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.


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Samantha Dacunto

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