, too. There’s nothing more frustrating than a series that’s missing most of its volumes.

The Third Pass
We have enough money at my current library that when a book is very popular, we buy a LOT of copies of it. That’s great, as it means people who want to read the latest book by Janet Evanovich or David Baldacci don’t have to wait months to get it, but several years later, it means we have five or ten or fifteen copies of those books sitting on the shelves not getting checked out and taking up space. I had my volunteer pull so that there were only two copies left of everything. In some cases, I added a few copies back in, but for the most part, reducing duplicates has freed up a lot of space and made for a much nicer browsing experience. It is possible that in a few cases I was a bit overzealous. I was walking through the Bs today and noticed a gaping hole. “What the hell happened here?” I thought — and then, “Oh, Dan Brown.” We had two copies of The Da Vinci Code left, and both are currently checked out. Ooops.

The Final Pass
This is what I’m doing right now, and it’s the only truly time consuming part, since most of pulling was done by volunteers. At this point, I’m going out myself with a cart and walking through the shelves and looking for books that look old and tired. When I have a few dozen, I head back to my office to evaluate them. Now I am handling each book individually, looking it up to see how it’s circulated over the years, who its author is and what else they’ve written, what reader it might appeal to. The books with circs that were low but not quite low enough to have been caught on the second pass often get weeded. They are old and often musty. These are the popular fiction of twenty or thirty or forty years ago. From a cultural history standpoint, they’re fascinating — Fear of Flying was far from the only novel that examined women’s lives in the context of women’s liberation — but most of these didn’t get famous. Some of them may be good books, but in my library, their appeal factor will be limited. Twenty or thirty years from now my successor will be weeding all the issue fiction I’m buying now, as well she should.

The books with excellent circulation numbers I look to replace, if I can. Again, my library has enough money that I can buy new editions of Agatha Christie’s mysteries and Watership Down and the work of Isaac Asimov. We have excellent book menders, but sometimes a book is so old even they cannot save it. If I can’t find a replacement edition, I try to see if there’s something else we can do to clean it up. Sometimes just a new Mylar cover works wonders.

And sometimes I discovered things I had no idea existed, like a series of books about Swedish-Americans that will be perfect for a patron I know — a patron who will likely tell other patrons with similar tastes, and who will thus get these books out and about again.

This project started this past spring, and I expect to be done with it by the end of the summer. It should make our shelves look much nicer and it will, I hope, help get more books into the hands of patrons, which is where they belong.

an open letter to the Edwin Mellen Press

I should have written this a long time ago. My delay comes not from hesitation or indecision but from illness, and for that, I apologize. My thoughts may be late in coming, but they are no less sincere.

I am a librarian. My father, John M. Crossett, was a Classics professor. He was also, albeit not until after he died, an Edwin Mellen Press author. The Press published the Festschrift his former students and colleagues compiled in his honor and later the translation and commentary of Longinus’s On the Sublime that he did with James A. Arieti. Although I have been in touch with many of the people involved in both publications, the words and opinions here are my own.

Dale Askey is also a librarian. Several years ago, he published a blog post critical of the quality of the scholarship and books put out by Edwin Mellen Press. The blog post has since been removed, but Edwin Mellen Press sued both Askey and his current employer. Mellen has now dropped at least one of those lawsuits, citing, among other things, “social media pressure,” and, among others, that it is “a small company” and “must choose its resources on its business and its authors.”

I signed a petition asking Mellen to drop the lawsuit.

I know, at least by name and reputation, many of the people involved in the social media pressure, although I also know there are many more.

Librarians, like many professionals, are often quick to spring to the defense of one of their own, and we have done so in this case — the case of a man in trouble for having an opinion.

My father was a man of many opinions. Many of those opinions made him unpopular in the times and places that he taught. But his ideas — in the form of those who did admire him — found a home at Edwin Mellen, and I am grateful to the Press for that. My copy of Hamartia, inscribed by its editors to me, is one of my most cherished possessions.

