Books (and librarians) change lives

This StoryCorps video did my heart good, so I want to pass it along.

Here’s also an NPR story about Storm Reyes, whose story is in the video. The best part of all is how she ended up working in a library system for more than 30 years, all thanks to one bookmobile and one welcoming and giving librarian.

“I took them home and I devoured them. I didn’t just read them, I devoured them,” Storm says. “And I came back in two weeks and had more questions. And he gave me more books, and that started it.”


Distinct Possibilities 2 comments

Photo credit: elviskennedy via / CC BY-NC-ND

I feel a self-divide that is hard to explain to many people, much like Holly Genovese discusses in this article. Coming from a blue-collar background in a rural, poor household, even the decision to go straight to college from high school was different enough to start a schism that has only gotten wider. Both of my parents worked on factory floors until their jobs moved out of the country or the company wanted to hire younger guys at a cheaper price. My dad worked at the same place from March of the year I was born (that December) until just a few weeks before I got married in May of another year: 27 years and two months, he worked there, with differing shifts and on differing lines sometimes, but still always there. We lived anywhere from an hour to 40 minutes from this place, keeping us near family and in the same school district and county my entire life, even though he worked in a different county himself.

My dad got up early when he worked first shift (although he also worked third at times, years I remember not seeing my dad much and only recalling his tired face when I did) and his work ethic lives in me still today. You get up early and you leave early. There’s no excuse for arriving to work late, even a flat tire, so give yourself time to deal with those things on the way. If you arrive early? You just have some quiet time to yourself or to talk with others coming on- or going off-shift. It’s part of the package of keeping a job. Then one day they just lay you off “indefinitely” and you know that it isn’t a layoff like previous ones: this one is permanent, terminology be damned. Younger, cheaper guys are coming in to take your place, and you know it—but what can you do?

My mom went back to work when I was in elementary school, but she worked in closer locations: in the kitchen of a nursing home for a bit until a job at the local factory down the road opened up. It was closer and it paid a bit better, so does it matter which job you like better anyway? I became one of those fabled 80’s and 90’s latchkey kids, along with my older sister. We rode the bus for hours a day, gravel road dust pouring in the small cracks of the partially opened windows. We got to know the bus drivers really well as the last kids off the bus.

But the eye-opening realization for me comes in second grade: Mrs. Reed talks about college, like it’s an option for all of us—like maybe I could actually go. This idea takes ahold in my mind, because I prize reading and learning above all else, even above climbing a tree or rolling down a hill—even at that young age. I know that this is something I want to do, so I somehow get it into my mind that the only way to get to college is to get straight As from then on. My elementary-school-kid mind doesn’t understand what colleges are looking for, only understanding that we can’t pay for it and I need to carry this weight alone.

By the time I do begin to understand, the ideal of perfectionism is already rooted firmly in my mind. No pressure given from my parents or family members: it’s all from me. Even a small homework grade of an A- gives me the sweats, and a B+ might make me cry. My parents don’t get why I’m doing this to myself. By junior high, I know that I have to get a scholarship somewhere, or this whole thing is going to fall apart. By freshman year, I know a few places I’d like to go, but I also understand that they are out of reach. My sophomore year, I realize that public schools aren’t giving out scholarships that I’ll need really, so I start rethinking my plans, start looking at all the options.

I don’t know anything about college planning, and my guidance counselor is a joke. I know I have one shot to take the ACT, because one shot is all we can afford. I don’t know anything about potential fee waivers, because these aren’t explained or talked about. You know what else no one talked about? Application fees and how you can’t actually afford to apply to the places you really want to go, so I look for places that will give waivers if you talk to the visiting counselor. I have already had my sight set on valedictorian from second grade, thinking that this will make some sort of a difference, and this along with the great test score and my 4.0 GPA gives me the option of a couple full-tuition scholarships from small, private schools.

