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There’s nothing like National Library Week to shine a spotlight on not just libraries, but librarians. Across the U.S. and around the world, individuals are putting in extraordinary efforts to help their communities thrive, often under very difficult circumstances.
Paula Langston has the title of children’s librarian, serving several libraries in Washington D.C. – but her actual job takes her in several other directions. “On any given day,” says a Washington Post article, “she might also work with teen moms on teaching their kids pre-literacy skills, help a homeless person find health care or hand out free lunches.” The role takes Langston to different locations, where she peppers her lessons with fun activities and opportunities to realize personal growth.
Fighting for rights
“Librarians have frequently been involved in the fight against government surveillance,” says The Nation, and nowhere is that fight better illustrated than in the efforts of Alison Macrina. “Macrina has worked as a public librarian for nearly a decade,” notes the article, “but she’s not shelving books; she’s fighting Big Brother.” Privacy, in the age of NSA and the Patriot Act, looms large for this New England-based librarian. “There’s a budding movement of librarians as privacy warriors,” Macrina told The Nation. “We’re seeing each other pick this up and getting more confidence in what we know and what we can bring to the privacy conversation: Namely, our background and relationship with local communities.”
Breaking history’s barriers
Inspiration from the past helps put into perspective how libraries and librarians have shaped our culture. In 1880, the emerging city of Los Angeles, CA, lacked a competent head librarian – and their choice: 18-year-old high-school graduate Mary Emily Foy, who had tirelessly lobbied for the job. With this appointment, Foy became the first female head librarian in that city, but her distinction hardly ends there. According to an LA Times article, Foy was relieved of her library position in 1884 and subsequently became a Democratic party leader and influential suffragette (California ratified votes for women in 1911). She was instrumental in passing a bond issue that enabled Los Angeles to build the Central Library. ”Foy unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1934 – though she did come in fourth out of 11 candidates, and was the only woman in the running,” notes the Times. “And in 1939, she established the group First Century Families, which still exists today and is dedicated to Los Angeles preservation.”
Beyond the U.S., librarians take on the unique challenges of geography and culture to put books into peoples’ hands.
Trekking for literacy
In India, people cannot always come to books – so Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Ravtaray bring books to people. Starting in December 2015, the two friends embarked on a 90-day, 6,000-mile road trip in a book-stocked minivan. “They say they are on a ‘mission’ to promote book reading across towns, cities and villages because they believe that ‘more Indians need to read books,’ “ as a BBC article described it. In addition to lending books, Mishra and Ravtaray sell many 4,000 books outright, at prices the average citizen can afford. Their project is especially significant in India’s small rural towns, which may lack a bookstore or even a library. The two also run their own independent bookstore, a decidedly cost-effective, solar-powered location “where people can read all day, without having to pay or buy anything,” as Mishra notes.
A librarian in spirit if not in title, political science graduate student Matiullah Wesa, a native of war-torn Kandahar, Afghanistan, promotes a makeshift library in the basement of a home in rural Panjwai. It’s not his first effort to bring more normalcy to Afghanistan: For about eight years, according to the New York Times, “the Pen Path, the volunteer organization that Mr. Wesa started as a teenager, has been working to reopen schools closed because of violence and to bring books to some of the worst-affected conflict areas.” He also organizes book drives using social media. But even with just about 1600 books and very little elbow room, the Panjwai collection is getting attention. If this library was in the city, we would have 100 visitors a day,” Wesa told the Times. “But to me, the five visitors in the village are more important than the 100 in the city.”
Celebrate National Library Week!