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For a One-of-a-Kind Book Club Experience, Hop on a Kayak

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During the pandemic, libraries have gotten creative to continue serving their communities while maintaining social distancing. Indoor group activities like book clubs are no longer feasible, so many libraries have switched to online or phone-based conversations. Connecticut’s Russell Library has taken a different approach, bringing literary discussions into the great outdoors with their Book Yak on a Kayak event.

The Russell Library started hosting outdoor book discussions two summers ago with their wildly popular Book Talk on a Walk program. Every Monday at lunchtime, readers would stroll together and stop along the way to chat about the book of the week. The program was so successful on land that the library decided to try it out on the water: in 2019, they partnered with the Middletown Recreation Department to lend out kayaks and host discussions on a local lake.

Book Yak on a Kayak returned in summer 2020. While COVID-19 prevented the library and the recreation department from loaning out kayaks, many community members attended on their own boats. Being outdoors and socially distant (plus wearing masks) gave participants peace of mind about socializing during the pandemic.

To make the most out of the discussion’s unique setting, the book selections have all focused on kayaking and canoeing: this year’s titles were This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger, No Barriers: A Blind Man's Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon by Erik Weihenmayer, and Paddling with Spirits: A Solo Kayak Journey by Irene Skyriver. “The setting definitely enhanced the conversation,” program organizer Christy Billings told I Love Libraries. “People were much more attuned to weather and natural flora and fauna as part of the discussions.”

Being on the water also helped participants connect in ways they might not have during a traditional indoor book club. “During the journey, while paddling, people had conversations with each other on their own,” Billings shared. “Often they began around the book as a shared interest, but the conversations centered on all kinds of community topics. People of all ages and ethnicities attended these programs, sharing their thoughts with each other.”

Billings also emphasized that athleticism and boating experience weren’t prerequisites for participating.  “You don’t have to have a high level of fitness to join us and join in these community conversations,” she explained. “Having a discussion in the outdoors, on the water, surrounded by nature, is a great way to relax and boost endorphins.”

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We Can’t Stop Listening to this Viral Library Song

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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, creative librarians have been pulling out all the stops to inform their communities about curbside pick-up and other socially distant services. One highlight: “Library Takeout,” a viral music video created by Duke University librarian Jamie Keesecker to explain the contactless pick-up process.

Since debuting on YouTube in August, “Library Takeout” has racked up nearly 700,000 views from around the world, thanks to its catchy synth-pop vibes and endearing crayon-drawn animation. The lyrics are direct and informative, outlining all the steps to reserve library materials online and schedule a time to pick them up. The track is so popular that it’s now available on Spotify and Apple Music for repeat listening.

Keesecker, who earned a doctorate in music composition before taking a job at Duke’s Music Library, wrote the song and animated the video with help from his three-year-old daughter while working remotely. “I decided I might as well try and see if I could put together a song,” Keesecker told Duke Today. “If it’s a total disaster, we don’t have to release it. But it could be just the thing we need to reach the people we’re trying to reach.”

As it turns out, the video reached the university community and then some: thanks to its catchiness, thousands of people who have never set foot on Duke’s campus are now extensively familiar with the school’s library pick-up procedures. “By this point, I could explain to a Duke student how to use library takeout even though I’ve never been there nor in the whole damn country,” one YouTube commenter wrote.

When the video first began to take off online, Keesecker remained anonymous; one student told the Duke Chronicle that they assumed the library had hired an outside artist to compose the song. Now that his identity is out there, he’s become a campus celebrity of sorts—Duke (and the rest of the internet) will be eagerly awaiting his next hit library song.

Library Takeout

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Crosswords at the Crossroads: Intersection and Inclusion in Puzzles and Libraries

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If you’re a crossword fan, you’ve probably come across work by Laura R. Braunstein, digital humanities librarian at Dartmouth College: her puzzles have been published in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Education, and more. She’s also a co-founder of The Inkubator, a project that challenges the gender imbalance in the crossword world. The site publishes puzzles exclusively by female creators, especially those whose content defies the male-dominated sensibilities of traditional newspaper crosswords.

