Want to Save Libraries?

I think every library, be it public, school, academic, or special, can learn a lot about survival from the children’s departments of public libraries–because we’re not going anywhere. Even if the rest of the library as we know it collapses and crumbles, children’s librarians will still be around, in some form or another, doing what we do.

Why is this? Why will we survive budget cuts and closures while other libraries and library departments might fail? Simple: we provide unique, superior value and we make sure people know about it. Also, we’re the nicest people in the library world, and that keeps people coming back.

Now, this is not to say that no one else provides value, or gets the word out, or is nice. What I am saying is that the most successful children’s librarians–and, very often, teen librarians–have a certain formula that will consistently provide results. A great children’s department will often have both the highest program numbers as well as the highest circulation numbers, and depending on how the library budgets, that often means they end up getting the most money.

There are four key areas in which children’s librarians excel, and they are:

  1. Outreach
  2. Programming
  3. Service
  4. Collections
I’m going to discuss each of these four areas in turn. Stay tuned for our first topic, outreach.
p.s. I think that insect is actually a beetle.
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Fashion (buns to the left) Fashion (cardigans to the right)

So, fashion. Or style. Or wardrobe. Or costume. What do we librarians wear, anyway, and why does it matter–if, in fact, it does? (Per usual, my discussion is pretty child and teen librarian focused. Allow me to wear my bias like a hot dog button on my sleeve).

For myself, I’ve been known to wear: book themed t-shirts, including Doctor Suess and Where the Wild Things Are; bunches of jelly bracelets (which kids love); sneakers with polkadot laces; and many, many cardigans. At work, my primary focus is comfort and being able to move in my clothes (can’t do storytime if you’re unsupported or your pants are too tight) with style coming in a close second. I feel that you need to wear clothes that you feel like yourself in, both physically and psychologically.

But I also feel, having worked with small children in one capacity or another since 2001, that we who work with children need to constantly work against the assumption that we are cheerful, paste-eating morons who do nothing but play with children (because, you know, playing is frivolous and does nothing to help children LEARN OR ANYTHING). This should be done mostly with what we say and what we do, but, frankly, we are constantly judged by how we look, especially if we are women. And if you’re fat or a woman of color? Good luck with that. (After all, it’s 2012, and we still have to put out things like a guide to writing about politics in a gender neutral way.)

Here’s the thing: we all work hard. Our work is important. We need to present as people who are to be reckoned with, who can’t be ignored or dismissed. If you can accomplish this while wearing costumes (superhero or otherwise), Hunger Games t-shirts, buttons, or vintage polka dots, then so be it. But in my opinion, it’s all proportional–the more quirky your appearance, the more rock solid your foundation needs to be–because people will always use your appearance–clothing, hair, skin color, and body type–to judge you and in some cases even dismiss you.

The thing that bothers me more than book earrings or pencil sweaters is looking like you don’t care. If you’re invested in dressing like Mimi from the Drew Carey Show, and it works for your patrons, then own it. I guess what it comes down to for me is indifference. If you look like you haven’t thought about your appearance, and how you come across to your patrons, then you’re probably not that invested in what they want or need.

What do you think?

Be The Change

What we need is toolkit for dealing with these roadblocks. Some ideas to get us safely started. I want to make change but am so overwhelmed by all that needs to be done in my system, I’ve no clue where or how to start. Maybe for your next post?
Thanks for helping keep me inspired and energized about my career!

Even though I’m thirty-two years old, I’m way behind in terms of emotional development. My childhood and young adulthood were beyond dysfunctional, putting me at a severe disadvantage when it comes to interpersonal relationships. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to feel that I’m somewhat equipped to handle the world in an emotionally appropriate way. This isn’t to say that I have all the answers, but I have learned many lessons, the most important being: you can’t control anyone but yourself. This is true for any relationship you’ll ever have, personal, professional, and everything in between.

So when it comes to putting together a toolkit for being awesome, that’s where you need to start–with yourself.

