Monday, May 21, 2012

Parks and Rec…. and Library

I love watching the show Parks and Recreation, I love that the characters remind me of my friends and myself, I love the depiction of government employees as both cynical and overachieving, I love the quirkiness of the town of Pawnee, but what I don’t love is that the show hates the library. Sure, it makes sense that the same town that has a raging public health crisis of its citizens putting their mouths on drinking fountains would also reject its public libraries. And Leslie Knope, as a politician representing these same people, would add to her campaign platform that she will close the library.  And yes, of course there has to be the stereotypical depiction of the bitchy, anal-retentive librarian to illustrate the rift between city departments.  But those beliefs and views about the library aren't fictional for many people.

In the real-world, public library employees constantly have to defend their jobs, and explain the relevance of the service that they provide to the community.  And I understand why people are critical of how their tax money is spent – however, this is one service that everyone can and should actually use.  Unlike hospitals, police and fire departments, the library is a valuable service that doesn’t require violence, tragedy, or sickness to be used.  A lot like the Parks Department, only with more information and free stuff. 

But really parks and libraries aren’t so different.  Both offer free public space to anyone, both foster a sense of community, and both encourage exploration.  Many libraries are located in public parks, creating a one-stop-shop for free public services.  These libraries are usually much more aesthetically in touch with the surrounding neighborhood and serve to compliment to the park – and vice versa.  In New York City the Parks Library, located in the middle of Central Park, has been a successful collaborative effort between the parks and library department since 1999.  Not only is the library in the park, it also houses large collections of resources on parks and open spaces, urban planning, wildlife in urban areas, and has one of the largest collections of Parks Department materials that is open to the public.  Pretty cool.

So maybe in Parks and Rec’s final season, the Parks and Recreation Department and the Pawnee Public Library will team up to put a teeny tiny library in the smallest park; and then Leslie and Ben will have to recreate their first kiss to christen it.  In the meantime, Tammy and Ron will get back together and become a library/parks power couple.  Tom will design the library’s new logo, and Anne will set up a free health clinic inside the library where Andy will be able to get a free rabies shot.  April will petition for a collection of stray cats that Pawnee residents can check out with their library cards, and Chris will end up getting fined for not returning the cats.  It’s everyone’s dream come true. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Homeless People Need Library Love Too

Recently in a library and information studies class discussion, a fellow student commented that “homeless people are subverting libraries.  They’re just using them as places to sit around or to use the bathroom.”  Thankfully, most of the class shot this moron a disgusted look.  The central element to librarianship of any kind is service.  And as public servants we are in no position to judge or make demands of who we will serve based on class or whether or not that person has a brick-and-mortar place to call home. 

I have been guilty of making fun of some of the quirkier personalities who come into the library – albeit anonymously, but still.  I have also had the privilege of being able to work closely with homeless people as well as those who choose to live differently from the rest of society.  Those experiences have been frustrating, difficult, and sometimes smelly.  But those people deserve the vital community services that public libraries provide, like help searching for jobs, housing, and even families online. While I understand why some members of the library community find sharing space with homeless people (whether perceived or otherwise) uncomfortable, I disagree with policies, regulations, or influences from neighborhood members that are meant to relegate how public library space is used and who that space “should” be for.

Libraries have been serving as places of respite for those without homes, many of whom have mental illnesses, since their inception.  Historically, public libraries were developed as buildings for the elite and lower classes to come together in a common space, leveling the societal playing field.  And while public libraries should serve the needs of all users equally, including segments of the population other than homeless people, we need to remember that service to certain population groups should not be contingent on who we would like to serve, but should be based on who needs those services.  The American Library Association adopted a policy almost thirty years ago that calls for libraries to respond to the growing number of poor people, including those without homes, and to work within the library to sensitize the greater community to the needs of these citizens as well.

The fear among many community members is that public libraries will become "homeless shelters" and not serve other segments of the population, such as children and families.  But if people fear this happening, it must mean that there is a noticeable need.  And if the need is this great, why are we doing nothing more about it than worrying that we will be exposed to poor and homeless people in our public libraries?  

