To All the Future Librarians
by Stephanie Brown
In the fall of 1978 I was seventeen and a senior in high school. I had to get a job as part of the agreement to enroll in “Newport Plan,” an “alternative school” within Newport Harbor High School. Students followed an individualized study program in order to quickly earn credits and only had to attend school a couple of mornings a week (nowadays I guess one would take online courses). One also had to have a job and bring evidence of working at said job. I had to make up a lot of credits because in my junior year I’d put school aside, had failed some classes and dropped too many. God bless my parents, you know?
I thought to myself, where do I want to work? The answer came to me: the library! One of my favorite places, which meant Balboa Library, where I had ridden my bike to a million times as a kid, had participated in the summer reading program (our sailboats moved across a paper sea all summer as we read more) and had gone with my dad on Wednesday evenings to find books. I announced this to my mother and my boyfriend, who very sensibly told me that it wasn’t a sure thing and not to get my hopes up. But I had a good feeling, almost a premonition, that this was for me.
I drove to the Balboa Library and asked the woman at the reference desk if they had any jobs. She looked at me like we were long-lost friends. Not only did they have a job for a library page (one who shelves books and tidies the library), but she hired me on the spot, processed all the paperwork, and I was soon at work, which I loved --- I loved seeing all the people come and go, the sunlight through the windows while people read the newspaper at long wooden tables, standing by the shelves and seeing so many different subjects available (who knew libraries had a bunch of cool cookbooks?), and I loved working with the extremely nice staff who treated me so well. The children’s librarian who had recommended a gazillion biographies and fiction books to me during elementary school (she always got it right --- I loved everything she suggested) was now my co-worker. She didn't remember me, which was also kind of cool.
What I soon learned was that one could work as a librarian as a career: this had never occurred to me or to anyone I knew. One of the frustrations I had at seventeen was the expectation in my family that one could become a doctor or a lawyer and not much else, and I had neither the innate talent for nor the interest in these paths. The woman who had hired me (I learned she was the branch manager) told me that you needed a Master of Library Science (MLS) degree, and I filed away this information for future thoughts.
I have to admit that I wasn’t the greatest employee at Balboa Library (I missed a lot of shifts), but I graduated and went to Orange Coast College because I didn’t even apply to any four-year schools. I then worked as a library page at the Mariners branch, again with a kind boss who told me not to drop out of school and just work, which was my wont, and he told me about an opening to work as a substitute clerk. I was a much better employee this time around and worked as a substitute clerk at all four of the Newport Beach Public Library branches during my three years at OCC (I had a lot of requirements to make up!). It was so fun to check out people’s books --- I loved the satisfying thunk-thunk of the checkout machine --- it felt like the fun I’d had playing school or office as a kid. It was fun to talk to people, and it was nice that they wanted to be there --- it was not about buying or selling or being in trouble. It was a place to spend time, where one could get lost in a lovely flow while reading or studying, or pass through, or sit for a while. It was a place of freedom, a place to think, see, be, what we now call a “third place.”
Fast forward to July 2017: on a train trip up to Seattle, we pass place after place near train stations, rivers and alleyways with clusters of tents grouped together in little communities. I see this and wonder about it. Soon they are everywhere, around all of us, in cities across the country, in the OC, in parks, on sidewalks, in library breezeways and entrances.
Fast forward further to March 2023: I am retiring in two days from ten years in upper management at OC Public Libraries, where I’ve worked in some capacity for 34 years. I am a regional manager of thirteen out of thirty-three branches, managing thirteen talented and devoted branch managers (like the one who hired me when I was 17), and I’ve worked as a librarian, substitute librarian and branch manager before this. (I did get my MLS, in 1987, at Berkeley, after an MFA at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop where I figured out that I would need a day job to be a writer, so I remembered that idea I had in high school, got my MLS and moved back home to Orange County). It’s nearly 7:00 pm, the branches are closing, and I’m talking a branch manager off the ledge. There is someone locked in the restroom who will not respond, and the staff is trying to close the branch. Eventually paramedics come for the person and remove him on a stretcher. I remind her of reports that need to be filed and do my best to let her know she’s handled it fine, and we get off the phone when the paramedics and police leave. She closes for the night. A previous night at closing, in the same branch, she and I had discussed what to do with the needle found on the towel dispenser in the same restroom, which then led to administrative staff writing a sharps policy for this situation.
We have drug overdoses in branches, we have people losing it, all the time, every day, in public libraries. It’s not new, it’s just more, more intense, more hopeless. Discussions of library staff being trained to use Narcan. Libraries serve everyone, but they can’t save everyone. On Reddit, the librarians talk about PTSD they have from serving the public. After I retire, I meet up with one of my former staff: her countenance is not good. I wonder, does she have PTSD?
