Last fall, we were psyched to announce Urban Librarians Unite’s inaugural book scholarship and essay contest for area library school students. Up for grabs: a gift card worth $200.00 for books and supplies. We asked students pursuing a library/information sciences degree in New York City to write a 1200 word essay on the following topic:

What is the role of the librarian in the city?

Essays were reviewed by a panel of judges made up of working urban librarians, and were evaluated on their relevance to the topic, quality of writing and on matter of bold thought and imagination.

Haruko Yamauchi

Finally, we are thrilled to announce that Haruko Yamauchi, with her eloquent essay on the role of the librarian in New York City, has been named the winner of our Book Scholarship. Congrats, Haruko! In her own words,

“Haruko Yamauchi is a library student who spent two years as a weekly volunteer lending a hand in every service provided by a busy NYPL branch on the Lower East Side. She has also led dynamic storytimes for pre-schoolers and their parents at a Brooklyn Public Library branch, and has interned for the past year in cataloging, reference, and instruction at Columbia University’s Butler Library.  She has loved learning about many facets of library work and meeting librarians, is a big fan of ULU’s creative advocacy, and looks forward to more discovery, service, research, and adventure in the library world after she earns her MLS in December 2012.

And now, without further ado, Haruko’s winning essay.

Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women
generations after me;
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!—stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
– Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

The role of the librarian in the city is to embrace life in its multitudes, and to make it
possible for all of our patrons to do the same. We are not only crossing Brooklyn Ferry, we are the ferry, we are the IRT, BMT, and IND subways, we are the potholed streets and bike lanes that allow the city’s residents to move through time and space, get to places they know they need to go, and discover neighborhoods they didn’t even know existed.

Let’s back it up. Our libraries are the roads and the places, and librarians make the
maps, to help people make sense of the seeming chaos before them, to put in context the corners that they already know so well.

The real trouble with any metaphor is that the librarian in the city is by necessity a shape-
shifter, taking on dozens of roles every day, responding to the needs and interests of everyone from the three-year old (who just vomited on the block books), to the older man who reads five newspapers every day, as well as the homeless man whose presence newspaper man is complaining about, and the ninth grader with a ten-page paper due tomorrow who hasn’t started yet, and the woman standing before you now threatening a boycott if certain books stay on your Young Adult shelves–but you can’t talk to her right now, because there’s the man shouting that the internet is broken, and the newly-immigrated mother struggling to read the application for the library card she wants so much for her daughter, so that her kid will grow up loving books.

On exasperating days, we hear librarians say what we are not: we are not babysitters, not
social workers, not cops. Can we claim to be teachers, or caretakers, or guides? Do we aspire to be community organizers, or revolutionaries, or even good old fashioned defenders of the civic ideal? Because while we write our manifesto for upholding the public library as an endangered democratic institution, and brainstorm how to counter political attacks on the notion of individual and government commitment to the public good—that three-year-old has thrown up again, and it’s time to haul out the mop. But if reality may crash down on top of our ideals at times, those ideals serve as a compass to make our way through the rock quarry of daily demands. So, which compass(es) to use?

When the idea of public libraries was first promoted in this country, there were
arguments over a librarian’s role: were we to be guardians of a morally uplifting and enriching collection, to help poor people learn virtues that (in theory) would enable them to rise out of poverty, or to raise immigrants’ literacy so they could integrate into mainstream American society? Or should we just give the people what they want, which then as now often meant “trashy” books, and what was wrong with that, with seeking pleasure at the end of a long day? This question of where librarians should stand on the spectrum between being didactic or neutral still stands today. We may not speak in Sunday school terms of moral instruction, but any kind of outreach program assumes that our libraries are not only repositories for materials, but proponents of doing good. The librarian in the city today is not a bystander.

We may strive for some objectivity, displaying side by side books by political writers
whose views we find noxious and works of writers we think are right on. A mapmaker doesn’t make maps that only show those roads she likes best. But sometimes we’re making maps, and sometimes guidebooks, as librarians not only select, but weed out, showcase, recommend, and a mechanical lack of judgment is not a principle worth defending. What we should insist on upholding are the positive values of openness, of complexity, of providing not only information patrons know they want, but resources they might not have considered otherwise.

The librarian in the city must live outside the library walls, too. We must speak not
only with our patrons but find people who aren’t coming to the library–yet. Social networking and digital media can be useful tools, but may not be the most urgent ways to reach future library patrons. I believe in the power of flesh and blood, and have seen the surprise of people encountering librarians speaking out on the streets. Librarians should and some already do make an effort to meet with schools, community gardens, daycares, and other vital neighborhood centers to create partnerships for dynamic programs. But we could go further: Alinsky-style doorknocking for libraries, asking people what would draw them to their library and how their public library can serve them, and if what the people want is beyond the library’s current resources, we should strategize together to figure out how to leverage the resources we need.

Beyond that kind of deep, long-term relationship building, we could market our libraries’
worth better. Librarians could have tables at street fairs, take morning shifts like free newspaper distributors, standing outside subway stops to give out (well-designed and beautiful) flyers, whether to promote library programs and resources or call people to action when the budget is on the chopping block again. Librarians can reach out not just to arts organizations about creating murals on our walls, but to, say, the boxing gyms and beauty salons, where we could bring rotating sets of books that the owners think would be of interest to their customers, and leave them on loan to these locations outside the library. Many places where people wait–doctor’s offices, restaurants, barber shops–could be a point of contact between people and library materials that advertise where they come from and invite people who want more to visit and get involved with the local library. Librarians could take over subway cars and create flash-bookmobiles, where riders could browse and check out books, apply for library cards, and get information about resources at their local library or central branch. We live in a big, glorious, cacophonic city and need to think constantly how to make connections beyond our walls.

Librarians, in embracing knowledge in all its forms, in spreading the word about new
opportunities, in promoting inquisitiveness and exploration, in training people with tools to
follow their own paths, in nurturing not merely literacy but discovery and wonder in children, in showing new ideas to trying-to-be-jaded teenagers so that as they grow into adults, instead of narrowing their deepest selves for protection from judgment, they expand their hearts to greater possibilities—we are not only on the side of knowledge as power, we are on the side of joy, and of life. Librarians move forward into the world while waving others over to join us, and say: let us explore, together.