Queens Public Library: 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War and the Burnout Librarian

By Samantha Dacunto

On November 7th at the Queens Public Library Central Branch in Jamaica about forty people gathered in the basement auditorium to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of the Civil war. Patrons and guests were welcomed in from the cold with a display of light refreshments and featured Civil War text. While the audience waiting for the featured speaker to arrive, staff from the King Manor Museum briefly introduced the program agenda. The speaker arrived and slight technical difficulties needed to be addressed; as they often do in these gatherings. James L. Coll an adjunct professor at Nassau Community College for American and Constitutional History, a detective for the New York City Police department Tactical and Rescue unit, founder of ChangeNYS and speaker for the event began with an brief background to the Civil War.

His lecture titled; Forever Free: Lincoln, Civil War and the American March to Emancipation was to provide a political analysis leading up to the Emancipation proclamation and the expansion of Federal and Congressional power. Coll in an organized manner carefully selected events during the Civil war that would help support his theory which was unclear but seemed he was a Lincoln fan. He often referred to Lincoln as brilliant, remarkable and the best American President. Though Coll praised Lincoln for all his achievements he also admitted that Lincoln was not the Great Emancipator we were all led to believe, in fact, he was not anti-slavery at all. Lincoln, according to Colls’ lecture was purely against the expansion of slavery into new territory but by no means regarded African Americans as equal people or even citizens. Those who were already slaves were to stay slaves but slavery should not expand further.

Despite his efforts to make the argument that Lincoln was not a supporter of African American rights the audience was distracted by the praise Coll gave Lincoln. The audience seemed to disagree with most of what Coll had to say. This misunderstanding caused a bit of a rumble in the small basement auditorium. The audience predominately made up of African American patrons and a handful of other races did not take well to the Lincoln fandom. At this point, Colls’ theory became a defense. Coll handled sensitive questions and comment s about race carefully and professionally but it did not seem easy. There was definitely an odd tension in the room. What started out as aa simple lecture series turned into a debate.

Defending his position all the way through the end of the lecture, which did end later than the time indicated on the flier, Coll did finally reach his main point. He concluded that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation solely for military purposes because before the issued document the Union states were losing the war. By freeing the slaves, which were considered Confederate property Lincoln as Commander in Chief had the right to seize enemy property that might be used against him during war. By freeing the slaves, Lincoln gained soldiers for the Union and weakened Confederate armies which were dependent on slave participation. The rest is history. On April 9th 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders to the Union. Coll concluded his lecture by stating that the Reconstruction period for African Americans who were newly freed men was a crucial point in understanding the Civil Rights movement and that equal rights is an issue that we still face today.

Despite it being a bit of a racially sensitive discussion it was nice to see a lively audience at a public library event. There was public debate on past and current issues among the forty plus people who attended the event. Most of the text read throughout this semester urge librarians to create an environment in public libraries that allow for public discourse. The event I experienced achieved that goal. The librarians who organized the discussion allowed the discussion to freely develop however which way it needed to. There was a great sense of support and encouragement by the speaker, library staff and King Manor staff for the audience to participate and weigh in on the topic. Besides one disgruntled audience member, the audience respected one anothers opinions and respectfully responded to those they disagreed with. Though a little scary at times, I enjoyed the lecture and since it was my first Queens Public Library event I can confidently say it left me looking forward to more.

A week later I had the opportunity to meet with the Adult Services Director at the Queens Public Library. Since she politely asked me to refrain from using her name, so for the purpose of this post let’s call her Jane. Before meeting, I emailed her a list of questions that I hoped she could address. When we finally sat down to discuss my questions she informed me that she was unable to answer majority of them since they were not specific to her department. What I found out is that though the Program and Services Department is one department there are subdivisions. These subdivisions though they often overlap function as separate entities. So my questions about computer literacy, teenagers, patron boards and outreach were all pushed aside because Jane was not authorized to speak about any of their functions since she knew little about them and was not approved by the department to. This meeting was frustrating. To lighten the mood I mentioned that I attended the event on Lincoln and the Civil war. I praised the libraries abilities to engage such a large audience and spark such passionate discussion. It turns out the Queens Public Library Program and Services department had little to do with the event. Again, Jane could not go into much detail but she shared that the event was put together mainly by the King Manor staff and hosted it at the QPL auditorium. Finding this out led to me asking how she put together events for her department. I asked if she was open to suggestions from the community and if she had an adult patron board to help with the program. To my surprise, Jane was not at all supportive of patron boards and community suggestions. In fact, she was quite bitter about it. Jane kindly reassured me that each branch gets to pick what events they would like to host from a pre-approved list put together by her and her coworker. Sometimes branches will be assigned events if Jane and her department are certain that branch will guarantee the most success. This was disturbing news. I grew more curious as to why she shied away from community participation so I asked her to explain. Jane explained that involving the community was risky. Involving them and including their suggestions into the program would not always ensure a successful program. Also, their suggestions may not be up to the library’s standard and may not be approved by the department. By producing their own program, the library basically has less work. There is no point going any further into more detail about my meeting with Jane. She was not very helpful and was eager to finish our meeting.