I’m idealistic, and I believe in the public library’s mission. I always found it moving when we interviewed job candidates who spoke about how much the library had mattered to them growing up: as a place to go with family, for their family who didn’t have much else for entertainment, as a place to study, as a democratic ideal, as a place for their immigrant families, as a place where they took their own kids for books and programs.
One of my tasks is to answer email that comes to our administration. In my last few weeks before retirement I notice an uptick of complaints, very emotional complaints, about books in the system (all LBGTQ topics) or asking if we have drag queen storytime. I write back to say that we do not have any drag queen storytimes, and whereas usually the person will not answer back or will send back a short reply, this time I’m sent back five long paragraphs of the person’s opinions about men, women and gender. This feels different, these complaints feel different, this is a different tone and attitude than I’ve seen before. I’ve fielded lots of complaints from patrons over the years and most of the time they can be resolved in a harmonious way. There was always a feeling of mutual respect, but something’s changed. It feels like libraries are the enemy to someone, it feels like a coordinated attack, like people passing along ideas on social media to each other, and it feels more than slightly hysterical and overblown. My branch managers report that they are asked these same questions in person in the branch.
If you follow the news, you know there is a concentrated effort going on, around the country, to stop libraries from carrying certain titles and to target librarians for providing them in public and school libraries. I read these stories, but I do not want to follow the breadcrumbs to find out what they are saying to each other. It’s one of the reasons I retired a few years earlier than I planned. I can’t believe that libraries, a place that to me was apolitical and neutral, open to all and helpful to anyone who wanted help from us, or who wanted a place to sit and be left alone, could become part of tacky, overblown, nonsensical political attacks.
When I used to go to the library with my dad, I remember finally being at an age where I didn’t want to read kids’ books anymore, but I wasn’t sure what to read in adult books. On one visit, a shelf appeared near the children’s area called “Young Adult.” There were about ten titles, which I quickly read through–titles like My Darling, My Hamburgerand Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! I didn’t really like these books much, but there wasn’t much else. Today there are a million Young Adult or Teen titles and an explosion of graphic novels for teens. One of the books that brought emails to library administration and phone calls to branches was an LGBTQ graphic novel for teens.
When I mentioned to my dad that I couldn’t find books I liked, he recommended that I read Seventeen (by Maureen Daly), a novel my sister (14 years older than I) had liked when a young teen. I read it. What I remember was how old-fashioned it was, the girls always stopping to put on lipstick after the picnic and so on. It was written in 1942 and this was 1972. (When I was seventeen, no one wore lipstick, or any makeup, for that matter.) My dad meant well, but the book was hopelessly dated.
Here’s the thing: books go in and out of style. Not everything is read forever. There are many forgotten books. What is meaningful to one generation is not to the next: young girls aren’t likely to read the Cherry Ames books about becoming a student nurse and Twilight is old news now too. There were no books talking openly about LGBTQ themes in the very recent past, let alone when I was growing up. It’s new, this is new. This is what, for good or ill, people are talking about now, and the pushback is also a part of having this public dialog. After all, there were LGBTQ people when there were no books available about them. The books may be banned, but lives go on. Even if you don’t talk about or read about something, it still may exist.
I used to say to my staff that we serve public libraries and as staff we are just passing through. They will go on without us in some form. Libraries evolve and change. If you don’t know about all they provide to the community, including raising property values, you can look it up. Libraries have existed in some form since ancient times, and they will continue. They may not look the same or provide the same services, but they will exist in some form, maybe a better one.
Recently I struck up a conversation with a young woman while we waited to take part in a mock jury at an OC law firm. I was one of several retirees, and she was one of several restaurant workers with extra time. She was talking about how much she loved using OCPL’s eBook collection, and we struck up a conversation, and it turned out that she had always considered getting her MLS to become a librarian. I encouraged her to and encouraged her to look for jobs as a library assistant in the meantime. We talked about aspects of the job. I told her, "If I were still interviewing, I’d hire you right now.” You can sometimes tell when someone is a perfect fit for the job: like the branch manager who saw that in me at seventeen, I think she was too. Good luck to her and all the future librarians.
Stephanie Brown is the author of two books of poetry, Allegory of the Supermarket (University of Georgia Press) and Domestic Interior (University of Pittsburgh Press). She was awarded Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Breadloaf. Her work has been published in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Slope, Pool, ZYZZYVA, Green Mountains Review and other journals and selected for six editions of The Best American Poetry, including the 25th anniversary edition. Her poetry and essays have been included in many anthologies including Orange County: A Literary Field Guide. From 2004-2010 she curated the Casa Romantica Reading Series in San Clemente, California, and was the poetry editor for Zócalo Public Square from 2010-2016. She taught creative writing at UC Irvine and the University of Redlands but has made her living in librarianship and recently retired from her position as an Administrative Manager II for OC Public Libraries.