I’m in. I will be the first person in my entire extended family to attend and finish my bachelor’s degree, but the move to another state and the education seems to be another wedge that widens the already-started schism between me and some family members. I’m still me. I still enjoy tractor pulls and dirt-track races and a good dusty, gravel-filled backroads trip to nowhere in particular. I still like to read whatever I can get my hands on (except I can get my hands on a whole lot more now). I’m me, but they only see me rising above myself in a way that I can’t stop and I can’t retract. And I don’t know that I would if I could anyway.

Dessa, a singer and songwriter, gets this dichotomy of self and ambition. In “Fighting Fish,” she sings the following lyrics:

Around here we don’t like talk of big dreams
to stand out is a pride, a conceit
To aim high is to make waves, to split seams
but that’s not what it seems like to me, cause
I wanna try, I wanna risk
I don’t wanna walk, rather swing and miss
I’m not above apologies
but I don’t ask permission
got a lot of imperfections
but I don’t count my ambitions in ‘em

I didn’t come looking for love
I didn’t come to pick a fight
I didn’t come to wave or take pictures
pander to some benefactor, ring on every broken finger
Won’t extend my wings to be clipped
I know the culture here is to stay humble but shit
if we all go round bowed heads, button-lipped
if none of us go for the bell, then who is?

I just finished my master’s degree, and as I debated whether to announce it to family and friends, my dad told me not to. “It’d seem like you’re just trying to brag about it,” he said. I’ll admit it: it hurt to hear that. I wanted to share a success in my life: a goal I’ve had for almost 15 years now finally coming to fruition. My parents have been completely supportive, even if my mom didn’t quite understand what I was doing or why.

It’s hard to explain the feeling that washes over you at that moment, where you are so proud that you finally accomplished something you’ve wanted to do for so long, yet you feel ashamed of wanting it and of striving for it. Even though I don’t want to count my ambitions among my imperfections, I know that some of my family members do. It’s a pull in two different directions that doesn’t make sense to those who haven’t straddled two worlds.

The pull gets stronger, the chasm wider. I have fairly decent health and dental coverage through my husband’s position; my parents can’t afford true health care or even partial dental coverage. Pulling a tooth that needs a root canal is the only option, because the root canal is too costly. Meanwhile, I have terrible teeth (childhood poverty and rural living on well water waving reminder flags) having had my first root canal at age 18 and the second shortly after I married at age 26 along with various and sundry fillings. Seeing other people’s white-picket-fence-rows of stark white, straight teeth is a reminder that braces aren’t commonplace everywhere or for everyone, although people around me often talk as though it were. Hearing people complain about doing without as children and finding out they mean they didn’t always have the latest gaming system as soon as it came out is disorienting still. Adults who complain that the Coach bag they wanted was out of stock, so they had to make do with this other one that wasn’t exactly what they wanted until the other comes in is still foreign to me, even after years of being around it.

When I go home, I feel a sense of belonging that doesn’t quite fill me in other places. Yet at the same time, I feel rough edges that don’t quite fit into the place I left, like I’m a cube being ground into a sphere to fit another space and time. There are gaps and holes around me the whole time. I fall back into speech patterns with my “y’all” and my vowels more drawn out. I am more aware of money, what things cost, how it fits, what my budget allows and how it differs from my parents.

I feel guilty. I want to give something to them, but I know they wouldn’t take it. That intense pride in making do as much as you can, even if it means you might need WIC to round out your kids’ diets when they’re young, it still fills me with a fierce independence that many don’t fully understand (particularly, I think, my in-laws). We make do with what we have. Making do becomes normal again.

But it still lifts my other self’s spirits a bit to hear from my dad’s coworker that he’s been bragging on my accomplishments, my new degree. It helps to hear that he cares enough to pull this accomplishment out and show it off, even if he knows others might not totally get it. It helps a little bit to know that he supports these dreams of mine, even if they are different than the dreams he once had.

