Many of us think of public libraries primarily as places to read and check out books—but this is only the beginning of their role in our communities. What else do libraries do? What roles do libraries and librarians play in broader movements for social democracy and educational access? How can we collectively defend our libraries from right-wing attacks on their vital work?
Our November 2023 episode features one activist librarian, Oscar Gittemeier, about his journey into library work, his vision of the social justice focus of libraries, and the challenges in these politically-polarized times. Oscar is the Program Manager of Innovation and Engagement at the City of San Diego Public Library. Before turning to his vocation of Library and Information Studies (with a certificate in Leadership and Management), his background was in Sociology and Women’s Studies.
Oscar brings an intersectional sensitivity to his outreach work to bring libraries to the community: for example, through surveying people in detention centers and providing them with library cards upon release, creating a fundraiser calendar in Fulton County, GA libraries (“Libraries Are Such A Drag”) for a scholarship fund, and in general rethinking the space and function of libraries to meet community needs. He takes us through complex issues of providing access to all, along with other challenges and opportunities that public libraries are facing today. Oscar sends us out with encouragement to plug into a local “Friends of the Public Library” chapter, so that we can ensure the important work libraries do to create a more just world.
Co-hosted and co-produced by Tina Pippin and Lucia Hulsether
Audio editing + outro music by Aliyah Harris
Intro music by Lance Hogan, performed by Aviva and the Flying Penguins
Libraries Are Magical: On Public Space, Democracy, and Free Access to Information
Tina Pippin: [:
Oskar is the Program Manager of Innovation and Engagement at the City of San Diego Public Library. Before turning to his [00:01:00] vocation of Library and Information Studies with a certificate in Leadership and Management, his background was in Sociology and Women's Studies. We learned about Oscar through his leadership work with the Georgia Library Association and his fan club of colleagues.
Oscar brings an intersectional sensitivity to his outreach work to bring libraries to the community. For example, through surveying people in detention centers and providing them with library cards upon release. Creating a fundraiser calendar in Fulton County, Georgia libraries. Libraries can be a drag for a scholarship fund.
ies are facing. Oscar leaves [:
So get ready to listen to Oscar and find out the necessary work librarians do to create a more just world. Welcome Oscar Getemeyer to Nothing Never Happens.
Lucia Hulsether: Oscar, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Um, we're really excited to talk to you and to get started. I have an interlinked question. The abstract version of the question is how are libraries feminist, how is, how are libraries a feminist project and queer project?
ney to the work that you do. [:
Oscar Gitttemeir: So, I mean, when you think about public space, right, and like who is permitted into public space, who's allowed to access public space, you know, queers and women have always been marginalized in that way in public space, right? There weren't public spaces for us, right? And so thinking about my own personal experiences, like being able to go to the public library, as a kid is like one of the most radical things for me because it was one of the few spaces where youth are allowed to be, right?
right? So being like a queer [:
I was told I could be expelled. Or I could voluntarily leave and go to an alternative high school and not have an expulsion on my record. And I was missing so much school because I had horrible morning sickness. Like it's, uh, it was just profoundly, uh, disrupted to my high school years. So I wound up at this actually really cool alternative school that was across the street from my local public library.
o raise a child. I'm in high [:
I literally didn't have time to do right. And so that little tiny, it was, it's like one 10 shell, but they would order the audio books for me. And when my English teacher found out about this, she was like. Oh, can you bring those into class? And so then my whole class is now listening to like Canterbury Tales or Dracula or whatever that required reading is, right?
ike huddled around this tape [:
Tina Pippin: Yeah, the issue of access, so important. Um, you had access to that and now you're giving access to others. So could you talk about that journey into becoming a librarian? See yourself as a librarian.
Oscar Gitttemeir: So my journey into librarianship, it's funny. I was in school at the time. And so I make my way to college and I just need something part time while I'm in school.
m getting my graduate degree [:
This, this idea that you have like access to information, competing ideas and public space, right? So those things are so rare and I'm sitting in this space and I'm just like a library assistant, right? Just working part time, just trying to finish my degree, but I happen to have this manager. who was also like a queer mentor for me, and he really encouraged me to go to library school, and so he wrote me a [00:08:00] letter of recommendation, helped me get a scholarship through the Georgia Library Association, and I was off, like I was in for public libraries when I realized so much of what I believed, like politically, uh, just fit in with public libraries and free access to information.