Though I did not get the answers I was hoping to get, I did have the opportunity to meet and interact with a burnout librarian. Being completely satisfied with my experience at the Lincoln lecture I hoped that the Queens Public Library was supportive of community involvement. After meeting with Jane I understand that QPL entertains the idea of the library becoming a community center only to salvage its existence in the future. In reality, librarians such as Jane, are disgusted with the amount of work it would involve once the community becomes an active participant. The increase in workload discourages already exhausted librarians. The bureaucratic chain is a hassle already without having to include the public’s needs and wants. The bureaucracy drains the workers leaving them completely unenthused when new projects or opportunities arise. Because of this overall feeling amongst librarians and library staff, the question of whether theory can be put into practice lingers over the future and creates an obstacle that library’s will have to overcome in order to remain relevant in the future.


Dying to Get Archived

By Samantha Dacunto

Humans, though extraordinary, are curious creatures. Our behavior is a constant interest of study. Jacques Derrida is one of many who have attempted to make sense of the curious behavior humans engage in. Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression attempts to understand why humans archive. With the help of Freudian ideology, Derrida connects the need to archive to the three drives described by Freud; death, aggression and destruction. All three are very interesting but the death drive stands out because on all levels of life, death exists. It is intriguing that humans approach death very differently, yet we all archive it in some way or another. Death is the reason we archive, whether it is the fear of it, the anticipation of it or the aftermath of death. Culturally and religiously we approach death in various ways. What we archive is the choice of the individual and their cultural surroundings. Differences are seen in burial rituals, mourning rituals and even how the dead are represented later among the living. Do these personal archives help keep the dead as real as they were when they were alive or do they create this vague memory of a person we wanted to exist?

The way Derrida wants the reader to understand the death drive in relation to archives is that we archive because we fear being forgotten and archiving is our way of carrying over our memory after death. Memory is flawed, therefore when creating an archive we are destroying (destruction-drive) the truth of the event. This suggests that the deceased  person is remembered through their material belongings and since we choose what to keep and what to discard we have the power of manipulating the actual existence of that person which is essentially creating a new person all together. Our obsession with immortality is interesting but our ritual surrounding it is so bizarre that it recreates a new life rather than remembering one that already existed.

What stays and what goes is a question constantly being brought up in archival institutions but they usually have guidelines aiding archivists on how to sort through records. But what about the individual, how do they determine what stays and what goes, why not keep everything? Culturally we follow the norms of death rituals that pertain to our immediate social group but on a individual level we make deeper, more emotional choices in deciding what stays and what goes after the death of person..

David S. Kirk and Abigail Sellen attempt to make clear the behavior of individuals when faced with death in their study On Human Remains: Values and Practice in the Home Archiving of Cherished Objects. They determined that people collect and archive objects that had belonged to the deceased, were given by the deceased or are a remembrance of the deceased in order to support memories of the deceased. People chose to keep items such as jewelery, photos, clothing, furniture, paintings and home videos. Derrida would argue that memory despite any support material or not, given to it is flawed, the only truth is the experience itself. These items that we chose to keep are they supporting a memory or are the selected items strategically replacing the reality of the event and creating a new imagined one?

Would Derrida’s argument still hold true today? Video captures the event (although from a single perspective) it records the event in real time. Home video, for example can support a memory by providing the basic who, what, when, where, and why. What is witnessed in the home video can very easily be as real as the event itself though it is filmed from a single perspective it does capture some aspects of the cameraman’s experience. This footage for the individual is certainly supporting the memory instead of warping it, especially if the individual archiving the piece was in control of the camera during the time the video was shot. This type of exposure to the individual experience would be useful to researchers researching topics that involve the understanding of individuals in a family because it gives an opportunity to take a glimpse into the experiences of others.

On a broader level, do archives choose to keep selected records because they help support the factual events or do the selected records aid in creating a newly understood perspective on or of the event? Death of a person and the death of an event is essentially the same. Just as a person can warp their memory of a person by carefully selecting what to remember and what items to cherish, the archive can change the reality and facts of an event by selecting and providing a carefully selected assortment of records. The archivists may not even be aware of their tottering with reality but it is inevitable because humans attach emotions to events and experience. An archive dedicated to Presidential Pets is subject to the same distortion as an archive about the Holocaust. People associate emotions both negative and positive to events and experiences that they have personally experienced, ones that they have read about and ones they have imagined. These emotions sway their opinions on the matter allowing them to subconsciously make biased judgments on what items get to remain in the archive and what items get tossed.