Take care of yourself.
Make sure you get enough sleep, exercise, water, and things to eat that are whole and fresh. Get massages when and if you can afford them, or take a yoga class. If you work at a desk, get up every twenty or thirty minutes and walk around a bit.

Speak up for yourself
If someone’s making you feel uncomfortable, threatened, afraid, or just plain icky, speak out. Be polite, be courteous, but be firm. If you need something to accomplish your job–and make sure it is a genuine need, not just a want–ask for it. Any time you speak up, make sure it is from a place of calm. Don’t be afraid to be passionate, but you don’t want to come across as an emotionally unstable harpy, either. Make sure to document any problematic interactions you have. If things have to progress to official channels, you’re going to want things written down and dated.

Educate yourself
If there’s no professional development money, do the next best thing–converse on twitter, read blogs, or ask your boss if you can go visit other nearby libraries to network and gather ideas.

Make an example of yourself
Be awesome in public. Go above and beyond, even if your coworkers snipe at you and no one in administration seems to care. You’re going to know you’re doing a good job, and when it comes time to make a move somewhere better, you’ll be able to speak passionately and truthfully about how you’ve helped your patrons. If you have tons of ideas you’re unable to implement, blog about them–perhaps someone else will be able to make it happen. While that is really not as satisfying as doing it yourself, at least someone will benefit from your wonderful idea.

Easier said than done, sometimes, but these are some guidelines I try to follow in my own life. What about you? How do you handle soul-sucking workplaces, tiresome red tape, and general unawesomeness?

You must be the change you want to see in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi
Indian political and spiritual leader (1869 – 1948)

top 11 posts of 2011

When I first started this blog, I had no grand aspirations. I am passionate about the library field, child development, and children’s literature, and I wanted to have a place to express my thoughts, and I hoped that I would garner at least a dedicated, engaged readership. Fairly early on, I experienced the Elizabeth Bird bump, and for that I’ve always been grateful. I appreciate my twitter friends for all their conversation and ideas, and frankly, without them I probably wouldn’t be writing much at all.

Looking at my top posts, I realize that people love it when I write about things that a lot of librarians are probably thinking but are too scared to talk about, and my programs for children. I’m going to make an effort to write more about these topics in 2012, and also write more from the gut and the heart, no matter what the topic (my angsty review of Ingenue being an example of this new goal).

Thank you to all my readers for commenting, emailing my posts to your colleagues, and generally being awesome. Let’s do more of this in 2012.

top posts (excluding static pages):

11. Meow Mix. I think this is solely because of the cat picture, although I think my cat who doesn’t know how to meow storytime through line is pretty awesome.

10. Make it Happen: Teen Space. Pretty much an airing of grievances post that also allowed me to congratulate and laud a fellow librarian. Now complete with a comment I didn’t initially approve because it’s super negative, but hey, whatevs. Different strokes for different folks.

9. New Storytime Favorites. Why is this so popular? I dunno. Probably because I mention cats and I’m a librarian. The cat/librarian diagram is so venn it’s almost just a circle.

8. Tales of the Madman Underground: A Love Letter. This was a very personal post and book review, and I almost didn’t publish it. But this book is amazing and I think that librarians—much like teachers—need to fight for the right to be real, flawed, human people with pasts and problems like any other people. Just because we work with children doesn’t mean we’re all Mary Poppins, and we shouldn’t be punished for being real people. But seriously, read that book.

7. The Ethical Librarian. This one is me totally ranting and raving on my high horse while my horse is standing on a soapbox. You might as well call me the Bughouse Square librarian. I took an information ethics class in library school, one of the few actually challenging courses I took, and it ruined me forever. You’re welcome.

6. #makeitbetter. I just hate bad librarians. Sorry if you’re one of them.

5. You might not being doing it wrong, but you could certainly do it better. Ah, my screed against library schools. I might not get so worked up if I weren’t $50,000 in debt, but that ship’s sailed, huh? Good times. And by good times I mean kill me.

4. Librarian, Weed Thyself! Wherein I apply the CREW and MUSTIE methods to people. I am a monster. A pudgy, cuddly, hyberpolic monster.

