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Sunday Reflections: A Tale of Two TLAs

I have always thought of the library as the great equalizer. As a librarian, I work ceaselessly to try and bridge many gaps that my patrons face in terms of access to information and resources and opportunities. And although I have worked at some very different libraries, I had not really thought a lot about the differences in meeting our patrons needs . . . until this past week.

This past week, I went to TLA, the Texas Library Association conference. A little over 7,000 librarians, authors and publishers were present – as well as just some good old fashioned readers, many of whom were teens. But let me back up and tell you about planning for TLA.

Due to a move for my husband’s job, I moved to Texas a little over 2 years ago. I got a job working part-time at my current library system because as full-time staff leave, they are replacing them with part-time staff. This apparently is a trend as someone recently Tweeted a statistic that indicated that approximately 1/3 of professional – meaning degree holding – librarians are employed part-time. (Side note: so please consider this the next time you talk about poor people being lazy or stupid, lots of people out there holding degrees of various kinds are either un or under employed). As someone who is very passionate about libraries and teens and books, I knew I wanted to go to TLA – but I also knew it would be on my own very meager dime. So I was not able to sign up for the full conference experience. And I shared a hotel room with a great roommate in a part of town that we discovered the first night was probably not the best place to be walking through in the dark of night. In fact, every morning we loaded the shuttle bus that would pass under this magical lighted overpass that seemingly transport us into a different, magical world known as the convention center, but on the way we passed by some homeless people sleeping next to abandoned buildings and my heart ached.

I began early on to notice the different levels of conference experiences people were having around me. There were others, like me, who were making tremendous personal sacrifices to attend because they weren’t employed by a system – either public or school – that was paying for them to attend the conference. There were no opening sessions and dessert mixers, there were no short walks across the River Walk to a posh hotel. There were just dedicated librarians giving their all to be the best they could be for their schools and communities. One school librarian had even come in from another state on their own dime and on their spring break so that their employer wouldn’t complain about their missing school. The truth is, not all library systems support their librarians and their libraries in the same way. We talked about skipping lunch, eating off of dollar menus for dinner, and hoping that there weren’t any bugs in the beds in our questionable hotel rooms. We found solidarity in our hunger pains that we were trying to satisfy with intellectual sustenance.

But as I listened to the snippets of conversation around me, I was reminded of another way in which the same income inequalities among our patrons also plagues our various library systems. As vendors talked about 3D printers and renovations, other librarians were just hoping to keep the library partially staffed in the next year and be able to update their very antiquated technology so that maybe the software would be compatible with new updated browsing systems. So although many librarians may have equal passion, they do not have equal access to resources. And I am sure that there were many librarians who weren’t able to come at all.

To those who work in the education world, this is not new. Not all school systems are created equal because they are not funded equally. But this is also true of libraries. I don’t have any really good answers, of course, for this problem of inequality in our world and in our profession. I just think this it is important to highlight occasionally because as we sing the praises of those libraries that are doing great and wondrous things, we must also remember to sing the praises of those who are doing more with less, often for patrons who truly need access in ways that better funded communities often do not. And this inequality in library funding and support is another reminder of just what it means for our students to come in to this world at a disadvantage; while their peers born into better funded communities are taking coding classes and dabbling in maker spaces, they are lucky to get current technology and their librarians are scrimping to stay involved in professional development.

In an ideal world, we would allow for conference registration and membership into professional organizations based on a sliding income based scale, similar to the way we provide affordable lunches to our lower income students. Because the truth is, the areas with a higher percentage of lower income students tend to have a lower taxable income base, and thus their librarians are often paid lower salaries and the schools/library systems also get lower funding. The school and public library systems themselves often don’t have the resources to fund professional development. And yet these students deserve librarians with access to the same current professional development as more well funded school and public libraries. One day I may rule the world and I will make this so. Or maybe we can set up a system to fund scholarships. Until then, blog about what you learn, share with others, and do what you can to help bridge the gap of inequality among libraries and librarians – because that too is serving our teens.

P.S., don’t feel too super bad for me because I got to eat dinner with Libba Bray. So even if I have to eat hot dogs for dinner for the next two weeks it will all have been worth it because – Libba Bray! And the parts of TLA I was able to attend were very awesome.

P.P.S., I will go looking for that stat about the number of un- and under-employed librarians.

And finally, I will probably never rule the world so I am putting the suggestion out there because I think it is a really great idea: scholarships, income based dues, and other ways to make it affordable for librarians to continue on in professional development.

For more, see our series focus on Teens and Poverty