Interview with @Sherlonya Turner, @aadl Ann Arbor District Library

I met Ann Arbor District Library (AADL)’s Sherlonya Turner on my visit to Michigan earlier this year. Sherlonya manages youth and adult services and collections for the library. This involves leading desk service staff, directing children’s programming, and contributing to client-facing operations across the board.

As a writer for AADL’s arts blog Pulp, Sherlonya reports on film screenings, book launches, festivals, exhibitions, and cultural happenings of all kinds. Whether she’s covering visits by Hillary Clinton or Roxane Gay, a meditative movie on Native American experiences in Michigan, or her own participation in a street art festival, Sherlonya’s words provoke reflection, self-examination, and a questioning of our own assumptions alongside an account of the event in question. (I’m particularly fond of her piece on a successful Guinness World Record attempt to amass the most women dressed as Rosie the Riveter).

IMG_3829.jpgWhen she’s not making magic happen within the walls of AADL or stoking the curiosity of her readers online, Sherlonya has an unusual side project – making cakes, ice cream sundaes, and other sweet treats to represent US presidents and other senior figures in the history of American political life. Waffles, cookies, scoops, and sponges become the gateway to a thoughtful interrogation of power and personality over 200 years of the American experiment.

Sherlonya joined me earlier this month to discuss topics including her journey into librarianship, leadership and play in library settings, community blogging, and, of course, the Head of State Cakes.

“What was your origin story? How did you get to the place you are today, professionally?”

I thought I was going to be an engineer. I went to a college of engineering but then drifted into the literature, arts, and sciences department.

The university had to get in touch: “Yo, you are a junior and you don’t have a major — do something about it!”

I went through my mess of coursework, knowing I wanted to graduate within four years. And I saw that I’d been studying a lot of history.

What I loved was the ability to recognise and respect a diversity of viewpoints. I took a lot of classes combing over the same time periods – yet each class you’d read entirely different material, or if you did revisit material you’d be using it to make a completely different point.

I’m fascinated by recognising different points of view. Even if you and I took a walk somewhere, we’d think we were moving through the same space together, seeing the same things, but you know we would experience and interpret that walk in different ways.

If I’d stayed in academia, I’d have pursued a PhD in American Studies. I’d have pursued that question of how things look different from different perspectives, both contemporaneously and across time periods. How did people see an event in 1960 differently at the time? How do we see that event now?

Instead, I found myself working on the Americorps VISTA programme – a community service project, rather like a domestic Peace Corps.

I was working with a non-profit called Washtenaw Literacy, which aims to help adult learners with literacy difficulties, and it revealed to me just how much I took literacy for granted.

The organisation worked out of the District Library in Ypsilanti, Michigan – “Ypsi”, Ann Arbor’s closest neighbouring town – and members of the public would see me looking official with my badge and approach me asking for help.

I read a lot, so I’d know where stuff was, and I’d help them out. As the programme came to an end, my Americorps supervisor had clipped out the vacancy of a library technician’s job at the library.

I wasn’t sure at first, I thought it would be competitive and specialised, maybe not right for me? But then I thought, she had torn this out of the newspaper, thinking of me, believing in me, so I had to apply. I followed the opportunities and that began my rise through the library organisation.

World record attempt for largest number of Rosie the Riveter impersonators in Ypsilanti, Michigan
Photo by Sherlonya Turner

What’s your current role? How do you go about leading your staff?

I’m responsible today for desk services and services to kids at AADL. There’s overlap with other teams and managers – for example, with programming. But above all, my prime responsibility is making sure that our desk services work.

It’s funny; back when I worked in adult literacy, I thought I wanted to work one-to-one with clients, but I realised that I didn’t necessarily have the temperament for that role; also I could see the underlying problems that a literacy intervention wouldn’t solve.

I’m good at creating systems, structures, and order. So I guess that’s what I followed in my career. Through reshuffles and reorganisations I went from library technician to a supervisor of desk services, a manager of youth services. I went to library school alongside this progression, as I’d come to see that librarianship was a place where I could use my skills in a way which aligned with my values.