Tina Pippin: Yes. Um, so your, your interest in social justice issues and, um, uh, culturally responsive, uh, teaching and opportunities for kids to learn that and, and adults. Um, how have you practiced that concretely? Can you give us some examples like, um, I know you've done some been part of and and created some very creative programs like, um, libraries can be a drag.
Oscar Gitttemeir: I think
name for an event. Um. Given [:
Oscar Gitttemeir: Sure. And I also should mention, I had a brief stint in Wyoming, which we can talk about or not, but, uh, that was, Quite the revelation to be in that space as well. Very different. Um, but yeah, so I think some of the projects like that I'm most proud of when I think about concrete programs is like serving, uh, folks in detention, uh, and folks coming out of detention.
as really amazing to be able [:
So we were able to bring in like, uh, 3d pens and steam programming and, um, Really just try to connect with. Uh, folks in detention and folks coming out of detention to make sure that one of the first resources they had as they were exiting detention was a public library card and letting them know that as you're coming out of this space, uh, we're going to welcome you into the public library.
And so it was really great to show them all the resources that we had and how they could connect with their kids. They could check out museum passes and, um, all the different cultural things they could do. with their children in their public library. Um, so I really loved doing that. Um, libraries are such a drag was a project, and that was just, uh, a way for me to give back to the Georgia Library Association.
And, uh, Libraries of Such a Drag was a calendar fundraiser to raise money for the, I wanted to give money to the scholarship that had helped me go to library school. And so I had a bunch of my friends pose with their favorite books, and they did what I would call like book drag. And so like they would, like I had one of my favorite professors.
ll different types of folks. [:
That we, you know, people think we're boring and dusty and I just, I wanted to shatter that. I wanted to say, no, we're, we're fun, we're cutting edge, uh, and that's what I tried to do with that project.
Lucia Hulsether: That's outstanding. Um, I feel like one of the questions we need to ask at the end of this project is if you were going to do a libraries are such a drag.
Costume performance. Um, this week. What character would you be? But, I'm gonna just like, drop that. And it's gonna be our Easter egg for listeners. To get to the end of the podcast. Not that they're gonna have any trouble doing this. The other thing I'm thinking about, um, Do you remember that show, All That?
On Nickelodeon? Very:
The librarian would come in super uptight, yelling, This And then it would just like kind of escalate in this really campy way where she would come in with a marching band and yell, this is a library everyone be quiet, you need to respect the quiet of the library to come in with a megaphone some days are like bang on the tables and so it was this kind of, um, It was both a stereotypical picture of what a library is, but also a really campy, draggy, fun performance of like bad behavior in the library by the librarian.
I hadn't thought of it that [:
Oscar Gitttemeir: Yeah, so, I mean, all kinds of things. I think that the thing that most people think of, right, the first thing that comes to mind is like story time, right?
So reading to children, that's like the, the gold standard image of your public library, right? Uh, and that's still happening, right? It's still happening. We're still doing story times. They're still super fun and engaging. Um, but I think there's a lot that's happening that has to do with, um, you know, workforce, helping people upskill.
So whatever the sort of latest and greatest is, uh, libraries are doing that. They're trying to fill that skill, uh, that skill gap. Um, but I think there's also just. the super basic, uh, connecting with your community, right? So being able to come and see your neighbors, being able to come and see people that are maybe not your neighbors, right?
Someone else in the community that you don't see on a regular basis. And I think that that's what's most beautiful about the public library is you're, you're having these, you know, book discussions or author talks, or you're in the maker space together with people that don't live on your street, that aren't part of your walking club, that aren't part of your garden club.
es, different income levels. [:
We have so many privatized spaces. Um, I mean, we see this with. Uh, like what happened in Starbucks where two people were going to meet and, uh, a black man was, uh, arrested and, and escorted out of a Starbucks. And so, you know, we think of coffee shops as public spaces, but they're not. Those are private, for profit spaces.
And so, the public library, you don't have to buy something to be there. You don't have to consume. It's one of the few spaces where you can exist not as a consumer. You don't have to justify your existence in that space, right? There's, like I said, like a serendipity that can happen in those kind of public spaces.
at's happening in libraries. [:
Tina Pippin: Yeah, that's just really the, the wonderful part of Of libraries, bringing people together and and and doing new things, um, introducing people to new ideas and competing ideas. And so I'm going to ask, I don't know how far we want to go with this.