There are few things my father and I would have agreed on (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, gay marriage, abortion, and the Western canon spring immediately to mind as points of divergence). But I believe that he would agree with me on this one thing: a lawsuit is no way to respond to criticism. The proper response in a scholarly community to a disagreement is not to sue to but to argue. Make your case. Support your argument with examples from the text, from critics, from experts, from data.

John Milton, one of my father’s favorites, one of mine, and, I daresay, one of yours wrote

For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand, unlesse warinesse be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.

Mellen has made a promise to keep all its books in print, and it has done so, thus preserving some life-blood that is quite precious to me, but I am just me. The quality of Mellen’s books as a whole, their place in libraries, and their contributions to scholarly discourse I leave for others to judge — I am a public librarian, not an academic. But as I judge books by their contents, I judge men and women by their characters. Dale Askey had the courage to voice an opinion. Edwin Mellen Press, on the other hand — you had the cowardice to try to shut that down. You believe Dale Askey tried to kill a good book, but he did not. He burned nothing; he destroyed nothing. You, on the other hand, are attempting to kill off the voice of a man. No one who claims to work in the tradition Milton defended, no one who “remains resolute that all have the right to free speech,” has any right to shut down a disagreement with a lawsuit — not, at least, if they wish to be found to be of good character.

patron schools reference librarian

Today a patron asked for “the phone numbers for some periodicals.”

I Googled (because hey, that’s how I find phone numbers) and discovered that both the titles I’d been given were for catalogs. I wanted to make sure that’s what she wanted so I asked a few questions. “Is this a magazine or a newspaper? It looks as though Newport News is actually a catalog.”

“Is that what you call it?” the patron said. “Catalog, magazine — they’re all the same. Essence is like a catalog anyway.”

Catalog, magazine — they’re all the same. This is the point where I think of my academic librarian friends beating their heads against the wall trying to figure out how to explain the difference between a magazine and an academic journal (not to mention the difference between a journal and a peer-reviewed journal), and also the point where I start to despair for the American public. Really? Catalogs and magazines are just the same thing? Gah!

Then I started to think about it. Lucky, after all, is from what I understand basically a magazine about shopping for stuff. Many magazines have more advertisements than they do articles. Then I was reading this little bit of the preview of The Science of Yoga on Amazon:

The colorful pages of the magazine offer a vivid example of how companies target the demographic. Hundreds of ads promote skin-care products, sandals, jewelry, natural soaps, special vitamins and enzymes, alternative cures and therapies, smiling gurus, and ecofriendly cars. Each issue features an index to advertisers.

Sometimes the patron actually may know more than we do.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t still try to differentiate between different kinds of information. But we live in a world where those lines are very blurry, a world where almost everything is for sale, a world where we are all a target market.


librarianship is about showing up

I always love reading philosophies and manifestos and that sort of thing, so I’ve been enjoying the philosophies of librarianship that people have been posting lately.

I’m better at reading these things than I am at writing them myself, but it dawned on me this afternoon that probably what I mostly believe about librarianship is that it is about showing up.

Today I have not worked any desk shifts, nor have I placed any book orders or run any reports or done much else of a concrete and quantifiable nature. What I’ve mostly done is what I think of as staffing the Reference Desk of the Library Staff. That means that I sit in my office, and then sometimes I get up and walk around and do roving reference, and I talk to people on staff who come and have questions, or I go say hi to them and see what conversation ensues.

The first thing I asked for, before I even started work here, was that they rearrange my office furniture so that I didn’t have my back to the door. I like being able to see people coming, and while it’s sometimes useful to have a private office for certain conversations, I like having my door open and my windows into the main work room uncovered. And I like going to talk to people in person instead of just sending them emails.

So yes: I show up. I engage with people. I help people find stuff. That’s half of it, at least.

But the other half of librarianship, to me, involves something else I’ve written about: that the encounter between the librarian and the patron is meeting between two experts. I don’t mean that to deny the expertise of the librarian, which I think is real. But I want whenever possible to remember that along with that expertise comes a power dynamic, and that just because I may have more perceived authority in the library than the patron does not mean I am more important.

