Lauren Comito, who works as a neighborhood library supervisor for the Leonard Library branch in Williamsburg, was recognized for her work by “Library Journal,” a national trade publication for librarians.
In addition to serving Brooklyn families and children in her capacity as a librarian, Comito also founded and chairs Urban Librarian Unite (ULU), a nonprofit organization that advocates for libraries in urban environments.
Christian Zabriskie, the other co-founder who is now the executive director of the group, was also honored as a Librarian of the Year by “Library Journal.”
“It’s nice to have the work of our whole group recognized this way,” Comito said. “This work is not something you can do by yourself.”
Comito’s journey to becoming a librarian started at Brooklyn College, where she majored in studio arts. She spent a lot of time at the “beautiful” library at Brooklyn College because it had an “amazing art room,” she said.
Her now-husband suggested to Comito that she could be a librarian, which Comito said has the career stability she was looking for. After graduating with a master’s in library science from Queens College, Comito worked for Queens Public Library as a librarian trainee.
She quickly rose through the ranks, starting as a young adult librarian and later serving as an assistant branch manager for the library’s Job & Business Academy. She moved to the Brooklyn Public Library system in 2017.
The founding of Urban Librarians Unite, however, dates back to 2007, when Zabriskie, who had met Comito at a new employee orientation, came up with the idea for the group.
Though it began as a forum for urban librarians to meet and talk, it transformed into an advocacy organization after the Great Recession struck. As the budget was slashed, librarians were being laid off.
The group then began its “Save NYC Libraries” campaign to highlight the budget cuts and fight for secured funding for city libraries.
Over the next decade, Urban Librarians Unite hosted all sorts of advocacy events, from a 24-hour read-in to street theater and more. This past year, Comito recalled rallying at City Hall dressed in an inflatable t-rex costume.
“It’s become less about saving our own jobs and more about the services we provide to people,” she said.
During the recession, Comito said, libraries were used to help people connect to employement and resources. She recalled conducting her own job search during that time.
“The advocacy is now, ‘let’s never do that again,’” she said. “It’s about making sure libraries are staffed and funded.”
The organization has also taken action during city crises. When Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, Urban Librarians Unite organized a book drive to help replace damaged library collections and distribute them to children impacted by the storm.
The group eventually received more than 20,000 books from across the country, placing them in affected neighborhoods like Broad Channel, Red Hook and Coney Island.
Urban Librarians Unite also launched a book drive for unaccompanied minors, partnering with a children’s services agency in Yonkers. According to reports, the group set up an Amazon wish list and a PayPal drive for book donations.
Working with Yonkers Public Library, ULU offered programming for the kids, issued library cards and received a teen collection in Spanish.
“There are so many things in the world you look at and think, ‘somebody should do something,’” Comito said.
While no one individual can fix a systemic problem, she said, there can be an “ecosystem” of people that step up and offer something to help make the situation less awful.
“It feels like you’re chipping away at a problem that is huge,” she said.
ULU organizes an annual day-long conference where urban librarians meet to discuss issues like stress in the workplace, the role of libraries in the opioid crisis, and other policy-related topics.
The 2020 conference will take place on May 1 at the Brooklyn Central Library at Grand Army Plaza. Among the topics that will be discussed are trauma in the workplace, diversity in the workforce, and rights and protections for staff.
While the world has changed in the last decade, Comito said libraries, at their foundation, haven’t changed much at all.
“It will always be about connecting people to the information they need to live their lives,” she said.