Open the door to uncomfortable spaces

Read this article and more in WeveWhile some people actively seek out the new, the unusual, the different, the unknown, for most people, finding comfort in the familiar and the known is what soothes the soul. It reaffirms our worldview, and it reaffirms the space in which we have created our lives. However, it can also isolate us when we experience something that doesn’t conform to the experience of those around us.

In the same way that eating something unfamiliar can be mentally & physically challenging, opening up to the unknown spaces of our understanding and learning about something unfamiliar can be confronting. It can be confronting to learn that life isn’t as we imagined it to be. However, in learning that others also experience this uncomfortableness, we learn to acknowledge that we are not alone in the uncomfortable spaces.

Libraries are used by people. 

Libraries exist for people. 

Libraries are the intersection of people.

But what do we truly know about the people who use our libraries? What do we know about the demographics of our communities? What do we know about the stories of our communities? What do we know about the lives of our communities? How can we better reflect the shared experiences of our communities?

Can we find a way to shift our focus from the differences in our communities to instead unite our communities through common experiences, to show that it is these uncomfortable experiences that can occur in all parts of communities? How can librarians open the door to the uncomfortable spaces that exist in our communities?

Life isn’t always easy. Life isn’t always fair. Life isn’t always what we want it to be. Life isn’t always want we need it to be. It is the uncomfortable spaces in people’s lives that can often show our commonality, our humanness and our place in the world.

Librarians can open the door to these uncomfortable spaces. Librarians don’t need to solve the world’s problems, librarians don’t need to change the world, but librarians can make the world a less uncomfortable place.

Instead of fearing the uncomfortable spaces that confront us, we can acknowledge the reality of the global financial crisis, of redundancies, of trauma, of illness, of being rejected. Libraries can facilitate these community conversations. Libraries can open the door to the uncomfortable spaces. Libraries can show their communities that they are not alone.

Libraries can be kind. Libraries can be honest about the uncomfortable reality for people. Libraries can be a place to face up to, or escape from, the reality of uncomfortableness. Libraries can allow people to share their experiences with other community members. Libraries can be a place to begin the conversation of connection with the community. Ask your community to share their experiences.

Ask your community: when you faced cancer, what book made a difference in your life?

Ask your community: when you lost your job, what resources did you need most to carry on?

Ask your community: when you didn’t get the scholarship needed to go to university, what resources did you access to find a new direction?

Imagine a curated collection of materials in a public library: Cancer sucks.

Stories of hope. Stories of death. eResources for medical jargon deciphering. Links to key support agencies. Stories for the young. Stories of rituals. Stories of loss. Stories of family. Identify the role of genetics. Describe the role of knowing your family history. Discuss the impact of science, religion, faith, community in people’s experiences. There are so many angles to explore. Offer your community a way through the uncomfortable world of cancer and medical trauma.

Imagine a curated collection of materials in an academic library: Being unknown, unpopular and unpublished.

Stories of alternative ways to get published. Stories of using mobile technology to reach out to other academic rebels. Stories of PhD whispering. Stories of honing presentation skills. Stories of sourcing funding from unusual places.

Imagine a curated collection of materials in a school library: Be the best misfit you can be.

High school dropouts. Dyslexics. Geniuses. Everyone is good, mediocre and not-so-good, at something. Find your tribe online and offline. Celebrate talents in music, art, food, sport, writing, reading, hiking, biking, or tinkering. Show teenagers that the world beyond high school does exist. It’s wild, crazy and exciting. And it does get better.

For all librarians, one of the biggest unspoken topics for our communities is the mental health of communities. Don’t go at this one alone. Partner with medical and social agencies to curate the resources. Follow the lead of the University of Otago’s ‘Books on Prescription’ model [1], or Puke Ariki’s ‘Turn the Page’ initiative [2], or Bay of Plenty Polytechnic’s realignment of learning spaces based on an holistic approach to student services [3]. Communities don’t leave their lives at the door when they walk into libraries, they bring all of themselves.

Libraries can share their curated collections, so that we don’t re-invent the wheel all the time, but we can tailor the design of the wheel for our communities. Share the programmes. Share the online resources. Share the collection ideas. Working collectively and collaboratively as a profession means providing better services for our customers.

Find a way forward into the uncomfortable spaces for our community. It might be uncomfortable to open the door on these uncomfortable experiences, but ignoring doesn’t make it go away. Let’s not ignore the uncomfortable spaces in our communities. Let’s invite the conversation and given our communities an opportunity to find the connection with others in the community.


[1] University of Otago Library. Books on Prescription Collection – “to support the teaching and learning of students in health professions, and for the well-being of the wider University community”. http://otago.libguides.com/bop

[2] Puke Ariki. http://www.pukeariki.com/Libraries/Turn-the-Page

[3] Rowe, L., & Heke, J. 2013. Paddling The Waters, Our Journey To Ako Ātea. http://www.lianza.org.nz/resources/conference-proceedings/2013/paddling-waters-our-journey-ako-%C4%81tea

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