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An Overdue Look into the Lives of Librarians

If stories create the worlds into which we escape, then these alums are the guardians of those precious galaxies.

February 27, 2019

Paula Ann Solis

A librarian plays video games with students in a library
Em Roberts

The Gamer Librarian

Chris Durr (St. Louis ’07) University of California-Davis (Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Religious Studies) University of Missouri (Master’s degree in Library and Information Science)

Chris Durr, a librarian at the Sacramento Public Library, loves disproving librarians’ reputation as keepers of strict silence. He encourages kids to play computer games together at the library—and to talk and laugh while they’re playing. He’ll even help them create those games. Durr is leading tech-friendly initiatives inviting a new generation to use tech as a storytelling platform. Here’s his take on library work:

What do you find most appealing about libraries? Libraries are the most democratic institutions in America, the great equalizers in our society. We provide information, and it doesn’t matter what your race is or your status—everyone receives the same level of service. I grew up in a house with no bookshelves. But when my father was released from prison, he returned with a love for libraries that he shared with me, and I’ve never forgotten that. 

How does tech line up with this idea of libraries as equalizers? In Sacramento, I’m spearheading an adult literacy movement focused on digital inclusion to bridge the digital divide and tackle issues of availability and access. Our library, as part of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, is working with city and community partners to develop common measurements of success for adult literacy, and to settle on the proper tools we all need to ensure digital equity in Sacramento.

How are kids getting their hands on tech? I’m an emerging technology librarian, which means I go into schools regularly and I create programming that equips kids to create their own computer games—even the musical score. Kids use these video games as a medium to tell stories, work with character development, and learn about coding. Our programming targets historically disenfranchised kids because exposure to coding early on increases the likelihood they’ll pursue tech-based degrees. It means a lot to me, getting to see kids’ faces light up when they see something they created on a smartphone.

An illustration of students in a library watching a puppet show
Em Roberts

The Crafty Librarian

Rebecca Millerjohn (Houston ’08) University of Missouri (Bachelor’s degree in English) University of Wisconsin-Madison (Master’s degree in Library and Information Science)

As a corps member, Rebecca Millerjohn was so inspired by the difference her school librarian made in teachers’ and students’ lives that she switched careers. Now, as a youth services librarian at Madison Public Library in Wisconsin, Millerjohn develops creative learning programming in all nine libraries, schools, and around the city as a part of MPL’s Bubbler program. In these creativity labs, puppets animate storybook characters and cardboard spaceships launch kids to other galaxies. Here’s her take on library work:

What’s your favorite part of the job? It sounds strange, but I love making puppets. It’s really the best literary tool for engaging children because kids get to say things in unexpected ways with unexpected voices. They’ll say, “I’m going to make a scary puppet,” or “My puppet is going to be a sassy puppet.” And my job is just to say “Yes! Sounds great!” every time. I don’t know how often kids hear “yes.” So at the library, without the pressures of goals or worrying about what success is supposed to look like, I say yes as often as I can.

What’s been your proudest achievement so far? My library put together a grant proposal for two years of work with a national foundation, and we were told to shoot for the moon, so we did. We imagined an ideal library hub to support innovative learning in traditional and non-traditional school settings—resources to support kids’ different literacy styles, programming focused on equity, and the opportunity to work with multiple community organizations. That was our dream, and it was approved. I never thought we’d get a yes, but I’ve learned people want to support you when you’re doing something really innovative.

An illustration of kids interacting in a library
Em Roberts

The Community Librarian

Faith Rice (Chi–NWI ’11) Columbia College Chicago (Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing) Dominican University (Master’s degrees in Early Childhood Education and Library and Information Science)

 Faith Rice often starts and ends her workday someplace other than a library. She heads one of the teen YouMedia Spaces for the Chicago Public Library system, but she doesn’t wait for kids to find her behind the desk. She shows up in their classrooms and other spaces in the community to make sure kids know their local library is bursting with resources especially for them. Here’s her take on the job:

How would you describe your duties? I create programming that appeals to teens, like hip-hop poetry events, sessions on making slime, or photography lessons. My job is to attract the community and schools to our services.

When you’re not at the library, where in the community are we likely to find you? You can find me at the Englewood Red Cross location hosting book groups for transitioning teens who have been removed from Chicago Public Schools and are going to alternative schools. Or you can find me at a community center, performing and teaching spoken word poetry to youth. I also set up stations in nearby Subway or McDonald’s restaurants, or wherever students frequent afterschool, inviting them to hang out with us in the teen spaces.

What has been one of your more successful community events? As part of a summer program, I helped kids from my library gain experience as community leaders. I supported kids as they planned a citywide festival supported by local businesses and politicians to create awareness for water pollution and conservation. They created this bridge to bring the city together and to impact their communities, and I got to see how the library could reach aspects of students we can’t always reach in the classroom. 

Recommended Reading (and Listening)

Millerjohn suggests the historical fantasy Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older, a tale alive with dinosaurs, New York City skylines, and the underground railroad (yes, you read that list correctly).

Rice suggests Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (D.C. Region ’10). In this coming-of-age novel written in verse, Harlem-born Afro-Latina teenager Xiomara finds refuge in poetry as she struggles with religion and family expectations. Poet X won the 2018 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

Chris Durr suggests Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan. In this audiobook, a time-traveling harmonica accompanies narrators through Germany during WWII, the North during the U.S. Civil War, and a farm in Orange County, California, at the time of the internment of Japanese Americans. An original score ties these stories together.

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