I Love My Librarian Winner Timothy Ryan: A beacon of hope

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by Steve Zalusky

The Sully Branch Library serves a poverty-ridden area in Rochester, New York. It is reflected in the high crime rate and one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation. Lurking about the library is persistent gang activity.

Amidst all these discouraging signs, however, is one figure who provides hope and is an agent of change – young adult librarian Timothy Ryan, one of the winners of the 2017 I Love My Librarian Award.

Ryan’s nominator for the award, Trina Thompson, said, “By offering state of the art technology programs that incorporate 3D printers, video games, coding and game design software, and virtual reality, Mr. Ryan is keeping our teens engaged and off the streets, off of drugs, and out of the gangs.”

But Ryan’s efforts reach beyond virtual reality and offer the youth a firm foundation for a richer reality in the future. He offers to assist them with homework, TASC, SAT, ACT preparation, resume workshops, job fairs, food stamps, medical insurance and even legal questions about custody and divorce.

Ryan succeeds in providing an inclusive environment, Thompson said.

“But most importantly,” she said, “he treats everyone as a human being that deserves respect and compassion. He understands the needs of our community and the people who reside within it. He doesn't look down upon anyone whether they are homeless, an immigrant, or what have you. He doesn't turn anyone away who needs assistance whether you are affiliated with a gang, foreign, African-American, etc. Mr. Ryan makes the library a positive place in a community filled with so many negative aspects and influences.”

Thompson’s own experience with Ryan is illustrative. She said she came to him an “abused, homeless, hungry, uneducated, scared, single mother of three young girls.”

She said Ryan found her crying as she was sitting with her children in the library. He asked her what was wrong and offered help.

“It was not easy trusting people given what I had just endured, but something about the way Mr. Ryan approached and spoke to me let me know that he truly cared for the well-being of me and my children,” she said.

Ryan retrieved some food and water from the back of the library and gave it to Thompson and her children. He then led them to the children's section of the library and suggested she leave her daughters with a literacy aide so he could further assist her.

Her helped her with finding shelter and getting food and medical services through the Department of Human Services. Over the next two years Ryan further assisted her, as she gained computer and information literacy skills, found her own apartment and established credit.

He worked with her on crafting her resume and obtaining employment, helping her to enroll in the nursing program at Monroe Community College.

Today, she said, with his assistance, she is a “confident, proud, strong, African-American female and mother.” She is finishing her associates’ degree in nursing and is actively involved in the community.

In an interview conducted upon his receipt of the award, Ryan said winning it means a lot. “This shows that I do have value. It helps me out personally a lot. It gives me a lot of confidence.”

He said his career trajectory has been different than expected.  “Originally I was going to work in museums. I did work in museums quite a bit. That was my original background. And I was going to go for my master’s in history,” he said.

But he called his brother, who has a master’s in history and is married to a librarian, and was told museums and libraries were the same thing, while libraries would provide greater employment opportunities.

Ryan thought a library would be a great place to work and followed his current career path.  He said urban librarians are completely different than suburban librarians.

“The needs are completely different,” he said. “People have just basic needs finding housing. They’re homeless. They need food. They don’t know how to get to these resources. So, I think the impact that we are able to provide, especially for the city of Rochester, where our branch is located – it’s the poorest area of town, it’s one of the highest crime-ridden areas of town – so again, we provide a safe place for the teens to gather. We’re also attached to a rec center, so we have a constant flow of traffic. It’s also attached to a school. So there are kids in there all day long once school gets out. It provides a safe place and again we’re able to help people with the things they need in the community.”

He said libraries are important in today’s society, but offered words of caution to library practitioners.

“I think a lot of librarians need to kind of look at themselves, too, because I think a lot of librarians self-censor the materials they are bringing in. They’ll ask questions (about) whether or not it is appropriate. To me, a library should function and have all information and provide access to everybody. We’re not here to restrict it in any way. I kind of see that going on, whether it’s in politics or whatever facet of society. There are all these restrictions going on. I think the library is like the last beacon of access to this information for everybody.”

Learn more about the winners of the 2017 I Love My Librarian Award.