Last Sunday (June 12, 2011, to be exact), I had a fun old time volunteering at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library’s booth at the Haight Ashbury Street Fair, an annual tradition that takes place not from my house.
Any pre-conceived notions you may have about San Francisco in general and Haight-Ashbury in particular are pretty much confirmed at the fair. Haight street is packed with people from all walks of life, sizes, colors, religions or lack thereof, political persuasions (some you didn’t even know existed), varieties of dress from the plain to the imaginative, and naturally occurring or chemically-altered mental states. Smoke from food stands and noise from bands playing adds to the general joyous confusion. Imagine the siege of Troy taking place on a narrow street – but fun – and you get the idea.
I had previously received an email from the Mary Abler at the Friends of the SFPL regarding this opportunity and had contacted Darice Murray-McKay at the Park Branch to volunteer, but due to what I later found out was an email glitch I didn’t hear back, so I just decided to show up and see if I could lend a hand. A very grateful volunteer with a pinched nerve in her arm gladly handed me a roll of stickers imprinted with owls and the phrase “I Love Stories”. My new task was to hand these out to passersby. Any passersby with children were shown a box where each child could pick out a free children’s book.
Despite other peoples’ estimation of me, I don’t always consider myself the most outgoing person, and therefore felt that my attempts to hand out stickers to strangers would fail utterly, thus leading to the end of my nascent library career.
However, I had not reckoned on the bacchanalian spirit of the fair, the colorfulness of the stickers and the general communitarian nature of San Francisco doing their work. People loved the stickers. I had lines forming for them at some points. Girls, boys, parents, children, elderly people loved them. And the more I handed out, the fun it became, and the more I got into the swing of it.
Obviously, the most gratifying moments were when people understood that I wasn’t just handing out stickers just for the sake of it, but that it was in support of the library. People’s faces lit up, and they all said that the library was really cool. People asked me where the library was, and I was able to tell them that the Park Branch was their local neighborhood branch, and that they could not only get a library card there, but that the branch also provided them with access to all the books and services provided by the entire system. I even got into a discussion with a young man from Germany on the current situation of funding for libraries both here and in Germany, and even let him know that he was able to get a library card simply by living in San Francisco.
One of the things that this experience taught me is that people love the library more than they may consciously realize. Libraries seem to be embedded in our society to such an extent that people may not always think of them on a conscious level. I think one reason for this is that libraries do what they do so well that people don’t notice. Generally people tend to notice when institutions are not working. People may also assume that since libraries work so well, that they must somehow take care of themselves and have no problems. The average library user may not be privy to the political and financial pressures facing libraries in our current economic climate.
However, in this time of budget cutbacks and uncertain financial futures for libraries, I think it is more important than ever to remind people how important libraries are, and to remind people that they indeed love libraries and value them. It’s one thing for members of the library profession to lobby members of Congress and state and local legislatures, but it’s quite another for lawmakers to actually hear it from the people who rely on libraries.
In the end, I had a great time helping support my local library by getting the word out in my community.