Um, I've been reading quite a bit about library spaces. Um. As spaces of inclusion and a lot of urban libraries is having, you know, police with guns and, you know, sort of, uh, surveillance techniques on the spaces because they're overrun with, um, on house people, especially during the day, like the shelter bus will drop people off and there are no, you know, libraries aren't equipped.
uh, and on the other hand, I [:
Uh, so, um, you know, I know this is a lot, but that, you know, what is the role of the librarian, um, in terms of being a professional and doing the things that, you know, you've been trained to do and get joy out of, but also having to be this kind of, um, monitor of, you know, folks who may or may not be using the technology Um, you know, pick themselves up either bootstraps or watching porn or they're sleeping or, you know, I've read lots of books on this.
called to be, you know, tech [:
Oscar Gitttemeir: Yeah, I think that there's always been sort of like a shifting in the job description, right?
Like, I mean, I feel like I heard similar. Uh, you know, it's funny. One of my one of my colleagues I just saw online. She's retiring after 39 years in the library. And she was one of the folks that trained me when I first started as that library assistant and, uh, you know, similar conversations happened around computers, right?
When computers entered the library and, you know, so many of the colleagues she worked with that retired before her, you know, they never learned to use email, you know? And so I feel like this conversation is not a new conversation. Uh, it's been happening. Um, and I don't think it will stop happening. So I think there will always be shifts and skill sets, right?
on the, the overwhelmingness [:
And you're right, you know, some libraries are providing food and some aren't. Some libraries will allow sleeping and some won't. You know, especially when you look at, uh, academic libraries, you know? You'll, you'll find sleeping pods in academic libraries. So it depends on the library we're in, it depends on the space we're in, it depends on, you know, who's accessing that space, are they allowed to sleep, are they allowed to eat?
brary signs I ever saw said, [:
And I thought that was a really great way of saying please come enjoy your meals on our first floor and not our other floors. But we're still friendly on those floors, right? So it's like there's a way to create guidelines, right? But still be welcoming. And, and I think that it is a fine line and it is hard when, you know, there are overdoses happening in libraries.
There are very Yeah, it's a challenge. Public space is challenging, right? But I don't want to pretend like these same things aren't happening in our homes. You know, they're happening everywhere. Those same issues that we're seeing in public libraries, they're happening everywhere, right? They're just visible because it's public space.
ometimes it's hard for us to [:
Lucia Hulsether: Thanks for that, Oscar, that what you're saying makes me think like, because libraries are public space.
, intense position, um, both [:
I thought it was like, wow, it sounds like librarians are social work.
Um, So I'm curious. Oh, the other thing I wanted to say is that, you know, like being at these Ivy League schools where I have navigated sleeping pods in libraries, but also metal detectors control, it's in and who gets out so you can get behind the medical medical medical, you can get through the metal detector and have your bag searched after you swipe your ID.
re's this bootstrapping this [:
And so pointing out that double standard is very useful. So thank you for doing that. Yeah. Um, so I don't know if you want to respond to that.
Oscar Gitttemeir: That was just kind of a, a, a narrative, but I mean, I hate to frame it as a look at these people that have, cause I think everyone should have access to that type of luxury.
Right. One of my experiences, I remember when I was in college, I was going to Georgia state university in downtown Atlanta, which is one of the most heavily policed spaces, triangles in the nation. You have more different types of enforcement surveilling that particular location than most other spaces in our country.
cross through Woodruff Park. [:
And I was like, what? And I was like, I'm looking around. I'm like What do you mean I can't recline in the park? They were like, you cannot recline down on the grass in the park. And I was like, this is a public park, right? Like, and they were like, oh, you can have a picnic. You can sit on a blanket. You can do all that.
familiar with the book, The [:
And we're, we're harming. Ourselves, you know, and it's just so disturbing to me and I'll never forget I've never felt so unwelcome in a space before and I thought, wow, you know, and that was that was that was five minutes of my day that wasn't 24 hours of my day.
Tina Pippin: Yeah, there's, there's some people who want to claim that libraries are neutral spaces.
