Monday, February 6, 2012

Libraries Happen

Michael Scotto's Just Flash is a children's book about a strange animal trying to figure out its identity.
Flash is the only animal of his kind, but he wishes he could just belong to a pack like everyone else at the zoo. He first tries to become another animal, in order to fit in. He tries to be a giraffe; he tries to be a gazelle; he even tries to be a zebra. Along the way, though, Flash realizes that it's more rewarding to be himself – no more, no less.
Libraries and librarians crossing over from print to digital must feel a lot like Flash. Even newly born entities like the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) are finding themselves in an awkward period of not knowing what they should be.

I was a guest at a recent DPLA "Audience and Participation Work Stream" meeting that brought together participants with a variety of perspectives and experience, but joined by a deep concern for the future of libraries. We met at the Dallas Public Library, just after the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting at the nearby Convention Center. Our charge was to help articulate "why we need a public library when it's all on the web" and suggest how to attract involvement from all types of libraries.

The DPLA has the incredibly difficult task ahead. It must weave together many distinctive strands of activity emerging from a strong but inchoate desire for the missions of libraries to continue in new more powerful ways.  It's encouraging to me that the DPLA leadership is spending a lot of time learning about the needs and desires of diverse communities. But I think that sometimes our understanding of what libraries are today holds us back from seeing what the library movement could be tomorrow. Separating the essential from the institutional manifestation is not always easy to do.

During my time in Dallas, I had the fortune to witness a "library" happening in its purest, most human form.

YALSA is one of the American Library Association's many incomprehensible abbreviations. YALSA stands for the Young Adult Library Services Association. I don't really know much about what YALSA does, but on the Sunday exhibit floor of the ALA meeting, I saw more than one group of teenagers roaming the exhibits wearing YALSA T-shirts. On the way back to my Dallas hotel, I shared a subway train car with one of these groups. I started chatting with two of the teens. It seems that the librarian at their suburban Dallas high school had organized their expedition. The teens had made off with huge bags full of books courtesy of the exhibit vendors.

Sitting on the other side of the train car was a Hispanic family- a young mother, her daughter of perhaps 6 years, and an older man who was probably the girl's grandfather. The little girl was reading what appeared to be a fast food restaurant placemat, but it didn't seem to interest her much. The YALSA teen next to me noticed. She asked the mother, "Are you going a long way on the train? I have some books here she might like." And out of the bag appeared a copy of Just Flash. The girl's eyes lit up. For the next 20 minutes I watched the girl enchanted by an illustrated story that had appeared as if by miracle, chosen specifically for her. As I got off the train, a second book was emerging from the teen's bag.

I don't know what sort of animal libraries will evolve into. Maybe librarians will ride trains with mega-book digital libraries on memory sticks for kids who need them. Maybe restaurant placemats be ultra-cheap reading devices. Whatever stripes it wears or what name it answers to, the simple act of letting a book bring joy and wonderment to a little girl will define what a library must be, no more, no less.
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  1. At the Library BoingBoing meeting someone (whose name I didn't get) said that, on a long Amtrak ride with some other librarians, they'd embedded themselves on the train -- free librarian help! Bring some resources, take advantage of the wifi. The idea charmed me. Apparently it works on subways, too. (Come to think of it, it would probably work extremely well on my local subways.)

    Nice use of a widget you got there, too.

  2. Great story.
    Really great story. I posted my reaction on my blog, here.