Person, Place, Thing: A Lion, a Witch and a Wardrobe

The public library has played the role of a site of respite for my family, dependably familiar and inviting for us and countless others. This space, the children’s section of the library in particular, has inspired my venture into the study of information science. By entering the library, children and their caregivers are able to enter into a safe and cost-free place to engage and begin to form a relationship with literacy and community. 

My budding interest in information science enticed me to return to this city that I adore, New York, to study libraries and information science. An unfortunate but temporary consequence of this transition is that the vast children’s book collection we have accrued and weeded over the course of my daughter’s young life is currently spread out between three different storage locations for the time being. Even had we been physically close to our beloved books, my daughter and I our simply huge fans of browsing and borrowing to our hearts’ content, a habit we formed early on and continue to nurture. Since our very recent arrival to the city, we have slowly begun to explore a handful of libraries throughout the five boroughs. 

One of the contenders for a favorite children’s section is the marvelous and massive Main Branch in Manhattan, or, as it’s known by my daughter, “the library with the lion flag.” She’s not wrong. A single stone lion is, in fact, the library’s official mascot, and I have become very acquainted with this lion. What follows is a brief chronicling of my relationship to the NYPL children’s section: a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe.

A Lion

Patience, the lion, care of the NYPL website on the library lions

One lion accompanied by another, a pair of huge, imposing lions carved out of stone, oversee the masses below on New York’s Fifth Avenue, seemingly standing guard at the building’s scenic East-side entrance. A mirror image of the two felines is also replicated inside the children’s section, composed entirely of slate gray Legos. 

In my eyes, even their Lego incantations seem to emit an aura of nobility. Interestingly enough, they were given virtuous names, Patience and Fortitude, by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia amidst the Great Depression. The mayor’s reasoning was that these symbolic statues might inspire these qualities in the struggling citizenry during this challenging era. Today, visitors travel from far and wide to catch a glimpse or even a photo alongside this notable duo.

A Witch

The witch in this case uses her powers for good. Her role is more akin to that of Glenda of Wizard of Oz fame than that of the Wicked Witch or icy villain of Narnia. She is a public librarian. Like Glenda, the public librarian gently guides library patrons by listening to and interpreting their needs and providing a nudge in the right direction. Patience and fortitude are just as necessary for the librarian to embody as much as the next person. 

Librarians do not stand guard at the doors of the library as the large and lofty lions do, but they are also like guardians in many ways, for civic service is no easy feat. Often librarians today find themselves playing the roles of counselors, social workers, advisors, and are assumed to be experts on any number of bodies of knowledge. Though they are not human computers, they are rather exceptional figures in their own way. 

On a given day, the children’s librarian at any branch in the NYPL system could be leading a preschool story time for kids aged 3-5, which includes reading books, leading the group in song, engaging the crowd in some sort of hands-on crafting exercise, and otherwise expertly facilitating a bustling room full of toddlers and their caregivers, all within the span of an hour or so. Librarians plan programs, provide services, teach, listen, and so much more. How they manage to fit this all into one person’s job is as close to magic as something could get! 

The same, of course, could be said for librarians all over the country, from branches big and small. Their communities, however, are unique and individualized, and each library branch has their own special charms. I just happen to especially adore the NYPL Main Branch and its magical and benevolent witches, as have countless others before me. 

A Wardrobe

In a tiny corner of the children’s library in the central NYPL branch is a miniature puppet show station. With free play, the children can choose to alternate between the roles of puppet master and audience member as they please. The liminal spaces of the library provide a gateway to magical experiences, indeed, for people of all ages. In the first C.S. Lewis tale with its introduction to Narnia, the wardrobe functioned as a portal into a different world. It could also be said that books, in their many forms, can open up a gateway into new dimensions for anyone who takes the time to engage with them. 

Books can certainly be enjoyed from the comfort of one’s home, but there is something magnificent in the ordinary children’s room of a public library. From a child’s perspective, one can only imagine the magic and wonder that are evoked from hearing an entrancing story told by someone other than their guardian. The librarian themself might be just the point of entry needed to transport a child into the world of literacy. Their children’s room, when all works as planned, serves to act as a kind of magic wardrobe, transfixing and transporting young minds to new and thrilling environments.

Or so I would like to believe! As I have only begun my studies, I have much to learn, but if there’s one thing I am sure of, it is that we could all stand to use a little magic, patience, and fortitude in our lives. And thus concludes the short chronicles of NYPL kid’s services: a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe, as told by a mother and aspiring public librarian. 

Blog Post 1: Person, Place, Thing

by Jay Rosen

I recently spoke with Jennifer Gellmann, Assistant Division Manager of the Society, Sciences, and Technology (SST) division at Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) Central Library. Given my interest in adult services and reference librarianship, I was eager to learn about Jennifer’s work and the day-to-day challenges and rewards of her job.

Jennifer began by giving me a brief overview of SST’s scope and collections, and explaining its relationship to the greater Adult Services department at Central Library. SST is staffed by 8-full time “Adult Librarians,” and has a large and diverse physical collection with books on philosophy, psychology, social sciences, science, technology, and industry. SST also has digital collections, special collections containing government publications and legal documents, and a small reference collection.

