I used to live next to a retired librarian named Ralph. He converted the University of Idaho’s library collection from the Dewey Decimal System to the Library of Congress. It took him seven years. When I was 22 years old I, along with five of my closest friends, moved into the house next to his. A couple of days after we moved in, Ralph introduced himself and asked if we’d be willing to help with things around his house, like changing light bulbs. (At his age there are some things he should not be doing, like climbing on ladders.) Of course we agreed. To thank us he baked loaves of bread or pies. Because we were careless, our door was always unlocked and he left them on the kitchen counter or in the fridge. Sometimes he’d have us over for dinner. Dinner would often last 6 hours, because Ralph would ramble about all the letters to the editor he had written, all the places he’d traveled to, all the nuances of all the languages he knew, and all the contradictions he’d found in different translations of the Bible. Ralph is kind of boring.
Once a group of us (boys and girls) were hanging out. For whatever reason we had a surplus of ugly brown fabric with a cowboys and Indian print. We decided to make loin cloths out of the fabric. That night it started raining, a lot. Our backyard was a steep slope of grass. We threw a blue tarp on the grass, covered ourselves in dish soap and spent most of the evening sliding down the hill in dumb loin cloths. The next morning everyone who lived in the house received an e-mail from Ralph saying he’d left a book for us on our coffee table. The book was The Guide to Getting It On. Ralph is also very funny.
It’s been, like, 6 years since I lived next door to Ralph, but we are still in touch. The last time I was in Idaho, I stopped by his house and he showed me some new speakers he got for his computer. To show off what the speakers were capable of, he opened a youtube video of some Australian bird chirping. When Ralph was on his honeymoon in Australia, he said this bird chirp woke him up and drove him nuts every morning. During the video he looked at me with a big toothless grin. At the end he clapped his hands and started giggling. He said to me, “Tim, I’ve traveled the world, but now I can do it all from my office. It’s truly incredible.” Ralph is very sweet.
Catherine wrote a great blog post a couple weeks ago about how the library is a place where socially isolated people can go to be a part of a community and potentially alleviate loneliness. When I first read the title, “The Only Person You’ll Talk To All Day,” I thought to myself, “That is totally true. If it weren’t for my job in Wells, I wouldn’t talk to anyone all day,” but it turns out that isn’t what she meant. Maybe that comes off as sad, lonely, or pathetic of me, but it’s not meant that way. I simply intend to point out it works both ways and such a mutual exchange is what sets libraries apart and makes them places for community. Oftentimes it’s easier to see what we do for patrons than it is to see what patrons do for us. Yet, it is important to recognize community isn’t something we offer to our patrons. Rather, in conjunction with patrons, community is something created within the library.
Every year Ralph stands outside and introduces himself to the new tenants and invites them over to change his light bulbs and eat frozen pizza. Until a couple weeks ago, I thought it because he was a lonely old man who just wanted someone to talk to. Now I think that is unfair and fairly one-sided. Ralph may be lonely, but that doesn’t mean if he were not lonely he would never have introduced himself, invited us over, and continued to stay in touch for so long. Too often I feel like I’m doing Ralph a favor by talking to him, but really he is doing me a favor; he is inviting me to be a part of something outside my small, insular world. In the same way, I think it often feels like by talking to patrons and listening to or even encouraging their ramblings on, I am doing them a service. In truth, they are equally doing me a service; they are taking me out of myself, making, for a short while, their needs my needs and their interests my interests. In the end we (hopefully) both leave a little better off than when we arrived. To me, that is the basis for a community. Both sides give, both sides receive, and both sides benefit.
When Ralph introduces himself to his neighbors and invites them over, he isn’t doing it because he is unbearably lonely. He is doing it because he spent his life as a librarian building a community with friends, strangers, neighbors, students, faculty, colleagues, and whoever else was around. It’s the only way he knows how to interact with his surroundings, and I find that admirable. Someday in the future, it would be nice if librarians were no longer defined by their relation to information (i.e. “information specialists”) and instead defined by their ability to foster a hospitable environment where everyone feels welcome, able to contribute, and a part of a community.