In Los Angeles homelessness is an issue that, in my opinion, has not effectively been addressed.  Yet, with the number of public library branches in this city, and the resources offered at the Central Library, we should be able to do more for our street-dwelling population.  The Seattle Public Library has been forward-thinking in this regard, and has been incorporating vital hygiene and job-related services for people who live on the streets and use the library’s facilities.  With the right balance of non-invasive security and updated policies, as well as cooperation with other community service providers, Los Angeles and its libraries could become a more welcoming and rehabilitative space for those who need it most.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ladies in Libraries

I recently read A Strange Stirring by Stephanie Coontz, a book that breaks down Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, and describes the clash of cultures between working and non-working women in the 1950s and early 1960s.  She describes the feelings of inferiority and lack of completeness that middle class homemakers felt at the time that The Feminine Mystique was published.  As someone who has never known a world where we are expected not to join the workforce and actively kept out of it, I was surprised at how relevant I found Coontz’s summary of the infamous book. 

As a woman who is studying and a part of a profession that is predominantly made up of, and led by women, I am proud to be a woman who works.  But I know that this is still not the case for women in many fields today.   In archiving the history of my local library, the North Hollywood Regional Branch, I was struck by the fact that when the branch opened in 1929, it was operated completely by women.   In looking further into the history of librarians in Los Angeles, many of the City Librarians have been women, dating as far back as 1880.  But they too have struggled in a society that was dominated by men, especially those men who served on the library board. 

From 1947 – 1990 there were 2 City Librarians in Los Angeles and both were male.  This was during the time that Friedan was speaking to educated middle-class homemakers.  Women who had the intellectual training and ability to be a vital part of the workforce were told that they should not want to join the ranks of the professional class.  Many of these were the same women who had been productive in the workforce during World War II, furthering the blow to these women’s egos and sense of self.  Meanwhile, millions of women at this time needed to work out of economic necessity, furthering the divide between working women and wives and stay-at-home wives.

It was during this time, from the late 1950s throughout the 1960s, often called the public library’s “golden era” due to increased federal funding for public services that the library prospered.  The increased demand for librarians brought many professional women back into a workforce that has historically been female led, as well as female-friendly to those the library served.  The public library has traditionally been a safe space for un-biased learning.  In an era when a woman’s education about the world most certainly ended after high school, or college for some, it was a space for continued enlightenment.

The public library continues that tradition today.  It is a place to seek answers to questions without shame or embarrassment.  It is a place for facts in a world where women’s choices are often relegated based on fear.  It is a cultural place in neighborhoods and communities where women who are full-time mothers deserve to spend time with their children during the day.  It is a space for book discussions and for activism with neighbors and friends.  In my experience, I have witnessed the public library as a place for all women, whether behind the reference desk or standing in front of it, to further literacy and intellect regardless of working status. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why The Handmaid's Tale won't come true

I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for the first time. And while the book was written almost thirty years ago, there are still scary cultural and political parallels between the environment in the book and our current time.  But I just can’t imagine a world where information is so suppressed that we become servile in order to survive.  But then, I work at a library where the freedom to read and the freedom of information are the cornerstones of the profession.  I’m lucky to study and work in this world.  But I know that there is a much larger world outside of this.  A world that doesn’t understand why libraries are relevant, and that thinks books are dead.

What we hear over and over again in the media is that libraries are irrelevant, that information comes from the internet, and that spending money on public libraries is a waste, especially during economic downturns.  But what people fail to remember, or even realize, is that the internet, and the search engines we use to navigate it, are censored.  The information we receive may seem abundant, and it is.  But it is also prescribed to us based on our preferences and we are certainly not kept anonymous as users.  Public libraries are the last places where we can anonymously access information, and where our privacy is protected by law.  Public libraries do not keep records of book borrowing history and do not censor what is being borrowed by anyone regardless of gender, race, religion or age. 

In the dystopian future depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale, society becomes so far “lost” in morality that a fundamentalist conservative movement gains power and enforces laws that treat humans as physical vessels for procreation.  Intellect, sexuality, and physicality are all restricted to the basic levels necessary to stay alive.   People are kept this way through forced ignorance and complete lack of access to information.  The basic human right to information is gone, and what comes of it is a terrifying society where our bodies and minds are separated, no one is whole.

As I’m reading I keep thinking that libraries, especially public libraries, keep us from this future.  Through lending books, yes, but also through the ability to meet in a common space we share with our neighbors.  So if this notion is outdated, then what do we have to look forward to in the future?  It’s not so idealistic to imagine a world where neighbors share space, knowledge, and respect for one another.  It happens at public libraries every day.