Below, I Love Libraries chats with Braunstein about libraries, crosswords, social justice, and more.

Are there skills or personal qualities you’ve drawn from in both your career as a librarian and your work in the crossword world? Do you think being good at one makes you better at the other?

It helps in both areas to be curious, to listen, and to be kind. And by that last one, I think of kindness as intellectual generosity and humility—I might not have all the answers, but I’m willing to learn, and to help other people learn too.

Do any of the crosswords you’ve created contain library-related clues?

I had METADATA as an entry, and I clued it with [Information about information]. METADATA is a nice word for crosswords because it has alternating vowels and consonants.

Do people on campus know you’re big in the crossword world? Do you ever talk crosswords with the students, faculty, and staff you work with at your library?

About five years ago, I used to see a student working on editing his own puzzles in the reference room. We struck up a conversation, and stayed in touch over the years, and he helped me with some of my first puzzles. I’ve had other students who are interested in learning to construct get in touch with me for mentoring. And then a champion at a crossword tournament I helped organize turned out to be one of the staff at the local public library where I used to be a trustee.

Do you have any advice for how people can use their libraries to become better at solving or creating crosswords?

I think just being curious and knowing that solving puzzles is a skill that anyone can develop through practice are good ways to become better. It also depends on how you define “better”—there are crosswords published for every age and interest and skill level, not just the classic New York Times crossword. Do you want to have fun solving crosswords? Does learning something new excite you and bring you joy? Use the library’s resources to seek knowledge that challenges your boundaries and takes you out of yourself. If you encounter a word or a person in a puzzle you haven’t seen before, that’s an opportunity for growth and connection.

You’ve done so much to promote inclusivity and representation for women in the crossword community—meanwhile, librarianship is known for being an overwhelmingly female field. What is it like navigating that contrast?

Libraries may be “predominantly female” but they are not “female dominated”—namely, women (and nonbinary or genderqueer people) may be the majority in terms of who staffs libraries, but power and leadership at the highest levels tends to be male, particularly in academic libraries. It’s the same in crosswords: at three out of four of the major newspaper crosswords, the editor is a boomer-aged white man, although there may be some women and younger people on his staff. Both libraries and crosswords—in terms of constructors and editors—also tend to be overwhelmingly white. What does that say about what is considered normative, about who is centered in both fields? Or about who belongs in both fields? Or about whose knowledge is valued, about whose culture ends up on library shelves, at book groups, or in crossword puzzle themes, entries, and clues?

Library historians have shown how white supremacy and patriarchy are built into the history and structure of libraries—and as long-lasting, socially and culturally entrenched institutions, they’re resistant to structural change. Similarly, in crosswords, inclusivity isn’t just a matter of publishing a few more women or adding the names of a few Black artists to puzzles. So I’d rather ask a question in response to your question, which is: How should those who have traditionally benefited from white supremacy and patriarchy work to make institutions or cultures like libraries and crosswords into places and communities where Black people, queer people, gender non-conforming people, indigenous people—anyone who has been excluded for being different—want to be? How do we change so that everyone feels seen and valued for who they are? In my work as a digital librarian, and in my work constructing and editing puzzles, I ask myself every day: how are you, personally, working to make your communities more just and inclusive?

Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about librarians, libraries, and crosswords?

Keep reading, keep solving. See both as opportunities to challenge yourself and the people around you, and to work toward justice and keeping power accountable.

For more stories about America’s libraries and libraries, subscribe to the I Love Libraries newsletter. Photo by Eli Burakian, courtesy of Dartmouth College.

8 People Share Their Favorite Library Memories

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We asked I Love Libraries readers and the American Library Association’s social media followers to share their favorite library memories. Here are a few highlights:

“As a child in first grade, ‘going to the library’ was going outside in front of the school and boarding a bookmobile to pick out a book. It was my first experience so it was all I knew, but the excitement was equivalent to seeing the ice cream truck coming down the street. “—Wendy H.