3. Beginning Reader Storytime. A warm and fuzzy post about how I revamped my library’s preschool storytime. How…charming.

2. How to Become the Best, Most Versatile Baby & Toddler Programmer Ever. Babies and toddlers are tricky audiences.

And, unsurprisingly, the number one post of 2011 is…

1.  Summer Reading, Pain in my a**. So many people enjoyed my rants about the sacred cow of summer reading, which really pleased me. I love when people reassess long running programs with a fresh eye. Can’t wait to see what people do with their 2012 summer reading programs.

Happy new year, everyone!

Love,

Miss Julie

make it happen: teen space.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I worked at Forest Park Public Library back in 2006/2007, and I must admit that every single time I worked a desk shift, I would stare balefully at the local history room. Not that I dislike local history, mind you, but because I like and care about teenagers more—and I could see, even then, that the teens in Forest Park that were coming to the library deserved a place of their own to hang out and be themselves. I wanted to take over that room that was being used by the historical society and put it to use for the teens. I was continually annoyed that this public library space was only accessible by appointment when we had a sizeable group of teens who would love to be able to sprawl out in a space that they could call their own. Being the rabble-rouser that I am, I would state my opinion on this topic to my manager at every possible opportunity. My manager indulged my rambling, but was wise enough to know that such a project would be incredibly involved and difficult and while I waxed philosophical, she bided her time.
Eventually I left Forest Park for other opportunities, but my strong feelings about those teens and that room persisted. So when, a few months ago, I saw an article about FPPL’s new teen space, I knew I wanted to hear more about, so I interviewed the current manager, Susan Kunkle, via email about the project.)

The Youth Services department in Forest Park serves birth-12th grade, which is an incredibly wide range of ages to serve in a space that is essentially one open floor with little division. This was a bit of a problem, Susan wrote, because “[t]eens like–and need–to work and socialize in groups and there was no carved out place for that. We had this open room, but no areas to just sit and talk without having little kids right there too […]. Our tables really only fit four to five comfortably. We would regularly have eight teens try to cram themselves in a small study room or one day over a spring break there were easily fifteen kids, who had just pulled chairs from everywhere out to the middle of the floor so they could all talk together. We would have to break them up for practicality’s sake because of noise, or to avoid people getting hurt, or because people couldn’t get around them—but they weren’t doing anything wrong. We wanted them to feel like it was okay to hang out. We just needed a better option. I was leading the Teen Advisory Board at the time, and I had really come to know and care about these kids and honestly, they really wanted to be there. We needed to give something back to them and show them that it worked both ways.” (Emphasis added).

After my departure from FPPL, it seems that the idea for having a teen space in the library really started to gain momentum. According to Susan, it was around a three year project, with “[t]he former manager Lindsey Dorfman and our Director Rodger Brayden really set[ting] down the groundwork, collaborating with our board, and feeling out the possibility. Our door counts and circulation were up, we were seeing a lot of growth in our program attendance and there was a lot of discussion in the community about creating more safe spaces and safe activities for teens, so it really felt like the right time.”

Susan, with the support of her director and board, was able to negotiate the Historical Society’s leaving the room so the library could resume its use. With that in place, the exciting process of bids, meetings, planning, and input began. Susan consulted with her teen advisory board regarding how the space would be used and how it would look. From a narrowed down selection of choices, the teens gave their input on fabric, furniture, and materials, and Susan was surprised with what they picked.

“I really liked their choices. So many times I think people are afraid to open themselves up from feedback from kids because they feel their suggestions are all going to be way out there or unreasonable, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in YS it’s that it always pays off to listen to them. Kids are more practical than we give them credit for sometimes and at the end of the day, don’t we want them to be invested in what we do?”

Yes, we do. Great job, Susan!

Summer Reading, pain in my…*

Summer Reading. We spend all year working on it. We can’t escape it.

I hate it. I hate summer reading.

But…but…it helps kids retain their reading skills over summer vacation!

You know why we even have a summer vacation?

So kids could spend the summer months helping out on the farm.

