An Open Letter to Councilor Leonovich

Here’s a letter I wrote to Councilor Leonovich about the library on January 21st. I’ve received no response, so I’m sharing it here.

Hey Dan,

I hope you don’t mind me reaching out. I know you’ve been going through some family stuff lately, and I hope you’re doing okay. Feel free to disregard this note if it’s coming at a bad time.

I read your comments about the library in the Recorder this past week, and I just wanted to offer an insider perspective as somebody who works in a library every day. I don’t expect to change your mind, but I know you’re a reasonable guy and I hope you’ll consider what I have to say. I’m also happy to make myself available if you have specific questions or concerns as the process goes forward.

Here’s my main point: far from being obsolete, libraries are more useful and necessary than they’ve ever been. Furthermore, it’s the most vulnerable folks in the community who stand to benefit the most from this new investment.

A major issue that I see is across this whole protracted conversation about the library, and which I noticed in your comments, is that that lots of folks on both sides seem to assume that everyone uses the library the same way that they use the library. If people go to the library to check out books, they assume everyone is checking out books. If they bring their kids there, they assume everyone brings their kids there. If they never go to the library, they assume that nobody ever goes to the library anymore. Every one of these perspectives is valid, but they all fail to see the reality: that the library is a unique and multifunctional social space with a thousand different uses for a thousand different people. I would invite you as you’re making your decision to consider not just your immediate associations with the library (i.e. checking out books), but also the thousand other experiences that people have in that space.

To make this point, here are just a couple of examples of how people use modern libraries:

  • Research overwhelmingly supports the idea that, aside from basic necessities like food and shelter, exposure to a rich and varied language environment in the early years is the most important factor in early childhood development. Language development is brain development at that age. Children’s books and storytimes may appear to just be fun, but they’re actually some of the basic building blocks for self-awareness, success in school, and the ability to relate to others later in life. The same research also shows that, in addition to the myriad other disadvantages that they experience, poor kids tend to be exposed to less language, which means that the early literacy services of the library are especially important for them.
  • I know for a fact that a huge number of GCC students have neither reliable transportation nor reliable internet at home (I can show you the data, if you’d like). I can only assume that the same is true for our high school students. The basic technology services that the library offers helps these students—again, usually the most vulnerable students—stay on track.
  • Imagine for a second being a teenager in Greenfield who’s homeless, or less than safe at home. How many places can you go? Where do you go to pass time? Dial/Self is an awesome organization but it has limited resources, and vulnerable people also don’t always want to be in a social service context. The library is really the only public place in town where someone can just sit and exist without being asked to leave, and without being asked to buy anything. This situation is sadly much more common than you might think: I can tell you that every semester at GCC we identify at least a handful of students who regularly linger in the library until closing time because they don’t have another place to be that’s warm, safe, and comfortable.
  • In general, the teenagers I talked to at the YELO event at the high school the other day harped and harped and harped on the theme that they have no place to go in Greenfield aside from home and school. (They even said they’d hang out at the senior center, of all places, if they were allowed.) A library isn’t a silver bullet for this problem and not all teenagers are going to want to spend time there, but a comfortable teen-oriented indoor space with some interesting things to do would be a step in the right direction. A former teen librarian at the Holyoke library (which was rebuilt in 2013 with an MBLC grant) lives in town, and I’m sure she’d talk with you if you’d like to know more about how they work with teens and young adults.
  • A lot of hay is made about getting folks in wheelchairs into the library building, but rarely have I heard it mentioned that those folks might want to do something other than check out books when they get there. In a world that is profoundly exclusive, judgmental, and inhospitable, the library is an accepting community space for folks with both physical and cognitive disabilities. Libraries also connect folks with disabilities (many of whom are desperately poor, unfortunately) with assistive technologies and social services. As part of my curriculum in library school, for just one example, I learned how to use a screen reader so that I can be a resource for people with visual impairments when they’re using computers.
  • Even out at GCC, I work with elderly folks (and even some younger folks) every day who have next to no computer skills. GCC offers no classes at a level that basic. There’s no non-profit in town that offers those services. There’s no private company where these folks can sign up for basic computer classes. Libraries are really the only place where people can ask their most basic questions about technology, and receive real support.
  • One last personal example: when I was in my early 20s I was flat broke and unemployed, living in Seattle. The library was a lifeline for me during this phase–I went a couple of times a week to look for jobs, to write letters to folks at home, to print job applications and medicaid paperwork, to find books to read on the bus, and also just as a refuge from the loud and squalid communal living situation that I was in at the time.

That’s really just a short list off the top of my head. I could go on and on, and I’m happy to go into more detail if that would help you make an informed decision. I guess to return to my point: libraries aren’t just about books. They’re dynamic places where everyone, regardless of income or disability status, can connect to information, connect to technology, connect to assistance, connect to employment, connect to community resources, and connect to one another. In an increasingly connected world, these services are essential for the health and viability of the community. As a space of connection, the library now is much more relevant than it was in the past: silent, dusty, and mostly serving folks with the leisure time and resources to embody the Emersonian ideal of the autodidact.

I make these points now because as I follow the debate about the library I notice that, as in your comments in the Recorder, the sentiment that we can’t afford a new library is usually paired with some version of the idea that libraries aren’t relevant, or are nothing but a luxury. The money side of this conversation is serious and understandably gets a lot of press, but I’d like to suggest that underneath the numbers a bigger conversation about the value of the library is happening. Many people just don’t believe it’s valuable–I’ve gotten those letters. I would also contend that many people don’t see the full value because they only view the institution through their own personal experiences. My perspective is that public libraries are every bit as essential as public schools, and that the littlest guys—babies, kids, teens, folks with no housing or tenuous housing, the unemployed and underemployed, the disabled, younger people facing a lack of opportunities, the elderly—have the most to gain from a new library, and stand to pay the least.

Anyway, consider this my Hail Mary. Apologies that it’s gotten so wordy–it’s obviously a topic I feel strongly about. Hope you’re doing well, and I’m at your service if you want to talk more about what libraries do in the leadup to the final decision.