When you think of libraries, chances are, your mental picture is rather rosy. “Libraries are sacred spaces,” we’re told; they’re the Great Equalizer, capable of uniting and saving our polarized democracy by offering a safe space and free resources to everyone who visits. But according to some librarians, this vision overlooks the complicated reality of life inside America’s book houses—including Amanda Oliver, the author of an illuminating new book, Overdue: Reckoning With the Public Library, out March 22.
In this galvanizing work of nonfiction, Oliver remembers the six challenging years she spent working as a librarian in some of Washington, D.C.’s most underserved neighborhoods. Working in public schools, she experienced heartbreaking levels of underfunding and disinvestment, leading to staggering overwork even when her positions were reduced to part-time. When she left to join the city’s public library system, she was assigned to the “unusual” branch of Northwest One, where she received an education for which no library science program could prepare her. Though Oliver cared deeply for her patrons, she, like so many other library workers, was ill-equipped to confront the cascading crises manifesting within the library, including the housing and the mental healthcare crisis. After nine months of heartbreaking incidents and harassment on the job left her with a diagnosis of complex PTSD, Oliver left the library profession altogether.
Overdue is Oliver’s call to arms. In this brave and vulnerable book, she underscores how we must demand better from what we love. Through the lens of her own experiences, she illuminates how libraries have long been vectors for some of our biggest social ills, from segregation to racism to inequality. “I can’t think of a better metaphor for our country—where it has been, where it is now, and where it is headed or could be headed—than in the story of our libraries,” Oliver writes. “Libraries hold possibilities and answers for our future in ways no other institutions do.”
She spoke with Esquire by phone from her home in the Mojave Desert; the interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Esquire: What do people tend to misunderstand about libraries and librarians?
Amanda Oliver: It’s less a misunderstanding than an incomplete understanding. People understand that libraries do more than lend books and offer computers, but there’s a layer missing when it comes to just how much librarians and libraries do—how much of social safety net they provide, far beyond information and Internet access. For a whole population of people, libraries are lifelines providing basic dignity, care, and respect, as well as clean drinking water and access to bathrooms. Librarians are informational professionals trained to do one job, but they often perform jobs more akin to social work and first response.
ESQ: In the book, you often use the term “empathy fatigue.” What is empathy fatigue, and what were your experiences with it?
A.O.: The term empathy fatigue was first coined by a nurse working on a cancer ward. It’s a collection of many different symptoms resulting from being around trauma and traumatic incidents. It can be secondhand, where you’re witnessing trauma, or it can be firsthand, where you’re experiencing trauma. Either way, there’s an ultimate toll on your mind and body. Let’s say you work at a hospital and you’re working in the billing office. It’s one minute before closing time, and someone comes up to you, pleading to take care of something. Someone with empathy fatigue might say, “Look at the clock. We’re closed for today.” They wouldn’t be able to hold space for this person who’s crying and experiencing a terrible moment. That sounds like such a cruel reaction, but that’s what empathy fatigue does.
It took awhile for me to reach the point of not being able to care as much as I wanted to. It entered my body first—I had severe insomnia and chronic migraines. Then, it became something like a patron approaching the desk, asking to use the stapler, and I said, “That belongs to the library. That’s for the staff.” Now it breaks my heart that I ever would’ve said no to something so basic. In the many interviews I did with librarians, they were either already familiar with empathy fatigue and very quickly able to say, ” I experienced that,” or once I explained them to it, they’d say, “Absolutely, I’ve experienced that.”
ESQ: How do we fight to overcome that empathy fatigue?
A.O.: The idea of needing to overcome it often comes from a workplace environment demanding that of you. I absolutely think it’s important to find coping mechanisms for getting out of that space, but I’m interested in why there’s not more emphasis on how many people, especially in the library profession, have reached that point. I’ve developed my own coping mechanisms—like mindfulness, meditation, and acupuncture—but those all require money and time. I do think some of the onus falls on administrators and higher-ups, who see their staff struggling, to work on making change. I’m sensitive to turning it around on ourselves, asking “how do I make this better?” when it’s also environmental.
ESQ: I’m reminded of that advice we so often hear, about how having greater empathy for our fellow man is the solution to everything, but Overdue raises the question of empathy’s limitations.
A.O.: It does have limitations. We exist in a culture where we might collectively be able to hold that ideal, but if we build an entire culture under capitalism that doesn’t allow space for it, what can we do? I try to be very vulnerable and honest about my privilege; I was able to quit my job, and not everyone can. It reached a point where I had to ask myself: “Am I willing to give up my soul, my spirit, and my life for this?” Ultimately the answer was no.
ESQ: Could some of this have to do with capitalism telling us that our professions are our callings, and to quit them is to fail in our purpose?
A.O.: Absolutely. We could call that negative self-talk, but I think it comes from more than just the self. So much of American work culture asks so much of people. With the pandemic moving us toward a work-from-home future, I think we see even more clearly how we’ve been tricked into this culture. Occasionally I get backlash from other librarians, who say, “She just wasn’t cut out for the job.” I don’t take any offense to that, and I understand where they’re coming from, but I don’t think any job is worth losing so much of yourself.
ESQ: How has the pandemic affected libraries and the people who converge on those spaces?
