Josh Hanagarne's The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's is his take on growing up as the son of a gold miner, experiencing a Mormon upbringing, battling Tourette's, and becoming a kettlebell-lifting librarian in Salt Lake City. He talked about the latter with Tip Sheet.
When Publishers Weekly asked me to write a piece called How Becoming A Librarian Saved Me, I thought:
Saved from what? Saved for what?
Salvation means different things to different people. I use two definitions for myself. The first comes from my sexy, two volume Oxford English Dictionary:
- Preservation from destruction, ruin, loss, or calamity.
I’ve come to my second, personal, less official definition through my work at the library.
- The ability to tell my own story, articulately and honestly.
I was in the staff area when my manager called me. “We have a patron who has a question for you,” she said. “I think you’re probably the one to talk to him since you do the blogging.”
I’ve been in this situation before—someone asks about blogging or web traffic, I get the call whether I’m the right one to handle it or not, and a patron and I have a brief chat about how to get started blogging.
But this was the first time that the patron had been Scott (Scott agreed to let me use his name for this piece), a friendly homeless man who I’ve gotten to know over the last couple of years. Scott had always struck me as almost overly polite and grateful (something I encounter in many of our homeless patrons). Each day he stepped off the elevator, nodded to the librarians on our floor, and unpacked his belongings at a nearby desk. Then he would open the laptop computer that he rented. As I made my rounds, I noticed that Scott usually had a video game open on his computer, a glitchy first person shooter that I didn’t recognize.
“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Josh,” he said, over at my desk, “But I hear that you’re the guy who can help me.”
“It’s never a bother, Scott,” I said, “and again, please call me Josh. So what are you trying to do?”
“Well let me back up a bit,” he said. “I’m not sure if you’ve seen me on my computer, but for the last couple of years, I’ve been working on building a game.”
He explained to me that he’d been dividing his time between the Salt Lake City Public Library and the University Library up the street, teaching himself computer programming languages. Each time I’d seen him with a game on his computer, it wasn’t a game he was playing; it was apparently a game he was building.
“What gave you the idea to do this?” I said.
It was like he had stepped out of a library advocacy brochure. “Just decided that I didn’t want to be a bum anymore,” he said. “Got sober and decided to try to learn how to be around people again, so hopefully I can learn how to be useful. This city’s got services I can use, and it’s nice to have a shelter for sleeping and showering, but education’s how you get off the bottom.” He spread his arms and gestured around the building. “And this is the education I can get. And I’m trying to teach what I’ve learned to some of the other homeless so they can have a little dignity again.”
“So you feel like the library can give you dignity?” I said.
“I don’t feel like it can,” he said, “I feel like it does, no matter what, no matter who you are. If you’ve never been in a situation like mine, you might not be able to need this place in the same way I need it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need it just as much, in a different way, you know what I’m saying?”
Over the next couple of weeks, I gave Scott some suggestions about ad networks and some potential ways in which his website could eventually make some money. The first day he made a profit ($6 in ad clicks), he was as proud as I’d ever seen him. We shook hands and I asked him what was next.
“Just keep going,” he said. “I’m here because I’m trying to figure out who I can be. Hey, I want to show you something.” He took something out of his tattered backpack and held it out to me.
I unfolded the piece of paper. It was a printout, from the library’s website, of the Salt Lake City Public Library’s mission statement:
The City Library is a dynamic civic resource that promotes free and open access to information, materials and services to all members of the community to advance knowledge, foster creativity, encourage the exchange of ideas, build community and enhance the quality of life.
“That’s been in my bag for years. I look at it every day,” he said.
“It’s on our website, but I don’t always see it,” I said. “It’s been a while since I’ve noticed it.”
During a ten minute conversation, Scott had summed up all of the reasons I care about libraries.
How did becoming a librarian save me?
Becoming a librarian saved me from my Tourette’s, from hopelessness, and from ignorance. It taught me who I was and helped me find the pride and self-confidence I’d lacked for most of my life.
But it is the stories of people like Scott that continue to save me, because they teach me about the person I want to be and the kind of work I want to be involved in.
Also: Scott says that if you will drop by the library and visit us on Level 3, he’ll be happy to expand on his feelings and tell you about his website, which he’s not quite ready to make public yet.