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Friday, June 21, 2013

"Why The Library Saved My Life"

I work with some amazing kids.

One of them has been volunteering at my branch for several years now. I'll call her C.R. 

(And at 17, she's not really a kid anymore, but since I already feel ancient, let's just go with that.)
The other day, after the Arts & Crafts class that C.R. helps facilitate, she came up to me and excitedly said:
"I have a gift for you."
Me: "Oh! What is it?"
C.R.: "I'll send it to you later. It's a surprise."

Later that evening, I got an email with an attachment labeled "Why The Library Saved My Life." I was immediately intrigued. 

There was also this message from C.R.: "So here is your gift. Fell free to post/edit/shorten it however you want. I hope this helps in advocating for the library. = )
What followed was a very touching letter about how volunteering at the library helped C.R. in ways I wasn't even aware of.

See what I mean about working with amazing kids?

I've posted my favorite parts of the letter below. I did, in fact, edit out some parts - mostly to save some space, girl can WRITE - but the words and the sentiment are hers alone. 

(The bolding is mine to highlight my favorite parts within my favorite parts, but the whole thing is great, so I really hope you'll read it.) 

My Safe Haven
"English is not my first language.
I don't really speak English with an accent unless I get excited or mad. Only then does my weird Americanized Spanish accent come out. It's funny because in all my memories, I'm speaking English; my parents showed me videos of four year old me speaking fluent Spanish, they were interesting to say the least. 
One of my first memories is of me sitting in my pre-school library reading a book. I went to private pre-school, which most likely explains why I picked up the English language more easily than my siblings did. Anyways, this pre-school had their own separate room as a 'library.' It was in the front, and as I remember it, there was a big rocking chair in one corner, shelves below the windows with books, and carpet floor. My memory is kind of skewed as I'm pretty sure the walls were not a pinkish-purple, but I'm sitting down on the carpet facing away from the window, reading a book, when my friend comes in and asks me to play.
I said, 'NO! I'm reading!'
So begins my advantage in the English language in the public school system, where the days when we went to the library were my favorite days. I can't remember my elementary schools librarian but I remember the room. There was a carpet in the middle of the room with this huge comfortable armchair in the middle. There was an easel with puppets sticking out, (surely for the pre-school-ers) and along its side where two huge shelves filled with baskets of books, pretty much overflowing. There were tables all around the room, at the librarians desk there was a computer, and all along the walls were floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books, books, nothing but books.
For me, it was the biggest place on Earth. I loved books, I loved reading, and the other kids couldn't really understand why instead of going outside to play, I wanted to read a book...you see, books are magical; they really are TV for your head. You can sit down in a comfy area and get lost reading so many different books. Discovering their worlds, what makes some characters tick, reacting to a scene you love, reacting to a scene you don't love, quoting your favorite lines from the books you've read to other people, and eventually you find yourself looking for certain genres, trying to figure out when your favorite author will release their next book. It gets intense."
"I didn't have the luxury of going to Barnes & Noble, as some of classmates did. I had the next big thing, a library card. I received my library card via a school trip, where they showed us how they used to check out books with the little card in the back, how the library was organized, the different books they had. I loved the chairs that library had. I probably should've mentioned that I live in Brooklyn, so these public FREE libraries I visit(ed) are all Brooklyn Public Library branches. I found out that there was a library near where I live, about a two-five minute walk, fifteen-minute walk if I'm feeling lazy and take the long way. But what really got my mom to take me was the fact that it was FREE!!!"
"So there was this time in my life, where I needed a place to go because I didn't like to go home, that was the library. Now let me tell you something; being a teenager sucks. The transition between a 'child' to a 'teenager' sucks. Not being able to find matching socks in the morning sucks. Every little thing will set you off; you're a little ball of pressurized energy that will explode when air touches it. It's not that I had problems at home or in school, it's that those places didn’t feel like home. They still don't feel like home. Hell, even church doesn't feel like home, but that’s another story. Library is home to me, it treated me like I was its child, and I know that sounds like a really weird analogy but hear me out. There were nice people who didn't judge me for receiving a 70% in seventh grade honors math. There were programs such as Teen Time, arts'n'crafts, games, and RIF that occupied my time. It was a quiet space (most of the time) where I could do projects, attempt to study, print out my homework assignments because my computer at home was broken. It was warm when it was too cold outside for a walk, it was refreshingly cool when it was icky and humid outside. And of course, an endless amount of books to read when I wanted to get lost in fantasy and not face the reality of my life.
I spent so much of my time at the library that I eventually started volunteering at my branch. I was a Book Buddy! It was fun, I met cool people who would become my friends, and I learned how the library worked and functioned...I assisted in Teen Time singing for Rock Band, which was awesome; I helped supervise games, which was cool until clean-up time.

