Lauren Comito’s 2019 ended on a high note: Library Journal named her Librarian of the Year, along with her longtime friend and colleague Christian Zabriskie, in recognition of their decade of advocacy on behalf of urban libraries and librarians through their group, Urban Librarians Unite www.urbanlibrariansunite.org. It’s the latest of a number of awards received over the past seven years by Comito (MLS ’07), the neighborhood library supervisor since 2017 at the Leonard Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Had it not been for her interest in fine art, she might have become something other than a librarian. That interest took her to Brooklyn College where she ultimately received her BFA. While at Brooklyn, she became entranced by its library. “It’s just this amazing building,” she says. “They did a really good job of building an addition to it that stayed true to the spirit of the original building. It’s this gigantic gorgeous red brick library with WPA murals and a humongous art reading room.”
Also, while still an undergraduate, Comito got married. “My husband was a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a lot of the guards there ended up going to library school,” she says. “There was a joke at the time that libraries are where guards at the Met go to sit down.” Several of her husband’s friends pursuing library degrees suggested she should consider, too.
She enrolled in QC’s MLS program, becoming especially interested in Young Adult Services and Organization and Management of Public Libraries. Of the latter she says, “That was just fascinating.” Faculty members Mary Kay Chelton and Karen Smith were particularly influential in guiding her. Both taught classes pertaining to Young Adult Services; Chelton taught the Reference class, as well, Comito recalls.
In 2006, before graduating, she took a job as a librarian trainee at Queens Public Library where, at the new employee orientation, she first met Zabriskie. Advancing at QPL over the next 11 years, Comito became a young adult librarian, outreach librarian, job and business academy manager, and finally assistant community library manager at the Rochdale Village Branch.
In 2010, like many newer and younger employees in the city’s three public libraries (New York, Brooklyn, Queens), Comito found herself a holding a 90-day layoff notice, a consequence of the great economic recession. (Complicating life further, her husband was unemployed and she’d just given birth. “I remember being in the hospital watching the Lehman Brothers collapse on the news and thinking, ‘Oh, that stinks,’” she chuckles.) Comito had become a regular attendee of Urban Librarians Unite (ULU), the networking group Zabriskie had recently created to facilitate communication among frontline library workers across the three systems.
ULU quickly responded to the crisis by refocusing its efforts from networking to advocacy; the first Save NYC Libraries campaign took shape, publicizing the impact drastic budget cuts were having on the city’s libraries. It also marked the beginning of Comito’s and Zabriskie’s continuing collaboration on new and ever-more creative ways to draw attention to the cause of public libraries and librarians, even beyond the five boroughs. (Comito became ULU’s director of communications and operations in 2009 and subsequently a board member, chair of the Education Committee, and since 2015, board chair.)
The pair’s clever and effective strategies have included 24-Hour Read Ins, street theater, and flashmobs. A book giveaway in 2012 distributed 1,500 books that included stickers reading: “Libraries in NYC are facing a 32% budget cut. When libraries close this could be your only access to free books.” An accompanying QR code and URL took readers to a website providing petitions to be signed in support of library funding.
Social advocacy is evident in many of ULU’s initiatives. The organization has been quick to respond to public emergencies, erecting mini-libraries in front of city library branches closed by Hurricane Sandy and creating a nationwide network of volunteers to provide Iraqi refugees detained by the Trump administration at Kennedy Airport with access to government resources and information via a website, refugeelibraries.org. ULU has also worked to address concerns of unaccompanied minors and immigrants.
One ongoing ULU program is Libraries Serve Refugees (refugeelibraries.org). “It’s a website with resources for librarians or social workers who are helping refugees and immigrants,” says Comito. “Every once in a while, I’ll look at the web stats and see that people are using it across the country; I see where the clicks are coming from. They tend to be inside universities or at social service agencies where they put the URL on their website. We get several hundred page hits a month.”
Comito sees libraries as an integral part of the social fabric. “Looking at the library as the center of the neighborhood,” she says, “we are the place where everybody can go, no matter how old you are or how much money you have, or what your particular information need is. You can come into a library and we’ll help you figure it out. . . It’s responding to the needs of the community. That might be technological, but it might also just be figuring out a place where people can sit for a while, providing a bathroom. . . Libraries are literally one of the things in the community where you can see where your money is going; you can see it on the shelves. I think people react to that differently than the more ephemeral things.”
Of course, ULU’s primary focus remains advocating on behalf of frontline librarians, and the annual conferences it has sponsored since 2013 at Brooklyn Public Library are essential to that end. With a characteristic note of irreverence, this year’s conference, in May, is named “Caution: Librarians at Work,” and it will focus on “the pragmatic realities of working urban librarians. Including topics like working conditions, trauma in the workplace, mid-career development, badass library workers, diversity in the library workforce, rights and protections for staff, and philosophies of work and management.”
Comito has a special area of advocacy informed by personal experience: She wants to increase awareness of neurodiversity among library workers to demonstrate how their individual traits can become assets in the workplace. Library work, she confides, is a good fit for someone like herself, for instance, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a diagnosis she received at age seven. “Working in a public library is this constantly changing situation where you might be helping a kid find a book, then need to go make sure someone is okay on the other side of the building, and then go back to finishing the email you started sending before that stuff happened,” she observes. Further, she explains that the capacity to hyper focus—which people with ADHD develop as a coping mechanism—also allows her “to stare at a spreadsheet for hours.”
Whether working in collaboration with Zabriskie and ULU or on her own, Comito has consistently demonstrated she has the skillset, imagination, and determination to accomplish whatever she sets her mind to on behalf of libraries and librarians. As the third-person bio on her website laurencomito.rocks unselfconsciously proclaims, “She is creative, passionate about connecting library patrons to services, and a true believer in the ability of the library to change people’s lives and communities for the better. If you aren’t a believer, get the hell out of her way.”