Boundaries, Connections, and Transformation
[B]oth ends act as anchors and as targets…
– from the Wikipedia definition for hyperlink
I didn’t set out in this class to keep coming back to a single a cohesive and overarching metaphor in my reflection posts about the deeply personal emotional experience of librarianship within the communities we traverse and occupy; but, always, the themes emerge in the course of the writing.
I’m thinking this week about hyperlinked environments, and hyperlinks and environments and where those two concepts intersect and inform each other, which leads to information ecology, which leads to social geography, to GIS and big data in community advocacy, to the demographics of information-seeking and information community construction, to the role of information literacy in identity construction, to the precarity of subcultures and marginalized identities, to self-advocacy and allyship and leveraged privilege in social networking, to social responsibility in information professions, right down the rabbit hole and I can keep on going forever because this is all wonderfully fascinating and important and relevant and connected, which takes me back to hyperlinks, and that is the point.
I talked last week about how we really only can envision library service assessment and strategic planning from within and in the context of the communities we’re in, and how breaking down the barriers between our organizations and the public we serve offers a new way of thinking about both individuals and institutions as contiguous with communities that are also made up of individuals and institutions, in terms of the traffic that crosses the boundary and the connections that are forged at boundaries.
Studying connections that form and transformation that occurs at boundaries has been the enduring and overarching fascination of my life. I wrote this short blog post just about a year ago, in response to the social networking reaction to the Istanbul and Brussels bombings.
I am studying models of information seeking in school right now, and although these theoretical models vary wildly in their details, what they all agree on is this:
The seeking, acquiring and internalizing of new knowledge is a deeply emotional, and emotionally fraught, process. We feel it, in our bodies and our souls, and there is always a point in the process that’s really scary. Every new piece of understanding has the potential to entirely upset The World As We Know It, and we keep diving into that rift anyway. Or don’t.
It is at that moment, when we’re the most vulnerable, when we hold the power to change the world in our hands, an intervention – a guiding voice, a sympathetic ear, a compelling story, a moment of silence inviting clarity, an invoked memory, an unexpected new experience – has tremendous power.
This is why I do the work that I do. Both as an artist, and as a librarian. We are nothing more than the sum total of what we’ve become anew each time we’ve dived into that rift, and we owe it to ourselves and each other to be mindful of how we shape those moments of intervention in the depths of fear.
As it happened, I wrote the post on my phone, sitting in a Starbucks, on my way from a temporary home in the Denver suburbs into the city for a day of apartment hunting.
I thought about it again this week, reflecting on liminal spaces and re-reading the Pew library user typology report and remembering the splash it made when it was first published three years ago*. A lot of that splash had to do with conversations about how to reward, support, and acknowledge high-engagement users, and how to convert low- and medium-engagement users to high-engagement users, which I thought rather missed the point at the time but couldn’t quite articulate why, but from where I am now it’s very clear: overtly privileging actual and potential high-engagement users may be an efficient disbursement of resources but it’s not compassionate.
I do love the idea of libraries as third places – robust community spaces valued and supported by regular patronage. I do. It’s a hugely important part of what libraries do. But at this particular moment I find myself fascinated by the low- and medium-engagement users and how their library experience is fundamentally different and how we can best serve them as they are. Because – and this is something that just doesn’t get talked about as much, maybe because it reflects social processes that we have far less control over – libraries are also liminal spaces, traversed rather than occupied, in moments of change, by people we are encountering for, perhaps, the first and last time.
So many of the things that we are asked to do, that our communities clearly value (help pre-k kids prepare for school, help immigrants integrate, provide technology and literacy training, provide job search and business incubator services, providing internet access to everyone whether permanent local resident or not, support civic activism, provide access to consumer health information and literacy, connect people to the social safety net and government services and other support) are about helping people navigate change. What happens when they succeed? They don’t need us anymore. For some people, we’re lighthouses, not navigational stars, and that is okay.
Serving lower-engagement patrons is legitimately harder. We have less to go on. We need to gather and synthesize information fast and draw effective solutions to unique problems from our body of experience with no preparation and deliver them with grace under fire. We need to be agile, knowledgeable, prepared, culturally competent, humble, and engaged. Each individual patron interaction consumes more time, more resources, more knowledge, more emotional energy, more social capital than an interaction with a high-engagement patron does. And we may never get any kind of feedback about whether we had any impact at all.
But sometimes we do.
A woman passed through the line at the accounts desk today, stopped, looked at me oddly, and then said – “Oh, you! It was you who helped me. You don’t remember.” She then** recalled half an hour spent tracking down literary and film criticism resources on American Psycho, three months ago, culminating in a phone call to another branch to hold a DVD so she could make a mad dash across town before they closed. “I got an A on that assignment because of you,” she said.
“I do remember, and that’s awesome,” I said, sincerely.
I never did find out what happened with the private-agency social worker I stayed with for forty-five minutes fighting with the a local housing authority’s sketchy fax connection, trying five times before finally pushing an eighteen-page packet of documentation through at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon. “You’re getting a seventy-three-year-old chronically homeless man into his own apartment,” he told me. We talked about the rewards and challenges of a life in public service, and about this very thing – these critical transient acts of service that make transformed lives possible and are so different from ongoing client-provider relationships, these tipping points.
I often think about, but have never again seen, the woman I spent an hour and a half with composing and laying out and finishing the guest booklets for her father’s funeral.
I never find out what happens to 99% – more – of the thousands of people I’ve helped submit job applications and edit resumes and craft cover letters and complete workforce center questionnaires over the years. Or the college-aged kids who dash in throughout August and January with a Texas or Georgia or Florida drivers’ license and an ink-still-wet lease in a student neighborhood, get a library card and fax a bunch of paperwork and spend three hours hunched urgently over one of our computers and then never come back.
It’s like this every day. For every regular who I meet at the door with the Wall Street Journal or the latest CJ Box because I saw him coming, or dish about BBC procedurals and Marvel Netflix shows with, or help with printing again because she just cannot seem to wrap her brain around how to pick up her print job and she always apologizes and I always smile sympathetically, there are a dozen whose names and faces I do not know and never will. They will not come back with the same question next week. But during each of these connections, I was wholly present for those few moments, and I hope that they carry some lingering sense of what the library can be in a person’s life out into the world because I certainly do remember each and every single one, every one of them has shaped me and made me what I am, and so they are all still with me in a sense; the library is not a building or a staff or a collection but a vast web of transactions and transformations reaching out into the world, transmitting the downstream effect of those exchanges, connecting with each other and back to us until they are lost in the mist of distance and time.
[https://youtu.be/fZX1LPoSrZo Dar Williams, Echoes, official distribution channel]
*so much of this course thus far has been a very emotional process of re-reading stuff I read at a different point in my career and intellectual life, and finding new things in these readings, and remembering what I so much valued in the first place.
**potentially identifying details in anecdotes from this point forward have been changed.
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Beth Harper is a public services paralibrarian living in historic central Denver and working in the western foothills under the shadow of the Front Range, and an MLIS student at San Jose State University. As Elizabeth Biehl, she writes on SF/F literature and community, art and culture, and occasionally librarianship at www.edgeofcenter.com.