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Five Ways You Can Boost the Awesome Powers of a Public Library!

Best Ways to Support Your Local Library

What is a Library? Might seem like a silly or obvious question but in The Librarian’s Book of Lists, we find this definition:

A library is a collection of resources in a variety of formats that is (1) organized by information professionals or other experts who (2) provide convenient physical, digital, bibliographic, or intellectual access and (3) offer targeted services and programs (4) with the mission of educating, informing, or entertaining a variety of audiences (5) and the goal of stimulating individual learning and advancing society as a whole.”

Personally, a library means refuge. There have been times in my life where a library offered the only oasis of peace and quiet in my life. Today, at Daily (w)rite I have author and library professional, Elisa Stone Leahy, who speaks to us about her experience of libraries, and how you and I can all boost a public library or two.

Take it away, Elisa!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

My first memory of a library is one of pure awe. I spent most of my childhood running over the sand dunes in coastal Peru, climbing pecan trees and playing siete pecados with the kids on my street. I had never heard of a library. Then my family spent the year I turned eight in the United States, and my parents took us to the library in Scranton, PA. It was a gorgeous building—stone statues, marble stairs, stained glass windows. But what I remember most, what made my little jaw hang open in wonder, were the books. So many books. And all of them, my mom insisted, were free. I was swept away by wonder. That year, far from my sand dunes and pecan trees, I found new friends I did not even know I was looking for—Ramona Quimby, Stuart Little, Harriet the Spy. Stories became my safe place, so I suppose it makes sense that I found myself working in a library as an adult.

Five Ways to Support Your Local LibraryMost customers who walk into our library don’t respond with the awe of my eight-year- old self. But every one of them finds something. A fast-paced mystery, a beach read, edgy science fiction, true crime. A nervous older woman made my day last week when she asked me hesitantly if we had lesbian romance (Sure do!). A teen recently questioned whether there might be any heartbreaking books in the YA section (Oh honey, just you wait!). A child hiding behind his grandmother whispered, “Do you have books about Bigfoot?” (Yep, and the Loch Ness Monster too!) Many folks are just looking for the printer. But often, when they come through our doors, they find so much more. Sometimes, they find a community.

For years there was a family of about eight kids who came to our branch almost every day. They were siblings, step-siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles ranging from preschool age to teens, (our staff once attempted to create a family tree to keep all the kids straight, but it was too complicated). We never saw their adults but we knew their home life wasn’t very stable. Our staff did our best to create a safe place for them. We read with them, colored, played and made crafts. We helped them with homework, listened and resolved conflicts. We watched them play a LOT of Roblox. We saw their stories unfold every day. When our library locked down in 2020, I worried about them so much. I worried they didn’t have access to books, computer resources or the free afterschool snack. I worried that they didn’t have a safe place. When we reopened and they didn’t come back, I worried that we would never know what had happened to them. I wanted to hear the rest of their story.

I’ve worked at the library for over a decade and the stories I’ve seen pass through our doors are as varied, as incredible, as disturbing, and as inspirational, as the stories we carry on our shelves. Libraries are the last bastion of free, indoor space with resources available to all. That means a whole range of human experiences find their way to us, and humans are messy. This job is hard. There are fights, threats, and people in pain. We don’t know when we put on our library badges in the morning if we’ll be dealing with open beverages by the computers or one customer hitting another over the head with a chair. One moment I’m using a monkey puppet to comfort a crying child and the next I’m crawling under a bathroom door to unlock a stall while on the phone with 911 about a possible drug overdose.

Sometimes customers I don’t know will come in asking for me, because they heard I speak Spanish. I’ve helped with paperwork and school enrollments and ESL classes. I’ve translated job applications and set up virtual visits with lawyers. During the escalation in hatred toward immigrants in 2016, one mother told me that she had stopped going anywhere after work, except to get groceries and to bring her daughter to Reading Buddies.

Our library was the place she still came when other spaces no longer felt safe. When I.C.E. raids increased in the area, I had a couple come in and ask me if I could help them find papers to sign custody of their daughter over to family members. Their 5-year-old sat on a chair in the kids’ area, her curly pigtails tucked behind her ears, swinging her feet, while her parents told me they were afraid they would both be deported, and they refused to take her back to the gang violence they had narrowly escaped.

I’ve sat with more than one customer whose heartbreaking refugee journey left us both in tears. My volunteer work with immigration justice inspired the plot of my debut novel, Tethered to Other Stars, a fictional take on the sanctuary experience. But the people in my book, 12-year-old Wendy and her Salvadoran-Guatemalan family, are inspired by so many of the kids and parents who I have grown to know and love at my library. My book will soon be on our library shelf, but it is their stories that shine through its pages.

Five Ways to Support Your Local Library

Our library is full of living stories.

The other day a couple of teens walked in and my co-worker and I greeted them as they walked past. They stopped and came back, looking somewhat bashful. “You don’t remember us, do you?” they asked. And they began naming all the eight kids from the extended family we hadn’t seen in three years.

We gasped, we laughed, we remembered. We cried. The oldest has her own place now, and her own car. Her brother had asked her to drive him here to see us. He told us about foster care and therapy. He asked about a staff member who no longer worked there, who had recommended the first book he’d ever read (Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet).