“My mother, the woman I credit for cultivating a love of reading, took me to get my ‘own’ library card when I was six. I still remember the thrill of excitement when I got to sign my name after hers on the back of the card. I was so proud and already imagining all the possibilities of having that little card in my purse. My mother has passed away and I have moved away from that little library but I still keep that card in my purse.”—Grace L.

 “My favorite library memory is going into my small town library and asking the librarian which book I should read next. She wouldn't just hand you a best seller—she would ask lots of questions and wander the stacks with you until she found something that she thought you would really enjoy.”—Carol V.

“When I was in sixth grade, I had a research project to do (before the Internet existed). My research project was on the life of Nefertiti. I visited my local library in Queens, and had trouble finding books on Queen Nefertiti in the children's section. I asked the librarian for help, a Chinese-American woman, who took me to the ancient history section where the adults sat and often read their books. We found a lot of books about the queen and I borrowed everything. A few weeks later, after finishing my project, I returned all the books. However, a week later I received a mail from the library saying one of the books was still not returned and that I could lose my library privilege if I did not return the book or pay the fines. I panicked. At the time, I didn't have money to pay for the book. I went to the library and tried to found the same librarian who helped me. I was afraid of not being able to pay off the fine and I told her that I checked everywhere in my home and still couldn't find it. She listened attentively and trusted me. She took the paper and ripped it up and told me not to worry about the fine at all. She also said wanted me to continue coming to the library for help. As a sixth grader and child of immigrants, I felt relieved because I knew my parents would be upset if they found out about the fine. It's a memory I still think about from time to time: librarians removing barriers to students like myself, and ensuring that our own well-beings and visits to the library are so important in the community. “—Raymond P.

“When I was six, I went with my Brownie troop for a library tour with the librarian who then gave us our library cards. Seventeen years later that same librarian hired me for my first library job and became my mentor and dear friend. “—Terri J.

“When I was small, we had a house notebook. When we had weird questions, we would write them down and my mom would turn them into research projects for our Thursday trip to the library. Every once in a while we had to escalate to the reference librarian. I don't know how they felt about our notebook or our crazy questions, but I do know that I felt like there was always a way to find out whatever I needed to know.”—Josie M.

“My grandma was a public librarian, and on Saturday nights after she closed up, she would let my sister and I play games, listen to records, and just have a great time looking at all of the books! She was the first person I knew who had a computer and said it was going to change libraries—she was visionary! When she passed a few years ago (at age 98) the library I worked for gave a memorial gift in her honor to her public library, and now I’ve been in libraries for 20 years. Libraries are a family, a legacy, a gift, and a place for wonderful memories, making new ones.”—Rhonda H.

“An elderly man walked up to the reference desk and said he was trying to remember a building he once visited. The librarian patiently asked questions trying to narrow down this man's search. After about 10 minutes, the librarian figured out the building! To go from nothing to figuring out one building from the thousands in the city was incredible.”—Laura G.

Share your own favorite library memories by contacting ilovelibraries@ala.org.

Discover more inspiring library stories in the I Love Libraries newsletter.

If Your Kids Need Help Coping with the Pandemic, Look to Libraries

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COVID-19 has taken an enormous mental toll on people of all ages; even young children are struggling with grief, isolation, and fear during the pandemic. If you’re wondering about the best way to approach challenging conversations with the kids in your life, turn to children’s library professionals for expert guidance and support.

As part of their #LookToLibraries campaign, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) has assembled a list of insightful tips for addressing tough topics with kids during times of crisis. Taking inspiration from Mr. Rogers, the guide recommends strategies like using clear and simple language and focusing on the positive. Children’s library professionals from ALSC have also been sharing helpful suggestions for books for younger and older children that explain public health issues or offer ways to manage anxiety.

In addition to these online resources, you can also always call upon available staff at your library for one-on-one help finding information or support. While many libraries are closed to the public due to the pandemic, you can still get in touch with a children’s library professional online or by phone.

