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Saturday, April 6, 2013

When Urban Librarians Unite (Literally!)

I don't normally write up the conferences I attend for two main reasons:

1) Thanks to money and time constraints, I don't usually GET to attend many conferences in the first place, which is sad.

2) I don't always feel like what I've learned at some conferences would necessarily make interesting blog reading (and this probably stems from a deeper feeling of "I didn't quite get my money's worth" - which is even sadder).

However, I didn't feel that way about yesterday's first annual Urban Librarian's Conference, which was organized by Urban Librarians Unite (ULU) and held at the Central branch of Brooklyn Public Library

(Full disclosure: I am on the board of ULU and I'm a Brooklyn Public Library employee, so I didn't have to pay the fee to attend this conference. But I was there to help out and not just attend. My main assignment was to man the breakfast table in the morning, which was some crushing responsibility, let me tell you.)

The ULU conference focused "specifically on the issues of the working librarian in the city." If you've ever read my blog before, you can probably guess what some of those issues are and why they are more important now than ever to talk about. 

I'm not going to rehash what everyone on the program said, even though I felt that each speaker was informative and passionate about what they discussed (I didn't attend any of the side discussion groups, but I heard they were great too). I do want to highlight some of the main points that I felt allowed me to walk away feeling re-energized about urban librarianship.

The day started off with some short inspirational speeches made by Richard Reyes-Gavilan, BPL's Chief librarian), and Councilmans Vincent Gentile (Brooklyn) and Jimmy Van Bramer (Queens). Councilman Gentile brought with him a poster of all the libraries in Brooklyn represented by a dot to show the library's reach within the borough. He said that he always carries it with him, and since I've seen him with it at least twice before, I know it's true. It's always nice to know that the higher-ups are still supporting and fighting for the city's libraries.

Here are the lectures I attended during the day (in reverse chronological order): 

 - Librarian & technology specialist (and my Twitter friend) Steve Teeri gave a motivating talk about the Detroit Public Library's HYPE Makerspace, which he founded in 2012. He showed the power that creativity and hands-on library programming can give to teens, and also showed us some awesome things they made in the Makerspace, like a walking robot-bug-type-thing and the fruits of 3D printing. The future is NOW, people. Pretty damn cool.

- Rebecca Lubin from the Delaware Branch of the Albany Public Library gave inspiring examples of how she's built community support for the library by being an outreach badass. She outlined ways in which libraries can collaborate with community members in order to both help the community and to help libraries maintain their essential status within the community. 

(Full honesty: she said something that sort of bugged me a bit, which was to the effect of "Libraries haven't been about books for a long time now." I'm hoping she meant to say "Libraries haven't been JUST about books" because as a children's librarian, I feel that promoting literacy should still be a goal of librarians when reaching out to the community.)

Moving on...

- The presentation from Wick Thomas (an activist in every sense of the word, both for libraries and for LGBTQ issues) from the Kansas City, MO Public Library was fantastic because he addressed real issues that are facing libraries today, but issues that are not always talked about in library school or in staff meetings: librarians being advocates for youth, and actually giving teens power to change and improve their own lives. Wick showed us some really powerful examples from a zine created by teens at the Kansas City Library (a program he facilitated). The zine gave teens from all walks of life, including those who were incarcerated, a chance for their voices to be heard. This kind of youth empowerment is something that all librarians should be striving to do, and as Wick said, it can change a kid's life.

- Peter Bromberg, Associate Director at the Princeton Library in Princeton NJ gave the opening address and talked about how libraries are adapting to many different kinds of changes in order to continue to make real differences in peoples' lives. He also stressed the unconventional concept of love and how it relates to library service. The thing that stuck out to me the most from his presentation was his discussion about reading a memoir of his aunt's that he discovered after she died. She wrote about how awestruck she was after coming to America and going into a library for the first time. Bromberg said that his aunt stated: "The library saved my life." 

Hearing this touching anecdote reminded me of a story in my family about how my great-grandmother Rita used to walk across the Brooklyn bridge to Manhattan carrying a hot potato in her hands to keep them warm. She'd eventually make her way up to the library. (I can't remember if it was the main library, but that seems like a very far walk. Of course, she wouldn't have been able to afford any other kind of transportation. I definitely need to get all the facts about this story so that I can document it correctly.) Anyway, the potato would have cooled enough for her to be able to eat it in the library (gasp!) and she would spend time there because it was a safe place. I grew up knowing that the library was an important part of her life, and that is obviously something that stuck with me. 

It also makes me wonder - in the next 100 years, will there still be stories about how libraries have "saved" lives? Will we still be able to talk about the power that library programs have, or how a library experience gave a young person a voice, or how people in communities and cities view libraries as essential in an ever-changing world? 

I think so. I hope so. 

In any event, the conference gave me a boost in terms of how I feel about my own job and how I wish to go forward. Even if I don't have all the resources I'd like to have, I want to give my patrons the best library experience I can give them. Seeing other librarians make the best of their own situations and go beyond their capabilities showed me that I can at least attempt do the same, even in the face of great challenges. (I also got to meet and hang out with some really cool people and that is always fun.)

So thank you, everyone at ULU, and thanks to everyone who attended and presented at the conference. I hope we can all do it again next year. 




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