But if you provide a welcoming, inclusive space, you're not being neutral, especially these times. Absolutely. So, how is the library in San Diego, Public Library, doing? Um, the welcoming, what kinds of things you have in place to up front to welcome people.
ar Gitttemeir: I mean I feel [:
So just like you said, from the onset saying that this is a space for everyone has already thrown neutrality out the window, right? So we're, we're, we're not neutral, right? We're saying everyone is welcome in these spaces, including, uh, you know, if we're talking about critical race theory, or we're talking about, uh, queer books, or we're talking about any kind of marginalized, uh, group, we're.
first coming out, I was in a [:
Like Stone Butch Blues, Zombie, Audre Lorde, you know, just really good, profoundly Just completely changed my outlook on the world and I was able to go to my public library and check those books out Right, that was so huge for me to see a world. I didn't know existed I didn't know any other queer people, right?
n I realized I wasn't alone. [:
We're letting people find stories about themselves, right? See themselves reflected.
Lucia Hulsether: One of the most astounding Not in a good way. Moments in my teaching over the last couple of years was when I, um, had come up with an assignment where students were, um, were supposed to find a footnote in a book that we had, or an article that we had read in class and find the source that was cited and then go to the library and track down it.
holarship is a conversation. [:
Before they might have gone through it in the first floor, but they didn't. They had never been in the stacks and that it makes sense. A lot of them were in high school at during, um, the, so the beginning of the Covid Pandemic, um, the internet is at people's fingertips. Um, which is, this is not a decension story that I'm telling about the internet, but it's a, it's a, it's a cha it's an altered sort of relationship to information and, and books and reading and things that we typically associate with, with libraries.
ver level of ways to kind of [:
hotography, uh, some digital [:
And so part of that internship is they then onboard into public libraries, and they help the public library with that storytelling, right? So like, What we're actually having youth speak to other youth, right? They're creating the Instagram reels. They're in the content, they're telling the library story.
So I think by sort of handing the car keys over, right. We're, we're saying, you know, speak to each other on these resources, right? You choose the content, like if it's more participatory, right. If they're able to actually. Promote what they think is is most useful to their peers. I think that's been really helpful.
Tina Pippin: Well, um, I want to go from that into more of your, um, public work, um, public outreach work with, uh, are you working with health issues now? Health sciences issues?
scar Gitttemeir: Yeah, so I, [:
And so we're using grant dollars to fund, uh, author talks related to climate resilience. So we're inviting folks out. One of the first authors we're going to try to work with is Winona LaDuke and trying to get her out to come and do some, um, author talks and then, um, just really. Shifting our grant dollars into there's an idea it's called book to action.
that book that we'd like to [:
And they're really interested in doing things like native plant installations, butterfly gardens, water conservation. And so we're already looking at book to action projects where it's like people aren't just reading the content, but we're putting. You know, grant dollars behind people doing something in their community to address, you know, climate change and how it's impacting their health.
So, and really, you know, again, just shifting that away from we're doing this for you to we're doing this with you and these dollars are for the community. Right.
t libraries are, um, and can [:
Like it's not a threat. Like that's, um, that's maybe not the right answer. I'm curious about how you are seeing and experiencing the current, but not the first. Um, Very sustained, organized attack on, um, public libraries and, and all that they, all that they, they are and have been. It
scar Gitttemeir: is probably [:
So just to give like some context, I accepted a position in Wyoming and I had this very romantic view of what I thought would happen there. I was like, I'll hike every weekend. It's a small community. It'll be easy job. You know, I'll just, I'll. Be near the national parks and I'll just, uh, I'll retire here and just live happily ever after.
In this beautiful, beautiful, gorgeous hiking environment. And then a lesbian couple had been harassed, right? And it had made, like, NPR. Coverage. And so I heard the story on the radio and I was like, Oh my goodness, this is just, this is just a few hours from us. This is right up the road. Like this is not okay.
was like, what is happening? [:
Let's say in our community, we won't tolerate that, right? We're going to do a non discrimination policy to cover everything, not just the public library, right? I'm talking about housing. I'm talking about businesses. And we're saying, Okay. That, that attitude is not welcome in our community and 10 days later, I was told I was not a good fit for that community.
days later without notice, [:
And I just, it just caught me off guard. I was completely, I just thought, Surely a non discrimination policy is, is warranted here.
st moved across the country, [:
I shouldn't have been shocked, but I was.
