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I came to librarianship the way most other librarians do: I fell into it. After a full-time job that had thoroughly burned me out, I found a student job in the college library; this one was part-time and entailed reshelving large academic books and sitting at the big circulation desk with a stamper, ready to land that perfectly placed due date. It came with a lot of quiet and a lot of time to read—excellent for repairing burnout, terrible for teaching me what working in libraries was actually like. 

People who do not work in libraries tend to have a romanticized view of what it is to work in libraries, and I was no exception. Once I graduated and needed to find another job, I did the next best thing and applied to work at a public library as a library associate in the children’s department. 

Unlike my last library job, this one was not quiet, did not come with reading time, and after seven years, thoroughly re-burned me out so hard I would spend years unlearning toxic workaholic traits I’d picked up there (an unlearning that is still in process). This particular public library served a population of 200,000 well-educated, affluent, self-described library lovers. They were also Tea Party Texans who saw taxes as an affront to their personal liberty; they loved the library, just not enough to fund more branches or a larger staff. 

The place was as busy as a Target on Saturday every day of the week. And because we were the only library in town, we ran the place like an amusement park. Story time was a back-to-back affair—every half-hour from 10 a.m. to noon, Tuesday through Friday—and was filled to capacity for nearly every slot. 

While our patron base was mostly conservative, white, and straight, we wanted our collection to reflect the community it served—which also included a large immigrant population and a handful of queer families. With that in mind, one of our librarians used story time to read The Family Book by Todd Parr. The Family Book won a Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine Best of 2003 Award; it also contains a single page that says “Some families have two mommies; some families have two daddies.” One parent raised such a stink with our manager that we were told to stick with reading “noncontroversial” books at story time, lest we risk losing all the queer books in the collection. 

This was in 2013. Ten years later, things haven’t changed for the better. I still work as a librarian, albeit in a different major Southern city. But my work has changed drastically. I’m trained in violence de-escalation, trauma-informed reference, and medical and mental health first aid, which includes overdose prevention training. I have intervened in fights, talked people down from suicide, removed domestic violence victims from their abusers, hugged strangers, and been screamed at and threatened. My coworkers once solved a murder. 

Yes, sometimes I even recommend books. But increasingly, being a librarian is less and less about books and more and more about community survival. We are a lifeline for populations that have slipped through the spaces in a weakening social safety net; we are a target for organized harassment and censorship campaigns. Yet, people are grateful for our help. They hold our hands and thank us, they tell us we are blessed, they say they can’t believe someone so kind found them so deserving of love. 

In library school, the threats of censorship and propaganda were drilled into us constantly—but mostly in the context of past authoritarian regimes, and never with the idea that past might become present. The last three years, in particular, have been difficult ones in librarianship, but they are also the ones in which I have felt most committed to the job. The work I’m doing now is possibly the most important of my life. 

“Have you been to the library lately?” asked Nicholas Hune-Brown in The Walrus earlier this year. No, really—have you? Because whatever ideas you have about what it’s like to work in libraries these days, I can assure you it’s not like that. It’s frustrating, depressing, and underpaid. It’s also life-affirming. Some days feel like utopia; many days feel like war. That’s life on the library front lines. Welcome. 

Have You Been To The Library Lately? (Nicholas Hune-Brown, The Walrus, June 2023)

When I first read this piece, I saw something I hadn’t in a long time: a realistic portrayal of life in public libraries. In fact, it inspired this very reading list.

Hune-Brown doesn’t mince words, doesn’t shy away from hard truths, but also doesn’t only focus on the toxic mix of vocational awe and trauma porn that currently overshadows life in public librarianship. Yes, the job is necessary, even admirable. Yes, it’s extremely difficult and downright dangerous at times. No, none of us who got into libraries expected to be doing this kind of work. But what I love most about this piece is that Hune-Brown cuts right to the heart of the issue. If a society feels it acceptable to cut funding to social necessities like housing, education, and  healthcare, are we really that surprised that that same society wouldn’t see a problem with allowing an underpaid, women-driven profession such as librarianship to pick up the pieces? 

When people tell the story of this transformation, from book repository to social services hub, it’s usually as an uncomplicated triumph. A recent “love letter” to libraries in the New York Times has a typical capsule history: “As local safety nets shriveled, the library roof magically expanded from umbrella to tarp to circus tent to airplane hangar. The modern library keeps its citizens warm, safe, healthy, entertained, educated, hydrated and, above all, connected.”

That story, while heartwarming, obscures the reality of what has happened. No institution “magically” takes on the role of the entire welfare state, especially none as underfunded as the public library. If the library has managed to expand its protective umbrella, it has done so after a series of difficult decisions. And that expansion has come with costs.

The Small Town Library That Became a Culture War Battleground (Sasha Abramsky, The Nation, August 2023)

Let’s go back to the basics of the censorship conundrum libraries currently find themselves in. When I started working in libraries 15 years ago, we regularly talked about how librarians were some of our most trusted public servants, right behind firefighters and nurses. Book bans were vestiges of the past; when they came up, our minds would settle on imagery from Nazi book-burning parties and the cover of Fahrenheit 451. Phew, we said. At least we don’t have to deal with that anymore

Fast forward to 2023 and librarians are being cast as public enemy number one, pedophiles, and groomers-in-chief, courtesy of extremist groups like Moms For Liberty. The year 2022 saw a record 600-plus book challenges leveled against library collections, and 2023 is on track to beat that number handily. From the outside, this might appear to be a groundswell of public support for censorship—however, a recent Washington Post analysis of the American Library Association’s 2023 “State of America’s Libraries” report showed that the majority of book challenges being leveled at library boards around the country originated with eleven people. Eleven. 