But who knows? Maybe he once had these dreams, too, but couldn’t escape the rift—or couldn’t tolerate the thought of trying to. Even today, life is different. I recently worked in a college counseling office, where I saw the world of college search open up to me even broader than before: fee waivers for testing, fee waivers for college applications, summer programs for those whose family incomes don’t quite make the cut. Maybe my dad once had similar dreams, but didn’t have a second-grade teacher who told him it was possible. In the back of my mind, I always think about making the impossible possible and seeing dreams fulfilled, and I wonder more and more as I get older about the dreams deferred in previous generations. Instead of drying up or festering or rotting and stinking or even exploding, maybe, just maybe, it moves down the line to the next generation, planting a seed, just a small kernel of an idea in a young mind until one of our own catches hold of their own dream and rides it until it breaks and becomes instead a distinct possibility.

(If you want to hear the song mentioned above, and you know you do, listen to it below!)

Philosophy of Librarianship

I still recall that a part of graduating from the education department at my undergrad institution included writing a strong philosophy of education. After all of the education classes, the analysis of education, the observations, the reflections, and my own student teaching, I still felt as though my educational philosophy was evolving and changing, so I was not completely happy with the outcome. True to life, my thoughts and feelings about education have grown as I’ve learned more and observed the ebb and flow of educational trends.

When I was asked to write a Statement of Professional Philosophy for my MLIS Plan B, I again felt shifting ideas brushing into each other as I considered what I should write. I finally decided to distill the three most important aspects of librarianship that I hope I have continually embodied even before obtaining my MLIS and that I hope to continue to embody as I move forward in my career.

Three values have cropped up over and over in my employment history: ensuring access to education, helping those who need assistance, and making information easy to access and understand. My undergraduate work was in English education with a minor in Spanish, and it was at my alma mater that I met Dr. Patricia Newcomer (AKA Doña Patricia) my first library mentor who also happened to be my advanced Spanish professor. When I graduated, Doña Patricia encouraged me to continue on and to obtain a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I, in my less than infinite wisdom, instead chose to go immediately into the working world.

Doña Patricia passed away shortly after I graduated, so I am sad to say that she will never see her hopes for me come to fruition. However, it is clear that she and the other librarians at my college’s library, where I worked for four straight years, have had a profound effect on my mental view of and development into a librarian. Beyond all of the mundane, technical tasks that were completed in that library, the ideals of education and assistance as well as warmth and kindness were taught to me on a daily basis. Being a librarian and an information professional means being open, inviting, giving, and helpful. Why else would a person go into a professional that prides itself on service to all and includes diversity among its chief values and goals for growth?

In the preface of his forthcoming book, Dr. Michael Stephens (2016) wrote the following words, words that have the ring of authority and the air of truth about them:

For me, the heart of librarianship is learning. It’s a cyclical process of support, engagement, and discovery with deep roots in the concepts of service, access, and freedom to pursue interests of all kinds. No matter what type of institution, someone is gaining knowledge, finding information, or creating something new based on our facilitation. And in my opinion, the role of facilitator and guide is best delivered with humanity and heart.


Libraries encourage the heart, which means we should lead from the heart, learn from the heart, and play from the heart. It means we are all-in all the time, not just when it’s convenient. It means bucking the status quo to do the right thing at the right moment. It means owning our actions as professionals. It means creating institutions that expand minds and craft futures. (pp. xiii-xiv)

These words of Dr. Stephens show a spirit of openness that librarians need to remain true to the value of service that our professional prides itself on. I am currently working with Dr. Stephens on a special studies section this semester, and viewing his work and his ethic has helped further solidify my own feelings about several important characteristics that I feel an information professional should have.


How anyone could become a librarian without having an indefatigable sense of curiosity and an overwhelming urge to always be learning is incomprehensible to me. From the time I was a young child, I have been curious about how things work and how to help things work better. I am quite lucky that my parents allowed and cultivated this sense of curiosity by allowing me to take things apart, put things together, and read whatever I could get my hands on. Curiosity is one of the essential traits that all information professionals must have and must continue to cultivate throughout their lives.

