Dear Realist Librarian,
I saw a book that came out earlier this year called “Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library” that promises to change the way I look at libraries forever. I know they’re more community hubs than dusty leather tomes these days, but I still like thinking of libraries as book havens where the librarians always have what you’re looking for. Why would the way I think about libraries need to be changed?
Dear Library Lover,
I also like to think about libraries as a safe place with comforting rows of books and friendly, capable staff. That’s exactly what it is for a lot of people, and I’d never want to take that away from you. I’m in the middle of Amanda Oliver’s book “Overdue” right now, and although I don’t totally relate to her perspective, I support the effort to get the “real” story of the public library into the public consciousness.
If you’re looking for books or computers or homework help, I am a very capable librarian. The problem comes when that’s not what people need but we’re the only public space they can look for it. A couple of Saturdays ago, a woman was released from a local prison and dropped off my library’s neighborhood. She told me her home was several counties away, but since she had been arrested and held here, they wouldn’t take her any farther. She was wearing a tank top, jeans, and flip flops, which was fine as long as the sun was out, but it was already almost 4pm. She did not have a wallet, ID, or cell phone with her. She said she had cash, but I don’t have any idea how much.
The woman got on one of our public computers and signed into Facebook, where she found out that her mother had died at some point during her prison stay. She hadn’t previously been notified; she was literally finding out for the first time from Facebook. She staggered back to the desk and begged me to extend her computer session, because it was now her responsibility to track down various family members’ numbers and tell them her mother had died, extending them a courtesy that she had not been offered. She got the numbers and called everyone from our courtesy landline phone, allowing herself a few seconds to break down between each call. Then she put her protective scowl back in place and dialed another number.
After she finished the calls to her family she got back on the computer to look for shelters, all the while doing he best not to sob. I recognized that facial expression; I’ve worn it myself when nothing could possibly get worse but if you let yourself break now you’ll never make it to the end of the day. She asked if I knew of any nearby shelters, and I gave her the two brochures we keep behind the desk. I searched for shelters online, but all the ones she would have been able to make it to on foot by dark didn’t do intakes on the weekends. I wrote the address and phone number of one promising shelter, the only one that said it was currently open, and gave them to her on a sticky note. About five minutes before the library closed, she approached my desk one more time to ask for printed walking directions to an address. I hope it was an address to one of the shelters, but she walked out the door and I’ll never know.
I wish I could say this kind of thing doesn’t happen often, but this was a version of something that I deal with frequently. My job is a daily window into the brokenness of the system. I see firsthand how people at their lowest are made to stay down. They have nothing, and still more is taken from them. Books and movies wouldn’t do anything at all for this woman. The outdated brochures, probably pre-COVID and worthless now, were all I had to offer, and they were nothing. The overstretched compassion of ill-equipped city employees is not enough when people are in crisis and ours is the only building that won’t turn them away. When I left the building at 5:15 that Saturday, all I had to do was drive home (in my air-conditioned car) and eat dinner (in my house with a comfy couch and fuzzy dogs and a TV with internet capabilities). Her night was just beginning with a three-mile walk that would begin sweltering and end freezing.
Being a public librarian has shaped me in a lot of ways, but the biggest one is opening my eyes to everything that isn’t being done for the people who need it most. We can continue to think of libraries as book havens—for some, they are! It’s just that for some reason, our country seems to be careening down a path of capitalism and bottom lines, which means the library is evolving again. Until we can have more spaces that simply help people, no questions asked and no money exchanged, librarians and other public library staff have to fill that void the best we can.
My tik tok is @surpriseitsjes