SST is but one of four divisions making up the Adult Services department at Central Library. Other divisions include “Languages & Literature,” “History, Biography, & Religion,” and “Art & Music.” Related adult-centered divisions include BPL’s Business and Career Center, which offers services for jobseekers and small businesses, the Information Commons, which delivers technology-related programs and services in lieu of a physical collection, and the Brooklyn Collection, a local history archive. BPL’s Central Library is also home to an Adult Learning Center, which provides ESOL classes, test prep, and related educational services to adults. In Jennifer’s view, the various divisions and distinctions among adult service oriented departments are “unnecessarily complicated” and a vestige of prior administrations. For the most part, these departments stand alone, with little inter-departmental communication and collaboration (more on this later).

Jennifer described her role as involving a combination of supervisory, administrative, and public facing duties, with the ratio among these tasks varying depending on particular staffing and library needs. However, she did emphasize that public service is the most significant aspect of her job and the work of her department more generally, with all other responsibilities following from this priority.

Public service duties in SST include working at its reference desk and contributing to virtual chat and email reference services. When I asked about the typical information needs of her patrons, Jennifer told me the “vast majority” of patrons visiting SST are looking for a book on a particular topic. She pushed back on the notion of print being less important in today’s digitally connected age, despite circulation statistics dropping slightly each year.

For the most part, SST is able to successfully meet patron requests, but Jennifer did mention a couple of common issues her department runs into. For one, certain popular books are always in demand to an extent that BPL can’t accommodate. This means patrons often have to place holds and wait several weeks to get materials they need. SST also receives occasional requests for textbooks, but does not purchase them for their collection; as a result, they have to refer patrons to local universities and academic libraries. Despite having one of Central Library’s most expansive physical collections, “you can’t make everybody happy.”

Contrary to many branch libraries that serve fairly defined and specific local communities, Jennifer explained that Central Library serves people from all over Brooklyn. As a result, SST does not serve any one particular demographic. Jennifer emphasized that her work experience varies from branch library service in a couple important ways. For one, there is a great deal of segmentation between different departments at Central Library, with many patrons never stepping foot in the SST division. Because of this, Jennifer’s staff is less familiar with their information needs, which is usually more apparent in smaller branch libraries. In addition, Jennifer explained that branch library staff tend to “wear a lot of hats”, whereas staff at Central Library by and large have a narrower set of responsibilities.

Jennifer was refreshingly honest when describing the challenges of her work. In her view, SST’s primary public service challenge is dealing with the anger and confusion of patrons with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. “It’s a problem no one has really solved yet,” she told me. Though her staff takes a patient and tolerant approach in these moments, and does their best to regard every request as legitimate, “there’s only so much we can do.” And while SST staff occasionally refers homeless patrons to local service agencies, they choose not to refer mentally ill patrons due to their lack of expertise with mental health issues. Interestingly, BPL hired a full-time social worker a few years ago to help respond to this need, but are currently without one. Until a new social worker is hired, Jennifer and her staff will continue to be seen by some patrons as “de facto social workers,” without the necessary training, expertise, or support. From what I have heard, this appears to be a major unsolved problem for many public-facing library staff around the country.

In further describing the challenges of her job, Jennifer highlighted a general lack of communication between higher administration and the rest of BPL’s staff. I witnessed the same dynamic firsthand during my time at Cleveland Heights Public Library system, and in Jennifer’s opinion this problem plagues most other larger library systems. Though I’m sure it’s easier said than done, I find it both strange and deeply ironic that institutions built to efficiently organize and distribute information suffer from such poor inter-departmental communication.  

Jennifer also acknowledged the difficulties of finding and retaining good staff on a limited budget. As she put it, “it’s hard to make a life and have a family in New York City on a particular salary level.” This unfortunate fact this has led to a sharp distinction between “lifers” (Jennifer’s term)— those Jennifer’s age and older who have worked in libraries for decades and live with relative financial stability — and younger staff who are unable or unwilling to commit to the field indefinitely for financial reasons.

Though very frank about the challenges of her position, Jennifer expressed a very clear enthusiasm for her work. She described the main benefits of her job as providing good public service and helping people locate materials that are meaningful to them. Jennifer also expressed contentment with working in “middle management,” citing the mix of public service, committee participation, and administrative roles inherent to her work, as well as the increased “headaches” that seem to come as one moves higher up in library administration.

Significantly, Jennifer told me that the information needs of her patrons have remained relatively stable over time, with the main change being a gradual decline in “reference ready” questions. Erik Bobilin, an Adult Librarian at SST I briefly spoke with, spoke to a more general decline in reference transactions in his experience, likely due to the ease of independently using information technologies. However, both Jennifer and Erik claimed that their division still regularly receives open-ended and more involved research-related reference questions.

When I asked Jennifer what qualities she thinks are needed to succeed in adult services, she emphasized soft skills, including communication skills, the ability to work with a wide range of people, a willingness to answer a variety of different questions, and, above all, patience. This last quality is so important “because the patron doesn’t always know what they want,” and so public-facing staff may need to spend significant time interviewing a patron before unearthing their ultimate question. 

