Talking About the Library

There are some very common refrains when I meet people and, in the course of conversation, tell them I work in a library. Generally, they express their love for my workplace and its most well known contents; occasionally they express concern for its future. After my most recent experience with this scenario, I silently wondered how many people, upon meeting a plumber at a social gathering, gush (pun intended) about that line of work.

“You’re a plumber? Oh I just love my kitchen sink! It’s so easy to get a drink of water.”

“You drink a lot of water?”

“Oh, yes. I always have a bottle of Poland Spring in my hand!”

The library is as integral to your community as the plumbing is to your house. Yet so many people are unaware of all a public library has to offer, and how easy it is to support.

Like a book written in a foreign language, there could be countless translations of the above conversation from plumbing to librarianship.

“You’re a librarian? Oh I just love the library! There are so many great books.”

“You read a lot?”

“Oh, yes. I order from Amazon all the time!”

I don’t know enough about plumbing to carry this analogy much farther, but I do know that plumbing isn’t simply about one type of pipe, in one location. Similarly, public libraries are far more than just books on shelves.

On an average day at the library where I work, an adult can study for their GED. A recent immigrant can enroll in English lessons, and find help applying for citizenship. Life long learners can watch a film together, and have a discussion about its relation to current events. While parents ask questions about navigating the public school choices, their children may participate in multicultural events. A social worker has a place to bring children for supervised visits with their parents. Anyone can print, scan, or fax a document. Computers and the internet are available for (almost) anything you may need to use them for. Your card will also provide you with access to an array of databases and downloadable material, much of which may be accessed from anywhere you have an internet connection.

You can support this sort of activity at your library just by maintaining your library card. Libraries with active users (as determined by the number of card holders) will get more funding from existing pools of money. These days we all seem to be in the shallow end, but if your library can prove usage, the finances have a better chance of flowing their way. So to make a splash for your library, walk in every couple of years and renew your card. That’s it; it won’t take a single extra penny out of your wallet.

If you want to take it to the next step, come in and borrow material more frequently. Circulation numbers reflect how well we are choosing material, and in turn, promoting literacy in the community. Little Free Libraries have sprung up because so many people have books they read once, and no longer want in their homes. The “big free library” buys the books (CDs, DVDs, garden tools, etc.) so you don’t have to. We acquire and shelve them, and you may take them out as frequently as you like (ok, there are some restrictions). Our checkout and renewal numbers, and your available shelving space, both rise; and everyone is still reading. It’s a winning formula (and if that money you are not spending at Amazon is burning a hole in your pocket, I can make some recommendations as to where to direct your funds).

I admit that until I entered this field, I was unaware how much is available. These days, when I relate the offerings to someone, their next comment is, “libraries have changed so much.” Yes, gone are the days of the shushing librarian, physical card catalogs, and paper copies of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. At their core, though, public libraries have not changed. They are still providing resources and services to improve people’s lives. In Hartford we are still doing the same work Caroline Hewins did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (these diaries are my favorite examples of this work).

While I do expect libraries (and plumbing) to continue meeting the needs of the public and evolving, I am under no delusion this post will change the course of cocktail party banter or coffee talk. I also realize that libraries, being run by human beings, are not perfect. Hopefully, though, you will at least be moved to make sure your library card is up to date.

Oh, and at my library, you can get a cookie.