tea and purpose

I've been at a bit of a loss for words lately. Many things have happened here, and each time I've had a reason, whether personal or professional, for choosing silence over writing, and I've just left it at that. I'm well aware that I'm out of the habit of writing now, but I'm also aware that I have to be very careful of what I say, because my name is now well enough known in the library world that my co-workers can easily google my name and turn up this site.

There is a person out there who reads this site who knows that he has gotten exactly what he wished for, and I am well aware that he is glorying in the rightness of his prediction. He posed a question to me, months ago, months and months before the prospect of a library job fell into my lap:

"What would you be like if you had something to believe in? Something in your life that was worth fighting for? I have to believe that you would take that protectiveness you lavish on those you love and turn it toward that thing, and that Amy With A Cause would be a fearsome sight, indeed."

I thought it was funny at the time. Not any more. I won't claim that I woke up one day and realized I had purpose, that I sat up suddenly and it all clicked. It wasn't that way. It was a subtler, gradual thing, of days and degrees, of projects settling into place one at a time until the bigger picture became clear.

* * * * *

It's very simple to state what I do: I'm the webmaster for a library. The overarching why has a more ephemeral answer. Why work in a place of ink and paper in a world that seems ripe for takeover by pixel and byte? Because I think libraries are faced with a choice: change, or die a slow death of irrelevance. In a world where google provides two-second soundbite answers to any misspelled question, why return to a library?

One morning, while we were charting out ideas for where to take the website, I hit on what I believe are the three answers:

  • Knowledge.
    Search engines are mathematical beasts; they look at relevance and links, not truth. If we present ourselves as people able to navigate through the roiling sea of information that is the Web to find truth and useful answers, we will always have a place.
  • Materials.
    Not everything is online, and not everything that is online is free. Libraries have the ability and funds to purchase access to some materials that a single person cannot. The power of shared tax dollars can be used to provide greater benefit than what any individual could do alone.
  • Community.
    Amidst the isolation inherent in modern-day city living, libraries can choose to be a safe place for both children and adults. Imagine a place where you could go, not just to talk about books, or to read books, but to hear people talk about subjects you cared about. To meet with like-minded people about shared interests, needs, or goals, knowing that close by you had access to good materials and professionals who could help you find more.

There are two types of people working in libraries these days: book-librarians, and cybrarians. I am squarely in the latter category. I believe that neither are wrong, but that a continual book focus will eventually guarantee the obsolescence of libraries. The advent and popularity of the printing press revolutionized how information was disseminated; I can imagine people of centuries ago saying "But why should I look to ink and paper for information when I can just ask someone?" with the same tone of voice that people now ask "But why should I look to a book when I can find my answer online?"

I am focusing on community. My work naturally leads to it. Right now, the website is only one-way communication, but as we expand into two-way communication (blogs, online forums, mailing lists, discussion lists) we have an opportunity to produce not just announcements, but dialogue. There are other places in modern-day life that can provide community, but none of them have the cachet of expertise and knowledge that libraries have; if libraries leverage that combination, they will remain not just relevant but irreplaceable.

* * * * *

See? This is just a blog post. Imagine what I'm like sitting in front of you with a cup of tea. Intense. Frighteningly intense. It's hard to walk away when you know that coming in on Saturday guarantees that the summer reading sites will take signups in a manner that saves the youth librarians a good deal of effort and time. It's hard not to show up for events when you want to hear them for yourself, and you know that sitting at a PR table for thirty minutes might mean that someone finds out that there are other really good events coming up that she just hadn't heard about.

'Hard to walk away' barely sums it up. My workplace is filled with co-workers who simply can't stay away. We grouse about the public-service pay and the desk hours, but the truth remains that every year, the service awards are filled with notes about people who left and came back multiple times, because after the lure of the extra money wore off, the pull of the library brought them home.

While sitting at the PR table before an event a week or two ago, I realized while talking that the person sitting next to me was sitting speechless with that slightly slack jaw that indicated surprise.

"How do you do this?" she asked, pointing to the sign behind me I'd designed earlier in the day. It showed the four authors that we have slated for appearances in the next two months.

"Well, I did that in Adobe Illustrator," I said. "Usually I just ask the author's agent for press photos…"

"Not that. I mean, how do you sell this to people? You make it look so easy. They ask you about authors and you talk about them like you know them: genre, writing style, history."

"It's because I've either read them, or I've talked to people who have, and I've asked them why they like what they've read and why they'd recommend these books to their friends." It really is that easy. Imagine me, the person who has been pushing books on her friends since she was capable of reading, being paid to sit at a table and tell people about something she's been genuinely excited about since the age of three.

* * * * *

Imagine me with passion. Imagine me a little obsessed. Imagine putting someone like me—someone who is a little bit code monkey, a little bit graphic artist, a little bit writer and a little bit PR—in an institution that needs their print, web, and PR pieces to come together in lockstep for both patrons and donors.

Imagine me with tea and purpose, knowing without hesitation or question that at the age of thirty, I was handed the kind of opportunity that many people live their entire lives without ever experiencing.

I will not see this pass me by.

Fearsome, indeed.