Public Libraries: More Than a Storage of Knowledge, Your Space for Community
For Elisa Garcia, becoming a librarian did not involve some sudden profound discovery. From a young age, she always knew she wanted to have a career where she was constantly surrounded by literature. After graduating from Lehman College in 2005, she began teaching for a year until realizing it was not something she enjoyed doing. So she decided to get her masters in literacy. As pursuing her master's involved a lot of time spent in libraries, it was there she discovered her true passion. Garcia halted her master's in literacy and picked up another degree: library science. “I just felt very connected to the career,” she said simply.
Becoming a librarian involves an extensive education process. To qualify, you must obtain a Masters in Library Science at institutions that offer it, which some refer to as “library school.” At library school (which for Garcia was Pratt Institute), you attend core classes in subjects such as archiving, cataloging, and technology alongside whichever concentration you choose. In her case, she chose to take classes specializing in literacy and management.
Since getting her master's degree, Garcia has led a successful 22-year career at The New York Public Library. Currently, she works as the supervising librarian of the MyLibraryNYC collections. In this role, she is a collections specialist, responsible for managing and developing the education literary collections that go out into New York City public schools. Her main project right now is creating the summer reading list.
In curating the summer reading list, and any literary collections, the most important criteria for Garcia is that the books are as diverse and representative of the people that read them.
“In the books that they see, I’m definitely thinking of the community and the youth that I'm servicing. I also believe in introducing teens to books of all types, so not just putting kids in a box. Like saying how kids of color don't like to read about fantasy. How do we know if we don't give them the book? So you know, there are books for everyone. I feel that a good collection shouldn’t just be representative of the people in that community, but also give them the opportunity to explore other things that they're open to learning about, or whatever other books that they want.”
Growing up, I hated most classics. My classmates never understood how I could always be seen with a book but would groan when our teacher assigned literature written by straight white men who existed centuries before me. It was clear these books were not written for me. I just could never feel connected with them.
By the time I entered high school, I had an English teacher who believed in the same philosophy as Garcia: share books that represent the students reading them. And all of a sudden, classics were not just written by Dickens or Fitzgerald. Classics were Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Tony Kushner, and other authors whose literature explored their racial and/or queer identities in ways that made it charismatic and approachable for even the 21st-century high school student. I finally found the connection I was looking for.
Garcia understood what I meant when I told her this. For her, as a Dominican woman, she finds a particular solace in Elizabeth Acevedo, author of The Poet X. “When I was growing up, Julio Alvarez was the only Dominican writer that anyone knew. And I felt that her stories were great. And I learned a lot about my culture and cultural background. But I didn't feel seen in those books, because they were written for people older than I. So when Elizabeth Acevedo came out with The Poet X, I read it and I felt represented. I was like, “Wow, this was the book that I would have liked when I was 16.” I'm very happy to see that there are more books and more stories now showcasing Dominican girls in New York City and the things we've experienced in our family.”
In the age of technology, there's growing concern that kids are more disconnected from books than ever, trading in reading time for screen time. However, Garcia believes that technology should not be treated with such disdain and that there is not a decline in reading, but a culture shift.
“What people don’t realize is that even if you’re just scrolling on social media, you’re actually reading,” she says. “And audiobooks are definitely very helpful, especially for students that might be reluctant readers or have some difficulties, like learning disabilities or language barriers.” Garcia goes on to note that for non-English speakers, connecting with your local library can be a vital tool in helping you learn through the free classes that they offer.
At the risk of sounding redundant, while reading has shifted from the traditional nature of a physical book, it has become more accessible to the average person. Whether it is fanfiction on free platforms such as Wattpad or Archive Of Our Own, digitized versions of newspapers such as The New York Times, or English-learning apps like Duolingo, reading has expanded from what we once recognized it to be, and has become more flexible for the needs of an individual. And physical books aren’t going anywhere. They are still available for free, at libraries.
In their own right, public libraries serve as art and community centers. They are more than a storage of literary knowledge. They offer free computers, career-readiness workshops, language-learning classes, and other resources to better the communities they reside in.
Everyone knows that a library offers books. But not everyone knows that the library offers knitting circles, lego clubs, technology classes, summer cruises, and more. For those who struggle to find family-friendly or affordable activities to do during the summer, you might find that the library may be the unexpected solution you were seeking.
“They're a non-judgment space when it comes to reading.” She commented on the importance of libraries in a community. “They're there to inspire people to read, but you're not getting graded for it, you're not being judged for what you choose to read. So I think it's just that outreach. Libraries give you the opportunity to like learning, build that curiosity, the opportunity to see authors and just encourage the community and the youth to be like, oh, you know, you're interested in writing, you're interested in books, and just providing those opportunities within literacy that they probably wouldn't be able to get anywhere else.”
The belief that the New York Public Library is a non-judgment space is held up by the actions they have taken to create said spaces for youth outside of an academic setting. One memory that stands out from my high school experience was Anti-Prom, an event originally created by the library for LGBTQ+ students who didn’t feel comfortable going to their school's prom. In 2019, my friends and I put on our best dresses and went to the Manhattan event, held at the Stephen A. Schwarzman building on Fifth Avenue. The night was full of dancing with teenagers from all five boroughs, a fashion show based on the prom theme, photo booths, and free books. Not to mention the killer photo opportunities I got at the fountain. Sometimes I consider it more of a prom than my official senior one.
If you wish to begin a relationship with your local library, start by engaging with the summer reading list, full of both English and Spanish recommendations. To find out about the events going on in your local neighborhood, refer to The New York Public Library website to see the hundreds of opportunities currently going on at branches across the city. If you want to watch a movie, attend a coffee and coloring session, learn how to crochet, or even get financial counseling, the library is your one-stop option for finding support in your community.