Amy Mikel ’00: Brooklyn Librarian of the Year Reflects on Freedom to Read

April is School Library Month, and National Library Week begins April 7. Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) Director of Customer Experience Amy Mikel ‘00 spoke with her alma mater about the freedom to read, the importance of libraries and how the Fenwick community can support them.

Amy and four colleagues were named Library Journal’s Librarians of the Year in 2023 for their work in the Books UnBanned Program.

“I have a wonderful team and BPL is a wonderful organization,” Amy said. “People who work at BPL believe in the library’s mission and care deeply about the work that they do. Customer Service is an important and shared priority here.”

After graduating from Fenwick, the Valparaiso University alumna pursued a career in computer science before pivoting to librarianship, a move she calls “the perfect combination of teaching, culture and community-centered work.” She attended the University of Washington iSchool and has been working at BPL since 2012, serving in school outreach and civic engagement departments. Amy now oversees the library’s collection, circulation policies and procedures and generally works to ensure that the patron experience is “welcoming, easy and consistent across all our 61 branch locations and digital touch-points.”

“This kind of work can be challenging, because I always have a lot of balls in the air at one time, but that is also what I enjoy about it. My work stays varied and interesting. Every day I learn something new,” she said. “I love my job and I genuinely feel that it’s just the right fit for me, my background and my skill set. Working in library administration/operations means that I have the privilege and opportunities to address big-picture issues that can have a lasting impact on our staff and our patrons.”

Through addressing issues like the recent spike in efforts to remove or restrict books from classrooms and libraries across the country, Amy has crossed professional paths with fellow Fenwick graduate John Chatska ‘88, who serves as Executive Director of EveryLibrary. The organization supports libraries and helps fight book banning in the U.S., work Amy calls “crucial.”

Below, Amy reflects on how Fenwick families, alumni and staff can do their part to support libraries and raise awareness for the freedom to read.

The most basic thing that students, parents, and educators can do is to defend the freedom to read.

Reflect on the freedom to read. What does that mean to you? How has having the freedom to read personally benefited you? How does it benefit the broader community at large?

Protect it when you see it threatened. Vocalize its importance and the benefits. Lifelong learning, and fostering a growth mindset is important. Learning about things that are new, or different, or strange is important.

Having access to a diversity of perspectives is important, as is learning how to think critically about what you believe and why. Having access to someone who can help you navigate your reading options based on what you like and care about is important. Having independent choice is crucially important as young children grow into tweens, and from young adults to adults. We may make different choices about what we choose to read, but we cannot force those choices onto others.

Libraries provide a wonderful window to the world and allow for exploration and discovery – books can reflect a reader’s world back to them or they can open a window to something new. Both are crucially important for our young people as they seek to learn about the world and about themselves. There are professional frameworks that those working in education and in libraries use to determine the reading materials that end up in the classroom and on library shelves, and parents do have a choice and a role to play in their child’s education. 

Fenwick students, parents, educators, and alumni can support the freedom to read by supporting libraries – both school and public libraries. Without access to libraries, many will not have the freedom to read. 

The Fenwick community can build awareness by talking openly about the benefits of reading freely, our first amendment rights (including the right to express our opinions) and what barriers we may be erecting to take the right to read, learn or speak away from others. The American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Statement says, “We believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture. We believe that these pressures toward conformity present the danger of limiting the range and variety of inquiry and expression on which our democracy and our culture depend.”

I believe that learning how to learn, how to think critically, and how to interrogate our assumptions about the world and others is more important now than ever. Libraries are here for you, but we have to protect them – protect their right to exist, protect their mission to provide information freely, and speak up when we see libraries and library workers threatened.

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