“I love helping families navigate tough topics because it gives me the opportunity to connect with my community and serve as a trusted adult in a young person's life,” ALSC president Kirby McCurtis told I Love Libraries. “So many parents or caregivers are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and if I can reassure them and help them start a conversation with a few tools and suggestions and no judgement I feel like I have done a good job. It is an honor to help build bridges in times of trouble.”

One way children’s library professionals can support your family during the pandemic and beyond is by recommending books with relatable stories and inspiring messages. “Children and their caregivers can turn to books for solace and support during times of crisis. Through their stories and illustrations, books can help children understand, navigate, and survive these experiences,” McCurtis explains. “A child who might not be ready to talk about a loss or struggle may find an acknowledgment of their sadness when reading about a similar experience in a book.”

Ultimately, children’s library professionals want families to know that they don’t need to navigate the pandemic on their own. “Parents and caregivers are not in this alone even if we are more physically isolated than at the beginning of the year. Libraries are part of a web of community organizations that support young people and whole families,” Claudia Haines, youth services librarian at Alaska’s Homer Public Library, told I Love Libraries. “I encourage caregivers to reach out to professionals at all community organizations, ask for help, get involved, and advocate for your child and community’s well-being.”

Visit the #LookToLibraries website for even more resources and materials. Plus, check out ALSC President Kirby McCurtis’s appearance on ABC’s “Pandemic: What You Need to Know” explaining how families can lean on children’s library professionals for support.

To Uncover Your Family History, Start at Your Library

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Looking to learn more about your family tree? Your local library offers extensive free resources for genealogy experts and hobbyists alike.

I Love Libraries spoke with librarian and genealogical researcher June Power, director of special collections and archives for the University of North Carolina at Pembroke; she shares her tips for how anyone can get started exploring their heritage below.

What are some of the most common genealogical resources and services libraries offer?

In my experience, it is mostly the specialized resources libraries have that are helpful with genealogical research such as collections of local history, family records that have been deposited in local libraries that are not yet available online, and of course a librarian to help navigate the myriad of online sources—sometimes via reference and sometimes via workshops and other programming opportunities. Also, many people access Ancestry.com through their library database subscriptions.

What advice would you give to members of the public who are interested in family history but aren’t sure how to get started?

Start with what you know, even if you don’t think it is a lot to go on. Put down what you know into an organized format and see where you have information lacking. That can then guide your research goals. Don’t try to do your entire genealogical background in one go—start small with a discrete research goal in mind and work from there.  

What do you enjoy most about working with genealogy?

I am a history buff so for me it is getting to the stories behind the bare facts on paper. I like to learn what people’s lives were like and how they lived. Pictures are among my favorite finds. And there is nothing more satisfying then finally breaking down a brick wall you have been working against for a long time and watching the pieces all fall into place.

Do you have a favorite memory from your work with genealogy in libraries?

It is so hard to pick just one, as it brings me such joy every time a patron gets excited about family research. As I am at a historically Native American institution, the workshops I give on specialized Native American resources are especially popular, and I really enjoy being able to focus on a particular population. Probably the best experience though was helping someone who was adopted by her stepfather connect with several biological siblings she never knew she had.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the public about libraries and genealogy?

I think with the popularity of genetic testing and increased globalization, people will find it more and more important to connect with their roots and learn more about the people they came from. I think this will be an area of increased reference need in all types of libraries and a research skill that librarians will need to utilize more frequently. It’s never too late or too early to begin an interest in family history.

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8 Products for Fighting Censorship in Style

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It’s Banned Books Weekthe annual celebration of the freedom to read! Books, resources, and programs are still being threatened with censorship in libraries and schools. Thankfully, library workers, educators, and readers are rallying together year-round to protect their communities’ First Amendment rights.

Take a stand against censorship with these cool shirts, mugs, and more from the American Library Association. The best part? All sales support ALA’s work defending and promoting the right to access information.

