PAM SMITH is Director of Anythink Libraries in Thornton (CO). Contact Pam at psmith@anythink libraries.org.
Pam is currently reading Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play by Mitchel Resnick.
During a recent Lyft ride to the airport, I was greeted by a driver who turned to me with a huge smile asking about my travel plans. It was quite early for an intense discussion, but with my mind full of thoughts on my upcoming work, and the current state of the world, I carefully asked her a question: “With all the divisiveness in our country, do you think that libraries have the power to affect positive change and bring people together?”
The driver was surprised by the question and took a moment before she answered. “Can I be honest?”
“Libraries first of all have to be relevant,” she so knowingly said. How many times have we all said this? It was a surprise to hear this from someone outside the profession. I listened carefully as she continued.
“Libraries have to be safe. My family walks into the library, and they don’t feel welcome or safe. It feels hollow. We are afraid to go to the library because we don’t feel comfortable. We don’t know how to use the system, and we don’t really want to ask for help. There is nothing to do but check out books. You need to become more modern. You need to have programs, things for kids to do,” she said.
“Libraries need to be more welcoming and less intimidating,” she continued. “They could have food and coffee so it is more comfortable. Libraries can be stale.” This was a wakeup call. I’m the first to admit that sometimes I live in a bubble of library support. So many people who use the library tell us that they love us.
Yet here was the first-hand perspective of someone outside of that bubble. And, unfortunately, you see it when you go into some libraries. Spaces that are unwelcoming. Entryways filled with unfriendly, negative signs. Furniture that may be old and unkempt. Staff that might be dismissive.
This woman inspired me. I pulled out my business card and gave it to her.
“I have an assignment for you,” I said. “Are you willing to visit one of my libraries in the next few months? Sometime when you are in the neighborhood, stop in and visit one of my branches. Then email me and tell me what works for you and what we should be working on. I know it’s a big ask. Would you be willing to do this sometime before the end of the year?”
She was surprised, but nodded her head in excitement. “Yes, I can do this, and I am going to bring my kids. They will definitely have opinions about their experience. I am going to make this happen.”
I haven’t heard from her yet, but I’ve already learned so much from this brief interaction. Our work is never done. We must constantly strive to ensure our libraries are those safe, welcoming spaces for everyone. And to break out of that bubble, we need to ask questions—from strangers, from our community, and from our staff. We need to look at our libraries, our policies, and our spaces through the eyes of our community and especially through the eyes of people who don’t use libraries.
We must talk with each other, and ask for opinions from people we might not normally encounter or engage. Most importantly, we must listen.