Wait…your kids don’t live on farms? They live in the suburbs? Or the city? Or even if they do live on a farm, it’s such a large farm that their meager help isn’t necessary during the summer months?

“Why operate on a calendar designed for the economy of the last century?” Kelly Johnson, communications coordinator for the National Association for Year-Round Education, asked Education World. “As we head into the 21st century, I don’t know of very many children who must work on family farms. So why do we continue to implement a calendar which has no educational advantages?

There’s no reason for summer vacation. Sure, it’s nice. Teachers love it, and probably want to punch me in the face right now. But really, why are we holding onto something that is nice but ultimately detrimental to our children and families? It has to be terribly difficult for working parents to find child-care for three months out of the year. I’m assuming a lot of kids just stay home unattended, or they get dropped off at the library for eight or more hours a day, without even a snack. Rarely will a child spend all of that time reading. Most of it is spent talking with friends, playing on the computer, or rolling around on the ground, rending his garments and crying “I AM SO BORED!”** Wouldn’t that time be better spent in school?

Are American schools serving up a quality education for all students? Although we provide students more years of formal schooling than any other nation, our school year is short, usually only 180 days. The world’s average is 200 to 220 days per year, and Japan’s is 243. (See “Give Kids More School,” USA Today, August 31,1992.) Over time, this difference can add up. [emphasis mine]

Further, in Chicago (where I live but do not work), our school days are among the shortest in the nation. We spend fewer days in school and even on the days we’re there, we’re not there for very long. And how many of those days are no more than an hour long?

Don’t worry about it, though! Summer reading will fix everything! Prizes from Oriental Trading and reading logs are an amazing cure-all for YEARS of educational neglect!

When a child is struggling with reading, I think the last thing s/he wants to do is spend the entire summer being forced by a well-meaning parent to read. Because that’s all it is– we give them a piece of paper or a database log-in and say, Here ya go! Read! Maintain your skills! What if Billy’s an eighth-grader and his reading level is only at the second grade? What good does it do for him to maintain that? How is he supposed to begin reading at his grade level without support, direct instruction, intervention–you know, SCHOOL?

The library is NOT school (no matter how many of my little patrons call me teacher), and most librarians are not equipped to teach children–or anyonehow to read, and I believe this is a major failing of most library school programs. How do we expect people to be invested in the library when they lack the one skill that makes it worthwhile? And even if libraries move away from storage and preservation towards content creation, how can we expect illiterate people to create content? How can we document community stories when the majority of the population lacks the ability to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end? If we’re going to be putting on this “program” that is supposedly going to keep kids from falling behind in school, shouldn’t we know how literacy is developed, how kids learn how to read, how adults learn how to read? How many librarians reading this right now have a clue as to how any of that works, and how to apply it in a library setting?

This doesn’t mean I am opposed to fun programs at libraries, especially for children. I love programming and telling stories, and filling the library with whimsy. I think decorations kick-ass. I just think that libraries should do that sort of thing ALL YEAR, and not just spend all of their time, effort, and money during the summer, when, frankly, most people are just there for the chintzy prizes. Kids that want to read will read, regardless of how charming and well crafted your summer reading program is. Children who can’t read and don’t like to read won’t read, and your posters, prizes, and logs won’t help them one damn bit.

Much like a Vulcan, I can’t stand things that I find illogical, and I find the Summer Reading Program, with its high minded, idealistic mission, to be a completely illogical artifact of the past. I also never participated in it as a child, so I don’t adore it slavishly out of misplaced nostalgia. Yet I am an above average reader and writer, so I guess the lack of summer reading really didn’t hurt me any, did it? And I was one of those farm kids who was so urgently needed on the farm during the summer, one of those bare-foot, dust covered urchins that summer reading was supposed to help so much. Perhaps all that time I spent listening to my father ramble on about hog prices and what the neighbors down the road were up to helped my literacy skills more than I knew.

In summary, I do believe that the average summer reading program is little more than a crutch for the failures of the average American school system. What do you think?

NOTES

School calendars around the world

This article has a ton of links at the end about school calendars, start times, etc.

