The Secret Truths about Being a Librarian

My sister Becky and I were talking a few days ago about my job. She wondered if I ever just wander the library stacks, picking out books at random, just because I’m just there, all the time, at the library​.

And here is the truth about being a librarian: You lose some of the magic of libraries when you work at one.

Feb 2020 book stack

Not all of it. I still sometimes have to pinch myself when I realize: I WORK AT A LIBRARY! I get to order books and take care of books and help people find books and talk to people about books.

Being a librarian is, I've decided, a calling more than it is a job. And many librarians are kindred spirits.

But when you love books and then you become a librarian, even though you gain many things, you lose some things, too.

When books are your job, it becomes impossible to separate reading from your work. (Because librarianship is a calling, remember?) Even when you just want to read a book, there is a part of you thinking about that book’s place in the library. Who might you recommend it to? What book list would you put it on? How could you tell more readers about it?

When you work in a library you can't smell the library smell anymore. 

And because I have a to-be-read list that is unimaginably long, I never wander the stacks just looking to see what I might find. I no longer read books serendipitously.

Sometimes, if it's slow at a reference desk and I'm at the end of my librarian patience, I might wander over to the stacks, pull out a book I love, and then read a few pages.

But a TBR this long isn't going to make itself. (Nor are any of the one million tasks librarians do going to do themselves.)

Here's another thing, though. When you work at a library, you see so many books. You discover books while you’re working on your collection. You read book reviews and book websites so you can stay on top of what people are reading. You learn as much as you can about as many different kinds of books as possible, because there’s no way to read every book (nor do I want to), but you do want to help every patron find the book they need or the one they will love.

So all that reading about and researching books? Means as a librarian (a person who already loves books and reading) you fall in love with so many books. And I don’t know if this is true of all librarians, but for me, I want to take them all home. (Even though I know I cannot possibly read everything I want to read.)

I got my current library card in July of 1992 and since then I've checked out almost 8500 items.

I REALLY wish I would've noticed how many I'd checked out when I started working here in 2008, but I bet that two-thirds of those check outs have happened in the past twelve years. Maybe even three-fourths.

Of course, not all of those items are books. I check out a lot of movies and CDs, too. But it’s mostly books.

But here’s another truth about being a librarian: sometimes I get tired.

Really, “frustrated” or “annoyed” might be better words. In some ways it is sort of a stressor: knowing what all of the new and hot books are, and the feeling of wanting to read them (again, not all of them, because I still have my own tastes) and join in on the online/social media conversations. So I bring home more and more books, or my hold list grows longer and longer, and I read two or three books a month and then take the rest back.

(And that’s not even considering the books I buy!)

It is illogical, bringing books I never finish back and forth from the library. Just because I love them. Just because I want to read them. Just because everyone else is reading and talking about them and I want to be included in that conversation.

Dark tower 1
Last week, I was talking to Nathan, who is wanting to read more. I gave him some recommendations and then he asked me about The Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

“I read the first three books in that series and loved them,” I texted him. “But I didn’t finish them.”

My dad and I read the first three books together. I mean…we had our own copies (I think I still have mine), but we read them at the same time and would talk about them. He was delighted by the series and his enthusiasm made reading them even better. He especially liked the lobstrosities and sometimes he’d just say “ded a chek?” to me out of the blue.

After the third book in the series, The Wastelands, King took a break from the series. This break coincided with my wedding, working on my degree, and becoming a mom. My dad picked up the fourth book but I didn’t—I felt like I wanted to read other things then. (OH how I wish I had just read those with him, too.)

I told Nathan that at this point, I haven’t finished the series because it makes me sad to read them without my dad. His response?

“Maybe you can read them with me this go around.”

(He is a good kid.)

Dark tower 3The next day, I put all of the books I had checked out, except two, onto my TBR list (I keep mine on an app called Libib) and then returned them. I suspended all of my book holds (I have 43 on my list, shhhh, don’t judge) and gave myself stern instruction to not add any more. (I have since added more…but only three.)

I set myself a goal: when I finish the two books I am reading right now, I’m going to read The Dark Tower series. I’m going to clean out the cupboard where I think my copies of the first three books are, and buy the rest, and then read them. And talk to Nathan about reading them.

I’ll still pay attention to new releases and hot books and what everyone else on bookstagram is reading.

But I really want to take control back in some way. To not have my reading controlled by what comes on hold for me, or what everyone else is talking about.

Books are about story, of course. About going somewhere in your imagination, about becoming friends with created beings. But they are also about relationships. With the story and the characters, yes, but also with the other people who read them. And they are about making connections with yourself, too—understanding something, or sometimes just something as pleasant as a sentence that makes you feel less invisible in this world.

I want to reconnect, somehow, to that primal love of reading I had when I was reading The Dark Tower series with my dad. Before I learned about literary theory and critical thinking and textual evaluation. I want to be able to read outside of being a librarian, but just as myself.

Reading them with Nathan seems like just the thing.

Dark tower 2


Thoughts on Critical Thinking

“Can you see if you have this book?” a patron asked me one night last week.

Obviously I get asked that question often, but this interaction is lingering in my memory.

“Sure,” I said. “What are you looking for?”

She asked for the sequel to Rachel Hollis’s self-help book.

As I looked up the title and put her on the hold list (16 other people were waiting to read it that night), I listened to her gush about how Girl, Wash Your Face had changed her life, and how excited she was to put what she’d learned into action, and how certain she was that the sequel would be even more helpful.

And then she asked me the question I was hoping she wouldn’t. “Have you read it? Didn’t you just love it?”

I told her I had read some of it, but didn’t finish it, and tried to leave it at that, but she insisted. “You’ve got to check it out again!” she said. “It will change your life. I can’t believe everyone’s not reading it!”