My job consists of talking all day! I’m a feelings broker; I deal in emotions. With a big department, you work to get people on board with what needs to be done — they might not all be moving at the same speed, but they do need to move in the same directions. How people feel about their work is a huge part of working together to get things done.

That means listening to people, respecting them as a complete person. I like to think, same as anyone, that I’m super rational, but of course humans are these whimsical beings, pulled this way and that by our emotions.

You can explain why a particular action in the workplace makes sense, but that doesn’t always win staff over. I’ve learned to manage people the hard way, through experience, and that means sometimes addressing things in a way which is counter-intuitive, and accepting that what seems “rational” won’t fly unless you address the emotions of your staff as well.

You’ve done a lot of work around creating science experiences in the library. What do those experiences look like and how did you come to create them?

Every experience a kid has – or an adult, for that matter – you’re learning. It doesn’t have to be about opening a thick book, sitting there, grinding through it. We are not schools, we’re libraries, and we don’t have to teach people formally! How do you offer hands-on science experiences which aren’t about teaching?

Had I been offered experiences like this as a child, I might have realised sooner that engineering was not for me. Just because I was good at math, didn’t mean I was being pushed into the right thing — engineering wasn’t what I was passionate about.

Part of this science programming was also about cracking open our assumptions about gender – about programmes that feel gendered, or feel awkwardly like they’re trying not to be gendered. Boys and girls alike came to our summer of science.

I was passionate about delivering these experiences, but I struggled to find someone to assign the job to – so I ended up running the sessions myself one summer.

My attitude was, “I’m not going to let my inability to find the right person to run these sessions stop it from happening.”

Eventually, these events became a regular part of what we do.

One of the things that pleases me most about AADL today is that we have people in all kinds of roles all over the organisation who are willing to run original programs. I’m super proud of this, because many organisations claim that they’ll let you try new things and run your own sessions, but here we really do make it happen.

My skill now as a manager is that if you have an idea, I can walk you through turning that into a real programme or event. I don’t care if I personally like your idea or not, it’s not meant to be for me; I can help you to develop it in a way that suits your community. I’m happy to hold your hand at first…then once the programme is underway, okay, you can give me your hand back!

Michigan Theatre frontage
Photo by Sherlonya Turner

Why is play important for libraries?

Truth be told, I don’t have a sophisticated philosophy about the value of play – I just know that it’s important. Babies play, children play, and then at some point formal education kicks in and it feels like then we spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to that playful freedom of childhood.

After all, thinking is playing. What is brainstorming but intellectual play? Inventors play; when we conduct an experiment, we play to solve problems.

Yet we think of play as something that children do, and therefore we don’t respect it. We should look at how kids behave – it tells us so much about who we are. From very young, children reveal themselves as intrepid or agile or prone to build things, prone to quietly pondering the world.

Children haven’t been programmed yet in the way so many of us have been, socially. They know what they like but they’re learning how to move, how to communicate. What does traditional education do to that?

Are enough communities included in the kinds of conversation a library offers? How could libraries reach out to include more people?

I want everyone to use the library and feel welcome in the library, but I’m cautious about the ways we think about engaging people.

Say you identify a pocket within your community that is not using your service, that is not well served by your programming; that is your blind spot. But that pocket is something you have identified and defined – they might not think of themselves as a discrete group, they might not want you to go after them as a pocket!

At best, you might go do a thing in the vicinity of the pocket you’ve identified and see what happens. Different communities aren’t something to hunt in the wild and then capture with a net! This is about relationships and dialogue; looking at communities from outside will do you no good – just because you see a thing doesn’t mean that others see it the same way. You have to respect people’s use of the library on their own terms, and give them good experiences where possible; news of bad experiences will spread, and even if you approach people with a good intention, people will quickly detect if you are not really seeing them as a person, but a target demographic.

Respect is at the foundation of service. Say there was a star-bellied, blue-skinned person reading a book in your library; you don’t pounce on them and say, “Yes! One of our goals is more services for star-bellied blue people!” You don’t drag them away from their own choice. You let them lead. We’re trying to listen to users and serve them, not force them to become the ideal users we imagine.