We reminisced about the friends they made at our library, their first crushes and breakups. The younger kids live with relatives now, and they showed us a picture of them all at her graduation. They were smiling. Their story isn’t over yet, but it sounds like it might be a happy one after all.

When I am at work, I often think about Yuyi Morales’ wonderful picture book, Dreamers, where a mother and baby, after a difficult journey to a new land, find their way to the library. It’s a glorious, magical celebration of words and books and the place that houses them. It always reminds me of the moment eight-year-old me walked into that library, all those years ago, and stared up at the countless stories on the shelves. But it also reminds me of going into work now, never knowing whose stories I’ll have the privilege of witnessing that day.

Five Ways to Support Your Local Library

If you are already the proud owner of a library card, even if all you do is walk in to pick up your books on hold or download audiobooks on Libby, then you are also part of this library of living stories.

Five ways you can be part of the awesome power of the public library:

1 Use it! Your library offers a huge range of resources beyond books—free digital memberships, in-person tech training, basic office needs like printing/faxing, and kids’ programs! Chances are, there’s something there for you.

2 Recommend new titles. Most library systems have a form online where you can suggest new titles that are not in their system. This is a great way to support new authors and books you love!

3 Vote! Library levies make a huge difference in the ability of a public library to support its community. When you see a levy on the ballot, remember the stories behind that vote.

4 Volunteer. If you have the time and resources, there are often tangible ways to connect with your community at the library. My branch reading program has several veteran volunteers who are beloved by many kids!

5 If you love the work your library staff are doing in your community, let them know. Tell them in person, fill in a comment card, or send feedback online. It will make our day!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Elisa Stone Leahy is a Peruvian-American documentary filmmaker and children’s author. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her long-suffering partner, brilliant children, lazy cats and scruffy labradoodle. When she’s not writing or working at the library, Elisa spends her energy on spontaneous bursts of artistic chaos and immigration activism. Her work with Edith Espinal’s sanctuary team inspired her debut novel, TETHERED TO OTHER STARS. She is probably reading or vacuuming dog fur right now.                                                                       

Is there a public library you visit? Do you have any treasured memories which took place there? How do you support your local library and librarians?                                                                                                                                                                   

My literary crime novel, The Blue Bar is on Kindle Unlimited now. Add it to Goodreads or snag a copy to make my day. The sequel, The Blue Monsoon is up for pre-orders! And if you’d like to read a book outside the series, you can check out You Beneath Your Skin.  Find all info about my books on my Amazon page or Linktree.

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Librarians are my heroes! I volunteer at my local library. Some of the best spent hours of my week.

  • mlouisebarbourfundyblue says:

    Hi, Damyanti and Elisa! What a lovely post and the memories it brings back! I’ve always belonged to a library, except in places where there wasn’t one. Then I would get books by mail from a regional library in eastern Canada. I was just at my local library yesterday to drop off a donation of books. I’ve added your book to my buy list, Elisa! Take care!

  • Pam Webb says:

    I can’t imagine violence in a library. I guess that depends where it is located.

  • John Hric says:

    Libraries are wonderful places. Where we are at we are lucky enough to have easy access to two separate city systems and the county system. Good stuff !

    • You are triply fortunate! I love checking out the libraries around us outside my own system. It’s always interesting to see how different yet how similar libraries can be in the same area.

  • Asha Seth says:

    I wish we had some great libraries around where I live. Great post, Damyanti.

    • Check if there is a system you can join. My library system allows you to join as long as you have a mailing address in the same state, and you can access all the online resources from anywhere! I accessed ebooks, audiobooks, tv shows and movies with my Ohio library account while we were temporarily living in Cusco, Peru.

  • You are fortunate to be in a really good library. Ours is…not so much. And not in a safe area of town. Sadly, been years since I visited.

    • I’m sorry to hear that! There weren’t libraries where I grew up so I know how it is not to have it. Do you use their online resources and apps? I think I could survive as long as I still had my Libby app for audiobooks!

  • This is a truly beautiful post and tears prickled at my eyes as I read it. I have always belonged to the library – where ever I live. It is a sanctuary and a haven. Comfort and excitement.

  • Spent much of my childhood in our library…still do…only issue is it’s no longer a quiet respite…but I keep going back.

    • Yes, the volume changes often! It’s definitely a full-of-life place, and sound management is tricky. Many of our newer branches have quiet study rooms, which is helpful. But I remember the empty silence of lockdown and remind myself of that when we have an especially “vibrant” day.

  • Some of my favorite memories are of time spent in a library. A full day in the Library of Congress–researching! And another at the Notre Dame University Library. What wonderful times.

    • What incredible places to research! I have never been to either and I’m envious. Although I did spend some time researching in a little library over the ancient Incan sun temple, the Qoricancha, when I lived in Cusco, Peru. That was remarkable. I love finding libraries wherever I go!

    • mlouisebarbourfundyblue says:

      Hi, Jacqui! I spent a magical day at the Library of Congress researching too! Did you look for copies of your books? They had my sister’s, but I didn’t ask the librarians to fetch it for real. I still have my LOC card, just because! Take care!

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