Sunday Reflections: A Tale of Two Libraries
It is the best of times in the midst of the worst of (financial) times . . .
A few Sundays ago, I shared about how library budget cuts had personally affected libraries that I had worked at and revealed that in the past year and a half we had moved to another state and I am now working part-time. The move was because of my husband’s job, the part-time is because of the economy. The plus side to that is that I have started this website and have written a professional development book with my co-blogger Heather Booth. The downside to that is, well, I make a lot less money and am living a very different lifestyle now. But it has also been a stark reminder about the lives that many of the very people that I serve live. So today, I want to share with you a tale of two libraries.
Marion Public Library is in Marion, Ohio, about 45 minutes North of Columbus. At one point in 2010, the front page of the Columbus Dispatch had declared that Marion had the highest poverty rate in all of Ohio. Statistics indicate that it has above state average poverty levels, crime levels and drug abuse levels. The schools are failing and on notice and, this year, they had so many children qualify for free or reduced lunch that they got a grant and every child in the district gets free breakfast and lunch (hunger can very much affect a child’s ability to learn).
Two weeks after I first moved into our house in Marion in 2002 someone stole the car seat out of my car. All in all, in the approximately 9 years that I lived in Marion I had small things stolen from my home 5 times. One time, as I sat late at night watching an episode of The Walking Dead on TV, a police officer knocked on my door to tell me that they had found my purse in a dark alley and asked me to make sure all the contents were accounted for. One night as my daughter slept at a friend’s house someone snuck into their house and stole the purse right off their dining room table while they slept not too far away.
At the library, we regularly helped patrons who didn’t even have access to a phone and needed to take care of financial issues, legal issues and more. Every winter, like clockwork, certain regular patrons would begin to fill our seats as we knew that they were homeless and needed a warm place to spend the day; They would pick a book off the shelf, read it, and then replace it hoping it would be there the next day so that they could continue the story. So I was not at all surprised when earlier this week Salon.com ran an article about how public libraries were the new homeless shelters. Those of us in disadvantaged cities know that we have always been a defacto homeless shelter for some. This is not new, but it is perhaps growing, a sign of the deeply troubled economic times that we are living in.
But we also spent a lot of time interacting with readers, helping kids be successful in school, and working with other community organizations to improve the lives of our patrons. That’s what libraries do. My last year at Marion Public Library we celebrated 125 years of service with a series of fun programs and events, some of which I got to help plan before I left.
I now work at the Betty Warmack Branch Library, a smaller branch of the Grand Prairie library system in Texas. It is a nice branch, fairly new (I believe around 11 years old). We are in the midst of a conclave of housing subdivisions and get a fair amount of very regular traffic, students of all ages who are completing assignments, leisure readers, and, of course, a lot of computer access. Unlike Marion, a lot of these users have some computer experience, they just don’t necessarily have home access. A lot of our tween and teen students come in with parents, whereas a lot of my teens in Marion spent evenings home alone while parents worked a second job or had simply disconnected. It is in many ways a completely different atmosphere, but each library is serving the unique needs of their local community in very important ways.
Sometimes, when I talk about Marion, new friends wonder why I miss it so much (and miss it I do). The truth is, given the demographics of Marion, which has around a 70something percent graduation rate and only 8% of the community holds a college degree, you have a strong sense of purpose in your community. Education, both formal and self directed, is the key to personal success and fulfillment; and the more individuals you have reaching those goals in a community, the more successful the overall community is. There is something about being in the trenches with others that builds a strong sense of community and purpose and relationship. And trust me, libraries fighting to withstand budget cuts and striving to meet the needs of its patrons are very much in the trenches together, fighting a very noble fight.
Working at more than one library, and I have worked at 4 total in my career, has taught me that no matter what the demographics may be, communities need libraries. It has also taught me that different communities need different things from their libraries, and a successful one understands how to meet those unique needs in effective ways. But having a vision and a passion isn’t enough, libraries need the resources to make it happen. It is not in vision that libraries today are struggling, you need look no further than those that are trying to become maker spaces and resource centers to see the vision and the passion, but libraries are struggling with resources, both in terms of money and staff.
And here’s something else I have learned working at more than one type of library, even the smallest libraries have the biggest passion. In that way, most of us are all the same.
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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