Charles Allen is a librarian in Miami-Dade County. Tonight, join librarians, activists, creatives and lovers of the library for a brainstorming workshop for the Knight Foundation News Challenge on libraries.
When someone my age asks what I do and I tell them I work at their public library, I’m usually greeted with a look of surprise and a response like, “You’re the first librarian my age that I’ve ever met.”
More often than not this is followed by, “Wow, that’s so cool. So do you just sit around and read books all day?”
Most of us certainly don’t have time for leisure reading on the clock. But what we get to do is even better.
The experience of today’s young librarian is tied to the national recession that began in 2007. Many of us came out of school saddled with enormous student loan debt. We might have studied library and information science to make ourselves more employable. We all knew of a friend or family member who had lost a job or been foreclosed on, and many of us graduated with a deep commitment to public service.
The library systems where we took our first jobs were swelling with patrons who needed to file for unemployment benefits, build resumes, search for new jobs, or go back to school. We found ourselves serving the homeless and those with mental health issues in increasing numbers as services for them were cut.
Amidst all of this, many library systems were facing their own budget cutbacks, with layoffs, closures and shorter hours. In 2013, local media reported that 22 of Miami-Dade County’s 49 libraries were in danger of closing.
Then an amazing thing happened. An outpouring of community push-back against the closures convinced local politicians to take the closures and layoffs off the table. Since then we’ve even seen the opening of new, state-of-the-art facilities and more services.
It’s hard to describe how fortunate I feel to go to work everyday. You get to witness so many little victories. A kid tells you that your coworker is the reason they were able to learn division. You help someone register to vote for the first time, find their long forgotten ancestors, pass their citizenship test, submit a job application, learn a new language, ace their science fair project, learn to use a computer, or just find that new book or movie that they’ve really been looking for.
Maybe my favorite thing at the moment is watching our children’s department masterfully engage in the time-honored art of storytelling and seeing kids recognize words on the page for the first time.
Another reason I love going to work is that I get to interact with so much of our community. Today’s library is full of all sorts of people. Everyday I hear at least three languages spoken, see three generations of family members visit our library together, and interact with people from about a dozen different countries. Our libraries serve as a public commons, a resource accessible to all members of our society, committed to the democratization of information.
But you see few of my peers at libraries nowadays. I know you used to stop by to do your homework or check out a few books for summer reading back in the day. Maybe you stuck around for a storytime, maybe you dug through those huge old card catalogs or the microfilm readers for a research project. Your public library might have even been the first place you saw a puppet show or a personal computer.
I’m writing to encourage you to come by and check out what’s happening at your public library today. Maybe you don’t know that you can check out free passes to most of the museums in the county with your library card. Maybe you were unaware that Hialeah’s public library has a community garden, that Coral Gables’ library has a butterfly garden, or that one of the smallest and most adorable public libraries you’ve ever seen can be found in the Civic Center Metrorail station.
There are thousands of free eBooks and audiobooks that you can download from our website and there is even a streaming service for movies, television shows, and music. I’ve seen children and teenagers doing some really impressive things at the library with music production, journalism, video editing, and photography. You can find workshops and classes on foreign languages, 3D printing, coding, photo editing, and engineering.
Even I still discover new services and possibilities on an almost daily basis. As National Book Award winner and MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “The library was open, unending, free.”
With your involvement, our libraries can be even better. Tell us what we need to do to make the library a useful space for you. Share your knowledge and skills, whether it’s permaculture or community theater. Wherever you live, I promise you it’s not far from a public library, so pop in next time you’re looking for something to do. Maybe even pay your old late fines?