I am hanging out with 300 librarians in Memphis for the Tennessee Library Association annual conference. We are in a hotel lobby, seated at the bar.
Most of the librarians are drinking whiskey sours and vodka gimlets. Some are drinking light beer.
It’s a wild night in Memphis.
Everyone is happy. Everyone is laughing and toting huge bags of free library swag. Everyone has let their hair down tonight.
“Wooooo!” shouts the librarian next to me. A woman who looks to be comfortably in her mid- to late-80s.
The library association’s annual conference is like Woodstock for librarians. They come from all over. They come from every small town, backwater, and hamlet within the Volunteer State.
Some librarians come from the sticks:
“I have worked in the poorest parts of Appalachia for almost 40 years. I’ve had teenagers come to me who never learned to read. Some have been barefoot, literally.”
They come from big cities:
“We get students in Nashville from all over the world. I’ve met med students from Africa, China, and Brazil. I’ve helped single moms study for their GED exams.”
These librarians hail from different walks of life. Different races and creeds. But they all have one thing in common.
“We just like to help people.”
I meet one librarian who is elderly. She walks with a bent spine and an aluminum cane. She is drinking a Mick Ultra. She is wearing enough Estée Lauder Youth Dew to choke a cat.
She has been a librarian for over half a century and remembers when the most advanced technology in her library was the No. 2 pencil.
“Sure, It’s hard to be a librarian these days,” she says. “Sometimes it feels like the whole country is against you. They keep banning books. Classics and new books alike. And they portray us librarians as the enemy.”
She’s right. To be a librarian in today’s world is proving to be difficult. Rising book bans and censorship have thrust librarians into the center of a culture war.
Today’s librarians need thick skin. They are often accused of peddling smut, bigotry, racism, intolerance, misinformation, inequality, and a host of other horrors. Many librarians are harassed. Others are turning in their resignations.
I recently met one librarian in Texas who quit her job after her administrative board introduced several new policies that provoked a rash of anger from locals.
Vicious critics came out of the woodwork.
“There were comments online about our employees,” she said. “They called us horrible names. People said we belonged in jail… Some of us were even threatened. I thought to myself, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
She turned in her resignation.
I speak to another librarian in her late 70s. She is drinking a mojito at the hotel bar and wearing a Hawaiian-print shirt.
“I’ve been a librarian for 45 years, I’ve never seen it like this. All I’ve ever wanted to do was help kids. Last year someone accused me of racism because ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ were on our shelves. I went home and cried. Mark Twain and Harper Lee were not racists.”
I’ll be honest. It’s hard to stand idly by and see librarians get poor mouthed. Some of my best friends have been librarians.
I, personally, have a long history with libraries.
I dropped out of school when I was in the seventh grade. I was from the rural parts. Nobody seemed to care about my future. Except librarians.
Which is why I never quit visiting the library. Why? Because the library was my safe place.
I was a kid who saw himself as sorry white trash. The library was the only educational institution that did not judge me. The library is the only alma mater I’ve ever known. And I’ll be doggone if I’m going to sit around and watch the good names of librarians be slopped through the mud.
“My mama was a librarian,” the Hawaiian-shirt lady tells me. “I watched my mama change lives at her library. She was a living saint.
“One time, my mother learned braille just so she could teach a blind woman in our town to read braille. Mama went to night classes for braille, three times each week. She studied hard.
“She taught that blind woman to read, and she bought a braille typewriter to teach that woman to write.
“That lady came to my mother’s funeral and made a speech, she called my mother her hero. We all bawled like babies.
“Being a librarian is all about helping people. It isn’t about reading, or organization. It’s about people. And that’s what I’m about. I’m all about helping people.”
She paused and smiled. “And right now, I’m also all about mojitos.”
God bless the local librarian.
Dee Thompson - April 14, 2023 3:27 pm
Lovely column! You were in the midst of my favorite people, old ladies. I always have at least one old lady in each of my novels. They tell the truth. They are fearless. They are my heroes.
David in California - April 14, 2023 4:13 pm
It’s a conundrum. But then, our whole society is right now. Sad (from both ends of the political spectrum).
Whatever happened to common sense?
I ❤ libraries, too.
Sy Butler - April 14, 2023 7:05 pm
Thank you for loving Libraries the way you do and shining a light on our plight. Despite what others think, we are the gatekeepers of information and are the stewards guiding people to knowledge. Your story was awe inspiring and just know that I might get a “spine label” tattoo because of you! 😉😁
Savannah - April 16, 2023 8:21 pm
Thank you so much for taking the time to come and speak with us, but more importantly, thank you for reminding me why I am becoming a librarian.
One day I will aspire to be an old librarian lady in a Hawaiian drinking a mojito, but I’ll get through library school first (at the very least).
Eric - April 17, 2023 1:55 am
She wasn’t an old lady when I met her; she was still young, my age – or so I thought. She was working at the reference desk. I knew this because my priest-friend told me so. She is now the mother of my 27 year old son. She retired from library service when we were finally able to adopt our son, born in Huntsville. She’s still a librarian at heart, and substitute teacher, and volunteer, and mentor. She’s not a fan of mojitos, but she can make a tasty margarita! BTW: loved seeing you at the Opry.