“Advancing Racial Equity in Your Library” Event Response

For the Event attendance, I am reviewing the webinar entitled, “Advancing Racial Equity in Your Library: Case Studies from the Field,” presented by the Race Forward Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) on October 10, 2018.

The two speakers were Gordon Goodwin from the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, and Andrew Harbison from the Seattle Public Library. To help capture the intention of this talk, the goal of GARE was provided as, “to develop the capacity of libraries to make racial equity a priority within our libraries, cities, communities, and national associations.”

The topic of racial equity is a hot one being discussed in the information world, yet it is also a problem that has not been properly addressed still. With libraries being the sole free and accessible information and cultural center for most communities, racial equity needs to be made a priority. Children from poor and under-privileged areas are relying on technology and aid from public libraries more than ever to receive the same quality of education and opportunities as the more privileged communities.

If racial equity does not exist in libraries, it just adds to the problems the socially excluded face in society. Public libraries need to understand the magnitude of what social exclusion can do to a community. John Gehner points out that there are severe consequences to the, “negative perceptions affecting the way that professional librarians approach those who face social exclusion for many different reasons,” explaining what happens when libraries and their staff do not support equality.[1]

Realizing the importance of racial equity, specifically in public libraries, Goodwin and Harbison get right into it. Goodwin begins by laying out the goals they wanted this webinar to help achieve, which was first and foremost: to inform and to motivate the audience into action. I believe this is the purpose behind most, if not all, seminars and webinars dealing with social issues, specifically those about the information world. They are tools to educate and spread awareness for certain topics that are typically ignored, and motivation is the key to enacting change. Goodwin states right away that he wanted to, “Motivate listeners to take action, and how exactly to do that.”

The rest of the objectives for the talk were to understand the critical need for libraries to focus on race and improving equality for all communities, to learn about the ideas and tools that support racial equity, and how libraries are applying all of this to increase access and improve life for the patrons and staff of color.

Next the definition of racial equity is given as, “Closing the gaps so that race does not predict one’s success, while improving outcomes for all.” It is pointed out that race plays an important factor in determining how well someone does in life. Race helps to determine the barriers or blocks that people of color face in their life. Goodwin states that with improved racial equity, libraries can become places that help eliminate those barriers, and help to reduce race as decider for the success of an individual.

Putting race in front of equity targets the strategies for improving the quality of life and reduction of barriers that people of color face. Goodwin wants people to have an understanding that race does not separate humans beyond the superficial level of appearance, and that the practices and enforcement of laws within American society are still discriminatory, despite having removed the legality of segregation and racist discrimination. The cultural institutions we have still contribute to outcomes that disadvantage people of color, and that an awareness of this is an important first step in the right direction.

Briefly, Goodwin acknowledges the equal importance addressing the inequities faced based on gender, class, and disabilities. The intersectionality of these issues is key, as race plays a role even within the context of gender, class, and disabilities. He then continues onto the topic of how to begin achieving racial equity.

Thinking about issues of race and racism, Goodwin states a common tendency to focus on individuals, to immediately think about who is racist and how. It is better to focus on the institutional basis of racism, that changes within the structures of society are more important than individual cases or people. We need to be asking what roots of racism and prejudice exist within the foundations of our government and institutions, our groups of systems that determine how society functions. This will provide more equitable outcomes. Goodwin claims that, “achieving racial equity requires us to target strategies to focus improvements for those worse off,” and that there’s a need to, “Move beyond service provision to focus on changing policies, institutions and structures.”

Going into the history of libraries, and how during the creation of these institutions, people of color were not allowed any access. The roots of many laws and policies made at this time are still prevalent. Thinking about what laws and policies may still be negatively affecting certain communities inadvertently today can begin to address what changes need to be made. This means that there are rules that can unintentionally hurt certain people, such as the targeting of low-income groups that prevents people from participating fully.

Along this vein of thinking, there are also invisible or unknown prejudices ingrained into people by the institutionalized racism of our society that can be very harmful, as this prejudice leads to racist actions that can negatively impact people of color and the opportunities they receive. The example provided for this was a white librarian being more helpful to white patrons, waving their fees more often, and providing them with more renewals or leeway then they do for patrons of color. Collecting the data on the impact of practices and procedures on people of color is important in finding out what changes need to be made the most.

Implementing a racial equity initiative is the proposed solution for effectively changing things at the root of the problem, not just address individual blame or racism. Harbison begins polling the online audience on how many of them represent libraries that already have such an initiative. Case studies are gone through, providing evidence on what these initiatives have been able to successfully achieve and what impact on racial equity they have had. This wrapped up the webinar in an ideal way, as the first objective was to motivate action. Examples of how institutions executed that call for action and created a better society with better opportunities and a more equal treatment of people of color in places so relevant to the social exclusion and information access gap provide the best motivation for the audience, as they are able to see that this action works.

[1] John Gehner. Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion, p. 39.


-Brianna Martin, Sula Info 601

Webinar can be accessed here:

Slides provided to accompany presentation found here:


John Gehner (2010): Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion, Public Library Quarterly, 29:1, 39-47.


