We’re all about people, not algorithms

This article by Rachel Garman was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on September 15, 2019

The Facebook messages tend to come in the evenings, always polite, always tentative, asking about our Advanced Conversation English classes. If you’re uncertain in your language skills, it’s easier to send a message — that way you can check your words before you hit the send button.

We get it, and we do our best to reassure them in our responses. Yes, it’s on Thursdays. Yes, you can just drop in without registering. Yes, it says advanced class, but it’s mostly practicing conversation skills. What we’re really saying, again and again, is “Yes, you are welcome here.”

I have a confession to make: I tried to avoid managing the Murphy-Wilmot Library Facebook page for as long as I could. How does an institution function in a social space? I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

Plus, I have no idea how the mysterious Facebook algorithms work. (Actually, at this point, I’m so far away from college math that I have no idea how any algorithms work). I’d managed to psych myself out before I’d even started.

Turns out, I was thinking about it all wrong. I’d gotten stuck on libraries as a thing and forgotten that we’re all about people — both customers and staff. When I realized that, it became less of ‘Here is the library on Facebook’ and more of an opportunity to share.

Yes, we’re hosting these cool programs and you should come! But also, here’s something funny, because we all need a laugh on Mondays. Here’s a glimpse of what we get up to behind-the-scenes. Here is something the staff loved that we think you’ll love too. Here’s a bit of solace in uneasy times. Here we are, being human and reaching out to other humans.

It works, although never in the ways I imagine it will. (I did say I was bad at algorithms.) There’s no predicting what will go viral. The first time a post was liked and shared by thousands, I watched my phone blow up with notifications all week long in stunned bemusement. It was surreal.

The next time, I got smart and turned my notifications off, because the week after, no one cares. Internet fame is fleeting, but it’s nice to know that other people have the same sense of humor and the same sappy library feels!

Even better than any viral post, though, is watching people comment on and interact with a post. When I posted an open letter of encouragement to the little girl who visited our library with unbridled enthusiasm, people didn’t just comment on it, they started talking to one another and reminiscing in the comments.

People in different states, some in different countries, all talking about how much they loved libraries as children and as adults. Talk about feeling warm and fuzzy inside!

Those of us who work in the library tell ourselves that libraries are about access to information, literacy and community building. Sometimes we forget that libraries are also about nostalgia.

We forget that libraries exist as a shared memory across the world: the architecture may be wildly different, the staff across the states ranges from grandmotherly to punk, and yet, the smell of books and the feeling of adventure remains the same.

We are both a physical space, but also an idea, full of wonder and stories – and that idea is what connects people to us and to each other across digital screens and physical miles.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I’ve found my joy in operating a digital reference desk in a social media sphere by turning it into a place where we also share stories and jokes. Drop on by the Murphy-Wilmot Facebook page sometime. It looks like a building full of books in the pictures, but we’re all human here.

In addition to managing Murphy-Wilmot Library’s Facebook page, Rachel Garman runs an amazing story time, and is a whiz at Flannelboard creations. She’s going on nearly a decade with Pima County Public Library and in her spare time she enjoys crafts, hijinks and adventures.

P.S. Do you ♥ your library on social media? Consider following the Library!