Libraries: Our Common Wealth (MLA 2018)

The Massachusetts Library Association conference was in Framingham this year; I followed along on Twitter (#masslib18) for the first two days, and attended (and presented) on the third and final day.

It seems that the opening keynote by Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White, was extremely well received. For those who missed it, she has a TEDx Talk here.

The first session I attended on Wednesday morning was Co-Creating Library/Social Services Partnerships: A Statewide Collaboration, presented by Michelle Eberle of MLS, Joe Vallely from the MA Department of Mental Health, and Shelley Quezada from MBLC. Michelle showed data that a majority of libraries are interested in partnering with social workers, but only 30% already do, to manage issues like homelessness, mental health, substance abuse, and help for immigrants. Library workers are interested in partnering with social workers – perhaps even students of social work – and in receiving staff training such as mental health first aid. MLS has a LibGuide for “Responding to the Social Services Needs of Our Library Communities.

Next, Joe told the room about the outreach and engagement teams serving over 1600 individuals within Massachusetts. They have had a few trainings at different libraries to introduce themselves (“what we do”) and look for ways to collaborate. “We have a common mission,” which gives us the opportunity to collaborate to assist people in need. “You provide a safe, warm place where many individuals, who are very fragile, go.” Many are clients or potential clients – how can we begin to assist? The organization Eliot was also mentioned, a part of PATH (the federal Project for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness).

Shelley spoke next, telling the audience about available LSTA grants and how MBLC can help with the grant process. Before applying for a grant, she said, there are a number of questions to ask, including: Who are your best community partners? How do you identify them? What is the overarching goal for your library to achieve? What resources do you need (staff, materials, training, equipment, publicity, space, etc.)?

Shelley reeled off a list of additional resources, including: Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership, Mass Legal Help, the Opioid Overdose Prevention project of Mass.gov, and Mass 211. Audience participants added Pine Street and Rosie’s Place. Audience members also spoke up to say that “Even with a social worker on staff, there are overwhelming needs”; staff training is still necessary for trauma-informed care, mindfulness, etc., and a series of trainings is better than a one-time session (grant funding can help with this!). One person also spoke about enforcing library policies apologetically, but “It’s okay to have rules. Rules keep people safe.”

The need for social services for a variety of often related issues (mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, domestic violence) is receiving more attention recently due to the movie The Public (trailer), which writer/director/actor Emilio Estevez said was inspired partly by an article by Chip Ward (I’m guessing this one: “How the Public Library Became Heartbreak Hotel,” 2007).

For the next morning session, I chose Charlie Grosholz’s interactive session on “The Role of Fantasy in the Library.” This was a small, hands-on session in which Charlie led participants through three exercises: world building, character creation, and role play. But first, a definition: What is fantasy? It is the “improbable, impossible…held down by rules.” (As any reader of fantasy knows, even magic has rules; otherwise it would be surrealism.) Any of these three exercises would be a great prompt for a creative writing workshop, but they could be used in a variety of other programs too, or to re-envision the library itself. For example…

  • Around Halloween time, a library in a walkable area might host a program starting with a zombie attack scenario: Where in town are the safest places, the most valuable resources?
  • Character creation can be used to develop personas; staff can collaborate to build personas based on library “characters,” an exercise that can build empathy.
  • Role play allows people to build social skills, public speaking skills, empathy, and conflict resolution skills. Charlie ran a successful murder mystery party for teens, complete with costumes, music, artifacts, and Shirley Temples (there was a speakeasy theme).  Role play can also be used for emergency preparedness drills, or even in ELL conversation groups.

If your library has (or is thinking of starting) a Library of Things collection, acquire some board games; you can build programming around each new game as you introduce it, and bring fans of the games together.

The last program of the morning was a general session, “Librarians on the Front Line: Protecting Free Speech,” presented by Steve Woolfolk of the Kansas City Public Library. Woolfolk’s name may be familiar to those in the library world; he was arrested during a program at his library for defending a patron’s right to speak. Though the case seemed incredibly clear-cut (for an overview, see the American Libraries article from October 2016), it dragged on until he was ultimately cleared. The incident certainly didn’t shake his dedication to free speech and the free exchange of ideas; when an audience member asked if it had had a chilling effect on programming at KCPL, Steve replied, “Nope! If anything, we’re getting more controversial.”

The First Amendment, he said, is about more than just being able to say what you want; “you have a right to express your ideas, and I have the right to be exposed to your ideas.” He pointed out that the government does not lead on issues, the public does – and librarians are already “committed to opening people’s minds.” He asked, why can’t we do with ideas what we do with books? Recommend something outside their comfort zone. “Nobody’s obligated to agree with the ideas they hear…but we have to make an effort to understand why people believe the things that they do.”

Steve’s talk was very well received, and I wasn’t the only one taking photos of his slides to post to Twitter.

Dennis Ross quote
Dennis Ross quote from the Truman & Israel author event
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George Bernard Shaw quote
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Harry S. Truman quote
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John Scalzi quote (from his blog)

After a break for lunch, it was time for “Readers’ Advisory in the Age of Uncertainty,” which I presented along with Kevin O’Kelly from Somerville Public Library and Louise Goldstein from Waltham Public Library. We each took a different angle on the topic: Louise talked about the “Initiating Inspiration” book group at the Waltham library, in partnership with the Agape Spiritual Community. The group met five times in its first year, discussing five different titles. Kevin talked about bibliotherapy, from the little-known Sadie Petersen Delaney (“Our Lady of Bibliotherapy”) to author Alain de Boton’s “School of Life” to the Changing Lives Through Literature program. And I talked about readers’ advisory at the reference desk, whether people are looking for escapism or a deeper understanding of current topics (or – through speculative literature – both!). My handout with book lists is here.

Cover image of On TyrannyThe closing keynote session featured Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale and author of (most recently) On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) and The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018). The talk was entitled “The New Authoritarianism: Where It Comes From and What Readers and Citizens Can Do About It,” and was essentially a summary of On Tyranny. If you missed the talk, read the book – it’s only 126 pages.

All in all, it was a worthwhile conference day! And let’s not forget Book Cart Drill Team

 

 

 

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