You don’t generally expect a library to be located on a cobble-stoned sidewalk in front of a cabaret hall under the open sky. But during the DUMBO Arts Fest, that was where Urban Librarians Unite their display for two-and-a-half days, while a hugely diverse, curious crowd came to see hundreds of art installations and activities. A volunteer with the group, I helped set up on Friday afternoon, and staffed the display on Saturday during the noon-five PM shift with two fellow volunteers. The display included a bright orange plastic Mini-Library, a bright yellow reference cart, and a mobile hot spot loaded with public access books for downloading.
Was it even a library? One visitor insisted that it wasn’t – we were giving away books and public domain e-books (not lending them). But Wikipedia says there may be room for discussion there:
A library (from French “librairie”; Latin “liber” = book) is an organized collection of information resources made accessible to a defined community for reference or borrowing. It provides physical or digital access to material, and may be a physical building or room, or a virtual space, or both.
Anyway, we also offered reference services: we were willing and able to research any question with the reference books on our mobile cart. Visitors gave encouragement – “Kudos to you guys! I’m going to spread the word.” “I love this stuff!” “Have you gotten politicians involved?” “Get the books to the people!” We gave away kids’ books to a lot of happy kids of many ages, from 2 to 19 (and above). And we read aloud to kids all day long.
Only two people downloaded while I was on duty, and many people said they are holding out against e-books. One woman said the only book she would consider downloading was the Bible! Our mobile hot spot was powered by software called Library Box, created by Jason Griffey (http://librarybox.us/). The beauty of Library Box is that you can load all kinds of digital resources on it and provide access even when power is out or there is no computer network access.
Highlights of the day included the couple from Washington DC, who said they are planning to build a “Little Library” (like this one: http://brokelyn.com/a-tiny-free-library-has-popped-up-in-ditmas-park/) on their front lawn so neighbors can swap used books, a college student who found a Roald Dahl book he read in grade school and went off transported with happiness (“You just made my day!”), and a woman from Dallas who loved the idea of advocating for public libraries and plans to start doing at home. Plus this young user!:
ULU is a professional group created to promote and support libraries, library staff, and librarianship in urban areas. (http://urbanlibrariansunite.org/). After Hurricane Sandy flooded out NYC public library branches, ULU provided free mini-libraries, and children’s story time services, to areas with no library service. http://www.rockawave.com/news/2013-01-25/Community/MiniLibrary_Box_Comes_to_Broad_Channel.html
So how does the ULU service model I saw fit into the readings from our Information Professions class? If, as André Cossette suggests in Humanism and Libraries, the aim of librarianship is to assure a maximum of information access for the human community (p.33), then I’d say it fits perfectly. There are limits to what even the best public library can do for its users. One significant one is that public libraries are still, largely, bricks-and-mortar institutions. If they are flooded, if the books or computers or other information resources are destroyed, if the power isn’t working, then the people can’t access the information. Hurricane Sandy shut down a number of libraries – several remain closed to this day. http://www.queenslibrary.org/latest_news/update-on-shorefront-libraries-new-services-and-rebuilding-libraries. ULU’s Mini Libraries brought the libraries to the people by setting up their pop-up libraries and hosting story time for kids outside the Sandy-damaged libraries.
ULU also acts to foster another, possibly historical and sometimes hegemonic, goal of libraries: creating informed citizens of democracy. Not by providing them with copies of the United States constitution, or the Federalist Papers, though. At a previous outing with ULU, outside the Brooklyn Flea, I spent several hours approaching folks attending the Flea, and passing by, to ask them to sign a postcard indicating their support for public libraries in the New York City budget process. ULU then gathered the postcards and delivered them to the New York City Council to demonstrate the potential voting power of library supporters. As a demonstration of how citizens can create grassroots support for a cause and push a bureaucracy to protect the public interest, the postcard-gathering works. And ULU hosts other grassroots consciousness-raising events, like the 24 Hour Public Read-In outside the Brooklyn Public Library on a fine, sunny day in June this year, to raise the public’s awareness of libraries. http://www.wnyc.org/story/296837-librarians-streets/.
ULU appears, based on my own experiences with the organization, to have renounced the idea of librarian neutrality, if “neutrality” means being politically non-controversial. Far from being an enabler of elitism, ULU hopes to foster community and access to information. Public access to information resources, even public access books for download, and to book-based reference sources, puts the library in the service of the public. The street library becomes the “third space” that creates a democratic community where ideas are exchanged, allowing the public to interact, learn and take action. After all, while we read aloud to the kids, the parents had time to talk to each other.
The social role of public libraries, finally, may depend on not just the library being physically available, but on people (librarians) showing that they are trying to meet the needs of library users. If a librarian is a “street-level” bureaucrat, in a job characterized by a scarcity of resources, the stress of public interaction, and unattainable job performance expectations, then based on what I saw during my DUMBO volunteer/observation, taking the library to the streets is a good way to flip the tables, bring resources to the public and help keep the public in control of their own information needs.
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