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Legislative breakfast at the library

She’d already encouraged us to be loud in the library. Now elementary school librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro let us eat in the library while engaging with our elected officials.

Last week Liz, who is legislative co-chair for the Massachusetts School Libraries Association, hosted “Your Community, Your Library” legislative breakfast at Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, MA. The event was well attended, with parents, teachers, students, school administrators, school and city librarians, lawmakers, union reps, and others making up the diverse group.

libbfast

MA State Representative Marjorie C. Decker

Two students spoke first about what libraries mean to them. Fourth grader Keyanna Gonzalez reminded us that “Books surround us with great adventure.” Eleventh grader Bilien Teklu spoke — without even notes! — about how “things are heavy and hard to grasp,” and how seeing yourself in books is validating, especially in a society that can be so divisive and exclusionary. She invoked Toni Morrison: “There is really nothing more to say — except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” And how is what you can find in books.

MA Library Commissioner Carol Caro

MA Library Commissioner Carol Caro

State Representatives Marjorie Decker and Jay Livingstone both spoke of their passion for libraries. Decker talked about how being “lost in stories” opened up new worlds for her growing up in Cambridge public housing. She compared being surrounded by books to a “warm bowl of soup” and called libraries “the heart of civilization, the heart of democracy.” Livingstone spoke of libraries as “safe spaces” to contemplate others’ stories and your own, and he made the direct comparison between physical and educational infrastructure in government: roads, bridges, intellectual enrichment. Both reps talked about raising legislators’ consciousness and demanding accountability (being “squeaky wheels”). This was echoed — loudly and with urgency and with supporting facts and figures! — by library commissioner Carol Caro and Massachusetts Library Systems resource sharing director Steve Spohn (self-described “doom and gloom guy”) who spoke of imminent budget cuts and how to fight them; Spohn offered a very useful checklist handout.

MA State Senator Joseph A. Boncore

MA State Senator Joseph A. Boncore

Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School librarian Kendall Boninti is on a state commission, with Liz, that undertook a comparative study of libraries throughout the Commonwealth. “No two school libraries look alike,” she said looking appreciatively around the room — and reminding us how lucky the Cambridge schools are to be well-funded with full-time professional library teachers: not a given. State Senator Joe Boncore, too, gave some love to “Liz’s sanctuary” and talked about his school library growing up was open two days a week but how librarian Miss Anderson’s words (well, Mark Twain’s, as he found out later: “Those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t”) nevertheless stayed with him. He reassured us that our particular reps are loud and respected, and that as a legislator: “it’s easy to support something that’s working,  something with community buy-in.”

Emie Michaud Weinstock

Emie Michaud Weinstock

Two more (and saving the best for last…!!): Cambridgeport School parent Emie Michaud Weinstock, whose mother emigrated from Haiti, talked about how when she was little, there were two places she was allowed to go after school: to her mother’s business and to the library. Now the mother of two children, she talks about the importance of libraries for her own family — biracial, bicultural, interfaith — and how seeing those mirror books on display, even just in passing, out of the corner of your eye, is so validating in subtle ways. She also called to task the stagnant budget for libraries. “Think about what would happen if we didn’t take care of our cars, our homes, our bodies for nineteen years. Think about organic eggs: they used to cost $1.25. Now they’re $3.50. Things don’t stay the same. We need our libraries to stay dynamic for learning.”

Library love: Liz Phipps Soeiro and Julie Roach

Library love: Liz Phipps Soeiro and Julie Roach

Friend of The Horn Book Julie Roach ended the event with her characteristic energy and verve. As youth services manager for the Cambridge Public Library, she categorized her job this way: “I empower all youth to become confident readers and thinkers so they can become powerful advocates for themselves.” (hashtag: #LibrariansWithSuperpowers) As the gap between rich and poor continues to rapidly widen, libraries are poised to help address inequality — with the mission of “equal and open access for all,” through community outreach, direct service, extensive programming, professional development, and partnerships in all areas of civic engagement — but only if they are valued and well supported. “I see the library change lives for the better every single day.”

“Every library in the state deserves what we have,” concluded Liz, reminding people how lucky they are to have a strong library system and elected officials who value libraries — and not to take either for granted.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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