Bless me, librarians, for I have sinned. It has been far too long since my last act of library advocacy. After several years of working with Urban Librarians Unite (ULU), the strongest, toughest force in NYC library advocacy, I’ve stepped down from the ULU board and have vastly reduced the time I spend advocating for libraries. I feel like I’ve done important work for ULU and NYC libraries. I’ve stayed up at the 24 hour Read-In three years in a row (though this year, the fourth year, I only managed three hours). I’ve posed for pictures in a coffin and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in a zombie costume and covered in fake blood, seeded books all over Brooklyn and Queens, pretended I could read Italian at the UniSphere, gave the library some gratuitous PDA, collected books for the Post-Hurricane Sandy mini-libraries, lobbied at City Hall and Albany, and all sorts of things that my sad, little exhausted brain has probably blocked out at this point. I’ve been invested and dedicated. Despite the moderate but sustained depression I’ve experienced over the last 3 and a half years due to the stress of having very little job security, I’ve been a staunch library advocate. But I’m out of schlitz, guys. I’m totally done. I’m kind of done. I’m done-ish.
The strength and drive I’ve counted on to get me through the constant budget battle is nearly gone and not much has happened for it to be replenished.
Why is this exactly? Why have the fumes that I’ve been running on for the past several years suddenly become inadequate in sustaining my belief in using my spare time to fight alongside my ULU peers? Why are they able to keep on keepin’ on while I’ve become too jaded to continue my advocacy work like I used to?
Part of it is that I have a sick family member. I’m not going to say more about it, but I’m sure everyone reading this has had their life attacked by a Big Bad Awful that consumes all your waking moments. You know how it goes. It affects your work and sleep and the way you relate to people. It changes your priorities in a serious way.
But is that all? I’m not entirely sure. I think that even if this stupid, horrible illness stayed away from my family, my time as a traditional library advocate was coming to an end. It’s been a nasty road that I honestly thought it would be drawing to an end at this point. Regarding our library system’s budget, complete with shortened hours, reduced materials funding, and the ever-awful, never-ending hiring freeze of doom, I’d always say, “I think this is going to turn around. It’s got to. Something’s got to give.” But it never did. It’s been a downward slope and I’ve lost hope that it’s going to get any better. “Running on Empty” has become our status quo.
I have a hard time stating how painful and demoralizing this budget madness has become. My sadness and exhaustion has manifested itself as a dull, constant headache over the past several years. I read Nina McHale’s post on leaving librarianship, and she really articulated my disillusionment with the kind of advocacy I’ve been doing. Says she:
I’m not willing to be a martyr for my profession if it means compromising what I want out of life…We are so eager to please that we kill ourselves helping people for compensation that’s all too often below the country’s median salary.
Less than six months into my time at my current library system, I learned that my job was in jeopardy. I had been so pleased that I found a job in NYC. I didn’t care that it took me an hour and 45 minutes to make it to work. I didn’t really care that my workload was more than one children’s librarian could handle. Sure, I had a designated place on the library’s basement steps where I would cry when I just thought I could never do as much work as was needed to turn that library around, but hell. I was employed, which was more than I could say for my struggling MLS-holding friends who were looking for jobs out of state. I knew I was lucky, but then I learned that not only was I going to lose my job but there were no other jobs in NYC to be found.
I immediately called my parents, uncontrollably sobbing, and made them promise that I could move into their basement if I became unemployed.
Staff members at my system almost immediately organized. The librarians in question were mostly new hires, as the system has a strict last hired/first fired policy when it comes to layoffs. We were 20 and 30-something librarians and even a library worker or two. There was some sort of Google Group where we conferred. I think it was called something like The Last Hire/First Fired Advocacy Group and Breakfast Club (Yes, even when we’re sad, Brooklynites are always a little too precious for their own good). We were a support system, drinking together (A LOT. Sad librarians drink a ton) and figuring out union rules and layoff policies. We talked about our post-librarianship plans: How were we going to pay rent? Could you survive in NYC on unemployment benefits? What were we going to do without health insurance? The Last Hire/First Fired club eventually crossed paths with Christian Zabriskie’s group Urban Librarians Unite, which was meeting in bars in Long Island City. I met Christian, became totally inspired, and vowed that I was never going to let them take my job away without a fight.
Since 2009, when the budget crisis began, many of the older staff members were less than sympathetic towards librarians and library workers who were in danger of losing their jobs. The Last Hire/First Fired club showed up at our very first union meeting to see what could be done about our situation. Every head in the room turned as we walked in, and not in a friendly way. I thought that we would find support and camaraderie with our union brothers and sisters, but let’s chalk up that naive expectation to my newbie librarian status. I found the atmosphere to be very hostile. The new librarians would stand up to ask questions, only to be met with antagonistic murmurs. I thought for sure the older librarians would hate to see all the new librarians go, as that would increase their already heavy workloads. I was wrong. At one point, a woman yelled, “It looks like all the young people want to come in here and take our jobs!” That couldn’t be further from the truth. We just wanted to save ours.
During the constant discussions about layoffs we had in my second library’s workroom, one of the older library workers loudly announced that all the new hires needed to be let go because we were ruining everything. I was new, so I wasn’t sure that she knew that I was the system’s last hire. I gently let her know, hoping that she’d understand that I wasn’t in the kind of emotional state where I could listen to my own coworkers demanding my job termination. She looked at me and said, “I know. You and your friends need to go.”
While talking to one of my many supervisors about how I was coping after my first official layoff notice (this is when my newly hired coworkers and I were brought down to the administrative offices to be informed that we would be losing our jobs at the end of the summer), he said to me, “It seems like you’re feeling pretty sorry for yourself.”
