Librarians rock “Oly’s Living Room”!


Libraries are amazing!

Did you know you could go online with a library account and “Ask a Librarian”? Ask them anything. Any time of day. There are reference librarians all over the world standing by to answer your most random, burning questions. With any luck, they’ll have knuckle tattoos and beehive hairdos like the Olympia branch’s badass bibliognosts.

Then there’s the Dewey Decimal System. Parker Posey made it hip in the ‘90s flick Party Girl. The Olympia librarians are doing the work to make the library the kind of place where rock and roll and spontaneous bursts of learning happen.

The Olympia library has events like Anti-Valentines Day party for teens; story time for four year olds with a book whose protagonist is a transgender child; typewriter celebrations; all ages rock shows in the atrium; death row surviving activists; zines made in collaboration with punk rockers and senior citizens; authors who write about secret POW camps in WWII-era Minnesota; and that’s just the beginning. It’s millennia away from the oldest known library, which dates back to a 1200 BCE Syrian palace library. Yeah—that information came from a library.

While E-book companies are deliberately pumping money into websites to ensure that it’s easier for consumers to buy books rather than check them out for free, public libraries are racing breakneck to keep information accessible to all. In the last few years the library has added e-books to their repertoire of items, loaned for free, just like everything else at the library. (Except tampons, which cost $0.25).

Timberland Regional Library recently has taken a cue from Netflix and gotten hip to streaming media, including movies, full albums, and audio books.

Each day, the Olympia library gets between 1600-2000 patrons walking through the door. It’s a veritable cross section of society, from those who come in to use the free wi-fi, to others who come in straight from the jail. The library gets a lot of press about the negative incidents, but it’s really a slim minority of what happens on a daily basis.

The staff is trained with de-escalation techniques, but it’s on-the-job training that really equips them to keep the peace. “It’s an equitable place. We treat everyone the same when they walk through the door and if there is a problem, we address the behavior, not the person,” says Kelsey Smith, librarian staff of seven years. Smith recounts her that in her first week at the library there was a hostage situation across the street and they had to evacuate.

On less life-threatening days, the library provides much more than just organized stacks of books.

The most exciting things are happening in Adult Services, with programming that presents local musicians and famous authors alike. Says one-time Riot Grrl and Olympia Branch Manager, Donna Feddern, “We hold events that reflect the community. We get a good turn out so we know were on track.” Still, patrons want more library hours, seating, community space, and places to plug in laptops.

At a recent Olympia City Counsil meeting Mayor Buxbaum and others voted to move forward with a community renewal designation for Olympia. Modeled


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after Portland’s Pearl District, the next step will be to declare sections of Olympia as “blighted” areas, and then to revitalize them. Mr. Mayor previously stated that, as part of this process, he would like to see a new library built. It’s ultimately up to the voters whether this happens, but library staff are positively giddy with this possibility. The library on 8th Avenue is built on fill, which prohibits expansion of the city-owned building.

When asked what she would like to see for the future of the TRL library, Feddern says, “Libraries aren’t quiet spaces anymore, but people still want that. The King County library has glass-walled quiet reading rooms for those who want to concentrate.” Among other improvements she would like to see are flexible spaces where there could be story time for kids in the morning and author readings during normal hours. As of now, the library must hold these events before or after hours. She’d love to see an expanded teen area, as well as more conference rooms, as theirs is often booked.

Feddern also looks to progressive library systems around the world. Maker spaces, which are interactive classrooms that accommodate a variety of learning styles, have been adopted with success in other cities, and include things like 3D printers and digital media labs. “People are communicating and teaching more through audio and video, and that’s a needed skill.”

The anythink library in Colorado is cutting edge library that uses clever marketing to transform itself into a magical learning space where the librarians have been reframed as ‘Wranglers’ and ‘Guides’, and the interactive learning programming includes renting goats to “mow” the grass around the library.

“We need to respect that people have different entries to learning,” says Feddern. “This kind of learning makes us relevant to those who aren’t using physical books anymore, and it still works with our mission of lifelong learning.”

The library also provides a safety net for those who don’t have tech skills. As new technology comes out, people don’t know how to use mobile devices or new social media, and the library is only place where they can get that for free.

The library online features Microsoft’s IT academy, a series of free classes ranging from basic software to advanced certifications. Learn4Life is a similar program with six-week classes that teach subjects from blogging to business accounting.

A new project in conjunction with the Capital Recovery House connects people with the best available services, while an ongoing series, Teen Tech, is a bi-monthly event where teens mentor adults who need IT training. Other offerings include workshops on the Affordable Care Act.

Librarian Kelsey Smith says there is no typical day. Sometimes she is “on desk,” fielding questions on anything from where to find genealogy resources to the feminist zine collection, while other days she does outreach at community centers around town. She smiles when talking about Senior Page Turners, a book discussion group that happens at the senior center. “[The seniors] are so honest. They’ll just come out and say, ‘I didn’t care for this book’,” says Smith.

Another gem is the Local History collection, which houses fragile newspaper clippings, maps, voters’ pamphlets, Olympia yearbooks from the turn of the century, The Olympian going back to the 1800s, as well as Polk Guides—city directories—from over a century ago. None of these things exist on the Internet.

A local author section dates back to 1967, and a well-perused section of the reference library includes the Native American history books.

And there is also an extensive sheet music collection—in case you want to know the notes to “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” for example.

For those who love reading and prizes, from now until mid-March TRL is holding a Winter Reading Contest with giveaways such as e-readers and stays at the Alderbrook Resort & Spa.

Let us not forget that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did her best work in her library. Basically, if there were a TV series about Olympia, it would have to be based in the library. ◙


Find more information about Olympia’s library, including all the fabulous online stuff, at

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