By Deborah Mason
It has taken many years and many miles, but Melissa Foley-King, Hamilton’s Tween Librarian, is back home. Born in Hamilton, her father’s job took her family to Puerto Rico and then Harford County. After earning a BA in Creative Writing at the University of Baltimore, Melissa received an MLIS from Drexel University. She and her husband then moved to Harford County, where she worked in the public library system for ten years. After a three-year break from library work, Melissa returned to the city, moving to a house very close to her first home. In fact, when she applied for the position of the Pratt’s first-ever Tween Librarian, Melissa pointed out that her proximity was a plus: the branch would never have to close for inclement weather because she’d be able to walk over and open up!
The image of Melissa trudging in hip-high snow for half a mile to open the library rings true. It takes a very short time to realize that Melissa would do the impossible if it meant that the library would be open and ready to serve the community. Like many librarians, Melissa was an avid reader when she was young (she’s still a huge fan of The Babysitters’ Club series), but she never dreamed of being a librarian when she was little. Instead, she wanted to be a writer, and wrote short stories on her portable typewriter from a young age (Melissa is still pursuing this dream, currently working on her MFA in Creative Writing at UB). As it happened, she had no idea how much she would love being a librarian until she became one. Only in a library can a member of the community come in, ask for help, and get it for free. Over the course of our interview, I was able to watch Melissa in action: someone needed help with the printer, another had questions about the homeowner’s tax credit. Each time, Melissa was warm and gracious, eager to help, and happy to do further research as new questions came up. Melissa derives energy from helping the community, but even she can sometimes suffer from “empathy fatigue.” She credits Branch Manager Gabby Miller and her colleagues for providing a supportive and creative environment that makes public service both possible and pleasurable.
But it’s in her role as Tween Librarian that Melissa provides her greatest community service. “Tweens” are students in the fourth through sixth grades—that difficult age between childhood and young adulthood. Thanks to its proximity to the Hamilton Elementary Middle School, Hamilton Branch has a very large and energetic tween population who regularly come to the library after school. Melissa makes sure that the library is a warm and safe environment for them, with plenty of activities that they can participate in. Even more important, she is a supportive adult presence in their lives, with no parental expectations or grades to hand out. She can help them navigate a critical transitional period of life, when they are children who are also dealing with crushes, more rigorous classes, and all the other ordeals of young adulthood. Making crafts, playing board games, talking about books— all provide opportunities for Melissa to gently guide the tweens, reminding them that they need to stick together and be kind to each other.
And they give back to Melissa, too. They are smart and funny, she says, mature in so many ways while still very young and innocent. They are fun and silly, and uninhibited about being cool—making them the absolute coolest. And they are ambitious—Melissa is even helping three girls set up a slime business. She would like to get the boys away from the computer games, so she’s invited Moving History, a group that teaches history through music, to come, and one of the sessions will be a drum session—which just might draw in the boys. But mostly, she gets her ideas from the kids themselves, listening to what they want to do that day, and then making it happen for them. So, one day they might be making friendship-bracelets, and another, they might be learning cursive writing. Not only are the tweens more engaged in an activity they chose, but, whether they realize it or not, they are participating in a small, but significant, form of community building.
She says all this with such affection, that all I can think is how lucky those kids are—and how lucky Melissa is to work with them.