We information professionals should be seeking curiosity in its many incarnations. Education never stops, and reading is an important part of this ongoing, adult education. Technology is changing at a rapid pace, and emerging technologies are coming along quickly. Asking ourselves questions and being able to find the answers quickly and efficiently will only allow us to learn more and to help others learn as well. If we aren’t curious and aren’t willing to ask questions and to seek the answers, how can we expect our patrons and users to do so?

When I was a Fall 2014 LIBR 203 Peer Mentor, I wrote a blog post titled “Curiosity and the Information Professional.” I still firmly believe everything I wrote in that post, including the following important points:

Dig in! Don’t be afraid! If you can’t figure something out, ask someone who might know or even Google it. As future information professionals, curiosity is our calling and finding out new and helpful information is our trademark.


Remember, curiosity didn’t really kill the cat. And even though what he was curious about just might have (it was probably a venomous snake or something), technology doesn’t have that power and won’t strike, so go ahead and seek more information and gather more data. Curiosity is knowledge-seeking, which isn’t such a bad trait in a librarian. (para. 11-12)

In fact, I would argue that it’s not just a good trait for information professionals: it’s essential.


Diversity and inclusivity go hand in hand throughout the world, whether you are a library professional or not. That said, librarians are on the front lines of ensuring access to all, no matter a person’s socioeconomic status, race, religion, gender, and so on. Education and information are extremely important to ensure the growth of our profession and to help each person with her/his own personal educational goals.

I am disappointed to live in a country that does not prize learning a second language from childhood, because I feel that this is an important part of helping others feel included. I myself began learning Spanish in high school, minored in it for my undergraduate degree, and took the Advanced Spanish for Librarians course while at SJSU to help refresh my skills and to learn the library-specific language and jargon that I may need in a professional capacity. Although it is not possible to learn every language that we may find ourselves needing, learning even one additional language means that we can reach and help more people. In such a global society, it becomes even more important to open ourselves up to new experiences, different cultures, and differing ideas. F. Scott Fitzgerald (2005) once wrote (oddly enough, in the same essay in which he would also later describe some of his own prejudices) the following:

[L]et me make a general observation – the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. (p. 139)

This seems to be a great description of what librarians should strive to do: maintain as many ideas, opposed or similar, as possible to help all who come seeking assistance without regard to any supposed differences. We are not called to believe all of the ideas or to hold any specific, but we are called to move beyond the mere idea of tolerance to a far greater respect and empathy for our fellow human being—to becoming advocates for the unheard and voiceless in our communities.


Empathy requires each of us to gain the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to move beyond our own feelings to hopefully better gauge what someone else is possibly feeling and thinking. Dialogue with others and self-reflection are key first steps on the road to empathy. “It has been shown that empathy plays a clear role in facilitating more effective communication between library staff and users, whether or not English is their first language” (Birdi, Wilson, & Tso, 2009, p. 87).

What do our patrons need and want from us? What are the needs of our surrounding community, and how can we fulfill those needs to the best of our ability? This can and will differ in each community: it will depend greatly on the makeup of your surrounding community and the needs of the people who use our facilities and services. I believe that this is a circle of knowledge that needs to be consistently monitored to ensure that the library is offering services that the community needs in order to fulfill and help plug any holes in community services that can be provided by the library.

Librarians are, without a doubt, ensconced within a helping profession. Altruism and a desire to meet people where they are coming from are essential requirements for a truly empathetic nature, so keeping current with social justice issues along with a knowledge of local community needs and issues is required to ensure our ability to meet those needs and to address those issues in our own communities.


Birdi, B., Wilson, K., & Tso, H.M (2009) The nature and role of empathy in public librarianship. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 41(2), pp. 81-89.

Fitzgerald, F. S. (2005). My lost city: Personal essays, 1920-1940. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stephens, M. (2016). The heart of librarianship: Attentive, positive, and purposeful change. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions.