It’s been a month since I was laid off from my job with the local public library. I was among nearly 40 employees who volunteered to leave with severance as part of a plan to keep all the system’s branches open, despite a 1% property tax cap and lower property values. There has been enough finger pointing to go around about the decisions made by this particular county nonprofit in my part of the world, but the hard truth is that public libraries, large and small, are in jeopardy all over the country.
During the four years that I worked at several branches, my naive notions of the librarian as a keeper and finder of books steadily morphed into the complex role of many: social worker, lawyer, teacher, confidant, doctor, storyteller, babysitter, tax preparer, cop, and janitor, to name a few. While my coworkers and I were strictly forbidden to practice any of these jobs in a formal sense, we certainly needed to know how to deal with the lack of vital services not only to the general public, but to the libraries, as well.
The privilege of using a public library regardless of whether you own, rent or travel, whether you are 2 or 84, a convict or exemplary citizen, employed or not, sick or healthy, rich or poor, is one that many have taken for granted over the years. And this gift may be gone before we realize it’s too late. Oh sure, there are plenty who say “I don’t need the libraries. Haven’t set foot in one for years and I still have to pay for them!”
And yet, these same folks would stand before me when their home computer died and they had an important document to print out. Or they were visiting a relative without Internet and needed to change a reservation or boarding pass. Or they had to provide a power-of-attorney form and couldn’t navigate the online legal maze. Or their kids were required to find a “real” book on an obscure topic for a school assignment. Or maybe they had just lost their house, job, car, and/or health and found themselves looking for a safe place to keep warm.
Life can change in an instant.
Well, you might wonder, is this the library’s job? Are there no community centers and homeless shelters? Doesn’t the city provide unemployment offices and social services? Yes. Does everyone know about these options? No. Are they accessible even on weekends? Often not. Is there public transportation available to where people need to go? Well, if you still live out in the suburbs, you’re out of luck. Chances are there will be a library closer to you than other public facilities.
Before you poke a million holes in my rose-colored view of bibliotheca martyrdom, I will acknowledge that libraries and library workers aren’t perfect. Yes, I too, have returned a book only to be told later that there is no record of it and I must pay the fines. I agree that there are always a few bitter souls who delight in abusing their power and authority within the little kingdom they have built on the public’s dime. But the lingering reports of lazy public servants who work the system for thirty years and retire with hefty pensions and health benefits for life, are relics of the past (if not the imagination.)
And the old-fashioned image of the pinched dowager, hair in a severe bun, wearing crepe-soled orthopedic shoes and reading spectacles perched upon her nose, holding a bony finger to thin lips, is a far cry from her modern counterparts who must shout over the din of the latest ringtones while their younger patrons have meltdowns in the call-a-story booth. Though I have to confess, the first time I found myself in shushing mode with a finger and eyebrow raised while giving some noisy offender the evil eye, I felt like I had truly arrived.
For a brief time, I was a librarian.