U-M Librarian and AADL Board Member Jamie Vander Broek discusses libraries and "Radical Humility"


Jamie Vander Broek and her book Radical Humility

Jamie Vander Broek photo by Austin Thomason/University of Michigan Photography

How do libraries and the quality of humility go together?

Really well, it turns out.

Jamie Vander Broek unveils this connection in her essay, “A Library Is for You” in Radical Humility, a recent book she co-edited with Rebekah Modrak, a professor in the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan.

The Librarian for Art and Design at the University of Michigan Library, Vander Broek outlines how the permission to read whatever you’d like contributes to the humble nature of libraries. In contrast to museums, the people are primary: 

Libraries, instead, devote relatively little real estate and resources toward interpreting their collections, instead foregrounding the individual’s experience with the materials. Another person’s ego doesn’t stand in the way of your access to, at our library, a letter handwritten by Galileo and the first cookbook published by an African American. That’s how important you are to us.

Libraries, Vander Broek observes, don’t impose themselves on one’s intellectual adventure or entertainment but rather offer their collections up to people who want to interact with them. There are many ways Vander Broek illustrates this humility, such as noting, “We think of libraries as being about books or even literacy. But they’re really about sharing. They’re about recognizing the value of saving, sharing, and access to society.”

Sharing is caring, many of us have learned from a young age. 

The essay goes on to show how humility appears in libraries, first through public libraries and then in academic libraries. For public libraries, community plays a large role, as Vander Broek sees in her own work on the Board of Trustees at Ann Arbor District Library (AADL). Public libraries offer community members “the vast potential they have when working together to share something instead of investing in their own tiny empires.” People may put less effort into accumulating their own things and instead avail themselves of the resources at the public library. Not only are public libraries a place to use books and other materials but they also are a space for anyone to spend time. 

Vander Broek also contemplates how academic libraries are service-oriented and take a backseat to their users’ needs: “I realized that there was power in the ability of individuals to make libraries thoroughly their own in their minds,” she writes. Essentially, people use the academic library to achieve their own goals. “Institutional humility has allowed people to make libraries exactly what they need them to be,” Vander Broek writes, and therefore libraries do not need to promote themselves as a result. Individuals will go on their own journey independently. 

The collected essays in Radical Humility cover topics from education to politics, family, and social media. Practicing humility across our lives is essential, assert the authors. 

I interviewed Vander Broek about her work as a librarian, the creation of Radical Humility, and her essay within the book. 

Q: How did the idea for a book on humility come about? How did you get involved?
A: My co-editor, Rebekah Modrak, approached me during the summer of 2016. I actually remember the day really well because that evening there was an AADL Board meeting, and I decided to go straight from my chat with Rebekah to the meeting with my daughter in tow. She was about five months old, and at that point I was still bringing her to meetings and holding her. She was so fussy from all the stimulation of the day that Deputy Director Eli Neiburger had to take her down to see the fish tank in the Youth Department so that she’d stop crying long enough for me to vote on a resolution! 

Anyhow, Rebekah asked me if I might want to work on a project with her exploring humility. She had just returned from interviewing farmers in rural Nebraska as part of a different project and had come home struck by how often humility had been mentioned as a virtue among the members of the community she interacted with there. 

As a new parent, I realized that I had also been thinking about humility in the context of introducing my daughter to daycare. I had to fill out a form with her likes and dislikes and how I wanted her day to be structured. This struck me as kind of incredible because at the time she started care she was only three months old, and presumably could and should adapt to the daily rhythms that made sense for the other 19 babies in the space! I worried that if we were already being encouraged to carve out the most perfect path for her at such a young age, at what point would she begin to understand herself as part of a community, with all the give and take that that requires? If many children are raised this way, what does that mean for their society when they become adults?  

Q: Those are compelling and important questions! I’d like to hear more about what happened once you decided to embark on this project. How did you go about finding the authors for the essays in Radical Humility?
A: The book started as a live event, a colloquium, at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2017. It was important to us to bring together voices from not just expected parts of academia for the topic, like psychology and philosophy, but also people who were from totally different environments and backgrounds.

Q: It’s interesting to think about humility seeping into all parts of life. As a librarian myself, I also want to talk about your work as a librarian and your essay on libraries in Radical Humility. First, let’s talk about librarianship. How did you come to be the Librarian for Art and Design at the University of Michigan Library? What drew you to the career?
A: When I look back on it, it seems like a straight line because in college I worked in the art library as a student worker the whole time, and after that, I had a series of jobs in libraries, including the AADL! Originally, though, I wanted to be a cognitive psychologist, and working in libraries was not at all on my radar. There was a job fair at my college during the first week we were there, and I happened to stop at the art library’s table and put my name down for a student worker position. 