Lucia Hulsether: They hired you, presumably. Yeah. Do you, this is, this is a really basic question, which is not a high minded about pedagogy. Like, did they not know what you were doing in GLA, which for those who don't know Georgia Library Association?
Oscar Gitttemeir: Yeah, I, I sent them my portfolio.
orgia where they had a mural [:
And so they were going to completely defund the library. And so she resigned so that the library could stay funded and all of her staff could keep their jobs. And it was just a very simple libraries are for everyone, you know, the image that I'm sure many of you have seen, you know, it's got someone holding a rainbow heart, someone in a wheelchair, someone in a hijab, you know, just different, just different folks in the community libraries are for everyone, you know, I just, uh, yeah, there are people that are walking away with very deep scars after this moment, and are still experiencing it, and are still You're welcome.[00:41:00]
Yeah. Um, I wish I had a, a more uplifting message. Uh, the one thing I will say is that we find each other, right? That there, that there are so many of us across the country, like the teacher in Cobb, my friend in South Georgia, uh, my experience in Wyoming. You know, we found each other. There's solidarity in that.
Um, but yeah, we need others with us.
against, um, those attacks. [:
Oscar Gitttemeir: Yeah. Um, I mean, some of the, some of the organizations I would recommend are like Library Freedom Project.
They're not specifically, I mean, they're most, mostly privacy related, but they do have like a very feminist politic, a very queer politic, a very progressive politic. Um, and I think they're doing really amazing work around like reproductive justice and access to information. You know, you see like the, the things that are happening in the Midwest around like librarians, not being able to share information about reproductive health.
now, they're doing work, uh, [:
Tina Pippin: Yeah. I'm realizing that we're speaking to you on the very last day of banned book week. I know a lot of people are pushing back like Karis books and like our own, my own college library at Agnes Scott with events and free book giveaways and readings and all of that, but the band book, um, movement from the, from the right is, is particularly scary given the history of the 20th century.
Uh, so how is your, how has your library been addressing that, uh, that issue?
East Atlanta and I remember [:
And I remember so many folks coming in and being like, why are we banning books? And I was like, no, no, no, we're, we're not banning the books. Um, but it was just so interesting to see the difference in responses, right. That, you know, coming from this more progressive neighborhood, people were very concerned that we were roping off books.
Um, But then you see, you know, what's happening with like the palace project, right? And you see how, you know, people all over the nation are trying to make books accessible to people, um, where books are being banned, right? And so, I think you're gonna start seeing more projects like this. I know, like, in California, you've got libraries all over.
re making these banned books [:
That we're going to see more of these sort of nationwide access to information in a way that You know, our vendors, library vendors, just have not kept up with, right? That a lot of the old policies and contracts I see shifting in the future, right? Because we're going to need to, uh, just make that more accessible to people throughout the nation.
Not just books, but audiobooks, articles, um, so I think a lot of that is going to shift in the future.
k, uh, How, how can, uh, we, [:
Oscar Gitttemeir: Uh, I mean, one of the things you can do if we're talking about public libraries is join your friends of the library.
Um, that is a huge powerhouse of people that can go to city councils to county commission meetings that can write like they are literally the, you know, boots on the ground at those meetings advocating. At PTA meetings, at any of those community meetings, your Friends of the Library can really be a huge advocate to speak for you in a way that most people that are in public libraries, you know, we can't, as government employees, can't often go and speak for ourselves, but our Friends of the Library can.
Friends of the Library, uh, [:
Lucia Hulsether: Also seen recently just What kind of PSAs encouraging people if they don't have a library card to get a library card where where they are and and to use the library card but even if you're like oh maybe I won't use this showing that there is a public interest. Seems like probably a good idea now that's I'm saying this as a not as informed person.
Do you, can you tell us like Is that a good idea? Why is that a good idea?
Oscar Gitttemeir: Yeah, I think it can definitely show, you know, just not just like you're saying checking out physical material, but having access to that card is showing use, right? That you're coming into the space that you're using. If not the physical material, you may be using online material.
the library without checking [:
Tina Pippin: Okay. What, what do you see happening next in, in librarianship, uh, and libraries?