Then there was Arts'n'Crafts and RIF. I get very emotional about these two topics. RIF was a program the library held where a kid could get a free book to keep so long as they come every week, they would get the book every third Friday. I ran RIF along with a couple of other volunteers, and let me tell you something, little kids would get so excited when it was their week to get a free book. They would actually ask us (the RIF volunteers) for input on the book they were going to choose. It was a program that encouraged young children to read books in a time period that is increasingly putting emphasis on technology. So imagine my surprise and shock when I heard that RIF would no longer be funded and would end within the next two months. I cried. This was a program that I participated in when I was young and volunteered for the past four years- on the last day of RIF I felt weird, empty. My home was falling apart.
Arts'n'Crafts is the program that really made the library feel like home. Currently I volunteer on Fridays, running the program that I loved to participate in when I was younger. After all, who doesn't want to feel like they're five using felt shapes, and paint, and markers, and glitter, although most of the kids who do arts'n'crafts are eight. I like arts'n'crafts for a multitude of reasons. One, I like glitter, two, it's such an enjoyable experience working with little kids, they're funny and look forward to it every week, three, in addition to being a program I participated in when I was younger, it was the first program I participated in at my library branch. I'm thankful that my branch has the resources and the space to be able to produce this program, and I know when I go away for college I'm going to miss this program so much, just as much as I miss RIF.
But what's scary is that one day Arts'n'Crafts might end, just like RIF did, because someone said, 'Hey, let's not fund a program that promotes reading, or provides a safe environment for kids after school.' If I didn't have the safe haven that was, no IS, the library, I am being so honest with this next statement, I most likely would not be typing this essay, I would be one of those delinquents that inhabit my school. That time period, where I was lost, I did some pretty stupid things, like really stupid. It was at the library where I had an adult I could trust to help me out and it was the library where I could sit in a corner and read Curious George and nobody judged me. It was the library where when I didn't feel like going home, I could have a safe place to waste away two-four hours. Now, it's place where I can help provide a safe place for other younger who participate in a variety of programs, where kids come to use computers because maybe they don't have one. Where they can print assignments, because their home printers are being jerks, where there are trained librarians to help you look for a book that has the time setting of the 1990's tension of the Persian Gulf War (history nerd over here).
I want the library to be the safe haven it was for me, to be a safe haven for other lost teenage girls or boys, even younger kids.
But the library can't be that if their funding keeps being cut, if they don't have the resources to keep having programs, if they're short-staffed because they need to lay off workers.  Being a volunteer, I see these issues and it hurts. At one point I wanted to be a librarian, it seemed like such an awesome job to have. I know a couple of librarians, Ally, Chris...I also know Dawn who runs a program for babies and toddlers, that encourages reading. And I know the amazing Rita, who advocates for the library, in addition to being another awesome librarian.
And I'll be damned if I can't take my friends children to the library one day and show them where they keep the Curious George books.
I've never been outside of Brooklyn, but I've traveled to so many different neighborhoods, worlds, and universes.
Thank you, Brooklyn Public Library for being my safe haven."

Thank you, C.R. This was the best present you could have given me. And, in many ways, libraries saved my life as well. All the more reason to keep advocating. Now if you'll excuse me, I have something in my eye...


  1. So many tears at "I've never been outside of Brooklyn, but I've traveled to so many different neighborhoods, worlds, and universes."
    Awesome letter, get it out there!!!!

  2. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing. *tear*

  3. Tears, tears, tears! What a beautiful homage to the wonders of libraries and reading, and the power they have in all of our lives. Thank you for sharing this, Rita. And I encourage C.R. to pursue this passion- she sounds like she will be a great librarian!

  4. I think that something in your eye flew into mine as well... *coughs*... Er, hayfever, that must be it...

    I love the fact that this wonderful girl not only attributes all this to reading, but to LIBRARIES. She's a superb writer, and this piece is just beautiful - so heartfelt and honest. Give her a hug from me next time you see her!

  5. This was absolutely lovely, and everything beautiful. How can you not have a tear after reading this. Thank you so much for sharing this! *tear*

  6. Wow, what a testament to the importance of libraries and what a lovely and eloquent young lady. And no, no, I don't have anything in my eye, you're imagining it. Thanks for sharing this, Rita!

  7. Thank you all for reading and appreciating! (I know C.R. will appreciate the nice comments too.)

  8. What a moving piece. I work for a non-profit group that holds an annual book fair that funds grants to public schools and libraries. Your blog piece helped us to remember why we work so hard to support our libraries in KY. Thanks for reminding us of what is really important.

  9. RIF needs to come back. The sooner the better!

  10. Tears, tears, and more tears. Thank you for sharing this. C.R. feels just the same about her library as I did mine and I truly hope we can all save them!

  11. My high school had a wonderful library (in the early 70s) where I used to hide/study every day after school for 2 hours and almost every lunch time too. My folks knew I was at the library, whether studying or reading all the novels (Ah Chalet Stories) Now my daughter's school library closes half an hour after school and opens half an hour before school. She says she doesn't have anywhere to go, but she goes to Breakfast club (where you get a free meal - low socio economic area ) and she helps ou there too. I agree with CR, it was the library that helped me get through teenagehood, and eventually, to no-one's surprise but mine - I became a librarian.

  12. Oh my gosh, I just cried reading this. I work in the children's department as an associate in a library and I'm working on my masters in the fall and reasons like this are exactly why I want to be a children's librarian. Thank you so much for taking the time to write about this letter, it's very touching.

  13. Once as a teenager, after school I was wandering downtown working my way up to the library before getting a bus home. I realized I was being followed by a man in his car.

    I arrived at the library and happily browsed its racks at the back when the man showed up. Not knowing what to do I slipped the librarian a note.

    He left.

    The library was a "safe haven".