*to the tune of “Summer Lovin'”

**This is only a slight exaggeration.

ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.

OR: Love is the higher law.

I’m in a summer funk, y’all.

The heat, humidity, and summer reading program account for a lot of this funk. Now that the program is winding down, there is much fretting about the NUMBERS! I am paranoid that my new program for pre-readers has negatively impacted the number of people finishing the program. I stand by my early literacy skills promoting book log, however, and think that there must be another reason for low finishing numbers.

This summer I’ve also been plagued by the New Jersey/Gail Sweet/Revolutionary Voices debacle.

SIGH.

How do I even begin? Since I am lazy, if you’re unaware of what this issue is, please see the links below.

In a nutshell: Gail Sweet, worst library director ever, removed an anthology of queer writings from the library based on the complaint of a grandmother who was systematically seeking to remove books with gay themes from every library in her immediate area of influence. Gail removed the title Revolutionary Voices without following proper procedure, and without making the grandmother fill out the standard reconsideration form.

Oh, and this grandmother? Beverly Marinelli is her name. She belongs to a group that wants to “to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001[.]” Let me think….as far as I recall, everybody was SCARED on 9/12. Crying, trembling, awfully scared. You know what, Beverly? I don’t want to feel like that, and I think you’re a pretty terrible person for wanting to take us all back there. We remember 9/11 plenty well, thank you very much. Even the gays! David Levithan, editor and YA author who is also one of those homosexuals that are ruining the world (according to you), was so moved by 9/11 that he WROTE A BOOK ABOUT IT.

Did you write a book, Beverly? Did you create something in the aftermath of all that evil and terror? Did you GIVE something in an attempt to make the world better? NO? You only took something away? You X’d it? You uncreated? Wow, well, good for you. It’s easy to take something away, to remove a book just like the twin towers were removed. Oh, yeah, I went there– I am comparing the removal and destruction of a book to 9/11, y’all! Look at me go! Straight to hell! Or maybe I should say queer to hell. Book banning and terrorism have the same root: the impulse to destroy that which you do not like and do not understand.

Yet, this book banning spree really has nothing to do with the mission of 9/12: “But she said the common association between the complainants is a coincidence and the protests against the book are not part of that project.”

Uh. Okay. If it has nothing to do with 9.12, then why are you wasting your time with it? Why not focus on your task at hand?

Here’s the whole quote:

Ms. Marinelli, the woman who originally contacted Ms. Sweet about the book, was one of a group of people who first brought it to the attention of the RVRHS Board of Education. She acknowledged she and the others are all members of The 912 Project, a group started by conservative pundit Glenn Beck whose purpose is “to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001,” according to its website. But she said the common association between the complainants is a coincidence and the protests against the book are not part of that project.

So, not only is grandma a hateful bigot, she can’t even stay on task. You’re never gonna get us back to 9.12 that way, Beverly, at this rate. I’m not sure what offends me more, your obvious hatred of queer people or your utter LAZINESS.

Okay. So Beverly got a bee in her bonnet, wrote to Gail Sweet, Gail Sweet was all, “SURE!” Bang, there goes the book. When she was asked why the book was being removed, Gail Sweet replied simply, “Child pornography.” Yeah, she’s lazy, too. At least when I am lazy, I don’t try and pretend I was “being funny.” I’m just lazy.

“‘I was really being funny, even if it doesn’t sound it,’ she said. ‘Maybe they were ill-advised words, but I’ve learned something: Be careful what you put in e-mail. They were not meant in any way other than being facetious.'” – Gail Sweet

Do you really want a library director who thinks following policies and procedures is funny ha ha laugh time? Oh, yeah, wait, she didn’t follow the procedures fully. She just made an irrational, emotional judgment and got rid of the book.

The worst part was that not only did she remove all copies from the library, she didn’t even want to allow them to be sent to the book sale:

“How can we grab the books so that they never, ever get back into ccirculation (sic). Copies need to totally disappear (as in not a good idea to send copies to the book sale)[.]”

