Maria Falgoust and Sarah Murphy started The Desk Set in 2006 as a way to corral librarians who were clustered in their Greenpoint neighborhood. Professionally, they’re school librarians, and in their free time they organize activities to bring the literary community closer together, often with an element of charitable activism at the crux. They’ve reinvigorated the discussion of what it means to be a librarian, and helped bring awareness to the fact that being bookish should not be at odds with being young, modern, and fun. (Think Parker Posey in Party Girl.) We met at their adopted headquarters (Enid’s) to discuss.
Flavorpill: You’re putting a new face on the conception of a librarian — is this a cross-country movement or a New York-centered thing?
Maria Falgoust: We have some associates elsewhere. We went to Philadelphia for ALA [American Library Association], and we were able to throw one of our best parties.
Sarah Murphy: I wouldn’t say The Desk Set is a national organization by any means, but we certainly are open to people from all over. We love hearing about stuff that people are doing. A lot of people have emailed us, asking us if we have organizations in the cities that they live in. And we tend to say, no, not exactly, but feel free to start your own.
MF: Or we might know one librarian there, so we say “join forces with so-and-so.”
FP: How did The Desk Set start? How has it evolved?
SM: Maria and I were in library school together. We were neighbors in Greenpoint, but we didn’t know each other before school. We gradually realized there were lots of other librarians living right in our neighborhood, and we hadn’t really met all of them. So we thought we would put out a bulletin to all the library schools in the area and some other networks that we knew about. We wanted to get a group of people to talk about libraries and meet each other. Thirty to 35 people showed up. Most of them we hadn’t met before. So we tried to get those people to come back and bring their friends.
We did field trips and brought them to places that they might not know about already, or have access to on their own. We’ve gotten a lot of backstage tours of libraries. Librarians are always excited to do that if they can; it has been enormously fun. And we’ve attracted all kinds of different people. The person who’s interested in seeing the science library might not be the same person who’s interested in seeing the institute of photography library. Or… they might be!
FP: There’s a go-to, prosaic cliché about the persona of the librarian: why do you think people revert to this outdated trope?
SM: In the last couple of years, we get that a lot less. I don’t know if people are doing more of their homework, before they talk to us, or if it’s that attitudes have really started to change. Compared to two years ago, it does seem like fewer people are saying “So…Aren’t you old?! With a bun?!” I couldn’t say why that’s happening — or even if it’s only happening here and we’re noticing — but I feel that the trend is moving a little bit more towards enlightenment, shall we say. Though there are still a lot of people who just think the library was the thing in their elementary school thirty years ago that had a few books — and not even the best ones.
FP: What do you think of the Kindle? As someone who works daily with the book object, does it make you sad that this has emerged? Could it make life easier?
SM: I think there are terrific uses for it. Someone who reads the newspaper cover to cover every day on the subway would have it a lot easier. I used to live near Peter Pan Donuts, and I would often bring the paper when I would go there for breakfast, and there was this older gentleman, who had lived in Greenpoint his whole life, who always wanted to chat with me about what was in the New York Times. He would say, when I was young, in school they taught how to fold the newspaper when you were riding on a bus or subway because it’s so cumbersome and it can be very rude to get it in somebody’s face. And that was something that was considered important — something that a young man needed to know: how to hold your newspaper. Well, nobody knows how to do that anymore, so the Kindle is fantastic.
MF: It’s green too, which is important. With textbooks, that’ll help — you have more updated information.
FP: Has the recession changed who uses the library?
MF: Across the nation, they’re flooded! Circulation is so up. But at the same time, jobs in libraries are being cut, and no one is replacing them. One of my friends is going back this week because she knows that if she doesn’t throw the party they’ve had for the last seven years for her reading program, no one else will. It’s hard. But it is nice to show people that you don’t have to buy everything. That’s why at the library you can take chances! You don’t have to invest. You can take five books out, try to read all five, and then choose two. And that way you might expose yourself to something you might not have otherwise.
SM: This is why these enormous budget cuts that are paralyzing libraries. Branches are closing all over the US where they are needed the most. Staff are getting cut, hours are getting cut. We were on the brink of having our libraries in New York City open from 1 to 6 p.m. Which does no working person any good at all, and a lot of other people a lot less good. It’s so basic, it’s so simple – there’s no better way to think about than at the exact moment that circulation is taking off we need the presence of libraries more than ever.
MF: If you’re a working person, you should be able to go to the library on your off time. People think of a library as a safe place to be. They send their children there unaccompanied. We need to maintain that.
FP: You both work in school libraries. What is one of the oddest experiences you’ve had as a school librarian?
SM: There’s a book called Fashion of the ‘90s — why we have this in the library [Sarah works at all-boys school], I will never know. But by the time I discovered it was, I was like, this is too amazing. Some of the lower school boys figured out that it was there, and they became completely obsessed with this book. It took me a while to figure out why.
SM: It was Madonna’s cone bra phase! And the kids were just like [shrieks] Oh!!! INAPPROPRIATE! So they loved it. There were hold lists on Fashion of the ’90s. [laughs]
MF: I feel like you should call this article: “and you cannot escape Madonna’s cone bra!”
FP: Just you watch! So, tell me about the social events you organize.
SM: We’ve thrown parties, which is a lot of fun, and we’ve happily raised money over the years for organizations we want to support. Gathering together, having a good time, spreading the awareness, collecting books. When you feel like you’re with a group of great people — and you get to dance little and have a drink — it makes the good intentions even better.
MF: People really do talk to one another at the events. Normally I wouldn’t talk to a stranger — I’m shy! — but in this context, everyone knows why they’re there, and that other people are there for similar reasons.
SM: But there’s the thing I’m fixated on right now: there are apparently librarians, in the neighborhood, who happen to be men, who don’t come to our events because they think they’re too cutesy. And they were joking with a friend of ours that they’re going to do a spin-off version. Which would be awesome. But we hear something like that and we get a tiny little ego-bruise. We don’t want The Desk Set to be “Sarah and Maria, hanging out with librarians!” We want it to be for everyone and we really try hard, when we’re deciding on our programming, to find something for everybody. If you like loud dance parties, that’s great. We also organize events for those who prefer something quieter and more intimate…
MF: …where you don’t have to talk to anyone…
SM: Yes, you don’t have to talk to a soul!