People talk a great deal about how libraries are great socialist institutions, and I think that’s true. But I want them to be great anarchist institutions, too: places where we face each other not as supplicant and benefactor but as people with different skills involved in mutual aid, both trying, in our fumbling way, to build a better world.

accompaniment in the library

One of the first things I learned in library school (despite my sometimes disparaging comments about the general state of library education, I did learn some things there) is what I now think of as the IANALIANADIANAA disclaimer. I Am Not A Doctor I Am Not A Lawyer I Am Not An Accountant. If you work in a public library, you know the drill: I can help you print off a list of workers comp attorneys in the area, but I can’t give you any advice about your workers compensation case. I can help you search MedlinePlus, but I can’t give you a diagnosis or advice about your prescriptions. I can show you where the tax forms are, and I can even print more off for you, but I can’t do your taxes.

Those are all easy enough: my legal knowledge is close to nonexistent; my knowledge of medical conditions, despite being the daughter of a doctor, is limited solely to psychiatric disorders; and I have a computer program do my taxes.

But often I get questions at the desk that are looking for other kinds of advice, and these are harder to interpret.

At my first-ever library job, I worked regularly at the children’s desk. I got a lot of questions from adults, though, perhaps because the actual reference desk at that library was a fortress-like monstrosity with staplers and scissors chained to it, or perhaps because I was closest to the copy machine. One evening a young woman came in with a paper she was writing, wondering if I could proofread it.

I was fairly certain that this was outside the bounds of “other duties as described,” and that I was in fact supposed to tell her that I could not do that for her. But it was a quiet night in the library, and it was a short paper, just a page long, and I used to teach freshman composition. I said okay. I did a quick job, fixing just proofreading stuff, since that was what she had asked for, but she clearly needed more help. I asked what school she went to. It was a community college nearby, so while she went to use the computer, I did a little sleuthing. Sure enough, they had what sounded to me like a writing center. I jotted down the information, and before the patron left, I gave it to her, suggesting she stop by or give them a call. She thanked me.

Then I emailed the contact person I found listed on the page for the center, just to let him know I’d sent someone there, and hoping that it was the right place. He wrote back the next day, and I still remember his words. “It breaks my heart that students don’t know about the center.” I told him I’d do my best to spread the word.

Over the years as a librarian I’ve gotten a lot of questions from patrons that hover on the boundary between providing library reference services and providing advice. I’m not, I suppose, supposed to tell people that their resume would look better if they formatted it differently, or that yeah, it does sound as though the situation with their landlord does sound like a case for the tenant-landlord association. And I don’t go right out and tell them these things, or walk around looking for those situations. But I can’t claim never to have answered such a question.

The other night I went to hear a talk by the historian Staughton Lynd. He spoke about the organizing mistakes of SNCC and of SDS‘s ERAP project*, and about the philosophy of accompaniment. He realized, he said, that after he got his law degree and went to work with steelworkers and later prisoners, that he suddenly had skills to offer to a fight that belonged to both of them, not just some amorphous idea of how he wanted to help people and do good. And he talked about something his wife Alice said at the time, when she was doing draft counseling: “The meeting between the draft counselor and the draft counselee is a meeting between two experts.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more perfect definition of library work, and I got to tell Alice Lynd that after the talk.

In her case, she was the one who knew all about draft boards and regulations and the requirements for being a conscientious objector, but the draft counselee was the one who was an expert on his own life, on what it would mean for him if he had to go to war, on what it would mean for his family and his own conscience.

I am an expert on searching databases and using basic computer programs. I am an expert on circulation policies. But the patrons are the experts on their own lives — on their job searches, on their quests for knowledge, on the books that got taken with a non-custodial parent after a divorce, on the experience of having a relative or friend in the prison system whom they’re trying to locate.

I always tell people that I went into librarianship on the theory that at least it would do no harm, and that’s true, but that’s not all of it. I went into librarianship because I have the skills for it, and because, as it turns out, those are useful skills. They’re skills that allow me, even for just the few moments of a reference transaction, to encounter another expert, and to work together with her. I am, daily, humbled by that experience, and I hope I always will be.

