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Online search engines are basically universal, so questions at the library reference desk are changing. We follow the story of one question, “I want to know how I can be happy,” and learn about how libraries are keeping up with the needs of the community.

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Episode Transcript

Debbie Pecora I recently had an adult woman and a teenage girl who had her hat pulled way down and was looking sad and I said, "Can I help you?" And the mom said, "Go ahead and ask the librarian." She was so sad and she said, "I want to know how I can be happy."

Felice Belle Debbie Pecora is a librarian in the Science, Society and Technology department at Brooklyn’s Central Library.

Debbie Pecora I sent her to the Young Adult room. We have books on happiness up here but I thought in Young Adult, they have books specialized for kids about all the different problems of teenagers... bullying, and just getting along with your parents and stuff. And I hope she got the help she needed because I think she’ll be a lifelong fan. If we can help her do that, we can help her write a paper or whatever else she needs.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You know, Felice, it’s pretty remarkable that this teenager’s mom thought to bring her to the library for that sort of question. I think it means that she knew that the library would be a place that could help. It’s a good reminder to me that a librarian’s job really is to point you toward resources. Not just books, but programs and classes or online communities... or really anything that’s going to help you.

Scenes in the Flatbush branch of Brooklyn Public Library, taken in the 1950s.
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Felice Belle Especially at a public library, where the goal is to help you find whatever it is you’re looking for, including happiness. You can bring almost any problem or question to the library, and people are going to try to help you find the answer.  People like Debbie, sitting at the reference desk.

Debbie Pecora You never, ever know, and that’s the fun part of being a public librarian. You have no idea what that person is going to ask. It could be some question about... slavery in the Civil War in South Carolina. Or it could be, "How do I get to the third floor?" Or, "I want to become vegan, how do I do it?" That’s the fun of it, that you never know.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s true. You don’t really know. And that got us thinking… what are the questions that librarians get asked at the reference desk?

Felice Belle So we took the microphone to a few librarians and clerks at Brooklyn Public Library. Here’s what they told us about the common questions they get asked while sitting at the desk.

Bronson Munroe My name is Bronson and I work for clerical operations at Brooklyn Public Library, the Central Library. The most common questions are directional questions, where to find books, where to find the DVDs, which floor to find different materials.

Mark Levine We have people asking about their own religions, about their neighbors' religions, people just curious, maybe there’s a holiday. Maybe they were told there's alternate side parking for a religious holiday and they want to know what that holiday is.

Debbie Pecora I want to boost my self esteem, I want to be happier, how do I not be angry so much. And there’s also the people who come up and say, "I want to get rich."

Samantha Owen We have a group of children at the Mapleton branch who are our regulars here, we see them almost every day They’ll spend about an hour on the desk with me at a time and we can cover a huge, broad range of topics. 

Deborah Markowitz A lady came this morning, she wanted to know how to learn Spanish. So we have a section with learning materials on all these different languages, dictionaries, Spanish for Dummies, vocabulary books, plus we have our conversation classes… And then you get: "Where’s the ladies room?" 

Librarians answer the phones at Brooklyn Public Library's Telephone Reference Division
in the 1950s. (Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In a big library like this, that is a very important question. So, you just heard from Bronson Munroe, Mark Levine, Debbie Pecora, Samantha Owen and Deborah Markowitz.

Felice Belle As you could probably tell, these librarians and clerks get a whole range of questions at the desk. Some librarians we talked to, though, thought that overall, as the internet has become more accessible, the nature of the questions at the desk has gotten less involved. I mean, you can type a whole lot of questions into Google and get pretty sophisticated answers. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Exactly. Because there are more opportunities to find facts on your own, when people do come to the reference desk, chances are they’re looking for a human, not a screen. This can make the questions at the desk sometimes really important and really sensitive.

Felice Belle Like Debbie Pecora’s story about the teenage girl who asked how she can be happy.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Interactions across the reference desk are changing. So, today we’re going to investigate how libraries are keeping up.

Felice Belle I’m Felice Belle. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You’re listening to Borrowed: Stories that start at the library.


Kerwin Pilgrim A lot of people coming into libraries, stopping at the reference desk, regardless of what questions they’re asking, they’re asking for help. They're asking for an opportunity.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Kerwin Pilgrim, the director of Adult Learning at Brooklyn Public Library, says that reference desk interactions between a patron and staff are a really important part of the library’s community service, not just our reference service.

Kerwin Pilgrim So what you should know is that one of the most commonly asked questions at the reference desk actually pertains to obtaining a High School Equivalency, an HSE diploma. Commonly people say, "How can you help me get my GED?"

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Felice, you actually work with patrons, the ones coming in to ask about their GED. They're asking for this very specific information.

