Thi Lettner, 2022 Craig Fellowship Recipient. Image courtesy of Craig Dervish
For me, my whole philosophy of librarianship
revolves around service.
I like to center my work on the ways in which I can help others.
Note: As of October 2023, the Comfort Cabinet is not in operation due to lack of supplies.
“Service” is an integral part of libraries for graduate student Thi Lettner (pronounced “tee”). One of the recipients of this years’ Indiana University Libraries’ E. Lingle Craig Information Library Science Fellowship, Lettner is completing a Master of Library Science with a specialization in music librarianship. “For the Craig Fellowship,” she says, “I am creating a program for students who experience homelessness or housing insecurity.”
Lettner explains the three parts of her Craig Fellowship project. The first part is a literature review, where she researches “the intersection of homelessness and library service and explores what programs libraries across the US are implementing to support this demographic.” She notes, “There’s been movement in public libraries towards creating programs tailored toward supporting housing insecure patrons. However, services to aid students who experience homelessness in academic libraries are still very limited.”
The second part of Lettner’s project is the creation of a research guide intended to connect students to resources both at IU and in the Bloomington community. She is working on compiling this information into a central location to assist patrons in locating support. “I’ve already started interviewing representatives from local organizations and am beginning to create the guide,” she says. “Combining the resources and various strengths of the community, like the Crimson Cupboard at IU or the local SCCAP (South Central Community Action Program), will provide robust support for our patrons.”
For the third part, Lettner is working to establish “The Comfort Cabinet at Indiana University.” This cabinet will be filled, by donation, with basic hygiene and school supplies and placed in the West Tower of the Wells Library. Useful items such as socks, lotion, hand sanitizer, and basic necessities will be available at the Comfort Cabinet for any student experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. Other features of the Comfort Cabinet will be “a QR Code that links to the research guide and a place to display pamphlets and other promotional material from all the support organizations I’ve interviewed throughout the fellowship.” Lettner hopes, “It will be the closest we can get to having a one-stop physical location. It will be housed in the West Tower because that’s -- as Anna Marie Johnson, the Head of Scholars Commons, calls it -- 25/7 hours.”
Lettner, who received her Bachelor of Music from the University of Cincinnati and graduated magna cum laude, arrived in Bloomington during the pandemic. Unfortunately, her housing situation had unexpected problems. “During the summer before I came to IU, I experienced homelessness in Bloomington.” She explains, “The situation had all the quirks of moving to a new town: I didn’t know anyone; didn’t know the infrastructure; didn’t know anything about this place. Suddenly, here I was homeless in Bloomington, Indiana. I was living in my car, and yet still expected to perform at the highest academic level for the Jacobs School of Music’s Graduate Entrance Exams, notoriously hard tests for incoming students.”
Having worked at the Cincinnati Public Library, Lettner turned to a place she associated with care and well-being. “I won’t lie. I considered dropping out and going back home, but what kept me going - and in school – was the support of the library. Sometimes it’s just as simple as having a safe and clean place to go.” She spent the summer studying for her upcoming exams at the two locations of the Monroe County Public Library.
Bloomington is infamous for its housing issues. “Housing is such a multi-faceted issue,” Lettner shares. “We have to push for systemic change to truly address the material conditions that can lead a person to become homeless.” She explains that competitiveness in the rental market keeps prices high and many Indiana laws favor landlords. Going through her literature review, she knows that there are systems of support in place for different people in Bloomington, but it’s not centralized. Lettner continues, “Support is kind of hard to find unless you know what you’re looking for. There are broken links and outdated contact information online. Most resources are not tailored toward the student demographic. Finding housing shouldn’t be a battle,” Lettner says, “Adequate housing is a basic right.”
Solutions within libraries
At first, Lettner was stumped about what project to propose when applying for the Craig Fellowship. “Then it hit me: thinking about the intersection of Indiana University libraries, IU students, and the Bloomington community; thinking about students’ lives and pushing the boundaries of what we (the Libraries) can provide. I knew what I wanted to focus my fellowship work on.” Drawing on the inspiration from public libraries and the potential of academic libraries, she started compiling plans to help students facing housing insecurity.
She explained that the summer she lived in her car, she faced questions others might take for granted. “Where can I shower? How am I going to get wi-fi? Where can I get access to digital study aids?” She adds that any student experiencing this might wonder, “Should I even do grad school? Is this worth it?” She is preparing to provide answers to those questions, support, and hope to others. Her idea of creating a centralized location full of information to help students is in process. She is excited about “building relationships between the library and the community where it resides to make sure academic libraries can be a place of support for all our students.”
When it comes to libraries, Lettner wants to “broaden everyone’s definition of what a library can be.” She is tired of people insinuating libraries are dying institutions. “They’re becoming centers of the community. And I think a library can be a space that can be used for a lot of good things,” she states encouragingly.
How can she help?
Lettner has a history of volunteering and community service. During her time at the University of Cincinnati, she was involved with MYCincinnati, which helps disadvantaged youth by providing free music education. In addition, she was an intern for the service-learning program, Music and Memory, which uses music to help improve the quality of life for people with neurodegenerative disease and their families. Lettner is eager to “invite” community programs like these into the library. Lettner feels music is a wonderful medium for outreach, education, and activism.
“I’m also the President of Indiana University’s Student Music Librarian Group (SMLG),” Lettner says. “I have a running iPhone Notes list of project ideas I think could be beneficial for the music librarianship students. It could be as silly as a bake sale or Mario Kart tournament, but then some of them are like an NPR-style tiny desk concert but at the Cook Music Library.”
Providing reference help at reference desks in Wells, Music, and the Business/SPEA libraries, Lettner comments, “I know how to find stuff.” She feels like the research of her musicology background prepared her “for the technical sides of librarianship like how to do quality research and write in an engaging manner, but then also it gives me the skills to navigate niche subject areas like music and business.” Working at multiple reference desks exposes her to many of the departments across campus. “I appreciate the interconnectedness of the library system at IU.”
When asked the question, “What’s next for you?” Lettner answers, “Looking at my training and resume, people would think I’ve got it all figured out. I’ve always wanted and planned to become an academic music librarian specializing in reference, outreach, and instruction. But lately, I’ve been thinking about what else is out there?” Lettner is open to different possibilities. “This semester, and specifically this project, had a lot of influence on my aspirations for the future. I’m becoming so interested in what more the library can do in terms of direct service, education, and advocacy for our patrons. Moving forward, I’m open to any opportunity to use my skills as a librarian and music scholar to help my community.”
Craig Fellow Thi Lettner is asking herself, “Where can I make the biggest change?” She is thinking about the impact libraries can have on the lives of their patrons. “I’m so appreciative of IU Libraries for giving me this opportunity. It’s been a life-changing experience, and I hope it’s just the first, exciting step in a career devoted to service.”