Urban Librarians’ First Conference Is a Love-In

“Out of the stacks and into the streets” was the rallying cry for the first Urban Librarian’s Conference this weekend in New York City. Organized by Urban Librarians Unite, a grassroots advocacy group, it attracted 120 librarians from around the country.

“Out of the stacks and into the streets” was the rallying cry for the first Urban Librarian’s Conference that attracted 120 librarians from around the country to the Brooklyn Public Library on April 5. It was organized by Urban Librarians Unite, a grassroots advocacy group that encourages new developments in library science and advocates for libraries and librarians in urban areas.

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Peter Bromberg, keynote speaker.

The mood for the day was set by Peter Bromberg, associate director of the Princeton Public Library (NJ) and a 2008 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, who focused on love in his opening keynote. He spoke about his Russian immigrant aunt, who wrote as a young woman that “the library saved my life” as a librarian taught her to read and speak English. He also spoke about librarians having a “caring gene,” our love for the profession and the people we help.

“Peter Bromberg’s talk was genuinely inspiring,” noted attendee Amy Martin, children’s librarian at Eastmore Branch of the Oakland Public Library. “It is interesting to see how similar the challenges are in urban libraries, even on opposite coasts.”

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Wick Thomas, Kansas City (MO) youth services librarian, addresses the crowd.

The caring theme continued with Wick Thomas, a Kansas City (MO) Public Library youth services librarian by day and a punk rocker and LGBTQ activist by night. He spoke about his school librarian, Mrs. Daniel at the Drexel High School (MO), who took him, a teen struggling with his identity, under her caring wing. When he became a homeless youth, it was the public library that became his safe haven. He has created that same environment with the teens he now works with in Kansas City.

“Just remembering their name can change a life,” he told the group. Unheard Voice—a youth magazine he developed, edited by teens, that includes art, poetry and writing from incarcerated youth— is another avenue he has sought to give them to express themselves.  He also piqued the curiosity of the older members of the audience when he used the term “twerk” (to work one’s hips), which had them reaching for their phones for some quick reference.

Youth services continued to be the focus with “School and Public Library Partnerships” and “Effective Youth Programs” being tabled as discussion topics later in the day. Best practices that emerged included creating an informal teen advisory board—even as informal as the use of post-it notes to solicit suggestions, as teens do at the Philadelphia Free Library. Food and games, both board and electronic, also were ways suggested to bring teens into the library. Kyle Luckoff, librarian at the Corlears School in New York City, suggested creating innovative book clubs; his own has fifth graders reading The Time Machine and China Mieville’s “Un Lun Dun” series.

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Urban Libraries Unite founders Lauren Comiti and Christian Zabriskie at the first annual conference for the group.

“I am incredibly happy with how well the Urban Librarians Conference went,” Christian Zabriskie, one of the founders of Urban Librarian Unite, tells School Library Journal. “This is one of the biggest things that Urban Librarians Unite has ever done and we are ecstatic with the conference and our attendees who made the day work.”

Urban Librarians Unite was founded by New York librarians—among them Christian Zabriskie and Lauren Comito, librarians at Queens Library—in 2010 in reaction to library cuts facing the three public library systems that serve New York City.  Since then, they have collected books to help libraries devastated by Hurricane Sandy, organized a zombie march to protest library cuts, and, in the coming weeks, are planning to rollout the Volunteer Library Brigade.

The brigades are small teams of volunteers who will set up tiny mobile library carts in public spaces around the city and to do on-site volunteer library work as needed for the citizens of New York City. They will look up items for patrons online, hand out books, run storytimes for kids, offer directions, advocate for libraries, and more. The carts—donated by Demco—will be stocked with reference books, maps, giveaways, WiFi, and free eBook downloads.

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