*Remind me some day in my copious spare time to contribute to some of these Wikipedia articles.

thinking about banned books

I’ve long been a fan of Jessamyn West’s take on Banned Books Week — that it’s a marketing ploy, that most of the books that claim to be banned are actually just challenged and are not ultimately removed from library shelves, that there are many more issues of importance when it comes to censorship and the disappearance of information that used to be public. So I’ve tended to treat the subject lightly if at all at the library — I sometimes print out some stuff and throw up a book display and put a post on our website (and, in fact, that’s all I’m really doing this year), and then I complain to my librarian friends and colleagues about all my issues with the event.

This year, the lead-up to Banned Books Week in the young adult blogosphere was the attempt to have Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five removed from a school in Missouri. (Anderson also has a followup post.)

Now this is very much your typical book challenge of the sort recorded by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Someone gets upset that high school students are reading about sex and swear words and, using media-savvy, raises a huge stink. Nothing too unusual in the annals of book challenges.

But it got me thinking again, perhaps because Speak is one of my favorite books, perhaps because the description of it by the objector (“soft porn”) was so ridiculous, perhaps because I work in what is half a school library.

It’s easy to dismiss school libraries as, well, different. They’re serving a specific population. Their collection all has to “support the curriculum.” But I don’t think that we, as librarians, should take that view. As Justice Abe Fortas wrote in Tinker v. Des Moines, “[i]t can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Nor should they lose their right to read freely. And so many of the books that are challenged in schools deal with topics students want and need to know about. Students with same sex parents, teens questioning their own sexual orientation, young people who’ve been abused or assaulted — people don’t write books about these things to be prescriptive. They write about them because they happen. And reading about them happening is one way that those who’ve experienced those things can learn to deal with them, and one way those who have not can have their eyes opened to them.

I want to talk about a lot of things related to censorship and freedom of information, from government information and free law to the embargoes and copyright agreements and astronomical prices that often keep scholars from accessing their own work. But I still want to talk, as I so often do, about that kid lurking in the stacks, looking for something that just might change her life.

alone at the library

I spent hours of my youth at the public library. Hours and hours. Sometimes I went just to check out books, but more often than not I went just to spend time there. The Iowa City Public Library had record players and CD players you could use, and I’d flip through the albums (I first listened to the Beatles at the library), pick out a stack, and set up at a record player, put on the headphones, and read or do my homework or just daydream. I loved it there because it was the only place I ever went where people left me alone.

At school, one was usually supposed to be doing something in particular place, and if you were out of that place, or doing something else, you got in trouble. Stores are notoriously hostile toward teenagers, and of course they want you to buy things. I hate buying things. If I wanted company, I’d go to UAY or, if the weather was good, to the ped mall down town, but when I wanted to be left alone, I went to the library.

Aaron has a short jibe about How to Be Alone, a video that’s been making the rounds on YouTube and that suggests the library as a good place to go to be alone. “Not exactly what we’re going for, eh?” he asks. Commenters on the post beg to differ, and I do too.

Oh, I know building community is important. I know gate counts are important, and program attendance statistics are important, and Facebook fans are important, and people getting to know their librarians and their neighbors is important, and people creating content is important, and all that stuff is important. But every time I hear someone talking about how we need to make libraries more popular and not just places for nerds, every time I hear people talking about programming like it’s the most important and perhaps only thing we do, or should do, for teens, a little part of me wonders what place there is in that library for the fifteen year old me, the girl who just wanted listen to records and wander the stacks and look at old magazines and, well, be left alone?

I also fell in love with Jonathan Franzen while reading his book How to Be Alone, which is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about reading and thinking and exploring ideas and following the paths of your own particular mind — things that are rightfully solitary pursuits. Some of the greatest things I have ever done have been groups and with groups. But not all of them.

“The first thing books teach you,” Franzen says, “is how to be alone.”