I made Patrick Remer cry.
Actually, he made himself cry. I just happened to be sitting there listening.
It happened during our conversation, just after the election, that meandered from back-seat storytelling to Measure K to iterative design, and came to land on the reality of a “post-election library”. I had just read an article on this idea published by the American Library Association Public Programs Office. The premise of the article was this: “Libraries across the country are coming up with ways, large and small, to make all people feel safe and welcome, regardless of who they are or which candidates they supported.”
Patrick and I had been talking specifically to the point about how libraries need to remain neutral, and thus remain a place for neutral discourse in such a divisive political and social climate. I asked how does a library, as a reflection of its community, not take sides.
“You use the language not take sides, which is a concern for somebody in my position,” Patrick started. “The thing is that we are on the side of the Constitution. We’re on the side of basic fundamental human rights and we’re on the side of open-access for all. The right to read. That’s our side. Whoever is with us, that’s great. In a way it’s about doubling down on our existing charge to ensure that regardless of who you are, where you come from, what your needs are, that the library has something for you to support your learning, your growth, your information needs.”
Patrick has made this point before: the library is a house of the people, all people–it doesn’t exclude or discriminate. “I think we need to find the strength and confidence in our existing mission and not be reactionary because the world is changing so quickly around us. Our mission hasn’t changed overnight,” Patrick said. “It’s not like now we’re doing something different. It’s just that the stakes and the repercussions are more evident.”
I think this bears repeating. Out of all of our public institutions, the library is first and foremost ours, personally and communally. It is a place of access and connectivity that helps us find whatever it is we need. The library is, as Patrick put it, “very often one of the first stops or places that you go to find a home in your community.” He continued:
It’s clearer [now] the ways in which a library can change lives. In a way I think that relieves a little bit of the weight of that question of neutrality. I’m not acting any different. I’m not using any different language and I’m still passionate about the same things, but I do have to be more careful that I am succeeding and making impact in those areas that I stand for. It might indicate new activities, new directions even, but I’m not scrapping my community service plan. It’s still in place. I think, for me, on a really practical nuts-and-bolts level, I’m thinking about how are we integrating some of the pieces that are already there to make sure that we really are taking care of our most vulnerable community members.
Having limited literacy and language skills is a huge vulnerability. Having various sort of levels of citizenship is a huge vulnerability. Things like food scarcity, poverty and other kinds of social barriers and impediments–those are things that we’ve been striving to overcome all this time. How can we stitch it all together in a way that it’s really going to provide more coherent and contiguous support to those folks that we’ve already dedicated ourselves to serving?
That’s the challenge regardless of the current political or social climate. Communities and their needs shift. A library’s job, always, is to respond to that shift. The American Library Association so succinctly pinpointed it with their Libraries Transform initiative. Libraries indeed transform. On. So. Many. Levels. They have also always been transparent and forthcoming with their mission. For the Pleasant Hill community, it is as simple as going to the Contra Costa Library website and clicking on the Strategic Plan for 2014-2017.
I think of libraries as being agents of change. We pioneer change and we spur change and progress, hopefully. It’s not like we’re static. It’s that we’re still dedicated to the mission of change, changing lives for the better. Helping people change themselves.
You’ve got to ask, within the framework, within the strategic plan, within our given resources, which are not inconsiderable–we have substantial community resources, mostly human capital in a library–how can we address that challenge? I think to a large extent it’s going to be trying to integrate the resources that are there and protecting the resources that are there to make sure those sort of rights and services are not infringed upon.
Our conversation that day, which began with Patrick explaining his role on the board of the Foundation for Pleasant Hill Education and his “diabolical plan of empowering kids to take control”, swung full circle back to our community’s youngest members.
It seems to always comes back to the kids. Especially for Patrick. Especially for me. They are our future. They are for whom we build our legacies.
We were talking about how to ensure that kids have access to library services. Patrick wants to continue to “clear away some of the hurdles to access for youth.”
“There are organizational difficulties that we need to overcome in order to make sure kids are being served. Of course,” he continued, “the kids who are here the most and are here the longest after school, these are the kids who actually have some of the fewest supports. We have a huge opportunity to serve those kids.”
Patrick stated, “Now with the national conversation, I think that phrase at-risk youth is actually problematic. Basically [we’re talking about] families that have high challenges and few supports. Many of these students may be natural-born citizens but obviously many members of their family are probably undocumented. They are at-risk because their families are at risk. The amount of stress, you know…” And here’s where his tears started. “…the fear and uncertainty that brings is pretty hard to imagine.”
Soak that in for a long moment: The leader of our community library fought back tears of empathy–during an interview on a Wednesday morning at the end of November–for the kids in our community enduring hardship beyond their years. I was there. I saw it.
My son recently asked me if I ever cried. I told him I cry all the time. He couldn’t believe it. I explained to him that sometimes I cry because I am sad or hurt, and sometimes I cry because I am happy, and sometimes I cry when I feel big emotions or when I get swept up in the energy of big connectedness–crowd cries, I call them.
I have been crying a lot of crowd cries lately, especially upon seeing all the images of women gathered for the Women’s March on Saturday, January 21. So many women I know and love went out to march all over the country, and so many of them took their spouses, daughters and sons (I was too sick to attend). My neighbor posted this picture on social media of her daughter, Ava, with the caption, “She is my everything! I march for her!” and boy o’ boy did it make me cry all kinds of tears. (So did her response later, when she said “I also marched for so many more in my life and all the lives I don’t even know.”)
If you think about it, each and every one of us was a kid once and most of us made it to adulthood because some person–or some institution–did its best to serve and protect us, regardless of the political or social climate. Whatever was happening around us went right on happening and someone–a relative, teacher, friend, practitioner, or a librarian–made it their mission to lead us around the hurdles. They helped us access what we needed to become who we are.
The library is high on my list of the safe, neutral, welcoming places of wide-open possibility that helped me become whomever I dreamed of becoming. The information and experiences I accessed in the library saved and transformed me. They still do. And they will do the same for my son, I am sure of it. Especially if leaders like Patrick Remer–who feels so strongly about his work that it moves him to tears–have anything to do with it.
Originally published Jan 26, 2017