Here are some of our favorite products:

 

Find Your Freedom to Read Sweatshirt

I Read Banned Books Rainbow Face Mask

Free Your Mind Banned Books Bracelets

Words Have Power Hoodie

Speak Out for Banned Books Buttons

Make Orwell Fiction Again T-Shirt

Make Orwell Fiction Again Tote

Discover What You’re Missing Mug (watch redactions disappear with hot liquid!)

Find even more designs at the ALA Store and ALA Graphics Gift Shop. Free shareable materials are also available on ALA’s Banned Books Week website.

Celebrate Banned Books Week by Fighting Censorship

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Banned Books Week is here, a time to stand up for everyone’s freedom to read. Librarians, teachers, authors, and more are coming together to push back against censorship—will you join the fight for intellectual freedom?

Even in 2020, schools and libraries still face pressure to remove controversial titles from their bookshelves and reading lists. Materials that deal with important topics like gender, sexuality, race, and mental health are particularly likely to face censorship; eight out of the ten most frequently challenged books of 2019 were targeted for their LGBTQIA+ content. And books aren’t the only resources at risk of censorship in libraries and schools: programs, book displays, and more also attract complaints from patrons who find them objectionable.

Some book challenges are highly public (like when a Tennessee Catholic school made national news for banning the Harry Potter novels), but many slip by under the radar—your library may be facing censorship attempts as we speak. Libraries and educators need support from their communities to help ensure everyone’s freedom to read without judgment or restriction.

There are plenty of ways to join the movement during Banned Books Week and beyond. The #BannedBooksWeek in Action challenge is full of fun, empowering activity suggestions for each day of the week, from writing an op-ed in your local paper to recording a video of yourself reading from a banned book. Participants are encouraged to share what they’re up to on social media using the hashtag #BannedBooksWeek.

You can also get involved by participating in the Dear Banned Author campaign, which invites readers to write letters of support to their favorite banned or challenged authors. For writers facing frequent censorship, these messages are a powerful reminder of how much their words matter. You can reach out via email, social media, or snail mail; the Dear Banned Author webpage is full of free tools like postcard templates and author addresses. Plus, if you share your #DearBannedAuthor story on Twitter during Banned Books Week, you’ll be entered for a chance to win a grab bag of awesome intellectual freedom swag.

Ready to join the celebration? Visit the Banned Books Week website for more information and ideas.

Follow Banned Books Week on Facebook and Twitter for the latest news and updates.

Librarians Are the MVPs of This Back-To-School Season

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September is in full swing, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this back-to-school season is brand new territory: many students are staying home and learning online, while others are spending part of the week on campuses that have transformed to meet safety guidelines. School libraries may not be the busy hubs of activity they are in typical years, but librarians are still working hard to support the learning process while maintaining social distancing.

A recent survey from the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) revealed that school librarians have been getting the word out about online library materials, teaching remote classes, and helping educators and families master digital meeting platforms like Zoom. Many are also hosting virtual library activities like storytimes, book clubs, and makerspaces.

School librarians have also found creative ways to safely distribute physical books to students, from curbside pick-up to classroom book carts. Texas’s Brushy Creek Elementary School, for example, is distributing five books each to all 800 of their students through curbside pick-up.

“We’re really trying to focus on giving them books that were their level, that will increase their reading speed and accuracy, and just for the parents to have something to really work on while the kids are at home,” librarian Laurie Kent told KXAN.

Staff at Virginia’s Shenandoah County Public Schools have teamed up to host an open-air pop-up library for students. Kids can place books on hold online, then stop by in-person to pick up and return the items they’ve reserved.

“Our kids are watching us, and how we handle this pandemic, and support one another sets the example for how they will handle other challenges in their lives,” Strasburg Mayor Brandy Boies told Northern Virginia Daily. “I am proud that Strasburg is setting a great example for the community through this partnership.”

Also in Virginia, the Montgomery County Public School district has gotten particularly creative to distribute books over the summer: they partnered with drone delivery service Wing to drop books off at students’ homes. Students could request a book online or ask librarian Kelly Passek to pick out a recommendation; Passek would then package the book and bring it to Wing to be flown to its recipients.