A.O.: I sold this book in April 2020—our first full month of the pandemic. When I first envisioned writing it, I thought I would be traveling to libraries all over the country. I wanted to sit in libraries as I wrote—to talk to patrons and talk to librarians. But then travel became impossible, and for the first time in history, libraries closed down for months on end. I’m friends with some former coworkers, who texted me about driving by the branch and seeing all the regulars sitting outside. That was happening all over the country, and it broke my heart into a million pieces.
Libraries and librarians have always stepped up during times of crisis. As the pandemic wore on, they got their bearings and got right back into it. But it’s tricky. We now see libraries being used as Covid testing centers, which again asks librarians to wear another hat, while they’re already pulling from a trunk of the many different hats they wear. They’re being asked to put their bodies even more directly on the line. There are different schools of thought about that—some librarians think it’s part of the job, and others don’t.
ESQ: Something I’ve been thinking about often is this recent upswing in banned or challenged books. The American Library Association doesn’t support banning books, but how are individual librarians thinking about and combatting this issue?
A.O.: I can’t name a single librarian who’s okay with book banning. If you’re going to become a librarian, it’s in your nature to be against that, though certainly librarians have their own biases. When I worked as a school librarian, I created a policy and procedures manual, which included a process and a policy around banned books. I prepared legal-ish documents to share with parents if they came in to talk about banned books, though I never had to use them.
That said, things happened at a conversational level. I had a classroom teacher send a fourth grader back to the library, after she’d taken out a biography of Hitler. The classroom teacher said, “I don’t think this is appropriate for a fourth grader.” I had to have a conversation with her to say, “It’s an appropriate reading level. It’s included in this collection, and I’ve taken great care of curating what’s in the collection. What this student wants to read is ultimately up to her, and if her parents want to speak with me about it, then I’m happy to speak with them.” I think a lot of librarians are having these conversations as they arise and being advocates on the fly. In a public library, a patron might say, “How dare you carry this book?” Librarians are equipped to talk about general policies around freedom of information and freedom of access to books. In our MLS programs, we discuss how to handle situations like this.
ESQ: There’s a library off the coast of Maine buying up banned books. In the local newspaper, they say, “We are buying banned books in order to publicly push back against the impetus to ban books. To say, ‘If you don’t want it in your library, we want it in ours.’”
A.O.: I love that. Libraries and librarians are constantly doing things like that. There’s always banned book week, when librarians make displays around that theme. I used to do that even at the elementary level. I’d pull out banned books to start conversations with my third, fourth, and fifth graders. At that age, they’re honestly so much more open to that. For example, there’s a children’s book called And Tango Makes Three. It’s about two partnered penguins at the Bronx Zoo who were given an egg, which they raised together. That book has been challenged because it’s about “gay penguins.” I always had really lively conversations with my students, where they’d say, “What’s wrong with that? The penguins were in love, and they did a good job raising their baby.” It’s fascinating to me how much kids can be so much more open to these conversations than adults.
ESQ: There are those who suggest that libraries are becoming obsolete as the world goes digital. In the book, you push back against this, writing, “Never has our recorded history has been more susceptible to erasure, compromise, and deletion in ways that physical libraries are not.” What about our digital life is so precarious?
A.O.: We have so much information online now, but there’s this thing called link rot, where references within articles, or even entire articles themselves, now lead to links that don’t exist anymore. Because it’s not a physical item or a book, that link is gone forever. Every few years, there’s some panic about how everything will be replaced by audiobooks or the Internet. But there’s something very special to holding a book and smelling a book. I just don’t think that piece is going anywhere.
There’s also continuously this question of, “Will libraries continue to be here?” I think that’s such an absurd question. Libraries have been around for thousands of years. We’re always going to need recorded information, people who provide access to that information, and people who keep it in some organized fashion. I’d bet my money on having physical recorded information longer than we’re going to have any sort of Internet.
ESQ: Late in the book, you write, “Anyone can learn to think a little bit more like a librarian, when it comes not just to research and information assessment, but also empathy and community care.” Where should someone who wants to think more like a librarian get started?
A.O.: I like to use the analogy of the circulation desk. When I was living in Washington D.C. and working in the public library system, the Obama administration gave way to the Trump administration. After that, I got questions at the circulation desk that I didn’t like. I had to put on my librarian hat: “This is not about whether I like the question; this is someone coming to me for information, and I’m going to do my best to help them.” The more I did that, the more I started to meet people as they were, and as I am, in these very human moments. That was the whole practice of being a librarian.
Probably 95% of my patrons who came into the library every day were unhoused and experiencing addiction or mental health issues. I saw them every day; I learned their names, their interests, who they were, and where they came from. When I talk about being a librarian, I mean leaving yourself open to situations like that, where you enter conversations with curiosity. Who is this person? Where do they come from? What might you learn from them? In America, we have this habit of falling into specific circles and not exiting them very often. It’s the nature of a librarian’s job to encounter whoever walks into the library that day, but in our lives, it’s the exact same thing when you’re out there in the world.
We have this endless conversation: “Will libraries still be here?” Or make jokes about what libraries do. But I’m always so happy that we still believe in the spirit of what a library is. I constantly see people tweet, “Libraries are so cool. It’s the only place where you can go and hang out without spending money.” This tells me that we fundamentally believe in equal access and community care. Libraries embody that. But when you step back and take a beat, you realize that there are ways to embody that spirit in your own community, whether it’s community gardening or bringing food to a community fridge. I find a lot of hope in that. We already understand that libraries are good. What I hope is the next step is that it doesn’t have to be limited to libraries.
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