Libraries in New York City: Why We Give a Damn and Why You Should Too

Please help us in our campaign to keep libraries across New York City open, stocked, and staffed.
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Libraries and librarians play unique roles in the cultural fabric of New York City.

We are, in our small neighborhood libraries, a kind of secular clergy, a trusted ear and an unbiased source of information and support to anyone who walks in the door. This is the compact we have at the deeper levels of our engagement with our communities past the bestsellers and free internet. There is a web of trust. Our users know, or should know, that they can come to us with issues and concerns and that we will leverage our best abilities to their ends. No matter what crazy crap is going on in your life the librarian will figure it out and set you up with at least some better understanding and a direction to go in.

If this all sounds a lot like hyperbole to you then you are probably middle class, college educated, and white.

That is not meant to be judgemental, just a statement of fact. Most people who have not experienced severe poverty see the library as a space to check out books and DVDs, download an ebook, and possibly check email if the line is not too long. These are all perfectly valid reasons to use the library but they are hardly the only reasons. Most middle-class people come to us for entertainment, some informal education, networking, and possibly to answer trivia questions. These are great uses and the library is great at providing for them.

What most of those people don't see is that the library is also a place to go when you are an adult and can't read, or you can't do long division, or you just moved here, don't have your working papers, and can't speak English (but your husband is holding onto your passport). Guys come to the library when they are just out of jail and before they are out of the halfway house as a first baby step back into the outside world. Working mothers use us for free after school care all the time. Incredibly, some people still don't know how to use a mouse, own computers, or have high speed internet. These are the realities of the library in the inner city.

This is not to say that these questions and answers are any more or less valid than more conventional ones but they can have a different intensity, a greater immediacy. This is especially the case when individuals have very little resources to fall back on and have often come to the library only when the need has become immediate. Sure, people in these communities use the library to get free stuff too, but they also use it to write the first resume of their lives and as a go to center for job hunting.

Librarians are not doctors, lawyers, or teachers. We know all that. Like those professions however we do have very specific training and skill sets. In our work we weld our intelligence, diligence, and resources to your question or problem until they are resolved. Your question is that you need a new mystery to read? No worries, let's show you a few and you can take whatever you like. You need a lease agreement? We have books that have examples in them and can help you find more online. You are starting a business? Sure, we can show you information about incorporation, marketing, taxes, strategic plans. What kind of a business were you thinking of? Let us offer you some specialized titles about that industry.

Librarians are out there making things just a little better one person at a time in the city around you. That is our service. You sleep easier at night knowing that the cops and firefighters are on the job, don't you feel even a little better knowing librarians are working in your community as well? Nobody is suggesting that we risk our lives in the line of duty, we don't. We are public servants like they are though and we do interact very directly with the public just as they do. Sometimes we have even more direct and frequent contact with the public than the siren services. In our quiet, anonymous way, we set our shoulder to the wheel of their problems and issues and we leverage all the knowledge and resources we can muster for them. We care, and that is why you should care.

We care because that is at the heart of our work. A call to service is endemic to librarianship. Now, you have probably had a bad librarian experience where you got shushed or they were rude or dumb or distracted. We have all had that librarian, even us librarians. At the same time not every doctor is brilliant at diagnosis nor every lawyer amazing at oral arguments. The point is that the profession holds the caring librarian as the ideal librarian, it is the professional model that we strive for.

Which brings us back to the web of trust. We are out doing our work. We are manning the reference desk, hanging fire at the job information center, and holding down the fort in story time. In order for US to do this work we need YOU to help us have the resources to do what we do. We have to have the budget to keep the libraries open. We cannot help people if the people cannot get to us. That bears repeating. We cannot help people if the people cannot get to us.

If libraries are mothballed, as will happen to more than 45 libraries in New York City if the current proposed budget cuts go through, then there is that much less help to people in our city. Let's turn that last bit on its side, there is that much less help for OUR people in our city. Unpacking that a step further let's take you, the probable reader of this article out of the equation. Let us forget your ability to get novels and movies and computer time and concerts and maker spaces and training and all that good modern library stuff. We say forget it because it will be cut in half at best. You will be inconvenienced it is true, which is a pain in the ass but that is probably about all that will happen to you.

With you out of the equation things change. On any given weekday there are between thirty and a hundred kids in every library across our city. They start coming in at about two PM and stay until six thirty or so. If sixty libraries close then those kids have no place to go after school. You know all those old people around the city that you see everywhere? Wait you don't see old people because they are hidden and shut in and barely visible to society? Wow it would be great if they had a place where they could go and be active and have a community around them....oh yeah that is us too. Where do you go if you are a teenager and want to look at Facebook in private when your family has one computer for five of you and you live in an apartment with seven other people? What if your brother just died and you just arrived in New York City from Virginia with no clue about how to settle his estate and you are too broke for a lawyer? That last is a true story, I set her up myself, no worries folks.

The reason you should care is that any one of these people could have been you or your sister or your boyfriend. In order for you to see the modern library as a public service you have to be able to make each of these things a reality for you and yours. Librarians see them every single day. Is it constantly over the top intense? No, not at all, sometimes it feels like you are just a copy monkey, or you spend your whole day fixing minor computer errors, or you tell kids to not run in the library a hundred times, or you find a gay homeless teenager shelter for the night and get her back in school, or you struggle to make those collection budgets stretch.

Did you catch that, that one second to last? That is a true story too, don't worry, I took care of her and she is doing fine thanks. That is the thing in the library, you just never know.

That is why you should care, because for those moments when nobody else cares, we care, and we will get the answer. We serve the public, all of the public. We need you, all of the public, to support us. We cannot serve if the buildings are closed and the staff are laid off.

Please help us in our campaign to keep libraries across New York City open, stocked, and staffed. Restore our budgets and baseline our funding so we can focus on taking care of our patrons who are you, and yours, and the people you will never see.


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