Things got pretty depressing that summer, knowing that our layoffs would come hand-in-hand with the shuttering of many NYC libraries. Not only would we be unemployed, some of the libraries that we had worked so hard to improve were going to be closed. Our library director said that we were now permitted to any kind of reasonable library advocacy at this point. We responded by decking ourselves out with Pink Slip Buttons (you can see them and my old, red curly awful hair here). We really wanted to let library patrons know that the librarian that they were talking to wasn’t going to be around much longer. I wore that button every day. It made me feel exposed and a tad bit unprofessional, but I tried not to care. One day, I walked in on some of the older librarians talking about how I was just wearing that button because I liked the attention and that I seemed “pretty proud of myself” for someone who was going to be fired.
Despite the lack of support from my coworkers, I kept advocating.
I kept fighting even when patrons and potential advocates showed me their ambivalence and disapproval. Often, people were lovely to us, happily signing a petition or calling Mayor Bloomberg to voice their opinions about closing libraries. Other times, I was shocked at the willful disdain NY-ers showed for people trying to save libraries and their own jobs. While seeking signatures on a petition in McCarren Park, a greasy little hipster refused to sign because she “wasn’t sure the library was worth saving.” After all, she said, “that place is always packed with children” every time she goes in there. Patrons who had been in the library every day since I had worked there told me they wouldn’t sign a petition or write a postcard because of all sorts of things: long waits for library books, a fight with a librarian several years ago, bad lighting, lack of air conditioning…you name it. At a rally near City Hall, a well-dressed man in a suit descended on me, demanding to know why I thought I was so special and why I thought I deserved my job. He wanted to know what services to the homeless and to children had to do with him. I remember Christian escorting him out of the park while I stood there, my usually loud mouth totally silent.
(And as a side note, hell, I know more NY-ers are using the library than ever. I know it’s important to them. So why can’t we get more of them to realize how real this budget crisis really is? Is it because we’re too busy making it look like we’re OK? Is it because we refuse to cut service hours even though we’re vastly understaffed and under-resourced? Should we stop trying to hide that we’re struggling?)
Sometimes interactions with the public were terribly discouraging, but that didn’t stop me from attending yet another 24 Hour Read-In. This time, the tent over my head sprung a leak, spilling cold rain water over my head. I spent most of the night curled up in the rain in a wet blanket, wondering how many more of these Read-Ins NYC librarians had ahead of us.
This advocating, giving up, getting angry, getting sad, and then fighting harder-cycle has been on repeat for most of my career.
I wish I could say that I thought the administration was on our side, but things get so quiet on their end, I have no idea what they are thinking. What I do know is that I see more and more anti-librarian policies being administered, despite the vocal objections of librarians and library workers. I’ve seen nothing done to rectify the terrible morale of library workers. It’s as if our passion and dedication no longer matters, like it’s enough just for there to be a warm body at the reference desk. They wanted to hire the best and brightest librarians, but not much has been done to keep us invested in the library. Yeah, we still have our jobs. We’re still employed. We’re surviving, but just barely. And that seems to be OK with everyone. Mediocrity is fine, especially if it doesn’t rock the boat or cause problems.
And all the librarians leaving the system, the state, or librarianship all together? I’ve seen some incredible librarians, past Emerging Leaders and Movers and Shakers often, just leave. That Last Hire/First Fired group? There aren’t many of us left. Nothing’s been done to make people want to stay. Once they’re gone, the hiring freeze prevents new librarians from coming in to replace that lost energy. Those of us who’ve been left behind have to figure out how to manufacture that kind of zeal and enterprise, even without any sign of things eventually getting better. Sure, our system has no monetary incentives to offer our employees, but a friendly and supportive work atmosphere might go a long way.
I thought it was always understood that happy employees made better librarians, but I don’t see steps being taken to do something about this issue.
And even though I don’t feel the powers that be have our backs as much as they should (or maybe they just have a weird way of showing support), I’ve remained a library advocate. And, I’d like to think, I’ve remained a good, hardworking librarian. I promise to try and still be a librarian that people will be proud of.
Not considering the current family issues I’m going through right now, my days as a full throttle library advocate certainly had a quickly approaching expiration date. I’ve seen stifling apathy from colleagues, patrons, and others. While it’s been great to have the support and inspiration from advocates like Christian and Lauren Comito from ULU, the strength that I get from them just isn’t enough anymore. We need more library champions.
Now, all this doesn’t mean that I think libraries and librarians are totally on their own or that their aren’t good people looking out for us (I can think of Jimmy Van Bramer and Marilyn Johnson as examples of two fantastic library supporters). I’m also not saying that every library advocate is giving up (or even that I am completely). But I’ve stopped thinking that things are going to turn around soon. I’ve stopped thinking that morale is going to improve or that the budget dance will stop or that we’ll be able to hire some more full-time librarians.
I’m going to try not to sound bitter and jaded or like I’ve given up. I still plan to be the best librarian I can be during work hours. I’m advocating in a new, less life-consuming way with Libraries Changed My Life (which I find very rewarding). I’m volunteering at Ali Forney with members of the community that I don’t feel get enough support. More importantly, I’m trying to take better care of myself and my family. I can’t afford to burn out, especially when there’s no end in sight to this budget nightmare.
I’m not going to martyr myself for the library anymore. Sure, I’ll be here. I’ll be a librarian who always tries to go above and beyond, but I’m not going to sacrifice as much as I used to. I used to give up way more of my time to outside-work-hours library work, but that’s got to stop. I’m out of energy and my stockpile of hope is running extra low. I’ll still be there to help out with ULU when I can, but I don’t see myself sitting up all night in the rain again any time soon. I’m hoping a tougher, angrier advocate steps up and takes my place.
~Love and Libraries, Ingrid