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The Bridge Between Where We Are and Where We Could Be: The Urban Librarian’s Conference

by on May 7, 2014

On April 11, I had the opportunity to participate in the second annual Urban Librarians’ Conference, Next Stop Libraries, in Brooklyn, New York. This trip was thanks to a generous donation from an anonymous donor supported by the organizing body, Urban Librarians Unite. While my experience is not in urban librarianship, I attended for three reasons: I believe there are many issues that librarianship faces regardless of the community served, and it is interesting to see different perspectives on how libraries best face these challenges. I could see a future in an urban library, but I have not had an opportunity to come to appreciate the unique challenges that come in this arena. Finally, I have been impressed by presentations by ULU in the past and had heard great things about last year’s conference.

The organizers seem to have agreed with my initial reason for attending. The keynote speaker, Matt Delaney, was currently a director in a suburban library, Manlius Library in New York , and had previously served as director of a rural library, Tully Free Library, also in New York. One of his central claims that should resonate with libraries of all sizes is that libraries are the bridge between where we are and where we could be. He also claimed that one of our greatest tools, whether advocating for funding or working through bureaucratic systems, was remaining true to our mission. He powerfully made the claim that alienating any of our community leads to our irrelevancy. It may not be possible to provide all the needs and wants of each segment of our community, but by actively trying to build these foundations we bolster support and can achieve incredible things. Finally, he expanded the goal of public access to include access to opportunities.

His keynote was not exclusively in the realm of philosophy. He had a number of anecdotes from his time at Tully Free Library, where he brought many of his views into reality. He helped create a library at the beach during the summer. The library facilitated a local teacher’s effort to continue a STEAM program that the school system was no longer able to fund. They did not control the effort, but rather provided space and an anchor institute to her for a grant she had already written. The ability of libraries to connect needs and aspirations to the appropriate resources is of incredible importance even if (and perhaps even more so moving forward) those resources are not directly owned by the library. He warned that we need to stop being library property evangelists.

After the keynote there were three separate rooms that ran sessions for the day’s remaining time slots. The complete schedule is available on the conference’s website.

In the space I have remaining I wanted to highlight one other presentation that I had the chance to attend, Empowering and Engaging Teens. Syntychia Kendrick-Samuel of Uniondale Public Library spoke about the programming they had done. She argued that the library should be seen as a safe space not merely to be, but also to experiment.

A number of classes were brought to the library through a grant Ms. Kendrick-Samuel wrote, and young adults were encouraged to apply for these classes. She notes the important paradigm shift between a sign-up sheet and the commitment of an application. The application required either receiving a letter of recommendation from an adult or a written essay on why participation in the class would benefit the student. Also, unexcused absences were grounds for being removed from the class. These efforts create a level of value for the program. They not only enhance its standing, but also the student’s own self-conception if they complete the class. There were also prizes given out for completion of the class such as Best Buy gift cards (one of the sponsors for the program). Having recently read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, I had mixed feelings about this aspect, though overall the program’s success cannot be questioned.

Another advantage of the classes is that they connected teens with professionals in the area. This gets back to Mr. Delaney’s point that the library should absolutely elicit the aid of willing community members instead of focusing all services on what the library staff can provide. Uniondale Library was able to motivate students who might not have found success in the school system because the classes were taught in different fashions and had different forms of assessment. The classes created mutual respect between the participants as well, particularly during the panels on leadership and communication. Finally, it let teens find their voices and use them to engage the community in meaningful ways.

One of the unexpected benefits of being a scholarship recipient was a chance to go to lunch with Lauren Comito, Director of Operations for ULU, and John Chrastka, Executive Director of EveryLibrary. It was great to share ideas with some of the movers in the library field while they took a moment away from the madness of keeping everything running. I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to attend. Please feel free to get in touch with me if there is anything else about the conference you would like to know. I hope there will be many future Urban Librarians’ Conferences, and that my schedule and living situation allow me to continue engaging with this great group of professionals.

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