She left the reference desk feeling happy, even if she did have to wait, partly because I'm a professional librarian. I knew that telling a Rachel-Hollis fangirl how I really feel about those books would’ve been a disaster. Pointing out the flaws in the book to her would've only annoyed her, because if she can't see them herself then it's just my opinion.

To be fair, I only read the first chapter of the first book. I didn’t continue for two reasons: 1. The writing tone. I couldn’t spend hours and hours with that chirpy, upbeat, faux-hood writing style. 2. The message itself. I went to a couple of Amway meetings in my 20s. That was enough. The focus on getting and spending—the expensive bags, the second house in Hawaii, the trendy shoes—is not how I choose to focus my efforts in my life. Her message is that the lies we tell ourselves hold us back, which is true, but I think “having expensive possessions brings happiness” is also a lie. I realized with that first chapter that I have no interest in getting coached by a person whose basic values are vastly different from mine, who earned her expensive purses through party planning, who actively self identifies as a “lifestyle influencer.”

But I didn’t share any of that with the library patron that night, not because I don’t feel passionately about it, but because I have come to understand that not many people are able to read critically. (I also understand that for many readers, this isn’t the point of reading.)

By “critically” I don’t mean “in a way that expresses disproval.” I mean the second definition, “analysis of the merits and faults of a work of art, literature, movie, or music.”

Merits and faults.

One of the reasons I love reading, and continue to read, is critical thinking. It is one of the things I loved about teaching: having a group of people to interact with in a discussion about a book, an essay, a poem. I like reading for story, of course, and to get to know characters and to enter a setting. But I also like thinking about (and writing about and, if we’re ever at a meal together, talking about) what the story means, how the characters make mistakes, the way the book influences and changes me. Not in a get-more-expensive-purses kind of way, but in a understand-something-difficult-about-the-world kind of way.

In essence, that is why I can’t bring myself to read books like Rachel Hollis’s: because they are obliviously lacking critical viewpoints. They are unable to allow for differences in life experiences, desires, and opportunities. They assume that everyone wants a Hollywood kind of life.

But Hollis’s books aren’t even the reason I sat down to write this today. They are just an example of why critical thinking is important to me.

Because I feel like it is time to bring some of those critical thinking skills to my own life, not just to the books I read.

As I wrote in my last post, I am trying to experience this autumn season with intent. I want to feel things and to experience them, rather than only looking as if through a window. “Looking as if through a window”: this is how I feel I have been living my life for many years. It has to do with the choices I’ve made, the people in my life and their choices, the ways I have chosen to wall myself off. It is about how I feel like I always have to acknowledge: yes I know I am different from you. It comes from seeing my differences and feeling ashamed of them, wondering why I don’t fit in, instead of being able to be who I am.

I want to be who I am.

The God’s honest truth is that I haven’t been really, honestly happy in…I’m not sure how long. I love my people but I keep bumping up against the reality that my life doesn’t feel like the life I need. And when I write something like that, I am flooded with doubt. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to be selfish. I love my children and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I love my husband. But there are flaws here. And I am realizing: life is short. Life is so, so short. I’m nearing fifty and I still haven’t done many of the things I intended on doing.

And of course I can just continue here. I can keep on with my average life. I can do it until I die.

But deep down, I want change. I am craving change. I am wanting to be more than the quiet, stunted person I’ve made myself into, the one pretending. It isn’t only about church anymore. It is about everything. Maybe it is because I am at the end of my years of mothering. I still get to have an influence on Kaleb for a few more years, and I am learning how (thank goodness) being a mother doesn’t ever, in a sense, really end. But the hardest years of daily care are past, and now, for the first time since I was 23, I can ask myself: what do I want?

What shape do I want the rest of my life to take?

I can’t find the answer in a self-help book. I can’t even find the answer in the fiction and poetry I love.

I can only find the answer by myself, and that is both liberating and terrifying. I know what I want, but I don’t know how to get it within the current shape of my life. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don't want to burn it all down. But I am also starting to realize that I can matter, too. Is that selfish?

Here I am: a frumpy woman with stiff knees, nearing 50. What have I done with my life? What will I do with the life I have left? I suppose everyone faces and answers that question every day of their lives. I have answered it so far in part by doing what other people told me I should do. Which is like reading a book and loving it only because the story was good, rather than for the wrestle with new thoughts it caused. And I’ve been doing that for too long.

It is time to wrestle.


Libraries Make Our Lives Larger

This week is National Library Week. I'm glad such a thing exists, considering all that our president has done to try to de-fund libraries (did you know that every single budget he's created has tried to take away the funding for the IMLS, which is the primary source of money for libraries and museums? While Congress isn't always known for doing the right thing, at least they've made sure to continue to support libraries, but a president who doesn’t think libraries are worthwhile is not something I’d ever believe would exist.)

 

I didn't set out to become a librarian. I got a degree in English because while science was interesting enough, I'm not really brilliant at it, and while I can get along in math OK it's not pleasant, but learning about books, words, writing, poetry, fiction, literary theory, grammar, and everything else that goes along with an English degree felt like the only reason to go to school. (I wish I had taken more history classes, though.) There've been several people in my life who have told me that I "just" got a degree in English, or that while, sure, I did graduate from college, it's only in English. Other people have told me that while science, math, and/or technology degrees are difficult, and require a certain type of mind and thinking skills, an English degree requires talent.

Maybe both are true, but my English degree did help me land my job as a librarian, even if I got that degree because I wanted to be a writer. (Doesn't every bibliophile want to be a writer?) I’ve been a librarian for almost eleven years, and I confess: I still get a little thrill when someone asks me where I work and I get to say “at the library.” I love being a librarian.

I love being a librarian. And I love libraries.

But I’ve also learned that not everyone understands the importance of our communities having good libraries.

Like the old friend I bumped into once who started laughing when I told him where I work. “So you spend your days just checking in books and putting them on the shelf?”

Like a podiatrist I went to once, who, when I answered “I work at the library” when he asked me what I do, said “Wait! The library is still open? I didn’t think people used the library anymore because of Kindle books.”