My years at the art library at Wellesley College had a huge impact on my life. I found that I loved to be around the art books and the staff, and I worked as many hours as I could. Being a professional art librarian as opposed to a student worker is actually much more about listening to people and thinking about what resources might exist to help them with their ideas. It’s not so much about being surrounded by art books, though I still love those, too, and have collected piles of them over the years. 

I never thought I would end up at the University of Michigan. Like a lot of people in Ann Arbor, I came here when I was young, and then I just kept staying. Every few years, I would threaten to move, but something would happen to keep me here. I did several different things at the University of Michigan before the job I have now opened up, and there were many times when I thought I might never reach my goal of becoming an art librarian. 

Q: You’re on the AADL Board of Trustees, too. How do you contribute to the library, and what have you learned in serving on the board?
A: I’ve learned so much from being on the board. I love it. AADL is really well-run with great people at all levels, so it’s a delightful board to be on because the primary goal is to enable the good stuff to keep happening. Before I joined the board, I had experience working in both public and academic libraries, so I thought I knew a lot about what it would be like. But it’s quite different than working in a library. The board isn’t about making decisions about what’s in the library or what happens there, really, but exists more as this thing that connects the citizens to the organization, providing oversight. It’s important in that it contributes to a healthy civic organization to have community-elected participation, but when things are going well, it’s not really about micromanaging as much as it is about asking good questions and staying out of the way so that the staff has the freedom to be innovative.  

Q: Speaking of what’s in libraries, the range of resources in them is impressive, such as the writings on ancient papyrus at the University of Michigan Library that you mention in your essay. You write, however, that "who cares that some of the things we have are particularly special, even to many people? What really matters is that you can find what you’re looking for.” Something that crossed my mind while reading that is how humbling it can also be to find the exact thing you need or an item on a topic that you didn’t know someone would ever write about. How do you guide this exploration as a librarian?
A: As a librarian in an academic setting, I think of myself like a research therapist. So it is really, really not about me or even the library, but what is it that the person is trying to get at? What might help them get there? I think what humbles me is that I am a much better art librarian than I was when I started this job six years ago, and if I keep doing this job, the same thing will keep happening as I look back. So it can feel overwhelming, how much I don’t know or understand about the field, but at the same time, it is satisfying to have a question come up that would have been very difficult to answer a few years ago that’s now something I have experience with. 

Q: Your essay covers the importance of a community working together to share things, in contrast to developing their personal libraries and resources: “People can do more when they share their talents and efforts with each other, and research has demonstrated that diversity makes this especially true.” How have you seen this in the Ann Arbor community? 
A: I see this every time I do something collaborative in Ann Arbor. It’s always better than if I had tried to manage on my own. I’m not a very naturally organized person, which is probably surprising in a librarian, so to me, one of the advantages of collaborating is getting to use the combination of everyone’s skills and experiences to create something. Before I joined the board, I loved to reach out to the staff at AADL to collaborate because they were always so up for wild ideas and figuring out how to make them a reality. 

There’s been such a push toward the culture of entrepreneurship over the past few years, which to me, among other things, encourages a sort of hoarding of ideas. One of the things I love best about being involved in civic organizations is that it’s not about holding onto something strategically to make a profit, but instead how we can use the resources of a community, including the talented people, to make it a better place to live. 

Q: A question that I usually ask people is what they’re reading and recommending. What’s on your stack? 
A: I have a giant stack of art books right now! I’m actually usually reading interior design books, so sort of a subset of my field, and actually one that we don’t collect at the University, so I have to get them via interlibrary loan. The one I want to read next is Beata Heuman’s Every Room Should Sing. The book I’m reading right now is Marcia B. Hall’s The Power of Color: Five Centuries of European Painting, so more of a straight-up art history book than I typically read. I also always have a cozy mystery going on my tablet, and an audiobook—a sort of boring business book for managers—for dog walks. 

Q: With this collection of essays published, what’s up next for you? 
A: I just started a new collaboration with a different faculty member at the Stamps School that I’m excited about. It focuses on the visual material created during the protests last summer in Belarus and how they’re connected to traditional folk art, like textiles. Always something new!

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.