Note: I am writing a series of six posts about the six threads of The Atlas of New Librarianship as I read through them sequentially, pausing after each one. Thus, my opinions of the work itself are only informed by however many threads I’ve read so far; if I say “what about THIS, though?” in my writing, it is entirely possible that a trenchant answer to my question lies in the pages I’ve yet to read. Nobody can contain the whole of a work in each piece of the work, and I usually prefer to discuss books after I’ve read them all the way through… but for the purposes of this assignment, it’s important to record my reflections as I experience them.
It was my first day working at the library, and I was as nervous as a cat at a dog park. I’d spent the week before in an overheated warehouse, moving boxes of books for my old boss. Now I stood around in air-conditioned comfort, watching my colleagues play Guitar Hero and argue about Facebook, and I worried. What would my new job be like? What were my new coworkers like? For the last eight years, I’d worked with no more than a half-dozen other employees at a time. How was I going to fit in among all these new people? How would I build the relationships I would need to do my job? As I hovered on the edge of the group, one of the librarians touched my arm. “You like to read,” she said. “You should join our book club.”
I blinked. “What sort of books do you read?” I asked.
“Oh, all kinds. And it’s not just library people, either. We have other friends who come too.” I smiled, and asked for details, and talked myself into going to just one meeting. I didn’t think I liked book clubs, but I liked this librarian. And it was much easier to say, “I love to talk about books,” than it would’ve been to say, “I need to make new friends.”
Four years later, the librarian in question has been living in far-away Chicago for almost four years, but I love the book club she introduced me to so much that I go to every meeting. Even the one we had last week, when I should’ve been reading my textbook instead. If I had been reading my textbook, I might’ve seen the Jessamyn West quote that opens the Community thread, “One of the things I learned in library school is that when people have an information need, they’ll always ask people they know before they ask a librarian. The trick is making sure that librarians are some of the people they know” (West, quoted in Lankes, 2011, p. 83), and wondered why I hadn’t gone. Since I did go, though, what I want to talk about now is what a book club does for its participants (really, of course, what they do for each other).
In my case, my fellow book club members were my first and best mentors in learning about the local context of the wider college community. They provided the safe environment and extended network that I needed to make sense of things. When the college went through a financial crisis along with the rest of the country in 2008, their long memories and sharp wits shaped my understanding of what my colleagues outside the library were going through. When I decided to return to school, they cheered me on. They’ve shared their adventures and losses, their concerns and enthusiasm, without stinting, and I’ve been inspired to do the same. We consider each others’ lives, not just our opinions of the books we read. Even when we discuss books, the context of our group friendship enriches our conversation.
I know first-hand that it’s not just me (not just us) who benefits from book club. Last year, I had the privilege of attending a meeting of the Dayton’s Bluff Book Club in St. Paul, MN, a neighborhood project facilitated by librarians from Metro State University Library and the Dayton’s Bluff branch of the St. Paul Public Library. Members of this book club represented a true cross-section of the neighborhood demographic, including students, blue-collar workers, and retirees who’d lived in Dayton’s Bluff their whole lives. They talked about the book, yes. But more than that, they talked about their experiences in the neighborhood, their connections to the past, and their hopes for the future. They were acting together to turn the “arbitrary and historic conglomerations” (Lankes, 2011, p.85) of shared residence in Dayton’s Bluff into something richer and more meaningful.
When I thought I didn’t like book clubs, I believed that they weren’t about the books, but they ought to be. Once I fell in love with my own book club, I decided that they weren’t about the books, but they didn’t need to be. In St. Paul, I realized that the real glory of book clubs is that they aren’t about the books, but they can pretend to be. By inhabiting a space between the impersonal and the intimate, book clubs encourage a deepening of trust.
Lankes, R. D. (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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