Even like library patrons themselves, some of who come into the space annoyed and entitled, who complain about what we don’t have for them, or about fines and fees, because books are too graphic or too cautious, because we have R-rated movies, because we don’t have enough movies, and who quite often end their complaints with some version of “I’m a tax payer and you are wasting my money.”

And, yes, like the president not wanting to fund libraries.

Try to imagine American society without libraries. Our libraries hold our collective history, the creative visions of our (and the world’s) writers. No libraries would mean that many people would have much less access to our literary richness. Throughout our entire life, access to the library gives us access to tens of thousands of books, from board books to picture books to chapter books to novels. Dictionaries and cookbooks and poetry, memoirs and science and history. Without libraries, only the wealthy could afford access to so many different books, and so libraries are one of society’s great equalizers.

Numerous studies have shown that readers are more empathetic human beings. I am glad data supports this, because it is a thing I unequivocally believe. Through reading you become larger than your own experiences; you learn that there is more than one way of thinking about the world. You start to understand something about the trials of being human: both that your troubles are smaller than many other people’s and that you are not alone in your troubles. You get to go places you otherwise couldn’t, discover things that you didn’t learn in your high school history class. Puzzle out mysteries, weep over characters’ losses, struggle with moral dilemmas.

Books create a life that is bigger than any individual. And libraries facilitate that largess.

Even when I wasn’t a librarian, even when that career path hadn’t even entered my thoughts—even then I loved libraries. If I left the library tomorrow (which I’m not doing of course), I’d still be an advocate for libraries. They are places full of books, and stories, words and images. They are more than just books on shelves, too. They are places where people gather, find information in many different ways, make friendships, stay warm in storms. They aren’t only about books.

But for today, I’m celebrating the books that libraries give us access to. They are worthwhile for so many different reasons.

And libraries are worth whatever funding we can give them.


Audio or Print Books?

Today at the library, I helped an older patron who was trying to figure out the best way to download audio books. Specifically, he wanted "access to all of the good books and none of the bad ones." I resisted getting drawn into that conversation (good or bad is so subjective, and it depends entirely on your personal and idiosyncratic needs as a reader; many times books I find horrendous are other patrons' favorites), but then he asked me what we call that.

"If you listen to a book instead of reading it,” he asked, “do you call it reading? Did I read that book? Or just listen to it?”

Which really is an interesting question. “To read” is defined as the act of receiving or understanding something, especially by way of letters or numbers. So in theory you don’t really “read” an audio book. But you do receive or understand the story, just through your ears, not your eyes. And when the person performing the book says the story out loud, he or she is reading it. So in theory, you do “read” an audio book.

I guess it doesn’t really matter if you say you “read” an audio book or you “listen” to it. You’re ingesting story, you’re making your life more interesting, you’re using your imagination and your brain cells and your intelligence.

I do think I have a different experience with the books I’ve read in print versus those I read in audio. (As audio?) I’m even pickier with audio books than I am with print books. The reader’s voice has to be exactly right for me to enjoy it. One of the first audio books I tried listening to was Swamplandia!, for example, but I only lasted about ten minutes as the reader’s voice was so overpoweringly little-girlish I couldn’t stand it. And I recently attempted The Witch Elm but that reader’s voice was just far too smug. I mean: the main character himself might also be smug, but I was overwhelmed with the smugness.

Last year, I read half of The Power as an audio book. My Overdrive checkout ended when I was halfway through, and I was desperate to find out how it ended, and luckily there was a print copy at the library. So I checked it out and finished it. I loved experiencing that story in that way. There are two readers for the story, and their voices were both perfect, powerful and with a hint of an accent I couldn’t quite describe. Their voices stayed with me as I finished the print copy and it made the entire reading experience much richer somehow.

Some books I can finish easier when I listen to them; if there’s something frustrating or annoying about the book, I can deal with it easier by listening (so long as the voice feels right to me). What Should be Wild is a book I’d likely have started but not finished in print, but it matched the atmosphere of when I was listening to it (late October) so well that I continued until the (fairly disappointing) end.

Last year, when I was training for my marathon, I decided to listen to The Hunger Games trilogy during my long runs. I got so sucked in that I also listened to them while I was gardening, cooking dinner, and a few times even hiking. Maybe this is my favorite way to read audio books, as stories I’ve already read in print version. I know the outcome, so I can follow the story much easier, and then I start to notice different things. I’ve read that series three or four other times, but listening to it made me feel things I didn’t expect. The violence seemed more startling, the wrenching decisions more difficult. In fact, when I listened to the very beginning of the first book, when Katniss takes Prim’s place, I had to stop running because I was crying so hard.

At any rate, I told the patron that yes: he can say he reads audio books. He seemed relieved, as if there was a subtle sense of shame at the fact that he was listening. And while audio books will never take the place of regular print books for me, I love having access to them. Reading, after all, is about stories, and humans have told stories aloud for far longer than the printing press has been around.  

What format do you prefer?


Finding my Tribe

Back in the fall of 2017, when I reread the book It, I realized (yet again) how my worldview is shaped by the books I read. I read It when it first came out, in 1986, and one of the things I discovered in rereading the book is how deeply rooted in friendship the story is. It gave me the idea that when you need a group of friends, the universe will provide one for you. I found myself thinking about this idea quite a bit after I finished the book, and I realized that this is a trope in many books.

It made me look back over my life and consider my friendships, and how they have come to be. As a little girl, I was painfully shy; add in the fact that my family didn’t really fit in to the approved social group where we lived, and yeah: I was kind of a lonely kid. Back in 1986, when I was 14 and reading It, I had two groups of friends, my gymnastics friends and my school friends. I counted on my gymnastics friends for some things, and my school friends for others, but I was unquestioning in my belief in their support for me. Over the next years, I learned to question. I learned that friends can betray you in a myriad of painful ways and that there are actually very few people you can trust implicitly.

