Liz Morris, project coordinator at WebJunction, is pursuing her MLIS at the University of Washington.
On my desk at work sits the closest thing I have to a personal orthodoxy. It’s a greeting card I discovered in a local drugstore with a wonderful compilation of suggestions under the heading How to Build Community. It is so simple, yet resonated with me so strongly, that I framed it and look at it every day.
Some of the promptings simply validate things I truly love doing: Plant flowers. Use your library. Have pot lucks. Done, done, and done! Other bits of counsel I brazenly find very easy to dismiss: Turn off your TV? Simply non-negotiable when Project Runway is on. Dance in the street? Trust me, nobody needs to see that. Ever. And yet there are some choice recommendations I come back to over and over again. I’ve been thinking about these a lot lately as I wrap up yet another quarter of my graduate program for library and information science, and I share them with you here as an exercise in connection (and, okay, a bit of catharsis)!
Know that no one is silent though many are not heard – work to change this
This, in a nutshell, is why I chose public service as a career path. Previous work in the nonprofit sector led me directly to public libraries as indispensable centers for social equity. There are individuals and families in our communities and even in our daily lives for whom day-to-day activities can be all-consuming challenges. Caring for kids or other family members can be exhausting if your own health is poor and you aren’t aware of consistent or affordable healthcare options. Getting to work on time can be incredibly difficult if you don’t have access to reliable transportation. The list goes on.
Of course, public systems and social service networks are in place in many communities to address these challenges. But these systems and networks are often inherently complicated and fragmented. They require savvy navigation to be utilized to their full effect. Meaningful use of community resources requires, time, energy and information literacy skills, and these are commodities not everyone possesses. This is where libraries come in. We create safe spaces for community members to articulate their needs and to be heard. We deploy our time and energy to guide them to the resources most likely to meet those needs. In this way, we amplify the voice of our community, and can invite others to listen, too.
Learn from new and uncomfortable angles
The social, educational and economic systems that have shaped my life have done so to my advantage. This has been due predominantly to privilege, but also to the presence of family, friends and colleagues who have encouraged me to advocate for myself within these systems. I recently had an experience where the gap between my personal capacity and the requirements of an elective course in my graduate program was so large that it felt frequently insurmountable, even when I mustered all my skills of personal advocacy. I had taken a course outside of my comfort zone to push my learning but was not adequately prepared for its intensity. This was, by and large, a systemic challenge that created a lot of unanticipated pressure in my world, monopolized significant time and energy, and had a cascading effect in other areas of my life. Simply put, my best effort seemed barely good enough, and it’s been exhausting.
As I moved through and attempted to learn from this (new and uncomfortable) experience, I tried to keep two things in mind:
- The relentless feeling of futility I’ve felt for the past ten weeks is entirely superficial and borders on selfish, because the stakes for me in this experience are extraordinarily low. The risk of failing an elective course in a graduate program I love is not a real liability in the grand scheme of things. And yet …
- There are many in our communities for whom feelings and experiences of frustration or even defeat are chronically aggravated by systemic barriers, such as lack of equitable access to information or platforms for personal advocacy. And for these neighbors, the stakes are often astonishingly high.
Every moment in this experience has served as a powerful reminder to me of why I came to library service—to make social systems work more seamlessly for those who use them, and, in some small way, work to build my community. Effective community-builders embrace perspective. It’s something I simply cannot do without recognizing moments of discomfort in my personal and professional growth, and remaining grateful for how truly contained they are.