Observation: Ridgewood Community Library

Ridgewood Library buildingThis week, I visited the Ridgewood Community Library, a branch of the Queens Library. Even though this is my neighborhood library, I had never spent time there except to pick up books I’d had transferred. The library is a fairly small branch housed in a beautiful brick building built in 1929. It was the first branch of the Queens Library to be constructed with funds from the city rather than from Andrew Carnegie. Renovated most recently in 2011, the library is fully accessible, with elevator access to every level. It is clean and well lit, with lots of natural light on the main level.

Ridgewood Library plaque


After entering the building at street level, I went downstairs to see the large meeting room for events, as well as a dedicated children’s room, which houses all of the children’s material. This room has its own circulation and reference desks, computers, and bathrooms.

The indoor book drop is located on this level just outside of the children’s room. The outdoor book drop is located down a ramp next to the main entrance, which allows for 24-hour book return. Both book drops use a computerized system with a retractable metal flap that opens when materials are placed on a conveyor belt. This system usually works smoothly, but I have had issues such as the machine being out of order or not sensing books that I placed on the belt.

I next went up one level from the entrance to the large main floor of the library, which houses the teen and adult sections. At the circulation desk at the center of this room, as well as the one in the children’s room, checking out books is fully automated, with a touchscreen monitor and a pad that senses library cards and books. This system is fairly straightforward to use, although in my experience, it’s not always clear how to complete the checkout process, and I’ve seen other people having difficulties as well. I think that instructions for checking out could be relayed more clearly on-screen.

The reference desk on this floor is positioned by the back wall toward the middle of the room. At the reference desk, patrons can sign up for the 20 teen and adult computers located in a balcony area, which offer free internet access, Microsoft Word, and limited free printing. A desk near these computers provides technical support. There is only one single-occupant bathroom for the entire floor, although I do appreciate its being labeled with the inclusive term “all-gender.”

This branch has different hours every day of the week, and is closed on Sundays. Ideally, it would have more consistent and longer hours to better serve patrons. I visited on a Tuesday, when it’s only open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. I asked the librarian at the reference desk if this issue was budget-related, but he explained that Tuesday has always been a short day due to staff training in the morning. The reference librarian did mention austerity measures currently in place that affect how many new materials the branch can acquire. The library’s programming, fortunately, is robust and seems to reflect the diverse population it serves. On its website, I saw a wide array of free programming, including kids’ Jeopardy, English as a Second Language (ESOL) lessons, a class on dealing with stray and feral cats in the neighborhood, a Financing Your Education session, and Flamenco dancing.

This branch is also impressive for its collections in languages that reflect Ridgewood’s immigrant population. In the adult section, there are designated shelves for languages including Albanian, Polish, Serbian, and Spanish. There is also a “New Americans” section geared toward immigrants, with videos, books, information pamphlets, and ESL materials. The literature near the circulation desk advertising library and community resources is printed in many languages. Having lived in Ridgewood for more than five years, I can attest to the large Eastern European and Spanish-speaking populations.

Ridgewood Library New Americans area


When I arrived at 1:30 p.m., the library was very quiet. Once school let out though, the teen section filled up and became loud and boisterous. Conversations reached the point of yelling, and because there weren’t enough tables or chairs, some students sprawled out on the floor. Since the teen and adult sections share the main floor, this noise filled the entire area and made it difficult to focus or hear the reference librarian as he answered a question.

While I think it’s great that teens are using the library, a more separate teen area like the younger children have would be ideal, as it would allow the rest of the library to remain a (reasonably) quiet environment. The reference librarian on the main level said that it can be a challenging place to work just because it does get so busy and loud. To me, these issues speak to the ever-present tension between providing access to everyone and ensuring that all groups of patrons have a good experience at the public library, all while dealing with space and budget constraints.

It seems like the best option for addressing the high volume of patrons at the Ridgewood branch would be to expand the building or move to a new location. Alternately, perhaps an additional neighborhood branch would help to address some of these issues. Of course, this is dependent on funding from the state and city governments as well as private sources. This blog post from YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) gives recommendations for dealing with noise and disruptions from teens after school when expanding isn’t an option. Suggestions include rearranging shelving and furniture to create noise barriers, opening up meeting rooms for teen use after school, and scheduling programming and activities for teens during this time.

Overall, while the Ridgewood branch faces challenges, I do think it’s doing a great job of targeting materials, programming, and resources to the needs and interests of the community it serves.


After School At The Cortelyou Library

Cortelyou Library
Cortelyou Library (photo by Mary Bakija)

The first thing you see when you enter the Cortelyou Library is the information desk. A librarian sits there, and if you make eye contact, she’ll smile and say hello. Many of those who entered on the day I was there, both children and adults, knew her. “I passed!” reported one teen, and the librarian gave the thumbs-up sign, while telling another, “I haven’t seen you in a while!” Other patrons either passed the desk quietly, or stopped with specific questions. It was a cool fall day, around the time the elementary school next door and the middle school down the street had ended classes for the day, and the librarian was constantly fielding questions.

“How does she get a library card?” one guardian asked, nudging the girl at her side, before accepting a form to fill out.

“When is storytime?” another guardian asked, in a thick Russian accent. The bilingual storytime wasn’t for a little while, so the family of five headed out, saying they’d return.

