March 27, 2009

An accidental librarian

Before stumbling into my current career, I spent 10 happy if ill-paid years working in public libraries. Believe it or not, it turned out to be a pretty good preparation for working on social justice issues.

It was pretty much an accident. The local library in my small town needed a part time custodial engineer when I started taking college classes. The job mostly involved coming in after hours. I cannot say that I pursued this task with heroic diligence, but they kept me around. It was on evenings like those when I should have been running the vacuum that I made the acquaintance of Langston Hughes' poetry and the more radical political writings of Mark Twain.

Then a huge flood trashed the library and most of the town and I got plenty of extra work. At some point, they figured out I could read and write and had me start working with the public. It was kind of like being a bartender with books.

I discovered I enjoyed bantering with people of all ages, hearing all kinds of juicy gossip and hunting for hard to find information. The elementary school was just a block or so away, and it wasn't unusual to have six or seven classes a day roll in like little sailors on shore leave.

The main librarian there lacked a degree but had this remarkable gift for making it a place that was welcoming to everyone. She was also a coal miner's daughter and a yellow dog Democrat with deep union sympathies. Her basic philosophy was to find out what people want or need and figure out a way to get it to them.

The job market being what it was in the 1980s, I stuck around. Later on, I wound up working in the reference department at a city library, which was a whole different game. Talk about dealing with all kinds of people, some of whom had major issues... The thing I liked about reference was the challenge of having to hunt up all kinds of bizarre and random information. Recall, Gentle Reader, that this was WAY before Google. On really tough questions, I liked to Zen it, which involved emptying the mind of preconceptions and chasing it down.

One thing I really enjoyed doing was programming, which is to say thinking of weird and entertaining things to get people to come in. Kids had to go to school, but generally nobody has to go to a library. You gotta make em want it. A few such efforts that come to mind involve visiting elementary schools in a monkey suit and staging worm races.

I still view public libraries as vital resources in many ways for anyone interested in working on public issues or finding out what is going on in a community. Each well run library is a little liberated area, a public space open to all where "from each according to his [or her] abilities, to each according to his needs" pretty much applies.

TOWARDS SUSTAINABILITY. Which is more important, well-being or growth? (This article raises interesting points, but Aristotle got there first.)

WONKY BUT GOOD. Here's Jacob Hacker discussing health care reform and how to get where we need to go.

ANOTHER EVOLUTION BATTLE is heating up in Texas. Next stop...Copernicus? After all, the Bible clearly says that Joshua made the sun stand still, not the earth. So there.

ANOTHER PUBLIC SERVICE. Poetry reading in the US hit a 16 year low, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. In order to help reverse this trend, El Cabrero has composed the following poem:


Read some, read some. Yes, you should.
Some of it is pretty good.



Bergie said...

I'm a library brat (my mum was a reference librarian and I worked there when I could, nearly getting my MLS) so this warms my heart. We have to keep this vital resource alive. nice post!

El Cabrero said...

Thanks for the comment. I might have known your mom.

Deborah said...

love twain
love hughes
loved reading this
and you