But I also learned that those few are immensely valuable in your life.

As a young mom, I had a group of friends who were also young moms. We played Bunco together, took our kids to the park, gave each other nursing advice and newborn gifts and caffeine on exhausted days. I loved that group of friends, but I always kept myself a little bit shielded. Then, in 2000, my world was totally rocked when my husband was laid off from his job. Everything changed in the next 18 months, and one by one, almost every friend in my little group fell away. We couldn’t relate or connect anymore; they were worried about stuff like when their hairdresser could fit them in next and how they could buy another Dooney & Burke without their husbands getting annoyed, and there I was, worrying about whether or not we’d lose our house.

The few people who stuck by me during that time are still my friends, but I learned it again. Maybe in books people have life-long friends who never betray them, maybe in novels the Universe or God or Whomever makes sure you have support during difficult times…but in my real life, it wasn’t happening.

I have individual friends but I’ve never had a tribe.

I’ve also never read a novel that told my story: how introverted people who are guarded because of previous experiences create friendships. Maybe that’s a story no one wants to read, and that’s OK because sometimes my life feels pretty pathetic. Like, if I died tomorrow, who’d come to my funeral?

Cue the pity-party music.

When my mom died, though (and, really: will I ever get to a space when I can write something that doesn’t refer to my mom’s death?), I had another realization about friendship within the context of my life. I do have a tribe. Some of them came to her funeral. Some of them came and took her fabric. Some of them brought me meals. Some of them sent me flowers or cards; some of them just hugged me, or silently squeezed my hand.

And all of them work at the library.

Librarians have a sort of strange reputation as dry, dusty, boring people who dress in cardigans and sensible shoes and care about uptight things like grammar and properly organized books on shelves and straight, tight buns without a strand of hair out of place. And, yes, OK, we do care about those things. (Although I actually prefer a loose, messy bun.)  But really, we are a vibrant and eclectic group of people. We love national parks and traveling and hiking. We bike, we run, we waterski. Not every librarian I know shares every one of my hobbies, but every one of my hobbies is shared by at least one librarian I know. (Except for scrapbooking… I’m still on my own in that craziness!) Many librarian friends quilt, others bake, others love flowers and gardening. A couple are runners too. Another librarian friend is my favorite person to send hiking photos to when I’m out on a trail, because she can’t hike right now (knee problems) but she loves seeing me do it. So I sort of take her with me.

This week at work, we had our regular staff meeting in a bigger room than normal, because there was going to be some kind of training and other people would be coming. I went to the meeting, sat chatting with my coworkers until it started, and the one of the librarians said “We’re not actually here for extra training, but to celebrate Amy!” and I looked around the room thinking “Oh, cool, I love Amy Monroe, she’s awesome!” and then I thought “wait, Amy Monroe isn’t here” and then I realized, “oh, wow, they mean me!”

Our library does this thing called the “You Rock” award. It’s a trophy sort of thing with a big rock engraved with the words “You Rock” and then as it is given to different librarians, their names are added. I’ve gone to many meetings where other librarians were given this award, but I’ve never really considered it as something I would be given. Because look at all the names on that trophy, names of smart, creative, wise, visionary librarians. I’m just me doing my little part-time work.

I was totally, completely surprised!

You rock award

A few people at the meeting said some really kind things about me. And as I looked around and saw their faces, and thought about the other librarians who have left but whose work and friendship have influenced me in many ways, it really, really hit me.

Yes, we librarians are generally an introverted bunch. Maybe we’re a little bit boring. We like to talk about things like literary theory and the evolution of television drama. We can quote weird things no one else has ever heard of.

But we are also kind, passionate, intelligent people who are deeply committed to living life. Books help us do that. And other librarians do, too.

The universe really did bring me my tribe.


A Numinous Morning at the Library

Some days, my work feels mundane. I love what I do, of course, but the negative of working somewhere you love is that the place loses some of its magic. This afternoon, for example: I spent time reordering damaged books, pulling new teen books for a YA display, and talking to patrons. Good, happy work, but what is usual. 

But some shifts feel numinous, somehow. The library can never feel for me the way it felt before I worked here (I can't smell that library scent anymore, for example), but as I come to understand the library's moods, its weather patterns and shifting people, I find a deeper, more connected sort of magic. That is how this morning felt, so here is a story told in vignettes​ that perhaps will mean something only to me...

Before the library opens, I take thirty seconds to stand at the tall windows and look at the mountains in the morning light. The air is finally starting to get a little bit clearer here, and the middle parts of the mountains are starting to turn orange in spots; this view of Cascade framed by the library windows is one of my favorites. I turn on computers and set out newspapers and wipe down keyboards. Then I clean up the blue toner powder that someone must've splattered last night onto the black-and-white printer, and then I unlock the doors.

It is a Friday morning, so my father's old friend Craig stops by. We talk about hiking, and of the peacefulness of being in mountains that no one goes to. He tells me, as he does every Friday morning, how he misses my dad and wishes they could go on a desert walk with him again. "Of course, we were always looking down at the ground, watching for flakes of arrowheads," he says, because twenty years ago you could wander the Utah desert and find arrowheads. "I know now it's illegal and wrong to take them," Craig says, "so now I leave them. But when I find one I always think your dad lead me to it." I think about the morning we buried my dad, when I didn't want him to go into the dark without anything but his clothes, so I put one of his illegally-procured arrowheads in his pocket, and how the muscle of his thigh was also a stone. For a moment it is entirely absurd that my father's friend Craig, walking carefully and slowly with his cane on his stroke-twisted legs, is here in the library talking to me about books, hiking, and arrowheads, and my dad is...where, I don't know for sure, but his body is in the ground and in his pocket there is a stone.