“Where’s the bathroom?” asked another guardian, shepherding her child in the direction the librarian pointed.

Where To Checkout?

Directly to the left upon entering is another highly used area: the self-checkout machines. People who came in knowing which book they wanted walked right up to one to use it to search. Others checked out after browsing a bit, or after picking up their book from the holds shelf nearby. Some popped in, renewed, popped out. A class of about a dozen pre-K aged children stood in line to check out books with their teacher at one of the self-checkout kiosks. The teacher had a bag full of the kids’ library cards and helped each child check out one or two picture books, which went fairly smoothly. (Putting coats back on didn’t go quite as well. The “flipping method” requires some finesse and experience, it seems. And then Max forgot his hat.) The teacher reminded the kids: “Keep the paper slip with the book, because that tells you when you have to bring it back.”

It’s interesting to see the information desk and the self-checkout stations so close to each other. It’s common to every branch of the Brooklyn Public Library that I’ve visited, and I have seen how useful it can be. During this observation, the librarian at the info desk spent several minutes recommending a book comparable to Nathan Hale’s series to a mother and her son, at which point a few people wanted to check out books. Rather than wait, they saw the self-checkout kiosks were available, and they used those. However, people also used them when no patrons were at the info desk. It was a little sad to see people actively avoiding that human interaction; the alternative view, of course, is that they might find self checkout to be more efficient, faster, or even a more private way to access information.

Where To Sit?

A nice piece of design in this branch is that there are two separate areas with computers: one for adults, and one for children in the children’s area. Several kids coming in after school raced to the computers, working together on projects and playing games. Adults were also busy at their computers — the entire time I was at the library, every computer in the adult section was occupied, and patrons were often waiting their turn for a computer to become available. Because both computer sections are surrounded by bookshelves, as patrons young and old waited for a chance to use a computer, they also interacted with the physical collection, browsing titles and picking up books.

The most apparent constraint of this branch is its small size. Though this was a peak time for the branch, it’s representative of the weekday after-school crowd. According to the library system’s BrooklynStat service, in fiscal year 2018, the branch recorded 198,901 visits, making it the fifth most popular branch in the system. Taking into account Sundays and holidays, the library was open about 300 days during the year, so that’s an average of about 663 people that visited this branch each day. And, at least in its busy times, you can really feel that. It’s bustling and vibrant, warm and welcoming, convivial and social, and incredibly kid-friendly. By 3:30pm the day I visited, every chair was occupied, and additional children dashed around tables or sat on the floor. The noise had increased — in addition to the general chatter and energy of the crowd, three infants wailed unconsolably for 20 minutes straight — and the space was more comparable to a school cafeteria than to what most people imagine a library to be.

How To Improve

The wide, single-story building was built in 1983. The library doesn’t have stats available online that date back to that time, but we can see some change in the neighborhood by looking at census data. According to the Department of City Planning, the population of Community District 14, where the Cortleyou Library is located, was 143,859 in 1980. By 2010, the population had grown by nearly 17,000 people. The library may have filled the neighborhood needs effectively in the ’80s, but the neighborhood has grown, and perhaps it’s time for the library to grow, as well.

If I were to improve the library in just one way, to accommodate the demand and the various users, I think separate, walled sections would be helpful. During my observation, several adults entered the library, looked around for a seat, observed the hectic atmosphere, and then turned around and left, perhaps to sit in one of the several coffeeshops on Cortelyou Road instead. If the spaces for children and for adults were separated, it would impact the energy and sociability of the library — I for one wouldn’t have made a new kindergartener friend, who shared facts from the non-fiction book she’d just read about glass. But it would be nice to have a dedicated, quieter space, where adults (and children) could enjoy a bit of peace. I’d add a few comfortable chairs in there, too, as all those currently in the library are firm plastic seats at tables.

Public Service

Though not exactly the “street-level bureaucrats” described by Michael Lipsky in his paper Toward a Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy (because the Brooklyn Public Library is not run by the government, but is a nonprofit organization that receives funds from a number of sources, which does include local, state, and federal governments), Lipsky’s descriptions felt like they’d come alive here in some ways. Librarians represent a larger organization, and certainly some people who don’t know exactly where the library’s funding comes from may not distinguish the library from a government agency. And as shown above, librarians interact with citizens extensively.

“The potential impact on citizens with whom [a street-level bureaucrat] deals is fairly extensive,” Lipsky wrote. At the library, that couldn’t be more true. I saw it in action, quite positively, throughout the afternoon, as librarians and support staff assisted patrons with all sorts of requests, tirelessly fielding repeated, similar questions without irritation.

The physical and psychological threats Lipsky outlines are also a possibility at the library. There is certainly a psychic toll on everyone working, from the librarian who was trying to settle down a man who was yelling, to the security guard who reminded a girl about some of the responsibilities she has for her younger brother, to the volunteer who shelved books near the hysterical infants. And every single one of them worked with patience. It’s exhausting to be “on” like that all the time. But for the right person, like the librarian I saw at work that day, and with the right training and support, it might be easier to see it not as exhausting, but rather as rewarding.

Disrupting the Art World Through Digital Access (And A Lot of Money)

An artist explaining her video projection

This past Tuesday I attended a salon for a museum non-profit called The Current. The salon, which occurs at the founder’s loft quarterly, is meant ostensibly to close the gap between artist and collector by providing a relaxed social setting (shoes off!) against a backdrop of visual and interactive artworks in the museum’s small but growing collection.

The mission of The Current is steeped aggressively in opening access to their collection. For a not-insignificant amount of money, one purchases a membership to The Current, which provides access to a USB Drive that contains the museum’s entire collection, digitized. The member can then share the collection where ever they go. In the founder’s own home, for example, the salon displayed five selected works from artists in attendance via a projector.

Perhaps most important, however, is the intangible benefit of membership to The Current, which is a vote in each discussion surrounding the direction of the museum. Members vote on which works to bring into the collection, as well as details surrounding future events and salons. On this night, the museum announced proudly that they planned to move into a permanent brick and mortar space in the neighborhood, a move that I assume was burnished by a members vote.

It was this emphasis on a sort of direct democracy (along with wine and cheese) that drew me into attending this salon.

Screenshot of the event page

In a welcome toast, the Director made sure to note all of the technologists among its members. I’d spoken with an architect for the City of New York as well as an art collector at the salon by this point. Hearing an emphasis on technologists signaled to me where the money was coming from. This makes sense. The founder of The Current, William Nathan, got his start with Buzzfeed where he coded native advertising and analytical tools for cat video editors. He then founded an interior design startup before landing on The Current, becoming its primary financial provider.

With this context, The Current feels more like a startup than a proper museum. The crowd, which leaned young, affluent, and materially-interested, reflected a strong tech background. I met a guy who’d just gotten his first job out of undergrad coding for a major bank. Another young man who’d purchased a membership that night celebrated his new status by chest-bumping his friend and taking selfies during an artist talk about the video messaging platform Chat Roulette.

There is an element in The Current‘s messaging that implies that this museum exists to disrupt the existing museum infrastructure. On the museum’s landing page in large text laid over a VR piece in the collection, the website informs visitors, “The Current is a non-profit museum with radically participatory patronage.”

The art on display reflected this instinct. There was a piece made for VR in which the user goes through wormholes, for some reason. Another projected piece featured a loop of the artist waxing lyrical on the existential crises of being too connected on social media. Yet another piece was the artist, itself—that is, the artist was a virtual avatar projected on a brick wall. The person who wrote the code to create and project the avatar was not on site. One artist that I found interesting was an Iranian woman who saved, digitally scanned, and 3D-printed cultural artifacts that were targeted for destruction by ISIS.

A 3D-printed bust

But for the most part I walked through the event wondering, why?

As an information professional with a background in tech in public libraries, I was interested to see how a museum, another cultural institution, was utilizing new technologies. In my previous position as a library assistant in the TechCentral department at the Cleveland Public Library, we had access to a number of VR machines and 3D Printers, which we would roll out to the public for open community events, not unlike the salon. As staff, we were tasked to provide context for these new machines for a public that was unfamiliar with the technologies.

After three years of working in TechCentral with these fabrication technologies, our staff still had not landed on a framework around which we would showcase the tech. We would more or less roll out the machines for the public to use, and explain how the tech worked. Beyond that there was no active learning. They were effectively toys.

The writer interacting with art

I encountered a similar attitude among the artists and collectors at the salon. Beyond establishing that, yes, this new tech is cool and interesting, I couldn’t quite find a reason for it all. The same questions remained. How can VR function in the context of art in a museum, or in the context of informing the public at a library? What is a practical reason for a public library to demonstrate VR? The most clear explanation came from the Iranian woman preserving cultural artifacts. It’s a shame she was an outlier.

In a cultural institution, I like having context for learning and for art. I lose interest when something is put on display without so much of an explanation. My experience at the salon was not unlike my time in TechCentral. There’s all this new technology, but to what end? As an information professional, I think about this—why does a cultural institution house new tech if it’s funders or patrons can’t contextualize them?

My career goal is to find a way to contextualize new tech in a way that makes sense for my patron population. If the creators can’t do that, then who can?


I Want To Believe: ‘Illegal Alien’ as Dropped Subject Heading?

When the word “alien” is used to classify an individual, it is inaccurate, silly, and downright disrespectful. On one hand, it brings to mind science fiction fodder from the 1950—bulbous heads with tubular arms bearing “We come in peace” banners. It’s disrespectful, obviously, because it reduces a human being, no better than you or I, to this cheap, cartoon visual.

The history of the term begins unexpectedly. This now-offensive term was once used to supplant a much more offensive one.

In the 70s, “a group of Chicano UCLA students […] suggest[ed] the [LA Times] use the term illegal alien. They were responding to an editorial in the publication whose title referred to people who’d crossed illegally from Mexico as wetbacks.” So for a period, the term was a politically correct answer to what now seems like an archaic and particularly nasty slur (that reputable newspapers would publish without a thought)

So in the 80’s, when politicians like Ronald Reagan were using the term, it didn’t strike people as offensive as it does now. According to NPR, it wasn’t until the 90’s that the phrase started becoming associated with bigotry. Despite this current understanding that the term is outdated, it is prominently linked to political, right-wing rhetoric.

