Live from New York, It’s Librarians Getting Plenty of Love

December 9, 2008

Here's the inside scoop on  the Carnegie Corporation of New York/New York Times 'I Love My Librarian!' Awards. Thanks to the support of the two eponymous sponsors who fund them, along with ALA's administrative contribution, more than 3,200 library users nationwide nominated a librarian for the award. That's a lot of appreciation for the services library professionals offer to their communities, schools, and campuses. Ten of those nominees rose to the top and received the prestigious honor―along with a $5,000 cash award―at a ceremony and reception at the Times Center, hosted by The New York Times Corporation this evening, December 9, in New York City. Chosen for the honors by a committee chaired by Loriene Roy, immediate past president of ALA, the winners, from across the country and across library type, represent the finest the profession has to offer, and there to hear them accept their awards were Carnegie and Times presidents, respectively, Vartan Gregorian and Janet Robinson, along with some 250 fans. Inside Scoop went backstage before the show to watch the winners prep for their speeches. The screen in the beautiful auditorium at the Times Center on 41st Street flashed "I Love My Librarian!" as the recipients rehearsed with Megan Humphrey of the ALA’s Public Information Office. They chatted nervously, words like “star treatment” being bandied about. Outside the auditorium doors a crowd was forming, while the glamour of theater bustle all around the venue lent an air of the Tony Awards to the proceedings—but without the self-congratulatory blather. There was more than one moment in this prestigious event, right here in the heart of New York City, when sincerity outshown glamour by a long shot, and seeing Gregorian and Robinson was a sign of their genuine faith in our profession and in the future of libraries. At showtime, I turned from my front row seat to check out the crowd. The enthusiasm was plentiful, and I could see that some of the winners had brought their students and patrons. With everyone who works in the nonprofit arena worrying about how the financial debacle of recent months will trickle down to libraries, and with the nation’s eyes on today-arrested Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and what it will mean for the Senate seat of President Elect Obama, what struck me in this room with Broadway around the corner is that the show must go on—this particular show and the show of essential solutions that libraries offer to every national crisis. Janet Robinson opened the show, reinforcing the notion that librarians are the people who "make sure the young people of this country love to learn." Once an elementary schoolteacher, she said that it's important to make reading and knowing more something young people want to do, not have to do. As a teacher she encouraged her students to continue their quest for knowledge for a lifetime. When your students succeed, that is success for a teacher, Robinson said. "Librarians are excited by the prospect of nurturing young minds," she observed, emphasizing the openness of libraries to all, regardless of social status. Comparing libraries to schools, Vartan Gregorian quipped that in libraries "there is no such thing as graduation, no such thing as ending learning." One of Gregorian's refrains when I've interviewed him and heard him speak at ALA is that libraries are "the most tolerant institutions because they give us the history of all our deeds—follies and accomplishments." He also defended librarians defending intellectual freedom: “It was nobody’s business what you read.” And he praised the internet, which "gives everyone your own Library of Alexandria.”  Gregorian repeated another refrain that seemed particularly apt in the current political and financial climate in this country. "Librarians are the most underappreciated individuals," he said, adding that they have the burden of needing to be "more educated, more knowledgable," than library users in order to be effective.  "Anybody can find information," he said. "You are not about information; you are about knowledge." Libraries "are not centers of information, they are centers of learning and knowledge," he emphasized. There are only three professions that are absolutely essential to the survival of civilization, Gregorian observed: teacher, journalist, and librarian. Praising ALA for its core values of, among others, intellectual freedom, freedom of access, and public awareness, Robinson introduced ALA President Jim Rettig, who noted of the award winners, "As different as we are, there are connections between all our libraries." He said, "Service to people, making a difference in their lives is what we are all about." It was the best show in town. All 10 winners (see photos and details below) came to the stage to accept the thanks of the patrons who nominated them and they thousands of people they serve. Among the highlights of their acceptance speeches: Jean Amaral of Antioch University in New Hampshire recalled advice given to her early in her career: "Be ashamed to die before you have won a victory for humanity." That has inspired her work with students, "so that their world will be just and sustainable." Amy Cheney of California said her joy was getting her clients excited about reading by talking to authors. She works in a juvenile detention facility. "I am here to be a voice for the youth," telling two moving stories about the transformation that occurs when someone learns to read.  Carol W. Levers of Missouri and originally of South Africa thanked ALA for her success. "If not for Spectrum scholarship that I received, I would not be standing here tonight," she said, also thanking her family: "I love you all—and I love all librarians." Iona Malanchuk quoted athlete Althea Gibson, who said, "No matter what your accomplishments, somebody helped you." Noting that her career had started 41 years ago right here in New York City and thanking those who'd helped her, she said she'd been able to "turn around and help someone else!" Elaine McIlroy of Massachusetts noted that she had met her husband in a library, "so I've always associated libraries with love." It is the librarians mission "to do real and permanent good in the world." Paul McIntosh delivered probably the most heartfelt and room-silencing thank-you of the evening. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are more powerful than we can imagine," he said. Dealing every day with 6-12th-graders in Harlem, he said his students are "struggling to make sense of this struggle we call life." And the group of students he brought with him cheered for their hero with all the power they could muster. All 10 winners: Linda Allen Libraries Director Pasco County Library System Hudson, Florida       Jean Amaral Reference Librarian Antioch University New England Keene, New Hampshire       Amy J. Cheney Librarian Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall San Leandro, California       Jennifer Lankford Dempsey Library Media Specialist and Technology Coordinator Wrights Mill Road Elementary School Auburn, Alabama       Carol W. Levers Community Services Librarian Kansas City, Kansas Public Library; Weekend Supervisor Plaza Branch Library, Kansas City Public Library Kansas City, Missouri     Margaret “Gigi” Lincoln Library Media Specialist Lakeview High School Library Battle Creek, Michigan       Iona R. Malanchuk Associate University Librarian and Head of the Education Library University of Florida Gainesville, Florida     Elaine McIlroy Director Wellfleet Public Library Wellfleet, Massachusetts       Paul McIntosh Library Media Specialist Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts New York, New York     Arezoo Moseni Senior Librarian The New York Public Library, Mid-Manhattan Library, The Art Collection New York, New York     Video and other news coverage will follow at American Libraries Focus  and on the I Love Libraries website, with links in American Libraries Direct. The January-February double issue of American Libraries is underway and will feature all the winners and their stories.