Chaos & Caring | Office Hours

I’ll own this: I’ve been pretty emotional since the election in November. I spent my holiday break practicing self-care, including stepping back from social media, cuddling with my dogs Cooper and Dozer, and bingeing on old sitcoms.

michael-stephens_newI’ll own this: I’ve been pretty emotional since the election in November. I spent my holiday break practicing self-care, including stepping back from social media, cuddling with my dogs Cooper and Dozer, and bingeing on old sitcoms.

At a book launch I attended for a memoir set at Michigan's Traverse City State Hospital in the 1940s, held at the redeveloped and thriving former asylum, a woman stood up during the discussion and said simply what I had been feeling: “People are scared right now. We need to care for each other.”

I’ve urged librarians to embrace as “much chaos as they can stand,” an approach suggested by Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus. That chaos was usually centered around technology and society and how difficult it seemed for librarians to keep up. No matter where you fall in the political spectrum, the last few months have been fraught with a different type of chaos, punctuated with ups and downs in the United States and beyond.

So what can we do to help the people who visit our libraries who might be feeling scared? The same ways we take care of ourselves can translate into ways we take care of our users.

Open the doors

Remind folks there are places people can go that might not be so scary, where someone may greet you with a smile, and that the library is one of them. In January, the Facebook group ALA Think Tank (unaffiliated with the American Library Association) lit up with strategies and signs for letting folks know the library is a place for them. Cornell University Library’s monitor displayed these stirring words: “This is a Library…Championing truth against rumor…Open to all.” The Marin County Free Library, CA, featured a sign that read: “We welcome: all ages, all races, all religions, all genders, all countries of origin, all languages, all sexual orientations, all sizes, all abilities, ALL PEOPLE.” My tears are welling up as I type this.

I implore you to follow these models and welcome all people into your institutions. Work with staff to understand that this is the Library Bill of Rights in action at a time when it may just be needed the most. Represent your library as a safe haven when you are out in the community.

Soup’s on

My partner and I gathered with close friends a few weeks ago for “Soup Night.” Each couple brought a soup, crusty bread, cheese, and more. We cooked together, ate, and talked into the night. The friendship and support did wonders for me.

Could you partner with a local restaurant or more for a soup night of your own at the library? For those libraries with a community kitchen or access to one, inviting people in to participate in cooking or serving one another or cleaning up, all while commiserating, might help to create some connectedness. Perhaps pair the event with a Human Library program, in which patrons can “check out” a person of a different race, a different religion, different political beliefs, or different sexual orientation for a brief discussion in the library space. Imagine this at your public library or in the center of your campus. Or maybe in a common area for the special library or archive. Everyone loves soup!

Active learning

Of course, we’ll continue to educate our users. I’ve already seen excellent examples of LibGuides and infographics, coming from libraries nationwide, devoted to understanding how to decipher fake news.

Librarians can lead in-person discussions/workshops on fake news/post-truth/alternative facts. These programs can generate rich nonpartisan discussions. Let the topics and talk evolve. A library I heard from hosted two sessions in one day, one with a group of 50 retired men at the library in the afternoon and in the evening with a current events group that meets in a diner. Consider panel discussions with local and national politicians, journalists, and academics. Holding community discussions around civic education/civic literacy is a nonpartisan path many libraries can take.

Dreaming always

Consider highlighting the creative arts: painting, coloring, and music. They can calm us and bring us together. I recently recorded an episode of the Circulating Ideas podcast with Steve Thomas. At the end, he surprised me with a question related to my music fandom: “What Fleetwood Mac song would you suggest for librarians experiencing this chaotic churn to soothe their soul?” My answer was “Sara” from Tusk. Why? The last line: “All I ever wanted was to know that you were dreaming.”

Isn’t that what we want for our users, in times of chaos and always? Consider any and all ways to help people explore their dreams in a safe environment: innovative programming, access to knowledge, making and sharing food, a concert, a welcoming smile.

Michael Stephens ( is Assistant Professor at the School of Information, San José State University, CA

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Jenny Innes

A beautiful offering on many levels. Glad you are guiding the next professional generation. Thank you.

Posted : Mar 29, 2017 09:24

Michael Stephens

Jenny - I appreciate your words! <3

Posted : Mar 29, 2017 09:24

Lori J Latimer

Thank you for this article. Tears came to my eyes as I read your good words and ideas.

Posted : Mar 27, 2017 10:01

Michael Stephens

Thanks very much. :-)

Posted : Mar 27, 2017 10:01

Matt Binder

As a librarian and a huge fan of soup I loved your programming ideas on how to bring people together over simple ideas like shared meals and panel discussions. I think what we forget is that by and large people's vitriol is amplified through our media outlets but is lessened in person. Current discourse can be helped through personal experience: talking to people someone wouldn't normally encounter and seeing them as real, not as a straw-man or some kind of monster. While we can't completely mend the opportunistic and cynical nature of our political discourse, libraries can at least assist in dispelling growing animosity and bring our communities together, even if that's over a nice bowl of soup.

Posted : Mar 25, 2017 10:05

Michael Stephens

Thanks Matt!

Posted : Mar 25, 2017 10:05



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