Allow me to begin with a personal story about a favorite library experience. When I was nineteen I took the train to New York City for the purpose of looking at a reference book. I walked up the stone stairs, between those enormous lion statues, and consulted with a reference librarian. I was shown to a fancy reading room with wood paneling and oil paintings of dead white men. On the shelves I found a reference book that may never have been opened. The book was a catalog of Coptic manuscripts held by the British Library and Museum. I spent most of a day flipping through descriptions of thousands of ancient religious texts and writing down the reference numbers for the texts I most wanted to see.
A few weeks later I was on a plane to England, where I would spend a semester studying. London was my first stop. I carried with me a letter from the curator of the British Library and Museum offering me unlimited access to their ancient manuscript collection. How I had decided to learn Egyptian Coptic is a story for another time. I’d leave my hostel in the morning, cross the Thames, show my credentials and pass through security, enter a climate controlled reading room, and fill out library request forms with a stubby golf pencil. Then the librarians would bring out and set before me ancient sacred texts that had been handwritten on papyrus parchment in Egypt more than 1500 years ago: chapters from the Gospels, heretical Gnostic texts, a late but beautiful copy of the Book of Revelation complete with illustrations.
I think I’ve always regarded libraries as sacred, magical spaces. The magic of libraries transcends any architectural elements: the woodwork, the stonework, the statues of lions. The magic of libraries even goes beyond any invaluable treasures that may be kept in the vaults of the special collections. The magic of libraries has to do with what they do even more than what they look like or what they have. It has to do with how they provide access to information, inspiration, and imagination.
This is the final sermon in our series on vocation. All this month we’ve explored different callings. We’ve heard from people in different professions about the meaning of what they do and their spiritual connection to their work. In previous weeks we’ve heard from teachers and also from those in the healing professions. This week we’re going to hear from librarians. Allow me to say once again that in focusing on educators, healers, and librarians, I am not suggesting a hierarchy of professions with these at the top. I’m not saying that vocation is limited to only those in helping, service oriented professions. I’m not saying that vocation is limited to professional professions, to those jobs that require an advanced degree. I’m not even saying that vocation only applies to paid work. Parenting might be your vocation, or volunteering, or an artistic endeavor done for love rather than money. As Unitarian Universalists we do like broad, inclusive definitions. This series is less about elevating a few specific professions than it is about providing a template allowing each of us to reflect on the place of vocation within our own lives.
One of the reasons I selected librarians was that I noticed that in the past couple of years we’ve had five people who work for libraries become members of this church. (And that doesn’t even include our numerous members who have served or do serve on library boards, or several of our members who have opened Little Free Libraries in front of their homes.) I was curious about whether there might be an overlap between what might call a person to work as a librarian and what might lead a person to join a Unitarian Universalist church. I knew I was on the right track when I sent an email to a handful of librarians in the congregation asking if they might be interested in sharing a few thoughts with me. In response I received paragraph after paragraph of reflections and observations.
For this series I decided to give each sermon a one verb title. What teachers do is called teaching or educating. What medical professionals do is called healing or treating. So, I asked our librarians to help me brainstorm a single verb that best explains what they do?
We help. We serve. We assist. Those verbs are a little too vague.
We collect. We catalog. We lend. Those verbs are too impersonal.
We connect. We inform. Now we’re getting warmer.
We resource. Perfect, except I don’t think that word is a verb.
Find something better, I thought, or else I’ll title this sermon, “Vocation: Shushing.”*
There is no single verb for what a librarian does, but the verb I landed was to curate. I like this word. It has both spiritual and secular significance. In the Catholic and Anglican traditions, a curate is a type of priest who attends to the cure of souls. Curates are strongly oriented towards service to humanity. In the secular sense, a curator is someone who works for a museum or another type of cultural institution whose role is not only to acquire, collect, and preserve, but also to display, to exhibit, to make accessible, and even to make comprehensible.
At the beginning of this sermon series, I suggested two ways in which a person might begin to reflect on the spirituality of vocation. The first way was to ask a question about connections. Who does your work connect you with? Whose lives does it impact? Whose lives does it touch? The second way to reflect about the spirituality of vocation was to ask a question about story. What is the meaning of the story that your life, that your work, is a part of?
When I spoke with librarians about what was meaningful to them about their work, they all said that as a librarian it is not enough to just love books or to just love reading. You do have to love books. You do have to love reading. But you have to love people even more. This answer had to do with connections. One librarian told me that listening and being responsive is a significant part of his job. Another librarian told me how much she loves making someone’s day. They come to the reference desk annoyed, frustrated, or just in a bad mood and they leave satisfied, content, grateful. One librarian spoke earlier in the service about the desire to commit his life to service and how being a librarian helps him fill his need to serve.