I help an older woman learn how to download e-books onto her iPad. At first she is unsure but as we move through the steps she starts to understand. I think about how baffling our world can be to someone raised in the 50s, when refrigerators were finally affordable enough that middle-class families could have them, washing machines were becoming popular, and the credit card was just becoming a reality (but only, of course, for men).  Our technology now is nearly ephemeral...you don't really hold​ an e-book, you never touch an e-audio book, but it still gets you to a story. I can't help wondering, every time I help someone who is initially baffled by—or actually a little bit afraid of this technology—what the world will be like in another twenty or thirty years. What else will we invent before I am dead? And will I be the brave sort, always trying new things, or the kind who is afraid?

I help another older patron who tells me that she hates fiction, especially that "wild, made-up sciencey stuff" but she wants to read something from the Great American Read list. (Which doesn't have any non-fiction.) After we talk for a little while, I get her three books in large print: Anne of Green Gables, which she'd never read but enjoyed the movies, To Kill a Mockingbird, which she'd read "years and years ago" but would really like to read again, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which she'd never heard about but agreed sounded like something she would love. I always ask the patrons on crutches or with canes if they'd like me to get their books for them, and she says she would love that. I do this to help them, but also as a sort of good-karma thing for myself, as one day I will be an old woman but still need books, and hopefully there will be someone in the future who will help me access them if I can't get to them myself.

I check people in to use our study rooms, I help a woman figure out how to see the order of a series, I tell another woman where to find Colleen McCullough's novels, and I walk an elderly gentleman over to the biography section. I have a conversation with a man who has the same name and spelling as my husband's deceased brother; we talk for a bit about how much more difficult it is to trace back Scandinavian names as the change from -sen to -dottir and back again through the line. I confess I don't know as much as I should about my husband's line, but I can trace my McCurdy line all the way back to the Scottish MacCurdy clans. 

I read my email and get caught up on book group reservations.

A small blond girl in a pink dress, perhaps two, has wandered over the bridge to my side of the library, without her mother. I watch her for a minute to see if anyone is coming to look for her. She stands calmly by one of our sculptures, which is of a crouched man. Done in alabaster that looks like the flesh of raw muscle, this sculpture is either terrifying or fascinating to our little patrons. She just stands and looks at it, carefully touching the ear. I walk over to her and ask if she knows where her mom is. She pops her binki out of her mouth, shrugs, and says "nope. Let's go find her." She puts her binki back in her mouth and reaches up to hold my hand. Her tiny fingernails are painted turquoise. We wander over to the children's section and in a few minutes find her mom, who didn't realize her daughter Kate (she told me her name with another quick binki removal) was missing. As I walk back to my desk, I remember my own days of bringing my kids to the library. I can almost feel how it felt to have their little hands in mine, and the sound of their voices, and the deep, lovely exuberance they brought to finding books at the library. For a moment I feel like all of my life has already been lived, and that every sweet, gentle moment is behind me; I swallow that familiar lump and get on with it, as there is no crying at the reference desk. (Except I cry all the time at the reference desk. Reticently.)

I go to the circulation office to see if there are any books to take downstairs with me. One of the librarians there tells me that she just last night read my essay in Baring Witness . She tells me that it's as good as anything she's read by Toni Morrison or Annie Dillard, which makes me laugh because of course it's not, but I am flattered anyway. I think about the night I did a reading with other writers whose essays are also in that book, and the way I got to a part of my essay that at first seems funny but then turns dark, and how the audience laughed and then went silent, how I felt them turn with me into the darkness, and how exhilarating it was to be, just for that moment, a person leading other people into the darkness of human nature, and how that is the one time in my life I have really, really felt like a writer.

The general reference desk is usually a little bit quieter than the fiction desk, and this proves true this morning. When I switch desks there is a barrage: two guest passes for the internet computers, one patron needs help with printing, another can't find Fahrenheit 451 even though it's supposed to be on the shelf (it was; she thought it would be thicker so she didn't notice the slim spine), another can't decipher her own handwriting and wonders if I can figure out which author's last name she wrote down (we finally figure out it was Wingate, Lisa Wingate...I'm not sure I could recreate the steps it took me to get there). A patron needs headphones, another is turning in her headphones, another tells me her story of being annoyed by the process of getting a Utah driver's license. Two different patrons ask me where the YA section is, and another can't find the Brandon Mull book he's looking for (it's upstairs in the junior novels). In an hour I don't get any work done, other than helping patrons, which is fine because that's the point.

Just before I leave for lunch, a teenage patron comes to the desk. She should be in school right now, but instead she's here, asking me for a book. "A good book," she says, "but it can't be all cheery and happy and hopeful." She looks, walks, and dresses absolutely nothing like I did at her age, 16 and feeling like the world made no sense anywhere, but a little bit of sense (and peace, and streaming light, and quiet, and books) could be found at the library. But for just a second I am looking back through time at myself, angry and wild and rebellious and always wearing black, so I show her some books that I would've liked when that was me (The Infinity of You and Me, And We Stay, Belzhar, and The Carnival at Bray​; good, but not happy). I think about how long the library has been a place of solace for me, a place of framed views, of artwork, of quiet, of refuge. A long time; perhaps all my life, or at least as long as I can remember. And today I also remember this: it is a place of connection, a place where the layers of time slip a little, when all of my ancient Scottish ancestors catch a brief glimpse of the old woman I will become in the future, when my dad's hand holding an arrowhead reaches out for my teenage wrist with its ankh bracelet, where I can see my daughter's small fingers, nails painted pink, pulling a book from the shelf, where nothing is commonplace.
 
A place where magic happens.

on Purging My Reading Desires, Part One

In January of 2018, I read four books and listened to one on audio. I didn’t LOVE everything I read but I enjoyed all of my reading experiences.

I’m not sure what happened, though, because in February I finished exactly zero books. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the last time that happened. Or if it’s ever happened since I learned how to read. I’m a person who is always reading something. And while I guess it’s true that I tried to read several things, I wasn’t able to finish a single one of them.