“We wanted to provide the resources that are needed for the students and we also wanted to provide free-choice options because that’s how our students become even stronger students,” Passek told New York Times. “Any way that we can get students to read is a win for us.”

How has your school library transformed during the pandemic? Email ilovelibraries@ala.org to let us know.

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A Mysterious Librarian is the Breakout Star of Netflix’s "Hilda"

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By Burkely Hermann

Two years ago, the animated series Hilda premiered on Netflix, and a minor character called “The Librarian” (voiced by Kaisa Hammurlund) quickly became a fan sensation. Although she only appears in about three minutes of the show’s first season, this feisty librarian has been mentioned in 20 fanfiction stories on Archive of Our Own and has a Tumblr blog dedicated to her. She has also been a subject of a lot of chatter among the fanbase, from Twitter to Reddit. The official Hilda Twitter account has described her as a mysterious librarian who has an unmatched, and extensive, “knowledge of cemetery records and mystical items.” Overall, this character is among the most positive pop culture depictions of librarians, along with fellow animated shows Cleopatra in Space and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

During the show’s first season, the characters spend only nine minutes at the Trolberg public library, but those scenes make a strong impression. In the show’s sixth episode, protagonists Hilda, David, and Frida travel to the library, searching for information to cure David’s awful nightmares. Before they can think of the right text, the librarian drops a book on a nearby table, telling them they will find it of interest, and slides away on a rolling ladder across the stacks. Once the group starts reading, they realize the book indeed contains the information they need. When Frida expresses her confusion with the librarian’s prescient actions, David tells her that it is her job to find what they need.

In the next episode, the protagonists journey to the library to learn about dragons. While Hilda laments that she would rather be in a “deep, dark forest,” her elf friend, Alfie, calls the library a “forest for the imagination”; Frida adds that research is the “greatest adventure of them all.” After Alfie locates the right book using the card catalog, he expresses his love of “a good subject-based classification system,” in keeping with the show’s portrayal of elves as comically fixated on paperwork and organization. This scene reinforces the impression from the previous episode that libraries are wonderous places of valuable information.

Much of the library’s screen time for the season takes place in the eighth episode. In the first scene, Hilda looks for a “cozy place” to read. Thanks to the instincts of her pet, Twig, she stumbles upon a hidden special collections room in the library, a space that comics writer Matthew Garcia calls “the real wonder” of the episode. Among the stacks, Hilda finds a spell book whose contents spur the plot of the episode. Afterward, she is reminded by the librarian that the reference books, like the spell book, cannot be circulated. Filled with enchantments, the books become, in Garcia’s words, a “creature of their own.” Alfie has several wonderful lines in this episode, calling libraries “thrilling temples of the unexpected.” Thanks to the information Hilda learned during her time in the library, she lifts the enchantment on her friend and mother just in time.

In the episode that follows, the protagonists visit the library again, searching for information following a possible encounter with a ghost. Before Hilda has a chance to ask for help, the librarian anticipates her question. After some hesitation, the librarian draws upon her extensive expertise about everything from local gravesite locations to ghost summoning rituals in order to assist the group. She gives Hilda the necessary materials to raise the dead, while warning her that she will be “piercing the veil” between the human world and the world of the dead. While she later calls this activity “fun,” she does so in order to help Hilda, a patron, with something important. The librarian’s actions in this episode highlight the responsibility of librarians to serve patrons to the best of their ability.

In the show’s final episode, we see the librarian walking across the streets of Trolberg. Whether she is goth, a witch, a vampire, a queer-coded character, or a version of Hilda from the future—all of which are popular theories among fans—there is no doubt she will have an important role in the show’s upcoming season, which will likely begin streaming on Netflix in either October or November of this year. In the end, the librarian in Hilda serves as a positive depiction of librarians in animation which eschews stereotypes, hopefully making clear the importance of librarians and libraries for years to come.

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