5 Things I've Learned Working at a Public Library
As most of you know, I'm a writer. And writers usually need a day job to sustain that path. Mine happens to be a part-time job at the public library. I'm lucky in that I get to work at one of the most innovative and forward thinking libraries in North America, Edmonton Public Library. If you've ever come across me at a gathering or social event and asked me about my job I've probably regaled you with stories from the library and all the truly marvellous things that happen there and the amazing stuff my co-workers do on a daily basis. I'm a very small piece in a wonderful and rather magical puzzle. Public libraries are cool places, I think most people will agree. What I want to talk about today though is how working at the library has changed me personally, helped me to grow, and allowed me to put into practice (or attempt to) a way of being that aligns with my heart. I'm not saying I'm perfect at any of this, only that these are things I know to be good, and that I want to do more of.
1. Be generous. It's pretty obvious that libraries share stuff. Almost everyone has at some point borrowed a book from a library. But libraries are good at sharing information of all sorts. They share materials, expertise, technologies, what works, and what they love. They share stories, smiles, and how to do stuff. Sharing what you've learned becomes a mindset, so that when one of my co-workers learn a new skill, they share it with the rest of us. Nobody hoards what they've learned and everyone benefits from what is given, shared.
I've learned this at the library and I've learned it in my writing life, too. I'm reminded of what Anne Dillard writes in The Writing Life. She says:
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.
She goes on:
Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
2. Connect. "Only connect..." goes the oft-quoted epigraph to E.M. Forster's Howards End. Before I started working at the library I might have had a faint idea of what community meant, what connecting meant. But of course, libraries are all about community building, and these days this means reaching out, leaving the building, connecting with those in your vicinity. As a writer, I'm not the world's best connecter. I mean, I try, but what I really want to do is be at home in my sweatpants. You feel? But the cool things that happen when you get out there and meet actual people in real life at the library, reminds me that I need to do more of this in the rest of my life. This past year I began visiting the Edmonton Native Healing Centre as part of our outreach, and just recently took on an outreach senior's book club. When these were offered to me, my initial reaction was, what? me? leave the building? But it turns out these outings are some of the most fun I've had on the job.
3. Be compassionate. Most of us are familiar with the difficult to attribute quotation: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh says, "Compassion is a verb." And Pema Chodron, who I often turn to says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
It's also good to remember the roots of the word compassion: from the Old French, 'to suffer with.'
What I've learned working at the library is that it's easy to feel compassion from afar. I'd read a fair bit about buddhism before working at the library, and I remember coming across the work of a monk who'd been living in a cave. It's very easy to practice buddhism from a cave, or in a monastery with other buddhists, she said, and that's always stuck with me. And so even though I often crave a job that I can do from home, the library is a very good place to practice your practice, whatever that might be. People bring in all sorts of concerns - concerns about their health, their job status, their financial and legal issues. Right after Christmas I sat with someone who had suffered a sad and heavy loss and I really just listened. There are homeless people and mentally ill people. There are people trying to fix their car or learn to knit or looking for a poem for a funeral. There are people filling in endless government forms and there are people struggling with digital literacy. (This is just the tip of the iceberg quite honestly).
Mainly I have no trouble at all being compassionate. But what I have also learned is that compassion fatigue is real. Usually, what helps me through these times of fatigue is the thought that to feel compassion fatigue, one must have also felt compassion. Which is the goal. So.
4. Listen. Be curious. Be interested. This is the best thing I have learned and try to put into practice at the library.
A long time ago I read an essay by Brenda Ueland titled, "The Art of Listening." She says, "Listen with affection" and I think this is actually a radical and wonderful action.
She also says, listening is a creative act and not to worry about saying clever things, but to bring your full attention to hearing what someone is saying, and why they're saying it, and what they might not be able to say. Ueland captures this beautifully: "Listen to your wife, your husband, your father, your mother, your children, your friends; to those who love you and those who don't, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one."
Very often I say in my head: listen, listen, listen, when my urge is to otherwise jump in and correct or speed things along or take the conversation in a different direction.
Listening can be hard, but because people have told me so many interesting things when I've put this into practice, I also know how rewarding it can be.
5. People are poetry. They are Magic.
I'm very fond of the lines by Gustave Flaubert: “There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it." We know that everyone has a story to tell, but I also want to say that people are poetry.
When I’m asked about poetry at work, which is more often than you'd imagine, I sometimes want to tell the person – well, you’re poetry, this entire place is poetry, filled with poetry.
The American poet Philip Levine writes,
“...our lives, any life, is worthy of poetry
the experience of any human being
is worthy of poetry.”
And what I ask myself is, how to make of our lives, poetry? How to see the poetry in others. How to let people know that their experience, their very existence is poetry, is worthy of poetry.
And I think about these lines when I’m working at the library very often, though I don’t always succeed in keeping them in my mind. I really do try to keep Flaubert’s words in my mind as I talk to the person who can’t afford to pay their late fees or who dropped their library book into the bathtub, and I try to keep them in my mind when I’m showing someone how to use a computer mouse, or how to highlight text on the screen. I try to keep them in my mind when I explain to people why talking is allowed in the library and why it’s okay for someone to use their cell phone in the library. I try and keep Flaubert’s words in mind when an older teenager asks if we have any food at the library because he’s hungry and has been locked out of his house for the day. I try to keep it in my mind when I get a phone call from a group home saying there’s a fifteen year old girl, the same age as my own girl at the time, in the library who has taken enough drugs to O.D. Because it’s true that there’s not a particle of life which doesn’t hold poetry. We are all bearing it. And sometimes the poetry of our life becomes very heavy and difficult to endure.
What I try to remember is that the world is poetry and we are poetry that light is vibrations and poetry and the very writing of poetry sends vibrations out into the universe. The silence of these vibrations are what I set out to hear when I’m working at the library or when I’m walking in the morning in the snow in the low light in the grey and sometimes pink then soft blue particular to the beginning of the day in winter. One thought runs into another out there accumulating careening falling and spinning and sometimes catching light failing better we are never enough our poems are weak and falter and sometimes I think we fail to understand what a poem is for I think we lack urgency gravity a lightness I think we forget the universe is burning with poetry and magic, yes, and so are we.
In a conversation with another writer, Li-Young Lee asks of poets,
“What the hell are we doing? I see our mission as much larger than witnessing the material world. And it isn’t to report on a twenty-years war. Twenty years? What is that? The news is that we are the universe. That’s the only news there ever was; that’s the only news that the poet reports that lasts. We want to hear the news. We need to hear the news.”
What the hell are we poets doing, indeed. Trying, yes. One sets higher and loftier and at times more direct, simpler, goals. One is never satisfied. One refines. One deepens one’s understanding of silence and its relationship to words. I am trying to listen to the news of the world, the question behind the questions, I am trying to tune into the universe of longing and hope and poetry. I repeat, the universe is burning. I see evidence of it every morning at sunrise. And I’m privileged to see evidence of it at the library where I just so happen to work three or four days a week. I’m trying to (quietly) transmit the news – you are poetry.