I don’t think it had much to do with the books I chose. They were each well-reviewed, with interesting stories and a literary style I could appreciate. I just didn’t finish any of them.

This experience—and here it is, by the way, almost the end of March, and I’ve only finished two books, one of them a slim poetry book that I checked out in February—has caused me to consider my approach to what I read, and I’ve had some flashes of understanding that have brought me to some solutions that will, I desperately hope, help me to start reading like normal again (ie: start a book, finish a book, write a blog post about the book, move on to something else).

Library books in a row

First off, I’m kind of a promiscuous book lover. There’s a difference between reading a book and reading about a book. Because of the nature of my work as a librarian, I am always reading about books. I read about something, I think “Oh, that is perfect for me, I must read it!” and then I either put myself on the hold list for it (if the library already has it) or request the library to purchase it. Or I just buy myself my own copy if it’s something that I think I won’t just love but really, really love. I probably fall in love with five or six books every single day. More on days when I’m at the library.

So then I have piles of books everywhere. Literal piles: books I’ve checked out, books I’ve recently purchased, books I purchased weeks or months or even years ago but still haven’t gotten around to reading. Also figurative piles: the books on my hold list on my library account (I’ve sometimes had more than fifty books on my hold list), the “I want to read this” list on my One Note app, the little snips of paper with titles written on them. The blog posts about books I want to read.

Recent book purchases

I think part of my problem is that I tend to fall in love with books that aren’t necessarily bestsellers. I could care less about the next John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Michael Connelly, Jodi Picoult, or Danielle Steel novel. The vast majority of the books I want to read might be known around the literary blogosphere and maybe even reviewed by the New York Times, but they don’t have long hold lists. The books I love (and let me be honest here: if I am a book slut, I am also a book snob, in the sense that I really don’t read the most popular fiction) have beautiful writing and complex characters, tell stories about situations that push me to think about my own experiences in different ways, avoid simple answers and stereotypical figures. I want to be challenged when I spend time with a novel; I want to feel like I am engaging not just with a story but with a dilemma. I don’t read to escape but to experience. But I also know that this is not what many (most, even) readers want from their reading experiences. That is fine—there is a book for everyone. I just want everyone to love the things I love, because I love them and think they deserve more love than they get. So I almost feel an obligation: I want to reward the author (who I envy for actually finishing and publishing a novel!) by reading and loving and interacting with his or her book.

So I end up in this space which is crowded with books that are all crying for my attention. Read me, read me, read me! And though I try to manage it by spacing out my holds, I still fall victim to the tyranny of my hold list: it’s my turn for this book that I want to read and that is begging me to read it, except I also have 27 other books I want to read.

So instead of reading all of the books, I’ve been reading none of the books!

My moment of epiphany came when I was cleaning out my scrapbooking space. In my scrapbooking world, I am a brutal purger. I no longer hold on to any supply I “might” use one day. Or anything that feels dated or out of style, or is impractical for my current approach. Or even things that are beautiful but I just won’t ever use. I have learned that if I have too many supplies, they drain my creative energy. This is because each of the items I want to use holds a little bit of my creativity, and if I use the item that little bit gets fed back into the greater whole. But if I don’t use something, it just sits there, holding on to a piece of my spark. I can only get it back by using the item, or donating it and getting it out of my room. (Or not buying it in the first place, which is a whole other topic!)

I’ve also learned that if I am organized with my supplies, I can find my creative spark faster. It’s taken me a few years to really get my stuff organized in a way that works for me (I organize by color), but now that my set up is functional and lean, I both make more layouts and enjoy the process much more.

As I was putting a sheet of half-used stickers into my “donate” box, it hit me: I need to do a similar purge, but with books. No, not exactly books—although my personal collection could probably use a good weeding. What I need to purge is my reading desires. I need to not invest my reading energy into every single book I want to read, and I need to not have literal piles of books everywhere. But at the same time, both because I will always be a reader and because I am a librarian, I need a way to organize the things I want to read.

I did a little bit of soul searching, and a little bit of Internet searching too, and I think I have come up with a new process that will help me keep my reading desires from overwhelming me. Check back on Wednesday when I will share the details. But until then, tell me: How do you keep your reading desires in check?


Banned Books Week

This week is Banned Books Week, wherein books that have been banned in some way or another are discussed, as is the concept of book banning itself. One of the brilliant librarians at my library created this display

Banned books

and I can't believe how it's got people interacting with and discussing books. The most common thing I've hear is some variation of "wait, this book has been banned? But I've read this book and loved it!" I've seen five or six people, seemingly strangers, gathered around the display, lifting the bags to see what's inside of them, and then discussing the books.

And checking them out!

This is deeply satisfying to me because it accomplishes the exact opposite of what an attempt to ban a book sets out to achieve: "protecting" the world from a story. Banning simply calls attention to the book; it raises awareness of it and inflames the reader's inner rebel. It creates a dialogue between the book and society.

People's attempts to ban books are both deeply offensive and deeply ridiculous to me. Ridiculous because of what I've observed with that display in the library: people lifting off the brown bags to find out more about something that someone would like to keep secret

The reason banning is offensive goes deeper than paradox, however.

While there are many books I just cannot abide (books that the populace loves), the thought of working that hard to keep a book from a reader just doesn't make sense. Much of the pleasure of reading is wrapped up in the pleasure of choosing: perusing a shelf (be it a literal or a digital one), picking what to read based on a cover image or the book blurb or a random paragraph that sucked you in. But also the choice to continue reading: do I stick with these characters, this plot? Do I choose to immerse myself in this particular world, or to return it and try something different? (Do I choose to flip to the back and read the ending because I cannot bear not knowing what happens?)