Felice Belle I do. I actually work at the Central Adult Learning Center, with Kerwin, as a literacy advisor.  What’s amazing is, the library is not just a place for books and computers… you can also get your High School Diploma here, you can learn English, study for citizenship tests, you can even get an Associate level college degree! It’s a place for so many things, like  Kerwin described, that one question across the reference desk “Can you help me get my GED?” can lead you here.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I’m curious, Felice, what’s it like to work at the adult learning center?

Felice Belle It’s actually pretty incredible. When you walk in the door a bell is going to ring, which is always a shock to patrons. That’s how we know someone has entered the space. But it’s actually a really beautiful learning environment. It’s closed off to the public so it’s really only open to students that are in the program and that’s for privacy and confidentiality. We work with adults who are reading nothing at all up to adults who want to get their High School Equivalency diplomas. I think a common assumption is that all adults are able to read and write. I actually before working here, I’d never thought about the population of adults who have little to no literacy skills. Right? So literacy nationwide is a huge issue. In the United States there are 36 million adults who cannot read or write above a third grade level. And in New York City, it’s about 2 million, which is 25% of our population, that have low literacy skills. But it's not just literacy. Research shows a correlation between low literacy skills and increased rates of poverty, higher healthcare costs and higher rates of incarceration.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And for people with low literacy, getting through just a day in New York City can be a challenge.

Felice Belle Absolutely, and this was a discovery for me, the level of genius that it takes to survive in New York City without literacy skills. So one student talked about counting train stops so she made sure she got off at the right place, another student talked about being on an international flight and wearing a sling so that someone would offer to fill out her customs form for her. You figure it out. You make it work.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That's pretty remarkable. So libraries are working to bridge the gap in our community, creating a positive place to learn for those who may have had negative experiences with traditional schools in the past.

Felice Belle Right, and all of this actually leads back to the reference desk. Because, if we know that patrons might have had negative experiences with traditional school, that’s going to change the interaction a patron and librarian have across the desk. Here’s how Kerwin puts it.

Kerwin Pilgrim So it’s not just a service, like you need a book, you need a question answered, but it’s how we deliver that service, it's how we respond. The person on the receiving end is very self conscious, they’re taking notes of how we’re dealing with them. And if we don't do it right, we’re going to lose them, and I don’t want the library—which is the anchor within the community—to lose its users. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras After the patron talks to a librarian at the reference desk, she might decide to come to the Adult Learning Center. There she's going to find a much different learning environment than she might have encountered in a traditional school.

Felice Belle Our adult basic education classes are made up of small groups of students with one tutor. Everyone sits around the same table, and the content is much more student-directed. We talked to Miraida Morales, who is a volunteer tutor at the library. She described what her classes are like.

Miraida Morales It is a much more relaxed environment at the library. And so for a lot of people who come here, they had a pretty negative experience with the educational system, and so we don’t want to bring that back. We want this to be different, and it is different. They’re not children anymore. We’re dealing with adults who have a lot of other responsibilities and so having a session, a tutoring session that supports their needs for developing reading and writing skills in a way they can use in their life is more … it makes more sense than having it be more of a formal classroom setting. 

Miraida Morales leads a class in the Adult Learning Center. (Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras These classes are available for anyone over the age of eighteen, anyone who wants to continue their education. And, please allow me to log roll a little for what Kerwin and Felice and Miraida do, as with everything at the library, it’s completely free! Just wanted to make that point in case you missed it. It’s free.

Felice Belle And it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been out of school. That’s something else Miraida talked about. People come to the library and ask for help when they’re ready.

Miraida Morales I think another thing I’ve heard from older adults is the notion that it’s now their turn. It’s like, I made all these sacrifices when I was younger because I needed to help my family, I needed to work, I needed to emigrate or whatever. And so there’s adults here who, you know, they have children in college or applying to college or finishing high school and they’re like okay, now I can take some time and do this for myself. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s exactly what happened with one of the stand-out students who came to the library.

Phillip Rucker My name is Phillip Rucker ... what do you want to know?

Felice Belle We talked to Phillip in the Adult Learning Center, so the recording has a bit of an echo. Phillip Rucker is 70 years old, and high school was not a good experience for him. 

Phillip Rucker I was a hookey player. I was an unusual hookey player. I used to go to the Museum of Natural History and spend all day there, or I would go to the library. I would go in the morning, find fellow students in my class that were going to class. And I would hand them last night’s homework, but I wouldn’t go to school. At the end of the day I would meet them, and I would get the homework, do the homework, and same process. So that’s how I spent high school. Protesting being kicked off of the sports team so… I didn’t go to school anymore. Coaches tried to convince my mother and father to rescind it because they said, "He’s not coming to school since that happened." It became a test of wills. I never went back.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And then, Phillip’s father passed away when he was sixteen.

Phillip Rucker I was the only one of my father’s three children that was taken to the hospital just weeks before he passed from stomach cancer. He wanted me to do one thing and that was to graduate from high school.

Felice Belle But, at 17, Phillip went to the army. He never graduated from high school..

