Blog: The essence of the library’s purpose shines through in tragic times

October 2, 2023

Betty Collins

Children’s Librarian

The story I want to relate for this month’s blog did not take place in Muscatine, but in a public library I worked at in the San Francisco Bay Area back in September of 2001. This story is from September 12, 2001, to be exact.

Like that of many other Americans, my sleep had been troubled the previous night because of the tragedies in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. I had always pictured the map of the United States smiling–not unlike the illustrations in picture book author Holly Keller’s Scrambled States of America–but now it felt like we would never smile again.  The news had reported that several thousand people were dead in the terrorist attacks. I knew there might be others still trapped under the rubble of the Twin Towers, suffering. And San Francisco itself seemed like a future target.

I sat at the Children’s Reference Desk that night in a fearful daze.

The most important part of this story is that during the evening, a library patron walked into the children’s room and approached the desk. I recognized him as a comparatively recent Californian who always wore traditional Pakistani attire. He frequently brought his bright, energetic children in for Storytime or afterschool book browsing; and while we often exchanged friendly conversation, we did not know each other personally.  But on this evening he was alone, and he hadn’t come for books. He tried to speak, then just stood silently. Tears streamed down his cheeks. Before long they streamed down mine as well. Hardly a word was spoken between us, though libraries are usually a realm of language. After all, what could we really say?

All we could do was share our grief.

This was why he had come to the library. Because it was his location of community, a spot he and his family visited to educate themselves, to share thoughts and stories, and to socialize with other Americans. I can’t quite express how humbling it was to understand this.

Over the almost 40 years that I have worked in public libraries, my experience of the role of this uniquely American institution has continued to deepen and expand. I love it more than ever. And I hope you do, too.

The library blog features one Musser Public Library employee at a time writing their thoughts and musings. These columns also appear in the library’s monthly newsletter.

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