Somewhere over the reading rainbow A new generation of librarians is challenging stereotypes, daring to dream up innovative ways to serve the ever-evolving community of Lafayette — and they can help you find a good book, too.

Makerspace librarian Michelle Lazarus and Sarah Durr, head of youth services, show off the library's robotic LEGOS. Allison DeHart

On the first floor of the Lafayette Public Library’s main branch, beneath a giant cased opening whimsically painted to resemble an open book, a pair of tiny black and orange striped leggings flutter furiously from atop a frazzled mother’s shoulders. The sound of high-pitched shrieking grows louder and more frantic as she zips past the circulation desk to the automatic exit doors.

“I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to go home,” the toddler cries. “I don’t want to go hooooome!”

It’s approaching lunchtime on Halloween, and a room in the children’s section has been transformed into a glow-in-the-dark, haunted cave crawl. Children, costumed as unicorns, superheroes, princesses and Paw Patrol characters, spill out of the giant storybook, like a hodgepodge fairy tale come to life.

Once upon a time, the library was quiet.

“Bring the noise!” says Amy Wander, newly appointed outreach librarian, describing her goal when helping to re-design the main library’s first floor. Wander is currently wearing a handmade fairy costume, intricately crafted from the curled pages of old books that crinkle with each gesture. As she tucks a wisp from her white wig behind her ear, Wander explains that despite the persisting cliché, shushing has never been part of her job description.

In fact, she and her fellow librarians clarify — repeatedly — that they aren’t rule enforcers, trying to dictate what is right and wrong, or agenda pushers, exercising their own free speech. Rather, they strive first and foremost to be public servants. And despite recent controversies that have dominated the local news cycle, Wander says from her perspective, that mission hasn’t changed.

“Every day we open the library for the community,” says outreach librarian Amy Wander. “No matter what’s in the news or not in the news, we’re still opening our doors to offer the community support in whatever their needs are.”

In Wander’s new role, she’s not only opening physical doors, but metaphorical ones as well. Part of her focus is re-launching the bookmobile, which will help bring more library services to the homebound and those unable to travel to one of the branches. Wander’s face lights up as she talks about her ideas for creating portable, interactive experiences in the form of STEM and early literacy kits. She says bringing little pieces of technology, like a 3D-printer pen, out into the community creates a touch point that can inspire people to dive deeper into the library’s resources.

Wander, who joined the Lafayette library in 2005, got her start in libraries as an after-school tutor in Austin before going back to school to pursue library science. She calls this the golden age of libraries. And it has nothing to do with 3D printers. She says never before have libraries had access to more diverse and inclusive books. Now, when someone comes to her looking for a recommendation, she can think of a great book right off the top of her head.

“We’re not saying that people have to read every minute of the day, but there’s a perfect book for everyone for the moment they’re in right now,” she says. “To be able to help our patrons find that book is powerful.”

Windows and mirrors

Sitting in front of a transparent study room overlooking the teen section, Sarah Durr, head of youth services, echoes Wander’s sentiment. Durr, who is cloaked in a bright red trench coat and fedora a la Carmen Sandiego, is responsible for serving a vast patron population, ranging from toddlers to high schoolers. To illustrate a glimpse into her strategy, she references an analogy from her formal library training, which she finished in 2014.

“You want to be able to look in a book that’s a window into another world or someone else’s life or culture, but you want mirrors too,” says Durr. “You want to see yourself reflected. You want to see how your life plays out in a book. It validates you, and it makes you feel like, ‘I belong in this world. I belong here.’ We want people to see themselves reflected here and to find themselves here.”

Durr sees firsthand the impact the library has on families, some of whom spend hours among the shelves each day. These families depend on services, such as free access to private meeting spaces, computers, early literacy tools and even food. Thanks to a partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank, the library regularly serves children afternoon meal boxes.

“We have kids that come in and ask us, ‘When’s snack time?’” says Durr. “We may be their meal for the night.”

