“This is a community that values people and education. What that means in a library is that it’s your own personal education.”
In August 2017, Annette Birdsall was named the Director of the Tompkins County Public Library. From 2012 to 2017, she was the Director of the Ulysses Public Library, and she has held previous positions in the Finger Lakes Library System, TCPL, the South Central Regional Library Council, and at the Cornell University Library. She holds an MA in English and an MLS from Syracuse University.
Annette Birdsall’s Recommended Books:
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
My Antonia by Willa Cather
More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander
The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. LeGuin
“Books were such an important part of my family life,” Birdsall says in the comfort of her cozy new office at Tompkins County Public Library. “My mother would read hundreds of books in a year. We constantly had books in every room of the house.” Reading became a way for her family to connect. As a child, she regularly visited the library with her family, but when she herself learned to read, Birdsall would also happily flip through the Scholastic books catalogue. When the book fair would come to her school, she’d often spend her lunch money to get her hands on something new to read. Her choices, too, would frequently be family-oriented stories. This connection to family became entangled in her connection to books. It seems a natural lifestyle for the eventual Director of the Tompkins County Public Library, a position she began last fall.
Now, her interests are even more varied. “When I thought about it, I read across a lot of genres,” she explains. In choosing her most influential books, though, she did realize there was a common theme. “They’re all about story. Telling your own, learning from each other’s stories, coming back to the importance of story.”
Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is a novel for young readers, written in verse and based on the author’s experiences growing up in South Carolina and New York during the Civil Rights Movement. For Birdsall, there was great power in being able to understand and connect with Woodson through her authentic and intimate story. My Antonia by Willa Cather came to Birdsall in her early twenties, when she was reading fiction centered on women, and became her favorite book. In More Home Cooking, it was Laurie Colwin’s storytelling through food, senses, and family memories that appealed to Birdsall. And, because a cross-genre booklist wouldn’t be complete without poetry, Birdsall chose Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander, a children’s book illustrated by David Diaz. “I think it’s so wonderful to share poetry with children, to share poetry in general because it gets deeper into an experience.” The fact that it was originally an occasion poem commissioned for Obama’s inauguration makes its accessibility especially important to Birdsall. And right on her bookshelf, where she can always pull it out and refer to it, is Ursula Le Guin’s The Wave in the Mind. In it is an essay titled “My Libraries” that informs all of Birdsall’s work as Library Director. An ode to the joy of libraries, it reminds Birdsall that her job is to make sure that joy is available to everyone.
“This is a community that values people and education,” Birdsall says. “What that means in a library is that it’s your own personal education.” How does that personal education form? “The community here has so many experiences of people writing and sharing.” The library not only lends free books to the public but hosts poets, writers, historians, and genealogists in workshops, readings, and a number of other literary events each year. “So many people are engaged in some way that connects them to language and literacy.”
Ithaca Is Books, absolutely, is about the connection of our community. Yet there is still work to be done to make that community more inclusive. Birdsall has hope. “I think, for me, we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding each other’s story,” she explains. “I think Ithaca is a tremendous community for tolerance but we still have a long way to go for social equity. I think the more we can help each other understand other experiences, whether it’s through story or shared experiences or conversations, I think that’s where we are going to find growth.”