I didn’t get into librarianship for the shushing, but when the opportunity arises, I seize it. Particularly when it’s someone being wrong on the internet.
That’s what happened this week, when Andre Walker, a columnist for the New York Observer, presented this insight on Twitter.
Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in schools. https://t.co/Cimy1V81n5— Andre Walker (@andrejpwalker) October 22, 2017
A day later, having stewed about it for a while, I responded thusly.
Hang tight folks, because I am about to drop some necessary knowledge on you. First off, library usage is on the RISE motherfuckers. https://t.co/reWrJj3XCo— TheAngriestLibrarian (@HalpernAlex) October 23, 2017
While I never intended to become The Angriest Librarian, a lifelong inability to hold my tongue—and my frustration with the permeating stereotypes of 1950s-era public libraries—seems to have made it inevitable. So, when I was confronted with yet another blowhard who couldn’t see the value his tax dollars were placing right in front of his face, I had no choice. Over the next few days, I picked up 15,000 followers and found myself in a position to become a public face for my besieged profession.
For far too many people, the word library conjures up an image of a dusty old building, full of dusty people reading dusty relics. For others, it’s the stereotype of the “sexy librarian,” the nubile authoritarian who shushes you into the stacks. In reality, what public libraries have become in the 21st century is a model for building community and enhancing opportunities for underserved and marginalized people. Those dusty books still exist, but today they’re side by side with technology, maker spaces, interactive learning environments, and librarians that are trained to teach their communities how to use them.
The rant that led me to my brief bout of Twitter fame was likely popular because of my stereotype-defying profanity and insults, but the fact that it resonated so strongly with librarians was what convinced me that we are on the right track as a profession. Those mousy, quiet librarians are a thing of the past, if in fact they ever existed at all outside of Hollywood. Today, depending on the community they serve, a public librarian is part educator, part social worker, and part Human Google. What they aren’t is a living anachronism, an out-of-touch holdout in a dying job who’s consigned to a desk, scolding kids for returning books a few days late.
An urban librarian in a struggling neighborhood, like Chera Kowalski in Philadelphia’s Kensington, is just as likely to be saving lives by giving Narcan to overdosed patrons as she is to be recommending a new Young Adult series. The new model of librarianship is about embracing more than just books—it’s about making a positive impact on the lives of patrons. My liberal use of the word “motherfucker” may have been the most popular aspect of my Twitter rant, but the most important was my message to LGBT teens, and to immigrants, and to the homeless and poor: The library is a safe place for you to come and get what you need.
Over the last week, I have heard from hundreds of librarians, ALL of whom have embraced both my message, and my way of sharing it. We are a profession in dire need of a makeover, and a new generation of librarians is absolutely killing it in the effort to make that happen. Librarians like Sarah Houghton in California and Kristen Arnett in Florida, who just held her own book release party in a 7-Eleven, are changing perceptions about what it means to be a librarian in the 21st century, all while providing kick-ass service to their patrons.
We have a long way to go to make libraries not just relevant but revolutionary. While library use is extremely popular among Millennials, budgets are still being cut across the country. Here in Oregon, the rural Douglas County Library System shut down completely after voters rejected a property tax increase. But if the reception I received on Twitter this week is any indication, we are making serious progress.
Someone asked me why I got into libraries. My answer—though I’ve been “into” libraries my whole life—was simple: I believe in reducing barriers to better outcomes for marginalized and underserved populations, motherfucker.