Selecting items to help support a memory is impossible because what the items are actually supporting is the emotions attached to the memory. Regardless of whether the item accurately conveys an emotion attached to the event the emotion itself produces an inaccurate recall of the reality.

Derrida, Jacques and Eric Prenowitz (1995). “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”

Reinventing Library Spaces

By Samantha Dacunto

New York City is one of the world’s leading cities. It is recognized globally for it’s innovative designs and planning. Though New York is forever changing and is always in constant motion, it is no secret that it takes a while before any ideas are implemented. Concerns about New York City’s public libraries have been brought to the public’s attention and debates over solutions are currently in the works. Now this is not another article about the tragedy public libraries face with underfunding. Though it is a serious concern, it might help to focus on the issues facing patrons. If the problems affecting patrons are addressed, libraries will then have someone to fight for them other than librarians.

Libraries have kept up pretty well with the changes in technology. Library items and data are easily accessible through any device. All libraries at this point have online public access catalogs (OPAC) that allow patrons to access the items at their convenience . This immediate accessibility from home devices or mobile devices is the main reason visitor numbers are declining. But should these technological advances steer people away from libraries? Are libraries doing something wrong?

Maybe the terrible florescent lighting or the ugly 1980’s dorm furniture are the reason people just don’t want to stay and do their work in a library. People would rather sit packed side by side surrounded by the grinding of espresso machines and tangled charger cords under their feet at a coffee shop than sit quietly at library. Something is off putting about the atmosphere. If libraries are moving toward becoming community centers they need to consider re-inventing their space. In simple terms, they need to be as cool as coffee shops.

It is possible that the interior design of public libraries is so dull and bleak because librarians cannot find descriptive words to paint a portrait of who they are and what they would like to represent. To create a space that captures the libraries’ ideals, librarians need to identify them first. In Andre Cossette’s Humanism and Libraries: an Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, Cossette argues that without a true grasp on their identity and a philosophy of their work, librarians will essentially never reach their true potential [1]. Though his argument has entails a more complex discussion of the philosophy and identity of librarianship, its basic premise is this: if librarians find a philosophy and identity they agree on, they might have time to focus on other issues that face the field, like attracting more visitors.

North Carolina State University recently rebuilt their library. Their new design and approach is something to admire. Not only is the building modern and equipped with the newest and latest technology, it’s also a place where people want to be. The library attracts both students and faculty. What makes it so different? For one, it throws tradition out the window. The typical quiet atmosphere you think of when libraries are mentioned is not NCSU’s main selling point (not to say that in order to be hip and relevant tradition cannot be present). What NCSU accomplished was being able to increase their visitor rate by re-inventing a space that the users can enjoy. The designers of the space worked with the staff and librarians to create an environment that captures what they would like to represent to their users. A library should not be an intimidating institution and that’s what NCSU was able to achieve.

Here’s what they did right:

  1. Robot Alley/ Entrance (Watch book-bot Machinery and explore on the giant touch screen wall.)
  2. Makers’ Space (including 3D printers and larger printers for art projects)
  3. Gamers’ Lab (provides gaming equipment for users as well as a catalog of student made video games)
  4. Black Box Theater (Performances based space that provides projector and audio equipment)
  5. White Box Room (Art space with green screen, video production and whiteboard walls.)
  6. Seminar rooms and study rooms all equipped with white boards, projectors and flat panel displays)
  7. Rain Garden Reading Lounge (provides solo space for individuals, comfortable modern furniture and a relaxing environment)
  8. Skyline Reading Room/Terrance (open during nice weather and used for special events)
  9. Individual/Group computer work stations
  10. Auditorium for various events

Obviously, an average New York City public library cannot house all these different functions due to space and funding limitations but there is no reason public libraries cannot build off of this idea. Librarians can transform their space without demolishing the existing building and starting from scratch. They do not need an expensive flashy design to ensure attendance. Visitors (as well as librarians) just don’t want to feel alienated. People want to feel a part of a collective, they want to be “cool”, they want to be noticed and they want to participate. Even the lone individual goes to read in a library to participate in a social interaction. Here’s what NYC public libraries should consider:

  1. Group Space (for students who have group projects and need a place to meet.)
  2. Discussion Space (a place where conversation is encouraged/ community gathering)
  3. Snacking Space (an area designated for the workers who snack in between)

Discussing the motive and purpose behind the space should be encouraged among librarians. Once they agree on an idea, consulting with board members, donors, management and staff will help put the transformation into effect. But before any actions are taken, librarians need to forge a unified identity that will be the foundation for libraries as inviting spaces for social gathering and development.

[1] André Cossette, author, and Rory Litwin, translator. Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship. Duluth: Library Juice Press, 2009

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