Q&A with Lauren Comito, Urban Librarians Unite Executive Director

Lauren Comito, cofounder and former board chair of grassroots advocacy organization Urban Librarians Unite (ULU), stepped into the role of Executive Director on May 20. LJ caught up with her to hear more about what the move entails, plans for ULU, and how to get involved.

Lauren Comito head shotLauren Comito, cofounder and former board chair of grassroots advocacy organization Urban Librarians Unite (ULU), stepped into the role of Executive Director on May 20.

Comito, neighborhood library supervisor at the Leonard Branch of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), has worked with ULU’s previous Executive Director Christian Zabriskie, executive director of the Onondaga County Public Libraries, on a wide range of projects since the group incorporated in 2010. ULU has pushed annually for funding for the three New York City library systems, helped restock libraries after Hurricane Sandy, provided resources and children’s books for refugees nationwide, and offered an annual conference for public librarians since 2013, among many other initiatives. This year, she co-led ULU’s Urban Library Trauma Study, a survey, in-person forum, and report on trauma in frontline public library workers. Comito, along with Zabriskie, was named LJ’s 2020 Librarian of the Year, and was a 2015 Mover & Shaker.

LJ caught up with Comito to hear more about what the move entails, plans for ULU, and how to get involved.

LJ : Congratulations on stepping into the new role! How did you first get started with ULU?

Lauren Comito: ULU started as a happy hour once a month at a taco and beer place in Long Island City, and I went to a couple of those. Then 2010 we pivoted into advocacy, because so many of us who’d been at the happy hours suddenly got layoff notices because of budget cuts at the city budget level. We’ve been doing advocacy for a long time because we needed to—they kept cutting our budget every year. And at some point, we built some capacity. We started doing the conference in 2012, because we wanted to make the conference that we wanted to go to that was just focused on urban libraries and urban library workers and the work that we do. And then we just kept going, doing cool stuff.

How will your work with ULU change?

Being able to sign stuff myself is going to be great!

We’re bringing on some interns this summer from the City University of New York, and I’m excited to have people working who are going to be paid. I’m super excited about helping them start their careers that way. Hopefully, that’ll help us expand some of what we’re doing. We did a lot of capacity building activities in 2020 and 2021, sort of a rebranding, and figuring out how to do the finances better—getting an accountant to look at them, the way that’s easier to hand off to the tax people. Finding a tax person instead of doing it myself. Things like that, that that are helpful and free me up to do things like the trauma study and distributing COVID tests to library staff in New York City with the Health Department, and organizing the conference and the events.

While I’m still a volunteer, being a board chair volunteer is different than being the executive director volunteer. It’s a very subtle mindset shift from being theoretically responsible as a board chair to day-to-day responsible as the executive director.

When did you decide that the grassroots advocacy work ULU does was going to be your mission. Was there a tipping point beyond getting that layoff notice?

A layoff notice is a pretty hard cliff to jump off. And then it just never really slowed down—we had another budget cut, and then another to fight every year. It’s like the frog and the boiling water—oh, here I am . But I grew up in a family that valued service to the community, and libraries are my community. So in everything I do, whether I’m at my regular job or ULU, it’s about building a community to improve things for everyone. I’ve had some time to really think about that over the last couple of years, and what that looks like. How do we build it so people have the support systems they need specific to the community of being urban library workers? And where does ULU fit into that? That’s my personal mission.

What’s new at BPL this summer?

We put a community fridge into our branch with the local mutual aid [organization], and they help keep that full so people can take snacks and things—there are a lot of people that hang out all day that maybe don’t have the money for lunch. We’ve fixed the garden. We’ve got story times going on back there, and there’s chess happening out front. Then we have a series of what I’ve been calling tiny garden concerts, where we have a monthly concert in our back yard with a local band. It’s really good to be able to bring the neighborhood in and also paying local musicians to play, and make that circle happen where we’re serving the community in multiple ways.

Has your work with ULU changed how you approach your library work?

The trauma study definitely not changed, but solidified how I feel about how I manage people. We all have different needs, we all react to things differently. And I feel like I spend a lot more time trying to figure that out, and make sure that everybody who’s in the branch gets what they need to feel fulfilled in their work and safe at work.

What are you most proud of in your time at ULU so far?

A month ago, I would have said the conference. This week, it’s the trauma study. I think that the urban library trauma study is going to make things different for people. There have been so many stories I’ve heard from staff that are heartbreaking, because we all love our jobs so much, but sometimes the thing you love, it hurts you. People have had these negative experiences and not been able to process them, or not been given the support in processing them, because nobody either realizes they should be supporting the staff in processing them or understands how. I think that we can take this study and figure out, how do we make people safer at work? And then how do we help them when it hasn’t been? I could see myself spending the next decade working on this topic.

You and Christian did a great job on the forum. There was such good energy going.

I was nervous that people would leave it sad, and I don’t think that most people did. I think most people left it feeling slightly empowered, and less alone. I hope people will look more at this model of involving the affected people in decision making and research this way. It brings out a lot of information that you would miss otherwise.

What’s on deck for ULU?

We’ve been doing some new stuff with advocacy, trying to model our advocacy on some of the automated stuff in Slack and the texting that we saw out of some of the presidential campaigns in 2020. That’s been interesting and helpful.

In New York state, everybody has [had] this shift in the districts, and we have a database of city council members that we need to update because all of the city council districts are also going to be redistricted this year. We’re having to change that database, and that’s going to be a big project. I’m so glad to be having people come in to help. We automate as much of it as we can—I’ve been figuring that out in bits. We had to email 400 primary candidates last year at the city level. We did it using Airtable and Zapier, and set up the database so that it would send the campaign’s emails without our having to hit send 400 times.

What would you like do going forward?

What we’re doing now. Maybe expand some of the social things, and start putting together the plan for enacting some of the recommendations from the study. Building out the advocacy, developing relationships with elected officials so that we can make sure the issues of frontline public facing staff get heard too, from their own points of view.

We moved the conference to September 16, because I looked at the calendar and thought, “This is too much. How on earth would I organize the forum and the conference at the same time? Let me be reasonable and take care of myself.” And I did.

How can people get involved?

One of the nice things about ULU, and one of the things that keeps us small, is that there’s a really low barrier to participation—you just show up. People can email us through the website and get onto our Slack channel, where the volunteer calls go out and all of our events get posted, and people talk to each other about things.

We try to model ourselves on the show up and do stuff, mutual aid, community care model. I think that people get intimidated sometimes about participating in professional associations, but with us, just come and have a cup of coffee and pack some boxes—we’re sending out COVID test kits. Most of our committee meetings are actually like work parties. We’re interested in doing real, practical things as much as we possibly can, and we’d love to have people come and help us do that. People have ideas, they can come and talk to us about them. If we have the funding, we’ll do the thing.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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