The Library as Spinach

(Think slimy canned spinach, not delicious fresh spinach in a tasty salad.)

My first job as a librarian was in a theological seminary, where we had students aged 22-50 and beyond, many with small children.  One day a student came into the library with his fussy toddler, clearly juggling child care responsibilities with the need to do some library research.  As the understandably bored child whined and began to act up, the student said, “Stop it, or that librarian [pointing at me] will make you eat spinach.”  Great, I thought; now the child will hate spinach AND librarians.  This happened over 30 years ago;  I wonder if it was a formative experience and if that now grown-up kid avoids libraries and librarians to this day.

Librarians struggle with the legacy of people’s images of us and of libraries.  Years ago, libraries were built with long flights of stairs leading up to them, to symbolize the nobility and gravitas of the temple of learning.  Then we realized the barriers this architecture created for people with mobility challenges and for students with library anxiety.  The design didn’t necessarily serve to call seekers after knowledge to a higher purpose; in some cases it deterred them from entering.  Earlier this summer, Nicole Pagowsky and Erica DeFrain published a smart, complex disquisition on the attributes of warmth and cold or warmth and competence in feminized professions, noting, “This is problematic for librarians who want to both be taken seriously on campus, facing the necessity of proving value, and yet who also endeavor to effectively reach students and show care.  We seem to be in a paradox of demonstrating warmth through caring for students and reversing expectations from our cold stereotype, yet perhaps to some degree warmth hinders us in striving for status, respect, and greater collaborations on campus.”

Maybe that is what’s behind the criticism we get for doing light-hearted things at Little Library, and I should be grateful for the concern for our image.  I’d rather think that than believe there are people who want students’ experiences in using the library to resemble being force-fed spinach: anything fun is childish and demeaning, so going to the library should be arduous, grueling, a punishment.

To be fair, some students think this way: some of the denizens of the lower level carrels choose that location for its ascetic ambience.  It forces them to buckle down and study, and that’s what they want.  I’m happy they can find a conducive work space in the library, and I fully support their ability to make their own decisions about what kind of space they want to work in.  I also support other people’s rights to make those same decisions for themselves.   I believe in inclusivity.  I envision a library building that welcomes and accommodates everyone, including people who enjoy touches of whimsy that suggest library staff are human and approachable, not disciplinarians who make you eat spinach.  Scholarship, after all, can be fun:  listening to the voices of earlier scholars, getting that spark of a new idea, feeling the thrill of the hunt for information, experiencing the gift of serendipity.  Sometimes it’s hard work, but it doesn’t have to be unrelenting drudgery.  And those librarians, who are both caring and expert, can be helpful companions along the way.