I’m surprised she didn’t have a bonfire and just burn them, and maybe, while she’s at it, the effigy of a gay teenager. Heck, why not just burn a real teenager? I hear they cast a lovely light.

This story has actually been reported on by a variety of publications. I, myself, actually emailed Dan Savage to see if I could get him to rant about it, seeing as his decrying of the Constance McMillan prom issue actually provoked some real change to her school’s attitudes and policies.

(It’s pretty hard to write this, as blinded as I am by rage. It’s also hard to keep out all of the profanity I would like to use.)

Some argue that libraries have this kind of “child pornography” on their shelves, but not the converse–books about reforming gays, or the like. And you know, I don’t agree with that, either. If there’s a reviewed item that speaks to that ideology, add it to your collection for balance. If there is a patron request, and you have the budget, add something even if it is a poorly written, blearily printed chap book. I don’t care if you agree with their views or not, if they pay taxes, it is their library, too, and you’re obligated to provide materials they want to read, however distasteful you find them personally.

So, Gail, what you should have done was keep that well-reviewed, important book on the shelves, and added materials that provided a counterpoint. But that might have involved, oh, I don’t know, SOME WORK. You might have had to look at some REVIEWS. Or asked Beverly for SUGGESTIONS. Instead, like Banning Beverly, you took the easy, lazy way out, and got rid of something.

Doing the hard work of researching in order to add more materials would have made you a good librarian. Instead, you’re a slothful censor who makes terrible jokes, and I hope that someday soon a young person in your family, a nephew or niece or grandchild, comes out to you, and changes your mind about what materials like Revolutionary Voices mean to people like him or her.

Beverly, Gail, I leave you with the eloquent words of Frank Zappa: “May your sh*t come to life and kiss you on the mouth.”

Actual emails exchanged between Gail Sweet and various parties

Safe Libraries

School Library Journal

Fire Gail Sweet!

Tea Cozy‘s Account

Central Jersey.com

The Frisky

Bitch Magazine

TPM Muckraker

Jezebel

Guardian UK

Banned Librarian

The Advocate

American Libraries

Shakesville

Box Turtle Bulletin

Philly.com

we don’t need you, either.

The Summer Reading program. It is the event  that youth librarians spend almost their entire year either preparing for or recovering from. Children and parents descend, en masse, worked up into a froth of excitement from the promotional tour–books were booktalked, prizes were displayed and demonstrated, and the joy and pleasure of the program were hyped to the extreme.

Summer Reading, in my opinion, should be about the joy of reading, with the bonus of getting tacky plastic crap in return. I hope most libraries also give away books; in most programs I’ve worked in, that is the final prize. I also see Summer Reading as a time for kids to experience the freedom to read what they want. No AR tests, no quizzes, just–read. Enjoy a story, or a set of facts, or a recipe. Listen to an audiobook, or idly flip through a magazine. Read a video-game guide while you play your current favorite game (and people who think gamers don’t read, have you seen the super-thick game guides that are out there? Lots of text, and pretty complex directions to follow as well. So, shut it, people who claim video games are anti-literate; between the guides and the story inherent in most games, gamers are incredibly literate.)

I’ve recently heard a sad tale of a library that restricts teens to reading only YA titles for their summer reading. That sounds so nonthreatening, right? But it isn’t. It’s step one down the slippery slope of restricting access to materials. What if a teen doesn’t want to read YA books, and prefers adult books? Stephen King and Dean Koontz are popular with teens, as is Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks and his LOVE stories (don’t call them romances). Tough sh*t, guys; you’re gonna read what the librarian tells you to read. And don’t forget, when adding up your totals, 2+2=5.

This library also denies teens the ability to check out movies based on rating. Even a 17 year old, who could see an R rated movie in the theater, can’t check out an R rated film from the library, because if you’re 17, you have a card that is color coded to indicate that your access is restricted.

This, my dear friends, is censorship. It is acting in loco parentis, which is frankly not the librarian’s job.

I hate these policies, and all too often teens are the ones suffering the most. Why can’t teenagers get a break?

Thinking about this stuff just makes me feel so sad and tired. Does anyone have any stories about awesome libraries that go out of their way to defend the rights of minors to access information?

privilege.

Before I begin, a caveat: I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the most logical thinker in the world. I go with my gut on most issues. So if any of my arguments seem incredibly simple or even stupid, they just might be. And I am okay with that. Mostly.

After reading a couple of posts by the Annoyed Librarian (Libraries the Meritocracy, Give Them What They Need) I began thinking about privilege, libraries, and how the two intersect and affect the larger world.

From “Give Them What They Want”, which was written in May, so the Annoyed Librarian is well aware of the financial crisis we’re all in right now:

So the question is, do public libraries provide something that’s necessary, but not generally available? Not just nice, but absolutely necessary for the quality of life of people in the community?

Here’s where librarians start talking about Internet access, but I suspect that response doesn’t resonate well with the Americans who both have money and vote, those middle and upper middle who participate most in the political process with their money and their votes.

Why wouldn’t they care? Because, like the majority of Americans, they have Internet access either at home or work or both, and if they didn’t have it, they could afford it if it was a priority. Even a lot of poorer Americans could. How many people without Internet connections have cable television and/or cell phones? Most of them, I bet. And don’t say that even if you can afford an Internet service you still have to buy a computer. To use cable, you still have to buy a television.

Here’s where privilege popped into my head. The tone of this excerpt, and the entire post, implies that the writer has never been poor. I think people hear the word “poor” and they imagine food stamps, welfare, pan handling, bare-foot children in the dirt kind of poor. But there are many kinds of poor. There is a poverty spectrum, if you will. There are the poor who subsist on aid or charity, and there are the working poor, and there are those who have been plunged into unemployment by layoffs or firings or who are no longer solvent because their investments were corrupted.

The working poor can own a television, yes, and they can even subscribe to cable. Do they have the means to pay their bill every month, on time? And how old might their television be? If it is newer, is it being paid for in installments? They probably have cell phones, too, but are they on plans, or do they have pay as you go phones, which sometimes aren’t paid and don’t go? How many of these people juggle their bills each month, deciding which ones to pay now and which ones to put off? How many of these people have their phones, television, and computer because of credit cards that they have run to the limit and can no longer afford to pay? Maybe they do have internet access, but it is only dial-up, and they prefer the faster speeds at the library.

When you lose your job, or you have a job that doesn’t pay enough to cover all of your debts and expenses, life is hard. No, you’re not starving, you’re not homeless–yet–but the stress wears on you. The phone is constantly ringing until finally the phone is shut off. The mailbox is a land mine that you don’t want to go near. As soon as one bill is paid another arrives, or your car breaks down, or your kid gets sick, or you cut your finger open making dinner and you have to decide whether or not the trip to the emergency room is worth it. Even working people with health care, if they are over extended, have to decide whether or not the twenty dollar co-pay is worth it, or if they can even afford that at the moment.

You can’t tell the working poor by looking at them. They can be any age, any race, any gender. You can tell, after a while, who is struggling. The man whose entire family comes with him to the library every day, and every question he has has to do with submitting a resume electronically, or using google maps to map out how far away a job is. The woman whose kids love the library, but can only come sporadically, depending on whether or not their truck is running at any given time. The mother who asks, quietly, after you tell her all about your amazing programming for children, “And how much does it cost?” The relief in her eyes when you say that all library programming  is absolutely free tells you the entire story.

Oh, and another thing about the poor I just remembered. Not only do they not have any money, they usually don’t vote.

That’s from the Annoyed Librarian again, who, per usual, doesn’t bother to provide any sources. Even I, as lazy as I am, will quote a bit from wikipedia:

The most important socioeconomic factor in voter turnout is education. The more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to vote, even when controlled for other factors such as income and class that are closely associated with education level. Income has some effect independently: wealthier people are more likely to vote, regardless of their educational background. (Voter Turn-out)

Since we can’t reasonably make poor people richer, we have to educate them. Since college is expensive (and not worth the money these days, in my opinion), the library will have to fill in. This was the mission of the first intentionally public library (the Boston Public Library, in 1854, included in its statement of purpose “The future of democracy is contingent on an educated citizenry“), and everyone from Glenn Beck to Frank Zappa has touted the educational value and necessity of libraries.