Here’s how one person put it, “I've worked at a very small town library with a high poverty rate and now a big city library. My work has changed my outlook from instilling that love of reading to helping families gain the skills to be successful in the world, either through learning and improving their reading skills, which we know are so important, or providing access to materials that will educate as well as entertain. We know that reading skills at third grade are great predictors of graduation rates. And early literacy has become a huge focus of libraries in recent years…”
Meaningful and positive connections were key to how librarians understood their service. But, even more powerful was how the librarians thought about their work as a part of the story of civilization’s unfolding. I’ll say more about this is just a second. The librarians I spoke with talked easily and openly about the ethical dimensions of their work. This, I will admit, was actually a bit surprising to me. I had never thought of librarians as a profession that requires a strong sense of ethics. Let me show this connection between story and ethics by sharing the words of some members of the church.
Here’s what one member of the congregation wrote, “What inspires me about being a librarian – maybe as spiritual as it gets for me – is that librarians stand for intellectual freedom. Librarians intentionally create spaces, opportunities, and environments where people can express themselves and be heard… We support this freedom of expression in ways that other cultural and educational institutions don't.”
“I’d like to echo those comments,” chimed in another librarian. “The intellectual freedom issue… is paramount to what we do. There can be drudgery in our day-to-day work to keep things moving. But if you don't have the dedication to the principles of free and equal access to information and materials, you're not going to last long in this profession.”
The story behind these comments is the same story that was behind the Declaration of Independence, a story of self-evident truths and the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was the story behind the First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, petition, press, and assembly. It is a story that says that we as individuals are best served by being able to explore ideas freely, and that society is best served when there is broad and equal access to information.
One part of this is access to materials that some in society find objectionable. Ever since Socrates went to his death as punishment for corrupting the youth of Athens, there have been those who have tried to outlaw, destroy, remove, restrict, or ban certain teachings and certain works. The same malevolent force that led Socrates to put the hemlock to his lips also persecuted Galileo. It is the same force that banned Huck Finn and The Great Gatsby, Salinger and Vonnegut. It is the same force that claims that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft and the occult. It is the same force that has residents of this community again launching an inquisition against a bare breasted statue at the Overland Park Arboretum.
It is wonderful serendipity that I’m giving this sermon on the day that Banned Books Week begins. Around the country, libraries are celebrating freedom of speech and freedom of the press, these most American of freedoms. One of the librarians in the congregation refers to this week as “books challenged by people who haven’t read them week.”
One thing worth remembering about censorship is that “values” is often a code word for racism, sexism, heterosexism, and religious intolerance. A book with a gay character aimed at high school students will almost surely result in the book being challenged. A book with a strong female protagonist will face more resistance than a book with a strong male protagonist. A book where the protagonist is a person of color who is angry about the history of slavery or the history of Native American genocide or even present day racism is more likely to be challenged. And God forbid that the hero of one of these books is someone who challenges authority.
Truthfully, I’m probably a bit too biased to work for the library. I’m not sure I could in conscience place a book order for a parenting guide by James Dobson or put a political satire by Laura Ingraham on the shelf without feeling a twinge of guilt. However, I’d never go so far as to launch a petition drive asking for those books to be removed from the shelves. But the librarians in our congregation really do believe in collecting books that contain a variety of viewpoints. Doing so is an ethical requirement that they take seriously.
If access to a diversity of materials is one value that librarians stand by, equality of access is another. Information and resources need to be available to all, especially those of all socio-economic backgrounds. There are no VIPs at the library. It is a value of our free society to insist that books, periodicals, newspapers, films, and even and especially access to the information sources of the digital age need to be available to all members of society.
From cuneiform tablets and hieroglyphics, to papyrus scrolls, to the library of Alexandria, jump ahead to the printing press, to the Carnegie libraries and the birth of the public library system, to the digital age. From books being a sign of royal or priestly privilege to universal access to information being a requirement for a functional society, I would say that librarians are definitely a part of a great story of freedom and civilization, of information, inspiration, and imagination.
* A further thought: While the image of the "shushing librarian" may be a stereotype there has actually been a bit of a discussion about whether libraries should be bustling centers of activity or places of silence. One of the librarians in our congregation who helped me most with this sermon is inspired by R. David Lankes' writings about the library as conversation. (This doesn't only mean people talking, but it certainly has implications about how a library will function.) Laura Miller of Salon.com challenges this focus calling for the return of shushing librarians. Whichever side you take, and I'm probably being overly dualistic here, you have to admit that this is a sweet tattoo: