Libraries are the Beating Heart
Six years ago on September 1st I was supposed to give birth to a baby, but that baby never came. He, or she, left my body way back in February of that year, leaving an emptiness that threatened to consume me. So I turned to the books in my library to help me. I read every book in my library about miscarriage and pregnancy loss and dealing with grief. And then, when I had read everything that sat on my library’s shelves, I borrowed from other libraries. And with each book I read, I made connections with the words that helped to fill that emptiness in me. With each story shared there were new strands of life that wove me back into the fabric of life because I knew that I was not alone but a part of a bigger tapestry; My loss became a communal experience through story.
Three and a half years ago I gave birth to a little girl and from the get go, it was obvious she was tormented by a pain we couldn’t identify or understand. We went to doctors and then we went to more doctors and we stayed up all night with a weeping, wailing child. But somehow, by some stroke of luck, I found one needle in a haystack of research that led me to another haystack until needle by needle, question by question, we were able to start putting the pieces together to try and help her. That little girl, she cried 24/7 the first 9 months of her life. She was in so much pain she looked like she was having seizures. She stopped breathing and turned blue. But it was the library that helped us save her.
Several weeks ago The Mr. started having health problems. And as we went to see doctors and asked questions it appeared that maybe some of the little problems that you ignore over the years can actually mean something. This time I turn to my library not for research, but for comfort. I turn the pages of books and try to escape the crushing pain of fear and uncertainty. I enter into the magical woods of The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater and allow myself to hope for magic. I open the pages of Ask the Passengers by A. S. King and remind myself to love. I read Guitar Notes by Mary Amato and remember to make music. I read Unwholly by Neal Shusterman and think about the politics of the day. I jump into body after body in Every Day by David Levithan and remember that there are people living lives every day that are full of strife and anguish and uncertainty and once again, I am not alone. My story is uniquely my own, but a part of the whole. We are all bound together by our stories.
You see, libraries are the beating heart of our communities. They are places for us to find answers and to ask the questions we didn’t even know we should be asking. They are the places where we meet and share our stories while we allow others to share with us. They are the places where we remember to think and hope and dream. They are the places where we remember to be more and do more and love more. They are the places where the jobless come hoping to turn their lives around. They are the places where new parents come to learn how to feed their child, or get them to sleep through the night, or even learn something as simple as how to play little games with them. We are the places where generations comes to share their childhood favorites with the next generation and weave their stories together.
Libraries are the places where we throw parties and celebrate the accomplishment of learning how to read, where we fight for the right to read what we want, and where we open unknown doors and sneak into new places and allow their inhabitants to change us.
You can say that I work with teens, but the truth is that I work with lovers and dreamers; I work with our here and now and I work with our future . . . When communities have thriving libraries with strong beating hearts, those communities thrive. It sends a strong message: we value education, we value innovation and dreaming, we value you.
There is a connectedness that you feel when you walk into the library. Here in one building lies our past, our present and our future. In here we find our hopes, our dreams, and yes, our failures. Here, in one building, are both the answers and the questions and the freedom to decide what they mean for ourselves.
For 19 years I had the distinct honor of living in Ohio communities with thriving libraries that beat loudly as the heart of their communities. And now I live in a community without one (I commute 45 minutes to work). There is no magic in the air here, just commerce and industry and asphalt. There is no smell of leather and paper. Dreams and magic don’t waft in the air. Children don’t sing and shake eggs as their parents sit together and participate in community. Everywhere you turn it seems we are running out of money; but what happens when we stop our beating heart from beating? What happens to our communities when we shut the doors on the past and put out the flames of the future? What happens when we get rid of our librarians who teach our children to sing and dance and shake an egg and love a good story? What happens when we forget to think and dream, to ask and to answer questions?
For the longest time I worked the Reference desk and wondered why all these people were coming in and asking about diseases and diagnoses that they had just received at the doctors office. I remember once a woman called and asked what the life expectancy of a certain disease was. I looked it up and my breath caught – the book said two years. I tried to get her that day to go back and see her doctor, I could not be the one to deliver the answer to this reference question. But in the end, I read her exactly what it said over the phone and she thanked me; she thanked me for doing exactly what she had asked me to do. In time, with my own story, I learned the importance of digging deeper and why these patrons kept coming and asking those questions. We need the opportunity to find answers. I have helped an adopted child learn about the whereabouts of her birth mother after Hurricane Katrina. I have helped bruised women asking for books about fixing relationships learn how to contact the local shelter. I have helped families celebrate and mourn, name their children, and save their children’s lives – including my own.
I love being a librarian. I love walking in the doors of a library. I love opening the pages of a book. I am honored every day to be a part of the beating heart of a community. Support your libraries just as you would take care of your heart. Healthy libraries are the same as healthy hearts, and without them our communities die.
Edited to add: Please visit this infographic at StateStats shared by JenBigHeart for some great factual information to compliment this piece. You may also want to check out this post with an infographic which estimates how much libraries save teen patrons a year if they use their libraries. Also, please feel free to link to or quote this piece however you would like to share with your communities and advocate for libraries. If you do share this piece, please consider posting a link to your advocacy efforts in the comments. Thank you, Karen Jensen, Teen Librarian’s Toolbox
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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