“When I was homeless, having my own space was hugely important to me. I didn’t have my own bed, much less my own room, so having a spot, even one in a public place, that was “mine”, was a comfort. I felt a sense of ownership and with it, a sense of belonging.”
“Homeless children know that their parents have many priorities – jobs, health, finding shelter, so feeling like the librarian’s only priority was magical to me.”
When I was five years old my father left his job as the manager of a restaurant in Denver. As many families do when facing financial instability, my parents packed us up and moved to Iowa to be closer to family and a job for my Dad. For the next six months we relied on relatives and friends for shelter. It was a difficult time, but I didn’t even realize until adulthood, how serious my family’s situation had been. For me that part of my childhood was fondly known as “the year we lived at the library.” The library was my family’s stable home that year. We went almost every day; we read, we did homework, we played for hours. For me, during this time, any trauma of homelessness was completely overshadowed by my undying affection and loyalty to the children’s librarian, Mrs. S.
I would climb the stairs to the children’s department every day and make a beeline to her desk. Mrs. S would lead me through the stacks, looking for the perfect book, armed with a list of suggestions she’d thought of since my last visit. This created the impression on me that when I wasn’t at the library she still spent all her time thinking about me.
After we found a book she would sit with me, right on the floor between the shelves and listen to me prattle on about all my thoughts. These little moments with a woman whose full name I didn’t even know, these are what I remember from that year. She made the library fun, safe, and exciting. To me she was Wonder Woman in a cardigan.
Eventually my family got back on their feet. We found a house and moved to Wisconsin. Years later, I became a librarian and spent my days trying to provide that same welcoming haven to the children in my community that Mrs. S had provided for me.
After years of searching, with the aid of This American Life, I found her. I had assumed my memory had been playing tricks on me, that there couldn’t possibly be a librarian with that much patience and kindness — a person who could make you feel at home in a public space. But now I can tell you — with the certainty of an adult perspective — that she really is just that magical. I sat in Deb Stevenson’s office and we held hands and cried with each other after not seeing each other for 20 years.
So how can one be the Deb Stephenson in someone’s life? I’m by no means an expert, but Deb and I have come up with five tips for finding the best ways for libraries and librarians to be a safe haven for disenfranchised children.
1. Have special spots
When I was homeless, having my own space was hugely important to me. I didn’t have my own bed, much less my own room, so having a spot, even one in a public place, that was “mine”, was a comfort. I felt a sense of ownership and with it, a sense of belonging. Encouraging children to have their own special spots in the library can foster this same sense of security. I love when children bring guests to the library, and saunter in with the confident “lemme show you my crib” vibe. In this situation, THEY are the expert. The library has, in a way, become their home.
2. Greeting by name
Obviously any teachers reading this would know each of their students’ names, but in the library world where we see an entire community of children it can be really hard to match names and faces. This is something I struggle with personally but my trick is to encourage the kids to give me a nickname to call them- their special library name
3. Remove Barriers
When I was little it cost 50 cents to order an interlibrary loan at that library, and nowadays, it’s $3.00. Disadvantaged children don’t have that money available to them. It’s the same with library fines. Most children have no control over when they get to visit the library. So fining them for not returning items on time is a punishment they don’t deserve and couldn’t have avoided. I’m proud that the library I work at recently cleared all fines and fees for our patrons.
4. Leave the safety of your desk
Deb and I have spoken a lot about what made our relationship so special. At that time, in her department her responsibilities were 1) storytime and 2) the kids. That was it. If she wasn’t doing storytime she was out on the floor, with us.
5. Give the illusion that you have all the time in the world
Deb never made me feel rushed or like she didn’t have time for me. She let me be as picky as I wanted when we were picking out books. The way I’ve tried to implement this in my library is being very clear to the kids that they can say no to a book. Kids often feel a pressure to just say yes to whatever they’re given by an adult but I want the kids to know their thoughts and opinions are valuable to me, so they don’t have to check out the book just because I suggested it. Deb always made me feel as if the most important thing to her was that I found the perfect book, she had no other priorities and nothing else she needed to do. Homeless children know that their parents have many priorities – jobs, health, finding shelter, so feeling like the librarian’s only priority was magical to me.
In an effort to thank Deb, and the library that changed my life, I told my story in DEAR LIBRARIAN, available for purchase now. Do you have a Deb in your life? Someone who inspired you with their kindness and empathy and set you on the right path? If you can, reach out and thank them, it can be life changing.
Lydia M. Sigwarth is an author and children’s librarian living in Platteville, Wisconsin with her fluffy puppy Agatha. Her absolute favorite thing to do is talk books with budding bookworms. Dear Librarian is her debut picture book. You can find her online @LibraryLydia.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Dear Librarian. Many thanks to Macmillan for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of Dear Librarian, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, August 20th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Tuesday, August 24th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
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Thanks to everyone who left a comment on this post. Gwen Blumberg’s commenter number was selected using a random number generator so she’ll win the copy of Dear Librarian.