Politicians like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump coupling the words “illegal alien” with the word “criminal,” (NPR) as an antecedent or vice-versa. They are essentially labeling a voiceless people in a way that the people themselves don’t determine.

The current political climate in which the term “illegal alien” has an insidious relevancy is interesting when compared to the Peet article. It describes the avenues and roadblocks a Dartmouth student navigated in her quest to remove “illegal alien” as a subject heading with the Library of Congress. While researching, the student noticed that many inflammatory readings about non-citizens were found under the heading “illegal alien.”

The student took her concerns with the heading to a rights group for the undocumented students at Dartmouth. From there, the bipartisan group took the student’s concerns to librarians at Dartmouth. The librarians advised that the group would have to take it up with the Library of Congress directly. What follows was a description that, frankly, painted the Library of Congress as an impenetrable and hierarchical force at best. On the more extreme side, an absolute, perhaps harsher interpretation might cast LC as sometimes-protector of the hegemony.

After six grueling months of waiting, the Library of Congress finally got back to Dartmouth students, denying the change. The LC memo stated that the terms “illegal alien” and “undocumented immigrant” were not interchangeable. In their eyes, the connotation for each phrase was different.

Then, after what seems like relatively small pressure from ALA and civil rights groups, the Library of Congress relented. They changed the heading to “non-citizen”…for three months, at least. After that short span, Republicans (specifically) tried to stop this.

One Republican senator from Tennessee (neighbor to my own home state, Alabama) even went so far as to say the name-change would cost taxpayers frivolously, and therefore would not have been worth pursuing. As if using more thoughtful words wouldn’t lead to a more uniform, thoughtful community benefiting everyone…

The bill was ultimately passed, then denied, and is now currently up in limbo. The end of the Library Journal article is optimistic. It highlights the enterprising Dartmouth student, a former undocumented individual who is now a modern incarnation of civil rights hero. The article champions individuals like her, and as readers we are implicitly encouraged to follow suit.

Despite the bill not passing by the time of the article’s publication, the work done by the students was still necessary. The publicity generated by their efforts makes “illegal alien” seem even more antediluvian and backwards, further discourages thoughtful people (most of us, in my opinion) from using it. Any publicity, if it encourages less usage of this word, will paint researchers who use this tag as insensitive, pressuring everyone to use it less in every capacity, unless trying to incite (like insensitive, topical politicians of the day). In short, I don’t think anyone who matters is going to be using this term.

Both words in the label “illegal alien” are propaganda. “Illegal” implies criminal activity even when none occured. “Alien” is a particularly cartoonish way of saying an object doesn’t belong. It is not just propaganda, but it is immoral propaganda.

This reminded me of the struggles for more apt representation (or representation at all) in the Library of Congress subject headings outlined in the Drabinski readings. “Lesbian” finally got validation from LC as a subject heading in 1976. The dynamics of power, of literally waiting for the hegemony to realize that a disrespect is taking place, and then waiting on them to care enough to change it, is relevant in the Dartmouth case as well. When a dominant class is put in charge of defining a less-influential other, they are only going to approach this task with the limited understanding they bring to the table.

The Drabinski article was about how people are limited by their biases, whether they realize it or not. Even when the defenders of these inaccurate subject headings are in the wrong, they often don’t seem to realize or spend too much time defending instead of just realizing the new for something new and more respectful. If harmful language can exist in libraries, those hallowed places idealized by Madison and Jefferson, then what hope is there for the drastically more-chaotic spaces outside of it?

Above all else, we just have to ask people and understand what they feel comfortable being called. Why is that so hard?

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from

Greene, D. (2015, August 19). The Evolution Of The Immigration Term: Alien. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from

Peet, L. (2016). LC Drops “Illegal Alien” Subject Heading. Library Journal, 141(11), 12-13.

Pop-Up Libraries and Community Engagement

When the city halted construction on a Hunters Point library this past spring, pop-up and mobile libraries provided alternative services. [1. Evelly, Jeanmarie. (May 23, 2014). “Pop-Up and Mobile Libraries to Bring Books to Hunters Point This Summer.” Retrieved from]  Queens Library CEO Thomas Galante, who is currently on paid leave due to an investigation into his salary and spending, had said plans were halted because of budget discrepancies concerning the complexity of the building’s designs. [2. Evelly Jeanmarie. (Feb 27, 2014). “Plans Tweaked for Hunters Point Library After Bids Run Millions Over Budget.” Retrieved from]  Hunters Point residents petitioned for access to a public library, leading Queens Library to open a mobile library at the would-be site of construction. In addition, a group called Friends of Hunters Point Library has kicked off their own pop-up library, which uses the “take-a-book-leave-a-book” model and offers free WiFi and downloads to the public.

These solutions follow the recent trend of “pop-up” libraries that seem to mark a renewed focus on community engagement. Some of these libraries, such as Occupy Wall Street’s The People’s Library, are completely community run and often run on donations. Others, like the Cleveland-based ‘Literary Lots’ work with public institutions to provide access in underserved areas.  These directives interest me because they recall the idea of strengthening community service. In “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries,” Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood state that,

Engaging with the traditional library commodity of information in a ‘non-traditional’ way that responds to local contexts, via the involvement of local people in service design and development, will enable libraries to help bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor (137). [3. Durrani, Shiraz and Smallwood, Elizabeth. “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essasys from Progressive Librarian. Ed. Alison Lewis. Duluth: Library Juice Press, 2008. 119-140.]

