The recently released film, “The Public,” dramatizes an imagined standoff between altruistic staff and patrons of the Cincinnati Public Library on one side and self-interested government officials on the other. The film brings some positive attention to libraries at a time when some might wonder why we need them at all in the age of the internet.
You won’t find Emilio Estevez or Alec Baldwin, two stars of that recent film, stamping due dates at the Cecil County Public Library system. However, you will find a few stories worth sharing. For me, working at the library has been an eye-opener about the way that libraries provide front-line public service to a population that is often vulnerable or unempowered — the unemployed or impoverished, the not-so-tech savvy, the very young or very old, and the homeless.
Landing a job at the library was serendipitous for me as a local author because I had already spent many hours researching there. Even so, there was a learning curve in stamping those due dates, finding the location of the nearest AA meeting, looking up the title of the third book in Laurell K. Hamilton’s new series, or cutting out paper fish for a children’s program — all at the same time. For a librarian, even a part-time one, juggling lots of tasks comes with the territory.
On my first night working the reference desk, a young homeless woman wandered in, dressed completely in hot pink from her puffy ski jacket to her mittens and moon boots. Cold air washed in behind her as the automatic doors whisked open and closed. It was a real January bonecracker, down in the single digits.
Obviously, this young person was in distress. There were some language barriers as well, but the librarians worked out that she needed a warm place to stay. I called around to the local homeless shelters but was told they were full on that frigid night.
I soon found that librarians seldom take “no” for an answer. My colleagues jumped in and called churches, the police station, halfway houses. The responses were: Sorry, can’t help, full. As we neared closing time, our pink lady opted to push on to the next town. The staff offered to chip in and put her up in a motel, but when she declined, they used their own money to arrange a taxi so that she wouldn’t have to walk those wintry miles. It wasn’t the best ending, but she had found a place to warm up and someone to advocate for her before she moved on.
I’ve learned that the library attracts people from all walks of life. Coming through the doors are patrons who drive new cars and some who can’t afford a car, students researching projects, seniors who spend their days reading newspapers, teens who furtively check out steam punk vampire novels — and each other. Even in the age of Google, patrons pepper the reference desk with every question imaginable.
Librarians spend a lot of time helping middle-aged job seekers, often because these patrons lack computer skills. They’ve been set adrift by layoffs in a new world where looking for a job means clicking through online applications like some kind of lab rat. The Great Recession never really ended for them. When I stopped seeing “a regular,” I could only hope it meant that he or she had found a job.
Another quirk of library life is that several branches provide an unsung public service for the middle school age group. When school lets out, some libraries morph into something more like the set of a Nickelodeon sitcom. These kids are too old for day care, too young to be home alone, and so the library provides a kind of informal afterschool care. Sometimes the library closes, the parents are late, and the kids have to wait outside. One of the librarians usually sits in her car out in the parking lot until the last kid gets picked up.
Ultimately, I’ve discovered from my time working the reference desk that a library is mostly about people trying to move forward one book, one reference question, one online job application at a time. It is an institution that has evolved to reflect the digital age in which we live without ever forgetting its role in serving the public.