A limo pulled up to Dixwell’s Stetson branch library, waiting to whisk Diane Brown and her entourage to a rendezvous in the Big Apple.
Driver Medhi waited patiently for Brown, her sister Sally Brown, niece and aspiring librarian Whitney, library assistant Rhonda Taylor and Dawn LaValle, Connecticut State Library director of development.
Brown, who manages the Dixwell Plaza-based library branch that serves as the heartbeat and refuge of the Dixwell neighborhood, wasn’t going to the city for a night on the town.
She was headed to join nine other librarians from around the country who have demonstrated the same kind of grit, compassion and fortitude in the communities they serve as she has done for nearly a decade as a librarian in hers. Now they were getting national recognition.
Brown was selected as one of 10 winners of this year’s “I Love My Librarian Award.” Sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the New York Public Library, The New York Times and the American Library Association, the award recognizes exceptional librarians. This year’s 10 winners were selected from more than 1,300 nominees. They joined only 70 other librarians, out of the more than 160,000 librarians in the country, who have received such recognition.
During the ride down, Brown and Taylor swapped stories from Stetson that might curl back your hair.
There were the kids who got so high that the only place they could think to go to come down was the library. Now, those former kids, turned adults, bring their children to the library.
“One was reading the book upside down,” Taylor remembered with a laugh.
And that one time Brown asked a colleague to leave the library because she felt that he had been disrespectful of a man from the neighborhood, a devoted regular who has mental health problems. “This is his library, not yours,” she recalled saying to colleague.
Taylor also pointed out that Brown doesn’t go for people disrespecting library employees.
A woman once wanting to obtain a library card flung her ID at Taylor. Brown had overheard the exchange that proceeded the flinging of that card, and was already making her way from her office to the front as Taylor headed in her direction.
Brown picked up the card, handed it back to the woman and calmly told her, “There won’t be any transactions today.” The woman was in disbelief and started to get upset. As Brown escorted the woman out of the library, she asked her why she had behaved so badly inside.
“She started to cry,” Brown recalled. “Her cable had been turned off, and she needed the library card to borrow DVDs.”
Brown relented after the woman agreed to apologize to Taylor.
“I tell people all the time,” said La Valle, who nominated Brown for the award, “libraries are about more than books.” (Click here to read about or listen to a interview Brown did on WNHH about growing up attending the Newhallville branch library, then overseeing a renaissance of the Dixwell branch as an adult.)
Medhi braved the early afternoon traffic of Manhattan and deposited Brown and crew promptly at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 49th Street. Their destination was the headquarters of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Fellow award recipients Doug Campbell, library learning services librarian for the Willis Library at the University of North Texas, and Dona Helmer, librarian for College Gate Elementary School in Anchorage, Alaska. were there waiting for marching orders from the organizers of the event.
When asked if she would like her “special envelope,” which contained a check for $5,000, Brown continued the precedent that Campbell and Helmer had set by saying, “Oh, I’ll take it now.”
The event organizers put them through their paces, where they would sit, how they would accept their awards. They also did short recorded interviews. Brown got hit with her first unexpected question: What are you reading? She answered honestly: nothing. “I’m too busy to read,” she said.
She bonded with her fellow awardees. One faced down protesters and went to court to prevent the censorship of books aimed at LGBTQ youth in Texas. Another from Mississippi overcame being labeled as a slow learner and forced into special education classes to become a librarian.
When it was show time, Brown, who had by far the biggest cheering section, teared up as she dedicated her award to her mentor, the late city Librarian James C. Welbourne. She told her fellow librarians that Welbourne had made it his mission to train black librarians. She was the last one he trained.
“He taught me that being a librarian is not just about books,” she said. “It’s really about engaging people, meeting them where they’re at and enriching their lives.”
Hit play to watch Brown’s acceptance speech.