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s been fifty years since Phillip left high school. After working in community organizing and a few other jobs, Phillip retired. And then he came to the library and picked up a flier for the Adult Learning Center. He decided to get the education he'd missed out on in his youth.

Felice Belle It was challenging at times, and Phillip was honest about what it could feel like to return to school as an adult.

Phillip Rucker You don’t know how you’ll be received. Initially your family may not be supportive. They might say, "Why now?" That type of thing for a less confident person can create fear. How much did you forget in school? How different is the teaching today? What additional subject matter is there? Blah blah blah, so forth and so on. So that was my biggest thing: fear.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But Phillip kept coming. For three years he attended classes, starting with the adult basic education courses, and eventually, he started studying for the TASC exam, New York state’s high school equivalency test. Last July, he passed the test on his first try.

Phillip Rucker So, here I am, 70 years old and I kept my promise to my father… hoorah! 

Students line up to graduate from high school at Central Library. (Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Felice Belle Last year, Phillip was also named one of the students of the year by the New York Association for Continuing and Community Education.

Phillip Rucker My life has changed immensely. I have a much better feel for myself in terms of self worth than I've ever had, and self confidence. My grandchildren, one of my grandchildren, he didn’t graduate from high school and so I told him I was going to graduate before him. He said, "That’s not happening grandpa." And I graduated before him. So I get to rub it in.

Felice Belle And now that Phillip has achieved his goal? His plan is to become a volunteer tutor at the Central Adult Learning Center. He’s going through the six-week volunteer tutor training and assistant teaching in a Pre-HSE math class. Soon, he’ll take his turn on the other side of the desk.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You know what I really love about this story? Phillip started coming to the library when he was trying to skip school. And now he comes to the library for school. There’s a really nice and cyclical about that.

Felice Belle Learning is a lifelong process. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the students who come through the Adult Learning Center. They remind me on daily basis that it is never too late to achieve your dream.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras What a wonderful place to end the story.

Felice Belle But it’s not over yet! We’re going to hear from librarian Carl Fossum at the Bay Ridge branch. He has a list of book recommendations for us about just that—the idea of lifelong learning. Here's Carl.

Carl Fossum If you’re trying to finish your education, you’re trying to get a High School Equivalency or something like that, it’s sometimes difficult to pull yourself out of your comfort zone and go into something that makes you uncomfortable. And I think that Binti by Nnedi Okorafor covers that same kind of idea. Binti is the first of the Himba people in Africa to ever be offered a place at Unza university, which is the finest institution of higher learning, planets away. And so she decides to go, but that requires her to leave her entire way of life behind, leave everything she knows to go out and do something new.

And my next book was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. In this future setting, mankind has reached the stars and moved out to many planets, but unfortunately has found many other species that are very antagonistic. So there’s a thing called the Colonial Defense Force. And what they basically do is they want people who have lived long, not young people, because they want to draw on their experience. And with the character there, when he reaches his 74th birthday, he comes to two conclusions. He’s going to go visit his wife’s grave and he’s going to enlist in the army. He thinks he knows what’s going to be coming, but actually it is far harder than he can imagine and what he becomes in the end is far stranger.

And my next book was written by Jhumpa Lahiri and it’s called In Other Words. She’s a best-selling and Pulitzer Prise-winning author, and she has had a lifelong love of the Italian language. And so she decides to kind of challenge herself by moving her entire family to Italy and deciding that she’s going to read and write only in Italian.  So in the book it’s a bunch of essays and she goes through what she’s doing when she’s struggling to grasp her new language, while also recalling moments of joy and triumph.

My next book is a book called, You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia by Jack Lynch. And what Lynch does in this book is he kind of gives you an overview of reference books going from the earliest known writings to Wikipedia. And I really can’t praise it highly enough. Really it’s a lovely book and if you’ve got any kind of interest in how reference books come together, the bibliography alone will give you plenty of books to read and expand from.

Click here to find all of Carl Fossum's book recommendations in our catalog!

Felice Belle Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, bkylnlibrary [dot] org [slash] podcasts as well as a link to the Book Match list and ways you can get involved in the Adult Learning Center—as a student or a tutor. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.

Felice Belle We are recording from Central Library’s Information Commons Recording studio. And guess what, if you have a BPL library card, you can reserve time here too and make your own podcast. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And as long as we are recommending books on Borrowed, why not recommend another podcast?  In the same way we hope this episode helped you see reference desks in a new way, there’s another podcast episode that will help you see the Dewey decimal system in a whole new light. It’s on The Kitchen Sisters podcast, part of their series called “The Keepers,” and this particular episode is a collaboration with Molly Schwartz of the Metropolitan New York Library Council. The episode is called “The Dark Side of the Dewey Decimal System”—it’s number 108. While you’re looking at the Keepers project, check out all the other amazing archives and archivists they’ve profiled. 

Felice Belle Until next time!

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Thanks for listening.

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