So the assumption that poor people can have internet access if they want it is a faulty one. The assumption that they don’t vote is less faulty, but is probably less of a factor than education. If we can provide free education to the working poor or those living in poverty, they will be more likely to vote in ways that might improve their situations. Or they will become more employable, etc.

The Annoyed Librarian’s penultimate paragraph states:

And what is the necessary? This is where choices become very hard. What’s more important for the community? Library staff or library databases? Romance novels or reference books? Librarians have to emphasize what libraries have that most people really need, even if only occasionally, rather than what they want only in good times. [emphasis mine]

Which I take to mean that providing internet access to the working poor isn’t important, or necessary. The job board by the adult reference desk isn’t important. The storytimes that provide important literacy skills and social interaction for children who can’t attend preschool are not important. If upper middle class and rich people don’t need it, it isn’t important. You people, with your debts and your unemployment and your struggles, you’re not important, and you don’t matter, because you don’t vote and since you don’t vote, when the library is on the chopping block those rich people won’t vote for it and you’ll be up shit creek without a paddle.

That is privilege–being able to write off an entire swath of humanity because you’ve deemed them unimportant. It is easy to do with the poor, with immigrants, with children and teens, the elderly, the disabled–if you’re privileged enough, it is easy ignore them, and make them the other, and decide that what they need and what they want isn’t important because it isn’t important to you.

I’m sure any librarian reading this could look through their institution’s policies and find something that discriminates against someone, and asserts some sort of privilege. Most common targets in libraries are teens, and the homeless (lots of libraries adding “hygiene” clauses to their policies). Think about it, and see how it makes you feel. Try to find something about yourself that makes you vulnerable, and think about how you’d feel if there were a policy attacking you for it. Like fat people on Southwest airlines. Or gays in the military. Or gay marriage. Or adopting as a single parent. See how this privilege issue can spiral out of control?

I feel a little ill.

Notes:

I am certainly not attacking the Annoyed Librarian. I’m sure we agree more than we disagree, but I can’t really tell for some reason. There’s something about the tone of the writing that keeps me at a distance so I can never really tell where the writer is coming from, or what it really intends to say.

Some excellent books on the working poor are The Working Poor: Invisible in America and Nickel and Dimed: on (not) Getting by In America.

More librarians need to idolize Frank Zappa.


i want to be the frank zappa of librarians.

This list is interesting, if flawed, but what I really enjoyed reading was Tony Buchsbaum’s hijacking of the thread to talk about rating books, censorship, and everyone’s favorite topic,  thinking of the children.

I’m going to shoot my mouth off here and say that I don’t believe that people use ratings. I think they either ignore them completely, or obey them without question. I don’t believe that anyone stops to consider the nuances of TV 14 LV, or R, or any of those well-meaning Tipper Gorey ratings labels. I can’t imagine the discussions of whether ’tis more damaging for a child to see a breast or to see an act of violence.

I have a theory that kids can more easily process sex, violence, and other heavy issues when they are reading. When you are reading, the sex is only as sexy as your imagination can make it; the gore is only as gory as your personal frame of reference. If you keep your ten year old from watching Saw XXVIIV and other films like it, and you lock down the soft-core on the cable, you have a fairly good chance of managing the scope of your child’s frame of reference for quite a while. Yes, your kid will still hear lots and lots of violent and sexy talk from the world at large, and perhaps even hear some sung, but if he doesn’t have a catalog of Tarantino images to draw from in his mind, the worst he can imagine is the worst he can imagine.

Words on a page and words set to a beat are just that–words. Until you give them power, they are powerless. Until you flesh them out, they are only as much or as little as your mind chooses to make of them.

If I were a parent, I’d let my kids read whatever they wanted, and imagine what they could. And what they couldn’t? Well, I can only hope they’d come talk to me about it.