Not every book fits every reader. Not every reader will love every book. That's partly why we have so many: different tastes, different needs. Some people read to have their worldview confirmed, others read to have it challenged. Some read to find themselves and some read to find the Other (and some read to find the Self in the Other). Some read for the beauty of the writing and some read for plot; for some readers, the mystery is what reading is and for others, language.

Or some combination of all of those. Or maybe even none of those; I can only really explain my motivations for reading. But choice itself is part of the process. Book banners seek to limit choice; they try to say that their motivations for reading are the only universal reasons for reading. And, generally, it seems that the reading motivation of people who try to ban books is to find only the stories that mirror back how they think life should look. If it looks different from theirs, they perceive it as dangerous.

That is why banning books is offensive to me: it seeks to control. It seeks to say "only I have the answers." It says "there is only one experience, and that is the experience that I know." Book banning seeks to limit the perceptions of an entire society down to the beliefs of a few.

It is an impulse that is based entirely on fear.

Fear of the Other. Fear of difference. Fear of difficult experiences. Fear of truth, fear that the thing one believes to be truth is, in fact, false. And choices or actions that are based in fear rarely produce fantastic results.

Many banned books do include fearful content. They question faith, god, religion, belief, and spiritual ways of being. They discuss and describe sexual acts. They describe rape, violence, the lingering aftermath of racial and gender prejudice. They explore the strange and insular paths that some people find themselves on. They seek to bring these things to light not to praise them but to explore them. To understand them. This is because bad, difficult, painful, ugly things happen. Beautiful and magnificent and magical things do, too. Writing about them—reading about them—doesn't make them happen. But it doesn't make them not happen, either.

Sure—don't get me wrong. There are myriad books full of disgusting things. Full of violation and violence. There are books that explore the very darkest parts of humanity, with no other purpose than to admire the ugliness.

But I don't think that even those books should be banned.

Because just like the library patrons have been doing all week (well: for as long as libraries have existed), books and readers are about interaction. You sit still, reading, but you still act. You still choose. You are in control: keep reading, stop reading. I want to put that choice in my hands, always. I want to teach the power of that choice to my children and to the patrons I help at the library.

You can pick up a book and start reading it. For any number of reasons, you can fall in love with the book or you can despise it or even feel indifferent to it. But whether you choose to keep reading it—that is up to you. And you should make that choice for yourself.

We readers are intrepid. We go all over the world, the universe, even to places that don't exist at all. We plunge in to and out of all sorts of different lives. The beautiful things help us see and understand the beauty in the lives we live, even if it is an entirely different sort of beauty. The questions that characters explore help us look more deeply at our truths and in this way understand them more fully. The difficult experiences either mirror our own or help us understand other people's sorrows. By choosing to read we choose to experience all of humanity and by doing so become better people.

In all of that reading there is understanding, but without the choice to read, none of the understanding can happen.

So go ahead. Don't be afraid. Lift the bag off.

Read a book.


A Lesson I Learned Today at the Library

To be a good reference librarian, you have to know a lot of things about a lot of different topics, but I've found that understanding human nature is the most important knowledge. That's a broad pool of knowledge—but the job itself is constantly teaching me. Today I had an experience with a patron that humbled me and helped me remember what matters most.

Books quote

There is an older woman who calls about once a week and asks us to pull 7-10 books for her. She has a hard time getting around, so she'll ask one of us to pull her books and put them upstairs on the hold shelf, and then her husband comes and picks them up for her. Generally she has a list of titles, but she also will usually ask for a few "good, clean, honest" books of our choice to be put in her stack.

I've had a little bit of success in introducing her to gentle authors outside the realm of her usual LDS-writers-only lists: Francine Rivers, Karen Kingsbury, Lynn Austin. I've also tried to branch out a little, to non-religious writers: Elizabeth Berg, Maeve Binchy, Rosamund Pilcher, Ann Hood. But almost every time she calls and talks to me, she wants the same type of book she usually requests.

Occasionally I get frustrated by her calls, partly because it takes a while to work through her lists. Partly it's because I keep hoping she'll branch out a little bit. I know it's none of my business, and people can read whatever they want, and there's a book for every reader. But she just clearly loves reading so much—she must go through a book a day—and I wish she could experience the freedom of reading new stories outside of her usual comfort zone.

But I never let my frustration show because: professional librarian.

Today, I was working at the fiction desk, and I heard her familiar voice—but not on the phone! She was feeling well enough to get out and come to the library. She gets around with a walker, so I still went through the stacks for her, grabbing her books. I got her requests, and then I tried a few others I thought she might like, but she rejected them on the basis of the cover images. I ran upstairs to get her a book out of the large print section and then helped her check out and get all of her books into a bag that she hooked on to her walker.

Ready to go, she said "Now, what's your name?" and I said "Amy" and she said "Oh yes! I've talked to you before."

Then she leaned in toward me and said, "Listen, Amy. You should thank the good Lord Jesus every day of your life that you have a strong body that you can walk and run with."

I patted her on the shoulder and said "Oh, I do." Because, really: I do. I work hard to make sure my body stays healthy, flexible, and strong—but I also know that it could be taken away at any moment. Disease, accident, earthquake, terrorists, aliens: who knows what tomorrow will bring? And this is really why, librarian professionalism aside, I really actually love helping her, even with her limited reading choices: because one day I could be in her shoes. And I hope that if I am, there will be someone in a younger body than mine who will bring me books.

"Well, that's good," she said. "I can't really walk much anymore, and I definitely can't hike like I used to. So I just read all the time. And I thank the good Lord Jesus for books, too." I hugged her shoulders and told her I was glad that she could get outside and come to the library today. And I felt thoroughly ashamed of my previous frustration. She's just a person stuck at home who loves to read, and who am I to judge her choices? Books bring her company, adventure, escape. They give her something to do with her mind, since her body can't cooperate much anymore.

And I remembered, once again, that even though there are frustrations with my work, and even though I sometimes feel underpaid and undervalued, there are greater things than appreciation. It is an honor to be able to help people through books, and I am grateful to do it.