It’s like visiting someone’s house; you look around and think about how to respect them. Do I take off my shoes in this house? No one else has bare shoulders; do I need to keep mine covered here?

In a library setting, you might think about a programme like storytime. You might want everyone sitting on the floor, the adults joining in with the songs — but for one parent sitting at the back, drinking a coffee and not engaging, this might be her only respite. This might be the time she gets away from a violent spouse or partner. That parent who does not want to sit on the floor might be from a culture where you remove your shoes to separate outdoors from indoors, and the last thing that parent wants is to sit on that dirty, lively, all-American floor you’re beckoning them towards!

You don’t want your library users to be thinking, Am I a bad parent because I don’t want to sit on this filthy floor?

Service can’t be built on our assumptions. You need to see the community, not who you think or want them to be. If the library does that to people – well, the kind of people who get imposed on in that way, they can smell it on you before you even open your mouth.

What on earth is the Head of State Cakes project?

I never took that PhD in American Studies, but I like to joke that if I could, today I’d teach a course on “The American Presidency and the Cult of Personality.”

For a long time, I was a regular attendee at a writing group in Ann Arbor. I wrote two poems about the presidency in quick succession – one about Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, then another from the point of view of an imaginary former love of Richard Nixon, set during the time of Nixon’s decline.

Someone in the group asked me, “Are you going to write a poem about each of them?”

I realised that I was capable…but I didn’t know enough about all of the Presidents past and present.

I read a biography of each US President. It consumed my life for a while. When I was done, there was a President-shaped hole in my heard. I had a running joke that I was going to open a restaurant called “Head of State”, with world leader themed menus.

I was sitting in my car when I realised I didn’t need to set up a restaurant. I could make President-themed cupcakes, and have fun with these guys all over again, by reinterpreting them in cake form.

I wanted this project to be something you could view and enjoy no matter what your point of view or political persuasion. At a time when everything we see in the news is so crazy, it’s an opportunity to think about the issues, presented in literal bite-sized pieces.

I enjoy baking, but nothing changes for me until someone engages with the project. I already know what I think about each President – I want to know your opinions and reactions!

People give responses that range from the trivial to the revealing – “I’ve never cared about James Monroe as much as I do right now”, or someone admitting that they love the George H.W. Bush cupcake, but not the man, and feeling the need to make that very clear!

I want us to think about the fact we have a shared history – we live in the same world – we’re not alien beasts who live in separate universes! These figures have played a part in our shared existence, especially the Presidents we remember from our own lifetimes.

The Presidency has this strange power, and I want to understand how people relate to the office and its holders. A lot of what Presidents do doesn’t impact our lives as much as the decisions of the city or the school board…yet we focus on the presidency as if the impact will be immediate. The truth is the role is also symbolic, and ceremonial – and like any job it’s full of little tedious things which don’t get a lot of attention.

We think of Presidents in terms of the office they inhabit, but they are actually full and rounded people. I’m interested in why these human beings make the decisions that they make; what influenced them; when they were serving their own egos; when did they know they were making a choice which compromised their own values.

We all have the capacity for wonderful and terrible things. In Presidents’ life stories I see family tragedies, obstacles, figures driven to great ambition. It’s interesting to see how they came to the office; some didn’t even really want to. It’s also intriguing to note which of their predecessors Presidents themselves look up to as role models.

I feel sorry even for a figure like Nixon – a man with a chip on his shoulder who achieved the highest power in the land, the very peak of his ambition, and still looked overtly and terribly uncomfortable in his own skin. Where can you go from that point, when you’ve fulfilled your dream and you still feel terrible?

I baked cupcakes for each President chronologically, added a few First Lady Donuts along the way, thought about creating cookies for all the candidates in the 2016 election — but there were just too many of them.

I pondered the Supreme Court too – we’re so entranced by the presidency, we sometimes forget about the other branches of government. I’m also contemplating baking the current cabinet. I’d do them as creampies…and we could splat them as they get fired. I even wonder about baking cakes to represent gerrymandering.

What other projects are you currently working on?

There’s one that looms over me – hanging there until I figure out what to do.

It’s an exploration of the American race riot. In a sense, race riots are our national sport: you could call them pastimes on a par with jazz or baseball. There have been hundreds of them, but no-one is really aware; we think only of big names like Watts, the LA riots, Detroit.

It’s such a part of the fabric of American history, and so much more complex than those two words suggest. Was that a riot or a slave rebellion, or state sponsored terrorism? What is going on in these events?

In fact, each incident is a story about people and how group behaviour impacts what we do.

Times have changed so much lately; I feel like we’re all on the edge and that such an event, one of these riots, could happen right now. I might finish this interview, look on my phone, and find one is taking place in nearby.

My curiosity is leading me down new paths again. As I map out the history of race riots, I recognised that I need to fully understand each time period, not just skim the surface. The name of the white supremacist George Wallace kept coming up, for example, and I saw his life was going to hijack my project for a while. I inter-library-loaned a short biography of his, then felt I needed to read another, a thick tome which totally captured his crazy life and explains why he was who he was.

At some point it’s become awkward, in the current climate, to be walking around with a George Wallace biography stuffed full of post-it notes! No one is going to mistake me for a white supremacist, but you do find yourself questioning what it means to carry it in public. Who are you? What does this say about you?

After Charlottesville, I had to stop. If I left this book in my car, is someone going to see it and make assumptions about the person driving it. I couldn’t be reading that kind of material in public.

It seems to me that if I can find the right approach, it will be possible to handle the topic in a way that doesn’t make it scary to think about.

This is a hard topic for people to discuss; America has such a complicated racial history. It’s hard for those on all sides, those who think they’ll be attacked for saying the wrong thing, those who have had to hear all kinds of crazy statements levelled at them; those who have been caught up in discussions on sensitive topics with complete strangers who feel the need to share their opinion. You have to make it light. Like the presidential cakes, somehow.

With this topic, though, making it light bothered me. I had to ask myself why. Many people of different backgrounds said I was the perfect person to address this topic — I couldn’t interrogate that too deeply!

What I do have is a desire to hear and understand. If we could value being right a little less, we could talk to one another more openly – instead of sitting there, waiting for the opportunity to be right. I want to be open to conversations; otherwise I might just as well be alone, writing in my journal.

You’re a prolific blogger for Ann Arbor District Library. What do you write about and why?

I think a lot about when librarians should create content and when they should facilitate creation by others.

It took me a long time to start writing for AADL’s PULP blog – I had always written but I was asking myself, what does it mean to represent a library in this public space?

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I revisit these questions every time I write for PULP – most recently, when I decided to attend Hillary Clinton’s recent appearance at the Hill Auditorium. She’s such a controversial figure, and irrespective of my thoughts, it’s important that the library blog is a space which does not exclude any member of the community.

Ann Arbor may look reasonably homogenous but in fact there are a huge range of opinions, some unvoiced, as with any community. It’s among the highest values of the public library that its space are for everyone. How do you address that when you’re reporting on an event as a writer?

How I approach the issue is this: I had the opportunity to experience an event, and to share that experience with the community – just as I might share items from our collection or programming opportunities with the community.

PULP encourages me to go into new spaces, new cultures, new experiences. After years of work and parenting, the blog lets me peek my head out and do these new things. Some of these are in Ann Arbor and some are in Ypsilanti.

There’s a healthy arts ecosystem in Ann Arbor and Ypsi, but each organisation and event and community has its own specific culture. The border between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor can be blurred sometimes, but Ypsi is BIG – and it doesn’t just consist of the sort of places Ann Arbor folk will visit.

It’s interesting to watch these communities change. Ypsi has pressure not just to be a mini Ann Arbor, or a satellite town. After all, it’s a university town in its own right, with a distinctive history and culture. It doesn’t need to always be looking over its shoulder at Ann Arbor, although sometimes we do that anyhow.

Find more from Sherlonya Turner of Ann Arbor District Library at her website, as @sherlonya on Twitter, or at AADL’s Pulp blog.

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