A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Now (and Always) It’s Personal

by Vailey Oehlke on January 6, 2016

We all know the ways in which a public library contributes to personal learning, growth, and fulfillment. As they have for many of us, libraries played an important role in my childhood. My family moved nearly every year of my life until I got to high school. The library was the place I could go where it didn’t matter that I was the new kid in class, where my clothes weren’t judged and, most importantly, where it was perfectly OK to spend time alone with my nose stuck in a book.

However, it is as an adult that libraries have had the most profound impact on me, personally and professionally.

As a library assistant in the telephone reference department of the Beaverton City (OR) Library early in my career, I spent my days helping people over the phone. I learned that the anonymity of a phone conversation and the trust people have in the library meant that people were willing to call in about almost anything. I once took a call from a man who feared he’d just been bitten by a brown recluse spider but wanted to confirm its identification before seeking medical help. I suggested he should simply go to the ER. We had a patron who phoned every day asking us to read off all the movies being aired on TV that day. We suspected she had visual impairment, but we also believed that this was as much an opportunity for human connection in a lonely life.

I began my career at Multnomah County (OR) Library (MCL) on October 27, 1997, as a youth librarian in the School Corps program. I was thrilled to land my first professional level position in a library so well regarded and supported by its community. I loved the opportunity to combine my passions for education (I went to college to be an English teacher) and public libraries. For the next six years, I worked directly in schools, supporting educators by creating booklists and delivering presentations to entice reluctant readers and showcase the resources of the public library. And schlepping untold thousands of books, along with a ginormous projector (remember those?), a portable screen, and a laptop.

Through a series of assignments at Portland’s historic Central Library, I learned so much about library service and also about myself. New responsibilities and skill sets enriched and challenged me in ways that I will always appreciate. Later, I pursued an opportunity to become deputy director for MCL. The next year, I had the great honor of becoming MCL’s director of libraries. Since then, our library system has navigated many of the same challenges facing public libraries everywhere: insufficient funding, busy but outmoded facilities, and a tectonic shift in demand for virtual resources.

In my eighteen years at this library, I’ve been afforded a rich set of professional challenges and opportunities. While each of these stages of my path has offered something new, they have also taken me away from direct and personal interactions with the people the library serves. The personal rewards I once derived from helping a patron get exactly what she needs now come in more limited quantities. When I do get the opportunity to experience these interactions, they resonate more profoundly and always serve to remind me why we do this work.

One of those happened last spring when I had the pleasure of congratulating “graduates” of a program called Listos para el kinder. A culturally responsive early literacy program provided in Spanish, Listos para el kinder enhances kindergarten readiness for Spanish-speaking children ages four to five who have not had the opportunity to benefit from early childhood community programs. The twelve-week program is offered at several of
our libraries each year. A beaming young participant insisted on reading aloud to me his favorite picture book and at the end of the ceremony gave me a huge hug that I will never forget. The pride and accomplishment he exuded in that moment touched my heart.

Later in the summer, I volunteered to serve food at one of our free lunch programs. I asked an endless line of kids whether they wanted an apple or orange and chocolate or white milk (guess which ran out first?). A young mother brought in her very shy little boy and escorted him through the line while he struggled with his choices. When he got to my station, it took a bit of cajoling and a lot of smiles to get him comfortable making a decision.
He and his mother sat at a table within my sight and I watched as he wolfed down his lunch under his mother’s watchful eye. Afterward, the mother quietly approached me and thanked me for providing this meal. She said neither she nor her son had eaten since the day before.

These moments amount to some of the most poignant and impactful ones in my career: the citizenship ceremony where people representing eighteen
different countries, surrounded by family and friends in our Central Library, beamed when they received their certificates and eagerly and proudly filled out their voter registration cards for the first time; standing with a group of students at an alternative high school who asked Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor their thoughtful questions about her memoir and life; and being present with teens who nervously screened videos to a room full of people in our North Portland branch using new skills while demonstrating the influence of elders in their lives.

These too-infrequent but deeply affecting experiences are just drops in the proverbial bucket that is the impact our libraries have on those in our communities day in and day out. How wonderfully fortunate we are to do work that not only helps those we serve but rewards and enriches our own existences. Wherever your library may be and whatever services it offers, you are enabling these kinds of moments that have profound impacts on people’s lives. I can’t imagine a better way to earn my keep.