You are allowed to be here

Libraries as public space and a place for all.

‘A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert,’ said Andrew Carnegie, the millionaire who built more than 2,500 local libraries with his money at the turn of the century. In this interview Liberty Phelan speaks to Sarah Jones, a librarian from New York, about how architecture and design needs to adapt to the library’s ever-expanding role, and why librarianship might be the dream job you never knew you wanted.

The views expressed in this interview are based on Sarah’s personal experiences and do not represent the views of her employer.

Becoming a librarian was not in my life plan. I moved to New York from Arkansas when I was 20 to go to NYU’s acting conservatory (the alumni list includes Idina Menzel and Andy Samberg). Acting school is wild: it’s 9am, you’ve barely had your coffee and they’re like ‘We need you to relive your childhood trauma,’. There are two types of people who go to NYU, there are the people who can afford it and the people that can’t. I was the latter, so I was always working while I was doing my degree and when I graduated I had spent $250,000 on my education.

I did get a lot of opportunities because of my diploma. But when I was trying to be a working actor in New York, I had to work 5 part time jobs to pay my rent (nannying, dog walking, babysitting, temping, social media posting). I only spent $50 a month on groceries, and basically just ate out of the cupboards of the families I babysat for.

I got to do some cool stuff, (being Amy Poehler’s stand in for lighting tests on Saturday Night Live and being an extra in a musical that later went to Broadway were maybe the highlights) but I hit my breaking point after a couple of years. I got offered two unpaid acting gigs in one week and had to turn them both down because I couldn’t afford the time off work. I literally sat at the kitchen table and couldn’t stop crying while the kid I was babysitting did his homework.

A Facebook friend advertised an au pair job in Paris and I decided that seemed like the thing I should do next. As an au pair, you don’t have to worry about bills or rent so I thought I would go and enjoy myself and figure out what I want to do next. When I was there I started volunteering at the American Library in Paris and after my second shift, I thought ‘This is what I want to do.’

I wanted a job where I could make enough money to live, but also feel good about the work that I’m doing. So now I’m doing a Masters while working as a Children’s Librarian for the New York Public Library. My Masters degree was about the ethics of being a librarian, how to be neutral and anti-censorship, and examining the systems we use to organise knowledge. For example, the Dewey Decimal System is actually really problematic: ‘Women’s Work’ is classified separately from jobs, and 90% of the Religion section is allotted to Christianity.    

People often complain that there’s always homeless people in libraries, and it’s like, yes, there are. Because libraries are for everyone and they are free. They are the only liminal space you can be in without paying for something. Plus, 29% of New Yorkers don’t have internet at home. Kids don’t come here to do their homework because it’s the best place to do it, it’s actually very noisy on the children’s floor. Kids come because their parents can’t pick them up from school, or they need a computer. You wouldn’t believe the number of kids who don’t know how to print because they don’t have a computer.

Giving people books is arguably the least important part of my job. In my branch, we offer citizenship classes, events where you can get help finding a job or housing, or dealing with food scarcity, to name just a few of the programmes. Many librarians in the US are even trained to administer Narcan, a drug that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose, so that they don’t have to wait for the emergency services when people overdose in library bathrooms.

Libraries take things that aren’t normally accessible to everyone and make them accessible. Beautiful old buildings are a part of this. Most people associate the New York Public Library system with the so-called ‘Main Branch’, the turn of the century building in the Beaux-Arts style with the two iconic lions outside (in case you were wondering, they’re called Patience and Fortitude). And NYPL was given a lot of money by Carnegie so we have lots of other 100 year old libraries around New York, full of dark wood and high ceilings. But while they are cool to look at, they are not always best for the purpose they serve now. High ceilings are echoey and loud, and when these buildings were designed, children were hardly even allowed in libraries and librarians didn’t have desks.

The library I work at was built in 2005 but the architect made the walls curved. You know what’s not curved? Bookshelves. And books. A new library opened in Queens last year that cost $41.5 million, where the shelves are on an incline with stairs. It looks really cool but the elevator doesn’t stop at every row, so people with wheelchairs or strollers or mobility issues just can’t browse the books.

Design needs to consider how libraries are actually used and occupied. For example, a lot of people watch porn at the library (there’s this one guy who comes in all the time dressed in a marching band uniform and watches it real zoomed in). I can’t stop them, the children’s floor is separate, and you are entitled to use your computer time however you want. We used to have the computers on open tables and we changed them to cubicles because if people are going to do it you might as well make it less intrusive.  

Often when I tell people my job, they’re like ‘Oh my god, I always wanted to be a librarian when I was little!’. But when they grew up, they thought the job was just giving out books. Honestly, I had no idea librarians did this much until I became interested in it. Ultimately, our job is to take information and experiences that are reserved for the elite and give them to everyone. I think that this is great.

Article by Liberty Phelan. Some details have been changed as so to not disclose the interviewee. Illustration by Lockie Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.