The Way We Work: A Library Discussion Series

Article excerpt

TWENTY LIBRARIES AND THEIR PATRONS FOCUS ON THE AMERICAN WORK ETHIC

America's libraries are valuable resources for identifying the best career options. For both the seasoned professional and the recent college graduate, the tools available in print and online at public and academic libraries are exceptional. Whether for browsing classified ads, finding background on potential employers, or getting resume-writing tips, libraries offer a wealth of information.

But what about the library as a place to examine the American work ethic? Diverse groups of people come into close and continuing contact in the workplace. What do we think and feel about the work that we do? Do we still want to carry on our traditional family businesses? Has new technology changed the way we work? How will we know when we should retire - or when we can afford to?

As many Americans celebrated the last summer holiday of 1996, preparing burgers and hot dogs on the grill and savoring the frosty sensations of homemade ice cream, 20 libraries used Labor Day as a platform to get Americans thinking about their values and beliefs about work.

The libraries were selected to conduct discussion programs for "The Nation That Works," a project that began last September. It was organized by ALA's Public Programs Office and funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The project is part of NEH's "National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity" program, which encourages Americans to engage in thoughtful dialogue about the values that characterize our diverse society.

"We began these conversations to spark discussions in communities," said NEH Chair Sheldon Hackney at the Detroit Historical Museum during a national kickoff cohosted by Wayne State University's Walter P. Reuther Library, one of the participating libraries. "As a nation, we need to examine what unites us, what we share, and how we differ."

"The Nation That Works" takes the values and beliefs that local residents hold and extrapolates them to our national work ethic. U.S. workers spend more time with each other than with their families. More than two-thirds of all American adults spend more than 40 hours per week at work. Yet outside the workplace, we live in neighborhoods separated by religion, gender, age, and even sexuality.

I work, therefore I am

Work, as a conversation starter, has helped nearly 1,500 people nationwide explore the many layers of values, issues, and points of contention that surround the concept of "American identity." Libraries, continuing their tradition of serving as community meeting places and informal town halls, were neutral territory for this thoughtful exchange.

"Valley residents became aware of the history of work in our region," said Joyce A. Dunkelberger, adult services assistant at Teton County (Wyo.) Library in Jackson. "They understood that people's jobs were not their whole persona and began to relate their own migrations to those of immigrants. Participants enjoyed the discussion so much they stayed at least two and a half hours."

Demonstration sites offered many tantalizing programs in conjunction with "The Nation That Works," including community focus groups, readings by local and regional authors, film series, lectures by historians about local immigrant and labor history, photographic exhibitions, and oral history sessions on traditional area occupations.

In Wyoming, a contest and exhibit entitled "The Labor of Love" was sponsored by the Teton County Library, the Community Visual Art Association, the Teton Grassroots Project, and the Teton County Historical Society. According to Karen Steward, director of the Community Art Association, "The contest was designed to recognize people who may not think of themselves as artists - people who work to support themselves in other professions while creating art on the side."

Luis Herrera, director of the Pasadena (Calif. …