I crossed a big item off my bucket list last month – I traveled solo (sort of) to Scotland. It’s a country that has loomed large in my imagination since I was a little kid (having read Margaret George’s book Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles at far too young an age) and it more than lived up to my expectations. I love travel and exploring new places, and this was the first time I truly felt that I could just drop everything and never, ever leave a new place.
I haven’t, and (for the foreseeable future) I won’t (although there are some big changes coming soon…watch this space) but the memories made during this trip will live in my heart for a long time. I realize that this reverse-wanderlust has a lot to do with the ‘vacation’ aspect of all this – it’s easy to want to live somewhere when your experience consists of hotels, sightseeing and someone cooking your meals (and washing your dishes), and in my case this was enhanced by the fact that I used a fantastic tour company, so most all of the stressful elements of going to a new place were handled.
Like any adventure, the best part of my trip was meeting fantastic people. I didn’t know anyone in my group when I arrived in Glasgow, but a week later, flying out of Edinburgh, I had connected with and made new friends that I wound up spending a significant amount of time with (which is sort of a big deal, as I really enjoy my ‘wandering city streets and skulking in foreign alleys-alone time’ quite a bit.)
Since I’ve returned, I’ve been thinking a bit about how it is that our little crew (or clan, because Scotland), with a 15-year age-span, all engaged in wildly different work, and hailing from different corners of the country, managed to forge such a meaningful connection. It is, as one of our fellow tour-mates noted, because we spoke the same (semi-coded) language: References.
The first time I noticed it was at a castle (we were always at some incredible castle, because Scotland) when I heard, from somewhere in the pile of people, ‘Don’t Blink.’ My head shot up and I started scanning for the person who dropped the Doctor Who reference. We made eye contact and shared a smile. It was on.
As the trip proceeded we began speaking in pop culture, connecting over shared (and sometimes surprising) interests in a way that seemed like we had developed our own language of strange phrases and private jokes. Giggling, singing songs from ‘The Nightman Cometh.’ Quoting ‘Hannibal.’ (I will find my Fannibals anywhere!) Bridging the silence with gentle teasing about our own obscure favorites and clapping with joy finding out that someone else had heard of or loved something we treasure.
It might seem like a superficial way to connect, but this introduction via pop culture lead to expansive conversations (and a sense of goodwill when opinions diverged) over the course of long bus transfers, quiet moments in hotel lobbies and amazing meals in pubs all over the country (Haggis: Delicious!) It was intensely familiar: this is how I talk with my oldest friends and family members near(ish) to my age. It was anything but shallow. These new relationships were quick, comfortable, and thanks to the miracle of the Internet, will likely last for a long while.
I think we’ve all had those moments of connection over pop culture ‘ephemera’ at work. One of the most wonderful things about working with teens is getting to witness that delighted moment of recognition when you compliment a shirt or a pin, or can drop in on a conversation about OTPs, or ask them for recommendations on books, shows, movies, or bands to enjoy (I would never have fallen in love with Bob’s Burgers or Steven Universe if it weren’t for my Fandoms group insisting that I get over my ambivalence towards animation.) I have these kinds of interactions with adults, too, but they are more often than not muted and cautious. (Of course, as generations shift and what used to be marginalized as ‘nerd culture’ becomes more and more profitable, universal, and centralized, this is changing.) What do we have to lose when we share our enthusiasm, demonstrate our expertise in the things we love, or allow others to do the same?
It’s important, and often vital, to keep a ‘professional’ distance from patrons in a public library, but professional doesn’t have to mean impersonal. Recognizing and responding to our users in this way can lead to opportunities with lasting value for everyone involved. I’m thrilled to see more and more libraries turning to pop culture as another avenue to expand their reach into their communities and demonstrate that our ‘institutions’ truly see, appreciate, and value everyone.
Many teens in our weekly Fandoms group came to their first meeting knowing they’d be walking into a room full of strangers (a major anxiety trigger no matter your age or experience level) having only met me, the librarian who geeked out for a minute over their Sherlock laptop sticker or Fourth Doctor-inspired scarf. As each new person introduces themselves to the group, they name a few of their beloved fandoms. As they do, without fail, others in the group will whoop, clap, or shout a catchphrase, and the newbie will smile, or wave, or respond with a reference in kind. You can see their tension ease. They have found a place.
Over time, I’ll see these teens turn up at other classes and events, volunteer for different departments, or use our spaces to gather, study, or just hang out. Many of them will become library-users for life, and it all started with a simple moment of reference and response. They know that the library is theirs, and that someone who works there speaks their language, or at least is willing to learn it.