Abramsky’s piece is a perfect cross section of the nationwide fight, distilled into one rural library’s story. Library lovers had better wake up, because the other side is currently going faster than we can drive. 

In the coming years, the conservative three-person Board of County Commissioners will likely continue to appoint people to the library’s board who reflect the values of Ruffcorn and her fellow petitioners. In other words, Ruffcorn could lose in November and yet still ultimately come out on top, setting a precedent in which a few angry citizens would get to dictate to librarians which books should carry warning labels, or be relegated to the top shelf of the adult section, or require parental approval for a child to check out.

The Coming Enshittification of Public Libraries (Karawynn Long, Nine Lives, July 2023)

Speaking of library lovers needing to wake up to the myriad threats facing public libraries, I feel compelled to highlight this Substack from Karawynn Long that dives deep into the now-defunct user recommendation feature from OverDrive (the increasingly powerful middle man between e-books, libraries, and their patrons) and what it portends for the other outsourced reader services libraries have come to rely on. 

Long is a library lover herself, and she highlights an uncomfortable truth about libraries and how they must exist in this increasingly capitalistic world: we have to buy in to our exploitation in order to survive. And because we’re forced to buy in to this exploitation thanks to the popular tech business practice known as “functional monopolism,” libraries are vulnerable to the whims of those vulture businesses, such as KKR (who also recently purchased Simon & Schuster), who exist to extract ever more money from their customers—libraries. 

Every extra dollar that KKR sucks out of libraries is another dollar they don’t have for buying books, or for librarian staffing, or for supporting any of the dozens of other small but important services that public libraries provide their local communities, like free access to computers and the internet. Some libraries that already struggle for funding might be starved out of existence…. And if OverDrive goes belly-up at some point in the future, crushed by KKR’s leveraged debt, it’s going to take down access to the digital catalogs of nearly every public library in North America. Between now and then, I expect the user experience to degrade precipitously. The removal of the recommendation feature, I believe, is the canary in the coal mine.

What They Didn’t Teach Us In Library School (Chip Ward, TomDispatch, April 2007)

Chip Ward’s heartbreaking essay has been cited by many in the library sciences tasked with advising new recruits. Written in 2007, it treats the idea of library as social safety net as a little-known concept. Ward talks about going to conferences on housing and homelessness, and other attendees wondering what in the world a librarian would be doing there. Now, librarians, housing advocates, social workers, and first responders are all too familiar with the work the others do; while I’d like to consider this a win, it only proves that we are more than 15 years down the road and conditions have only remained the same—that is, if they haven’t worsened. 

In the meantime, the Salt Lake City Public Library — Library Journal’s 2006 “Library of the Year” — has created a place where the diverse ideas and perspectives that sustain an open and inclusive civil society can be expressed safely, where disparate citizens can discover common ground, self-organize, and make wise choices together. We do not collect just books, we also gather voices. We empower citizens and invite them to engage one another in public dialogues. I like to think of our library as the civic ballroom of our community where citizens can practice that awkward dance of mutuality that is the very signature of a democratic culture.

And if the chronically homeless show up at the ball, looking worse than Cinderella after midnight? Well, in a democratic culture, even disturbing information is useful feedback. When the mentally ill whom we have thrown onto the streets haunt our public places, their presence tells us something important about the state of our union, our national character, our priorities, and our capacity to care for one another. That information is no less important than the information we provide through databases and books. The presence of the impoverished mentally ill among us is not an eloquent expression of civil discourse, like a lecture in the library’s auditorium, but it speaks volumes nonetheless.

Are Libraries the Future of Media? (Kate Harloe, Popula, August 2023)

I’d like to end a difficult reading list with this universal truth: public libraries and their librarians are scrappy. Always have been. Over and over again, the world proclaims the death of libraries; over and over again, libraries respond by ascending from the grave. Don’t count us out, and don’t call our resilience a comeback.

Kate Harloe’s piece provides a perfect example of a library understanding its role in a community and leveraging it to better serve the public. Here, the Albany Public Library pairs with the local newspaper to provide citizens with publicly funded, community-owned and accessible journalism, the library and local journalists reporting and publishing community stories together. As Harloe puts it, people may not trust the media but they “really, really love the library.” And why wouldn’t they? Libraries are the last place where “your ability to exist as a human being doesn’t depend on your ability to pay.” Combine that with quality community reporting that isn’t hidden behind a paywall and you’ve got a KO combination. 

As she finished speaking, the crowd was in tears. There were many reasons for that, but for me, one was the way in which Koepaomu captured how libraries feel—how, often, they can be experienced as places outside of space and time; as small territories to retreat from the unstable, transactional realities of the world, and as pathways to a sense of belonging, and even safety, in a deeply unsafe time. Libraries represent the best of our efforts to take care of one another. Their ongoing existence is a reminder that—not just in some far-off future, but even today—other ways of being are possible.

Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Texas Highways, Washington Square Review, and more.

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copyeditor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

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