The pop-up library’s mobile and ephemeral nature seems to be a direct response to an information age that allows us a constant flow of communication outside of our immediate surroundings, and to a hostile economic climate that has left the poor segregated in underserved and barren areas of the world. These libraries reinforce the necessity of open access to information and its agents, while abandoning its traditional structure and taking on the transient quality of information today.

This new pop-up model seems to be a way to better engage with communities that don’t have access to traditional libraries. However, I wonder if community engagement necessarily equates to community good. Historically, community engagement has not always meant servicing the public in open and honest ways. American libraries have been centers of education meant to proselytize bourgeois ideals to disenfranchised people. In The Alienated Librarian, Maria Nauratil notes

George Ticknor, leader of the Boston Brahmins and a founder of the Boston Public Library, worried that the steadily increasing immigrant population was unfit ‘to understand our free institutions or to be entrusted with the political power given by universal suffrage,’ and he strongly advocated education as a ‘remedy for this influx of ignorance,’ (38). [4. Nauratil, Maria. The Alienated Librarian. Westport: Greenwoord Press. 1989.]

The library’s opening of access to the general public seemed benevolent, but the underlying forces were patronizing in nature. Upper-class philanthropists believed in libraries as ways to assimilate the working class to their ideals and thus qualm social unrest (Nauratil, 39).  Pop-up, community-based libraries could easily act in a similar manner, disguising assimilation tactics as wholesome public service. A more sinister view could propose that these libraries are infiltrating community spaces to disrupt existing and relevant conversations.

However, this idea that the library can act as a vanguard of mainstream ideals can be disturbed upon closer inspection. We must question what these libraries are meant to offer us and how they choose to interact with us. Not every pop up library follows the same model.

For example, last year the PEN World Voices Festival and Architectural League of New York set out to create ten Little Free Libraries, which used small non-invasive spaces such as mailboxes and trellises to provide a limited number of books to the public. The readers are invited to give self-directed tours of the designers’ favorite reading spots. The books provided are from popular publishers and include titles such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Game series. [5. Yee, Vivian. (May 3, 2013.) “With Tiny Libraries, Bringing Free Literature to the Streets.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:]

This year, the Floating Library emerged on the Hudson: a pop-up library aboard the Lilac Museum Steamship organized by artist Beatrice Glow. The space is open to the public. The ship will offer, “a range of reading materials from underrepresented authors, artist books, poetry, manifestoes, as well as book collections, that, at the end of the lifecycle of the project will be donated to local high school students with demonstrated need.” The ship also offers art installations, performances, and workshops dedicated to DIY politics with an emphasis on leftist politics and environmental concerns.

Both pop-ups are at least part artistic experiment, but I wonder which library services the community better. Both have an agenda: the Little Free Libraries aim to be accessible to what the public, while The Floating Library aims to expose the public to new ideas, authors, and culture. What is of more value to the public: accessibility or exposure? The Little Free Libraries were set up in deliberately public places, while the Floating Library exists in a contained and maybe exclusionary place. Surely it’s easier to grab a book from your bench-turned-book-shelf than to trek to Pier 25 on the Hudson River. But then again, we must wonder who has the best access to these Little Free Libraries, all located on the Lower East Side? I would also seek to question: where are the librarians, curators, and information specialists? While I am not about to assert that the Little Free Libraries actively aims to uphold bourgeouis ideals and brainwash the working class, the project isn’t interested in engaging the public in conversation surrounding its material.

The Little Free Libraries project seems to focus more on the book than on the flow of information between people. In some ways, this echoes the idea of the enchained book in university libraries. Andre Cossette touches on this in Humanism and Libraries, noting, “The tidy arrangement sufficiently shows the importance that [universities] accorded to the preservation of books as opposed to their diffusion and sharing” (41). [6. Cossette, Andre. Humanism and Libraries. Library Juice Press. 2009.]  Leaving books in odd corners of New York City for casual perusal could hardly be called a focus on preservation. However, both models of libraries seem to value the book over its information. That seems to be the case for the director of the PEN World Voices Festival, Jakab Orsos, who told the Times, “It really restores my faith, this connectedness — how people are actually harboring the beauty of reading and the book and the importance of the book.” [7. Yee, Vivian] Part of the appeal of the Little Free Libraries project is the novelty of seeing a book in a bird-feeder instead of on a shelf. Glow’s “Floating Library” seems more focused on conversation surrounding content, than the book itself. To me, this seems to be the more meaningful way to engage communities. Whether it’s the most appealing way is another question.

On a symbolic level, I wonder about the uprooting of the traditional, physical library. Removing reading, learning, and conversation from the confines of traditional educational structures in favor of the open spaces we tend to have more organic connections with is appealing to me. These pop-up libraries illustrate the ways that information is no longer confined to institutions. When they include underserved communities in relevant conversations, these libraries begin to, as Durrani and Smallwood say, “help bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor.”