And like that we were her
When I chose to go to library school, it wasn’t because I love books. This surprised a lot of people when I told them I was doing it; the usual expectation was that I’d be outraged by stories of discard piles or by the proliferation of e-books, that I’d covet my collection of paperbacks forever. But while I enjoy reading, and a great many books have meant a great deal to me, I don’t love them, and contrary to the popular image of librarians, libraries are not primarily about books.
I chose to become a librarian because I love people. Books are static in a constantly-changing world. Like most monuments, they tell us not what their creators intended, but only what we can understand in our own contemporary cultural context. People, on the other hand, are dynamic, complicated, and infinitely adaptable, however set in their moment-to-moment opinions they might seem. People grow, and change, and if sometimes they’re not quite what we want them to be, they’ve always got potential. There’s always another day for people. Their stories won’t be the same thing tomorrow that they were yesterday.
In library school, I learned about managing people in a library setting, and because my focus is in public libraries (rather than academic or special collections), I learned and was expected to always continue learning about serving people. Librarianship is, in a very significant way, a customer service role, and learning to serve the public is about learning to work with them. The library is one of the few remaining places people can spend time without spending any money, and in a way, for the people who frequent them, they are a little bit holy. People love and revere and undervalue them all at once.
When Carol Tilley taught me about comics, the focus of the course wasn’t about sequential art or visual storytelling, it was about the things comics mean to people. They are an entry point for reluctant readers, a mirror to and critique of culture, and a genre with a complicated and significant history. When I learned about romance novels, it wasn’t primarily about the genre (although I did a fair bit of digging into that on my own), but about the people who read them, the reasons they read them, and their place in the changing norms of women, families, sex, and relationships. I learned how to suggest books for kids dealing with incarcerated parents, kids in the foster system, and the other everyday traumas we try to pretend kids don’t have to contend with. I learned how to offer services to unhoused people, and how to set boundaries for myself and my work (I’m not a social worker or a therapist, and while a lot of librarians are tacitly encouraged to step into those roles, we really, really shouldn’t, for our own sake and the sake of the people who need real help).
We learned to understand people so we could serve people, and so we could better understand what serving them meant. It’s far from impossible to leave library school without really absorbing that; librarianship is still overwhelmingly white and middle class and has plenty of the baggage that comes along with those things. But if you’re doing it right, you make a point to overcome those problems, and to approach people with as much compassion as you can possibly muster.
So when life went a little sideways and working in libraries sort of went out the window, it was that love for people that came with me into my other work. I didn’t become a doula for the babies, but for their mothers, which is why it’s absolutely possible and I’d argue vital for a doula to be pro-choice. The work was about helping them make the choices that were best for them and their families. It was about approaching them and their particular circumstances with all the compassion I could possibly muster.
Approaching the world with compassion is exhausting. Doing it consistently means protecting myself, and acknowledging that it won’t always work out the way I want. Most people respond well, but sometimes people take advantage or are outright crappy. Usually, there’s a reason, but not always. When you choose this, you have to accept that as part of the package. If you expect to be rewarded, you’ll burn out really quickly. The rewards are a bonus. The baseline compensation is knowing that you’re putting some compassion into a world that can be very, very hard. But it’s worth it. It’s always worth it.
I also love pigeons. This is only a little bit related to the above, but something I thought you should know about me all the same.
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