(And now, knowing she used to like hiking, I might just stick a copy of Wild into her next pile. It might be too, well, wild for her—there are condoms involved, after all—but who knows? Maybe not!)


Why Libraries Matter

Working as a librarian, I have had the opportunity to help people in many ways. Finding books, of course, magazines and newspapers and essays and poems and short stories and picture books and chapter books and biographies and how-to books and novels to scratch that “I want to read something really, really good” itch. Not to mention resources for research papers. I’ve helped patrons look for apartments, post their antiques for sale on Ebay, and find a solution to every conceivably imaginable “how do I do this on the computer?” question. And the printing! Photos from Facebook, divorce papers, tax forms, homework assignments, emails, resumes, obituaries. I’ve helped lost children find their moms and lost parents find their children. Sometimes patrons confuse the library for the phone directory, so I’ve looked up a bajillion different phone numbers. I’ve helped photocopy and scan. I’ve walked patrons to their call numbers hundreds of times. I’ve broken up arguments and been shouted at and once or twice shouted back. I have listened to people’s stories—so many different stories. Library edit
(Sometimes being a librarian is fairly similar to being a bartender, without the booze.) I’ve sent homeless men out the door with my worry. I’ve shown teenagers to the pregnancy section and hoped my body language spoke the compassion I felt for them. I’ve talked my librarian friends through their various crises. (As they have done for me.) I’ve helped bleeding patrons and strung out patrons but, luckily, never any puking patrons (one of the reasons I’m glad to work on the grown up side of the library). I’ve answered countless reference questions, some of them involving actual books.

I’ve been privileged to match the exact right book to the exact right patron and then had them come back and tell me thank you.

Last week, I had the opportunity to help in a way I never have before. A patron in a wheelchair, who had no legs, asked me if I would plug him in. He rolled over to the outlet and walked me through plugging his electric chair into the wall (various cords and electric boxes were required) so he could charge. I made sure he had something to read while his chair charged and he thanked me and I went back to my desk with a lump in my throat, feeling changed. There are many gratitudes I felt welling up behind that lump: that I have legs and can walk (and run and hike!). That technology exists to help people like him. That he asked me to help him so calmly and confidently, which suggests that other people have also helped him. That he asked me to help him; maybe this seems strange but it felt like an honor.

And it made me grateful for libraries.

I have been thinking about the importance of libraries since National Library Week. Ivanka Trump tweeted something inane about celebrating libraries and librarians and it made me fairly furious, seeing as how trump wants to cut off IMLS, which is the source of the majority of libraries’ funding. (Please, read this article with responses to her tweet, just so the combined outrage of many librarians can let you know that we’re not only introverts with our noses behind our books.) 

I hardly need POTUS’s daughter (or the jerk and his blind-sighted, backward-thinking, narrow-minded budget) reminding me that communities are valuing libraries less and less. Because in addition to helping people use the library every time I go to work, I also am told, in different ways but at almost every shift, that libraries are kind of lame. Patrons complain about hold lists, slow computers, damaged books, books we don’t own yet. They get annoyed at displays for different reasons. They say rude things like “this place is a dump” and “I only come here if I’m desperate” and “thank God I can afford to buy most of my own books.” And then there are the constant limitations that librarians and libraries are constantly bumping up against, because we only have a small budget to make this whole show work, and that means cutting corners when we wish we didn’t have to.

It’s not only inside the library, though, that I’m reminded. The world at large does this very well. I was once at a doctor’s appointment and the physician, upon hearing that I worked at the library, said “wait, the library is still open? I didn’t think people read actual books anymore, I thought they just read Kindles.” Or the city election a few years ago, when the good citizens of my town elected a vociferously anti-library person into the city council, which felt like the whole population marked the “libraries don’t matter” checkbox on their ballot. Or the way the publishing industry is declining. Or the way that intelligence, understanding, and learning are less important than wealth and body type and entertainment value.

So when trump’s budget plan included that IMLS cut, I wished that people would notice, but I didn’t expect anyone but the librarians would. I mean, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could have a march that was just about funding for the arts? (The NEA is just as important as the IMLS.) We could wear, I don’t know, books on our heads maybe, and think of the poster opportunities! But not many besides the librarians even really noticed.

Which brings me back to the legless man in the wheelchair at my library. Which brings me to me kneeling down and crawling around his wheelchair to get it all plugged in. Which brings me to knowing, and to wishing that the world at large could know, just how much libraries are not only about books.

Libraries, at their core, are about people.

And quite often they are about saving people, in both big and small ways.

A library saved me once, when I was an angry punky goth kind of girl, sluffing school because I couldn’t bear to walk into those high school doors. Sometimes I’d leave and drive around aimlessly, but sometimes I went to the library. No one else in the world knew where I was, except for the librarians, who left me alone. I’d sit somewhere and look out the window and read, and for a little while I’d feel a sort of peace wash over me. In the library, in my rebellious black phase, I felt safe.

Teenagers are saved with books that give them information about their problems—cutting and drinking and yes, sometimes unintended pregnancies. The elderly are saved with large-print books that bring them company and stories and happiness. Children are saved by beginning their literacy journey at the libraries. The unemployed use our computers to find jobs. The ill use our databases to find answers. The homeless use our couches to rest.

Libraries are about people.

So today, I am issuing a challenge. If you are at all civic-minded. If you care about libraries at all. If you know your senator’s number. Please make some noise. Write a blog post about why you love your city library. Write a Facebook status about why you love libraries. Post a photo on Instagram of the books you have checked out right now. Draw attention to how libraries influence your life for the better.

And then call your government representatives.

Let them know that defunding libraries is unacceptable. Let them know that libraries matter. Let them know that they don’t only matter to librarians, but to communities. To individuals who use them in a million different ways. To people who need help in a thousand different forms.

Libraries matter.

Let’s save them!

#savethelibraries