Something’s Growing in New England: Notes from the New England Lifelong Access Libraries Institute, Part 1
This past Monday and Tuesday, more than 40 librarians from throughout New England gathered for the New England Lifelong Access Libraries Institute in Newton, Massachusetts. Though I can’t claim to be a Connecticut Yankee, those from the Southern states do consider New Yorkers like me a Yankee, and I sometimes root for the Yankees. For whatever reason, they let me join the group and I’m very happy to share with you the things I learned at the Institute.
Oh, what exactly is it that’s growing in New England? It’s a growing excitement and collaborative spirit; an eagerness to learn from one another and support one another’s efforts among the New England librarians I met. Many of those present were library directors and high-level administrative staff and I’m sure they will be passing on the lessons to a mushrooming number of library staff members.
The conference, presented by Libraries for the Future (LFF) with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies, was largely a result of the efforts of Diantha Schull and Stephen Ristau of LFF, working in collaboration with the state library agencies of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont. Hagar Shirman, LFF’s Massachusetts Program Manager, handled the logistics and coordinated everything—kudos to her for the seamless flow of the Institute. Its purpose was to give librarians tools they could use to improve service to those aged 50 and over, while developing a core group who can band together and learn from one another’s efforts.
I chose the worst day of the year—the Sunday after Thanksgiving—to drive from New York City to Boston, and so was exceptionally happy to arrive and escape from the pouring rain to cozy quarters. The sun came out on Monday and I enjoyed walking part of the Irish Heritage Trail. One stop on the Trail was the Boston Public Library, a great repository of information on the local Irish community, so of course I stopped there to soak in the history and enjoy their wonderful architecture, artwork, and exhibitions. Then I found my way back to the welcoming Sheraton Hotel in downtown Newton to prepare for the first session.
That evening, we gathered in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, and as the participants introduced themselves, my awe grew at the impressive group assembled. These people have done so much already, and are eager to learn and do more. They care deeply. It made me glad to be part of the library community, and especially part of this group, albeit for a short while.
After a tasty repast and a welcome from Diantha Schull, National Director of LFF’s Lifelong Access Libraries initiative, we heard the keynote speaker, Mary Catherine Bateson on the topic of “Active Wisdom.” She spoke of the critical time in history we’re living through: the very meaning of being human is undergoing an epochal change. Life expectancy in much of the world had been in the thirties in the past; now in the U.S., it’s in the high 70s. Many older people feel like they’re useless, even a burden—but there must be a reason why we, as a species, now live past the childbearing years. Ms. Bateson called to mind a New England winter scene, thick with snow, with a herd of deer searching for food. The old does in the group are the ones who will remember where to find it, from many years of experience! The presence of memory is one of the things that helps a group survive. Throughout history, memory has been part of why the old have been treasured by society. In traditional societies, the old aged into new, equally important, roles such as healer or fashioner of arrows. Today we have a wealth—not a problem—of older people, but we haven’t yet learned how to benefit from them.
Our country values independence, and the idea of being dependent is considered a nightmare. But we are all dependent. If we realize this, we will not fear dependence, either our own or other’s, and instead will focus on developing our interdependence in ways that we can all still feel effective, useful and creative.
To become wise, it’s not enough to just get old. Rather, you must learn throughout life, seeking out new experiences and reflecting on them. Many who are now older had participated in consciousness-raising groups in the 1960s and 1970s: they have long experience with change, growth and reflection. Libraries are neutral spaces where people can meet to have these same sorts of discussions, which lead to deep thinking. They can be places where facilitated discussions happen, so wisdom can keep growing, and be passed on.
Ms. Bateson ended her talk on a positive note. The subject of the hard economic times which have recently befallen us came up, and she reminded us that hard times may be just the thing that can teach us to be more interdependent.