Check Her Out

Seattle may have the Space Needle, and Paris may have the Eiffel Tower, but Phoenix is home to 2004's Librarian of the Year. Toni Garvey hasn't let her title go to her head, despite the fact that she was chosen earlier this year from among all librarians across the country. Although there was no swimsuit competition, the contest was fierce -- even if the prize was nothing more glamorous than the recognition of Garvey's peers and her mug on the cover of Library Journal magazine. Which is enough for the director of the Phoenix Library Department, who swears that, Internet be damned, libraries will always rule.

New Times: Where are your bun and your horn-rims? I was sort of hoping that halfway through this interview, you'd pull a chopstick out of your hair, yank off your nerdy glasses and transform yourself into a runway vixen.

Toni Garvey: I certainly have been getting that question a lot lately, from the press, anyway. I find the whole thing pretty amusing. I'm actually pretty average looking, but when you have a makeup artist and enough backlighting, as I did for the [Library Journal] cover photo, anyone can look great.

NT: Aren't you sort of offended that people expect you to be ugly, just because you're a librarian?

Garvey: I think librarians are usually thought of as plain, not ugly. But doesn't every industry have its stereotypes? Some people say that journalists are crass or whatever.

NT: I've never heard that before in my life. I'm deeply wounded.

Garvey: (Laughs.) Well, librarians have it worse -- we're always thought of as uptight and conservative. Librarians are a diverse group of people, but I have to confess I think it's very funny when librarians get upset about their stereotypes. Have you seen the librarian action figure? You can probably find one online. You press the button and it raises its finger to its lips and goes, "Shhh!!" And librarians actually got upset about this!

NT: What do librarians read?

Garvey: I'm reading Money Ball, and The Life of Pi, which I'm finding very hard to get into. I read a lot of magazines, especially Sports Illustrated. I read People at the doctor's office.

NT: People? Say it isn't so! Hey, is there a course in Library School where librarians are taught how not to smile?

Garvey: What are you talking about?

NT: Well, all the librarians here are very helpful. But none of them ever looks very happy. I can never get any of them to smile. Ever.

Garvey: Do they already know you're a journalist? (Laughs.) It's been a lot of years since I was in library school, but I don't think librarians are being taught not to smile. I think we tend to have a lot of things on our minds, a lot of things to do. Keep in mind that with research librarians, people can come up and ask them anything at all, and their job is to find the answer. Librarians are in charge of how to solve problems and find answers. I remember being a young librarian and being terrified at the next question, because it could be anything. These people don't have time to make friends -- they're on to the next question.

NT: Here's my next question: Can you waive my overdue charges?

Garvey: I can't even waive my own overdue charges. And I wouldn't if I could. I place holds on books I want to read just like everyone else. And no, my name doesn't go ahead of everyone else's on the "Hold" list -- that would go against everything the public library stands for. I pay my fines like everyone else. How much do you owe?

NT: As if you didn't know! So, how did you win "Librarian of the Year"? Was there some kind of competition? Did you have to jump over piles of books? Was there a shushing contest?

Garvey: There's a nomination process. You're nominated by someone in the field, and a city librarian in Los Angeles with whom I worked in Tucson nominated me. Colleagues from around the country wrote letters of support of the nomination, which was based on my whole career, but focused on what I've done here for the Phoenix library.

NT: Like getting the Phoenix library book budget doubled from $2.5 million to $5 million.

Garvey: I hope so. But doing something like doubling the book budget requires a lot of support along the way, so I think the award is an affirmation that we're all doing our jobs well here.

NT: Which may prove to be a waste of time, since libraries may be a thing of the past.

Garvey: People have been predicting doom and gloom for public libraries for a while now, when in fact libraries have all gotten busier. Well, it's true that there are programs at large universities that are about training librarians that don't even have the name "library" in the name of the program. It's "information science and technology" -- whatever. They're training librarians, and they're calling themselves "information specialists." I like the word "librarian"; I'm proud to be one. I love that my title is City Librarian -- I think it's something to be admired, not something to cast aside because it's somehow gotten outdated. How can a library be outdated?

NT: Maybe you've heard about a little thing called the Internet?

Garvey: The Internet can be very confusing. There's a lot of information there, a great deal of which doesn't go through any kind of editorial process. And remember that in this country there are those who don't have access to the Internet outside of work. Or outside of a library. And people need help with [accessing the Internet], which libraries can provide, by saying, "Here's the best database for what you're looking for."

NT: Don't get me wrong. I like libraries. And I miss card catalogs.

Garvey: I've often wondered if there shouldn't be some sort of support group for people who miss card catalogs. I think the only people who miss them are those who never had to file cards in card catalogs. Trust me!

NT: But regardless of how you or I feel about libraries, they might one day be unnecessary.

Garvey: But even as we evolve into a community which does its own banking at the ATM, bags its own groceries, we still crave community. And a library is a place where you can interact with other people, whether you're looking for something to read or just using the building.

NT: You mean like all the homeless people who take naps on the fifth floor of the downtown library?

Garvey: Use of the library by someone who's homeless isn't necessarily inappropriate use of the library! If we notice that someone is here just for napping, we'll usually say something to them about it. But there's something truly wonderful and very welcoming about the library: You open the doors, and as long as you're interested in the services contained there, you're welcome. We're not going to ask you for money. We don't want anything from you. The library is the most democratic institution in the country. It's a very American thing.

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