Durr recently mentioned the meal service to one of her friends, and he responded by saying he had no idea before meeting her that librarians did that kind of work. Durr says when she tells people she’s a librarian, she’s often met with a response along the lines of, “It must be nice to sit in the quiet and read all day,” or even worse, “I thought all libraries were dead now.”

In reality, she says, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Lazarus and Durr say they’re constantly innovating and adapting to meet patrons’ needs.

“We’re always innovating,” says Dunn. “We’re always finding new ideas and new ways to present things.”

When asked to pinpoint how she sees the library’s role evolving in the future, she quickly launches into another theory lesson.

“People have their homes, they have their work or their school, and that’s their primary places,” says Durr. “But outside of work, school, home, you have that third place you go. We’re one of the last free spaces you can come and have access to all these amazing resources.”

Lisa Jones, East Regional manager, speaks over the phone from a bustling branch in the Broussard and Youngsville area. She says the meeting rooms in her library are constantly booked with students and tutors. And that’s not the only thing at capacity. Jones says she had to bump the library’s roster up to six story times a week, just to meet the young community’s demands. Jones says her goal is to grow with her patrons — as they change their interests, she changes her focus.

“We’re constantly adapting to meet those needs — a library is what the community wants it to be, not what Lisa wants that library to be,” she quips. “People who haven’t been through our doors and only remember what they did in school 20 years ago may be surprised.”

Home is where the books are

It’s safe to say that 20 years ago, libraries did not house laser cutters and virtual reality headsets. But back at the main branch, hoodie-clad Michelle Lazarus, who holds the title of Makerspace librarian, says it’s her job to purchase precisely that type of equipment.

Lazarus graduated from Pratt University’s library program in 2004 and landed her first professional gig at the New York Public Library’s media center.

“When I was in library school, everyone was scandalized when they started putting in little cafes and coffee machines,” chuckles Lazarus. “Now look at us, we’re checking out musical instruments, and eventually, we’re going to have a tool library where people can check out certain tools. It’s a whole different ball game.”

Lazarus says that with the digital revolution came a fear among librarians that they would be left behind and be seen as obsolete. Instead, librarians embraced technology. She sees the Maker movement as a natural extension of that, pointing to an article written by the then-editor of Maker magazine in 2011 that advocates for the transformation of libraries into tech shops.

“People have been putting Makerspaces into libraries ever since then because they realized that they add value to the community, and that’s what we’re here for,” says Lazarus.

According to Lazarus, Makerspaces are just as much about community building and social interactions as they are about the equipment. She says it’s common for workshop attendees to linger and chat long after the project itself is finished.

“It’s the kitchen of the community,” says Makerspace librarian Michelle Lazarus. “You go visit your grandmother, and everyone’s in the kitchen. The comfortable place to sit is the couch, but everyone’s hanging out in the kitchen talking and eating and enjoying. That’s how I see libraries.”

Interim Dean of University Libraries at UL Lafayette Susan Richard makes a similar comparison, but in her perspective, the library has more of a living room feel. Richard, who has been a librarian for 34 years, says she sees college students flocking to the library now more than ever.

“It’s become a social space as much as it has become a research space,” she says. “They will meet at our coffee shop, they lounge around on the floors. They like the cozy space that the shelving allows them.”

Although UL does not offer a library degree, Richard says she’s constantly impressed by the ideas coming from members of her staff — whether it’s bringing in chair massages and therapy dogs during finals week or offering homework help via text message. She says although her profession has changed dramatically in the last three decades, it’s still as important as ever.

“The basics of what your libraries are for are still there and will never change,” says Richard. “We are the custodians, and we’re also there to be the ones to help you find what you’re looking for.”

Behind the Edith Garland Dupré library, university workers empty dovetail drawers full of yellowed, typewritten index cards into a dumpster. As I grab a handful out for old times’ sake, I’m struck by the thought that my children will never learn to use a card catalog, much less know who Melvil Dewey was.

One thing is certain, though; they are already on a first-name basis with their favorite librarian.