What is, what is sort of the vision for things that are happening? And where's, where are the shifts headed? Are you, you hope they're headed?
Oscar Gitttemeir: I mean, I know this is probably controversial, so I'm going to, I'm going to own that up front, but I really see public libraries being 24 hour a day access, right?
hour access to our [:
Staff right that are helping people connect to resources hosting story times running maker spaces like all of that can still happen. And you can have a meeting room that's open until 10 o'clock at night, right, so that the community can use it. So I think the future that I see for public libraries is more access more open hours and more outreach right more library work happening outside of physical library walls.
You know, you can see that in teams all over the nation, like if you look at some of the larger library systems in the country, you look at Seattle, you look at Houston, you look at all these big, huge library systems, they have outreach teams that are larger than most branch staff. Right? And it's because they know that they're going to connect with those new users.
hat we talked about. They're [:
Like, So I, I think you're going to see way more community engagement outside of library walls, but you're also going to see expanded hours, uh, for access to those library walls.
Lucia Hulsether: That's wonderful. Um, Oscar, before we get to our last question, noticing the time and feeling like I could talk to you all day, is there anything else that we haven't asked before we ask for your recommendations, um, that you think is important to share?
nd disagree with each other. [:
And so go to your public library, go be in community with people you disagree with.
Tina Pippin: Oscar, thank you so much for being with us. I'm going to ask the last question. Question, which is what are you, uh, reading? What do you suggest that we need to be reading as a librarian, as a professional in this, um, uh, consuming, watching?
e how it impacts our health. [:
Um, and of course, The Sum of Us by Heather McGee, highly recommend that as well. And, uh, other things I'm consuming, uh, other than books, uh, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is probably one of my favorite films of all time. Um, Yeah. So I, I would highly recommend that film and my favorite podcast lately has been hidden brain all about social science.
So I just listened to a podcast that just dropped, I think yesterday on perfectionism and how to be good enough. So yeah, those would be my recommendations.
t time for the WNBA. So tell [:
Lucia Hulsether: I imagine by the time this, uh, this podcast gets released, the finals will be over, but, uh, at the time of recording, they start tomorrow, and it's the Las Vegas Aces versus the New York Liberty. Alyssa Thomas should have won. Most valuable player may it be said here or Asia Wilson, but you know, sometimes racism prevails in in the voting.
Um, and that's what happened this year. Okay. So I'm watching the WNBA listening to a lot of WNBA podcasts. I am reading a whole lot about the history of civic organizations for, uh, women right now. So like, sororities, not really a civic organization, but kind of. Um, women's clubs, uh, different kinds of fraternal organizations.
nd of in, I'm kind of in the [:
What is it how they evolved over time? Um, what are the little like subcultures about how people's femininity has been Policed and constructed and enforced. How gay are sororities? How are they afraid of being seen as, like, spaces of queer relationships? Um, hazing, etc. That's helping me think about a project that I'm currently trying to start.
. But WNBA is a nice escape. [:
Tina Pippin: Okay, uh, well, two things just ended that I'm feeling a bit lost. Reservation dogs and Um, only murders in the building, very different, different kinds of, of shows. So, uh, I binge the, uh, Wes Anderson, Roald, Roald Dahl short films, which are, uh, very Wes Anderson, uh, amazing actors doing the Wes Anderson film thing.
telligence and how it's, uh, [:
So, uh, fun times on the apocalypse front. But, uh, Oscar Gittemeier, we are thrilled. You were recommended to us by librarian friends that we revere. And so, um, and it's, it's so great. A shout out to Karis Books that we have that connection here, uh, in Atlanta, Georgia. So thank you for being with us on Nothing Never Happens.
Oscar Gitttemeir: Thank you.
he Radical Pedagogy Podcast, [:
Our audio editor is Aaliyah Harris. And Aaliyah also did our outro music. It's called Sunny Rain. Our intro music and theme song is performed by Lance Eric Haugen, along with Aviva, I want to give a special shout out to librarians at Agnes Scott College, Casey Long, and Christina Tatum for recommending Oscar Gittermeyer to us for our podcast.
They knew each other from [:
Thank you in advance for your encouragement and support as we've taken this journey together. So look for us on Patreon. com. Thank you for listening.[00:59:00]